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Unsettling down

August 26, 2007|Nick Owchar

Tonight, you may have five or 10 minutes to yourself. That's plenty of time to read, or at least to get a good start on, some of the stories in Joyce Carol Oates' "The Museum of Dr. Moses: Tales of Mystery and Suspense" (Harcourt: 230 pp., $24). Then you can count on a delicious sleep of troubling dreams. How can you not, after such unsettling images as this one from "Valentine, July Heat Wave": A Victorian bed contains "a seething blanket of flies," but you'll have to read for yourself to understand why. The barest outline of the story is that an obsessive husband suspects that his wife is -- or isn't (his obsession needs no confirmation) -- having an affair.

If you have more time, try reading these tales alongside the ghost stories of M.R. James, and you may notice a common thread. Both authors build their plots around someone plunging unwittingly into macabre disaster. There's much menace tucked away in dark corners of the world, and the curious, as James' antiquarians are, suddenly find themselves in great peril. For Oates, though, the dangers aren't so tucked away -- they don't require any knowledge of Latin ciphers or unusual artifacts to unleash long pent-up horrors. No, for Oates, the world of grisly terror is ready, at hand; its predators "cruising rainwashed streets as a shark might cruise the ocean openmouthed seeking prey" in "Stripping." If not on those streets, they might be seen among the joggers on the wooded path around a college in "Hi! Howya Doin!" Or one of them may be your stepfather, as in the title story, in which Dr. Moses maintains a grotesque museum (hint: he's a retired coroner) in an unassuming upstate New York town.

Anyone moved by Oates' classic tales of contemporary malevolence -- "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" and "Heat," for example -- will find much here to keep the ghoulish fires burning. You'll also find stories diverse in presentation, story line and evocative details. Prolific as she is, can we just get over the usual comments about her productivity (usually delivered by critics with a mocking tone)? Can't we just stop and marvel at her inventiveness?

-- Nick Owchar

nick.owchar@latimes.com

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