In this short story collection of seven suspenseful tales, Joyce Carol Oates takes the reader along on various journeys into the psyche of evil, while also showing us the naivete and innocence of the victims in each piece.
In the opening title story, The Corn Maiden, we are greeted first with the oddly deranged voice of the thirteen-year-old perpetrator, Jude Trahern, a child of privilege and a fellow student, who has captured Marissa Bantry, eleven years old, whom she has dubbed “The Corn Maiden” because of her long silky blond hair. Under her thumb are two other girls, her assistants. But Jude is the Master Mind. Torture follows, and we then see what is happening outside the torture chamber: Marissa’s mother Leah, morose and concerned that she will be blamed for allowing her child to go home alone after school, and worries about how she will be perceived.
Another player in the tale is a male computer consultant, blamed by an anonymous eyewitness.
As readers, we can share the angst of the mother and the “innocent” suspect, knowing all the while who is behind the events. Why has Jude captured this sweet young girl? What is in it for her?
Like so many other stories by this author, evil seems to have no explanation, but the reader can speculate.
In Helping Hands, near the end of the collection, a shy middle-aged widow believes she has found potential companionship in the charity thrift shop where she takes some of her deceased husband’s effects, only to discover that she has sadly miscalculated the troubled young man who waits on her and seems so friendly and helpful.
As with many of her other short stories, I enjoyed the well-written prose, but I was happy to close the final page of The Corn Maiden, and told myself that I was relieved to be set free from them. Others might enjoy the macabre suspense, but for me, this one earned 3.5 stars.