The Bookworm: A chiller and a thriller

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Night Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense”

  • By Joyce Carol Oates
  • c. 2018, The Mystery Press
  • $26, $37.50 Canada; 335 pages

Something isn’t quite right. The world is tilting and it feels … off. Nothing makes sense, nothing aligns with anything else right now. You’re discombobulated, and it’s surreal. And with “Night Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense,” a short-story collection by Joyce Carol Oates, you’ll be even more unsettled.

“Night Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense” by Joyce Carol Oates.

It’s 11 a.m. 

It’s always 11 a.m. for her, as she sits in the nude and waits for him. She has to wait; he told her so but sometimes, he doesn’t arrive and she’s never allowed to ask why because he’d be angry and she can’t afford her life without his money. She hates him for it, but she can’t live without him and in “The Woman in the Window,” she may kill him. Unless, of course, he kills her first.

Elinor Stockman is sure that her husband, Victor, is cheating on her with that college student Elinor keeps seeing around town, the one who seemed to be Victor’s favorite last semester. When the girl called to ask if she could bring a little gift for Victor to the house, Elinor knew it was time to act. Surely, “The Long-Legged Girl” would like a spot of tea when she arrives. But who’ll get the cup with the poison?

L was once a runner. He was on the track team but that was before cancer and surgery and a colostomy that made him feel disfigured and disgusted. In “Walking Wounded,” though, his love may’ve returned. He needs to follow her, he must find out – but first, he must finish the disturbing manuscript he was hired to edit.

Horace Phineas Love, Sr. never wanted anything to do with his son, Horace Phineas Love, Jr., who was but a boy when his father died. Love, Jr., was giddy at the death, but then “the night-gaunts” began to appear. They were horrible things, unspeakable, and they tormented the boy into manhood. And then, when Love, Jr.’s mother died, another apparition arrived, and it looked much too familiar …

So you say you like your stories and your TV shows started, told, and tied up in a nice bow within an hours’ time. You can forget about that whole thing with “Night Gaunts,” however. No, this book is going to make you say, “Wait. What … ?”

That’s because the squirms that author Joyce Carol Oates leaves behind are just that: left behind. The story ends, you turn the page, and go about your business. But, as if it’s rubber-banded to the book, your mind will return again and again to each of these six tales to turn those squirms around and examine them anew. Yes, you’re hanging, but in the most exquisite way. No, the stories don’t make sense, until you’re to a certain point. Wait. What … ?

These stories are reminiscent of tales from the 1950s. They nod to your old-time favorites but they don’t tie up neat, so if you need a hard-and-solid ending to your fiction, read something else. If you love a good by-your-fingernails story, though, “Night Gaunts” could be just right.

“Bearskin: A Novel”

  • By James A. McLaughlin
  • c. 2018, Ecco 
  • $26.99, $33.50 Canada; 344 pages

Sometimes, you just need to get away. Out of your element, far from the usual. A change of scenery is called-for, a temporary life unlike the one you usually live. Or, as in the new book “Bearskin” by James A. McLaughlin, you need new digs that could save your life.

“Bearskin: A Novel” author James A. McLaughlin.

Renovating the old cabin was a big job, but Rice Moore had willingly signed on for it. Despite bees, despite high Virginia temperatures and humidity, despite that he had other tasks to do as caretaker for an Appalachian forest preserve, working on the cabin was a relative pleasure.

It sure beat risking his life.

On the run from a Mexican drug cartel that hadn’t managed to kill him while he was in jail on set-up charges, Moore hoped that anonymity in Virginia would keep him safe. Then again, it hadn’t helped Apryl, a researcher and his partner, who’d been deeply involved in smuggling unmarked packages and who trusted too much. She’d kept her head down, but someone killed her near the Arizona border.

Moore had to admit, Virginia was a nice place to hide. The cabin was at the end of a long private driveway. Surveying the forest was enjoyable, and the job took advantage of Moore ’s skills and knowledge. The locals were stand-offish and a few rednecks rankled him, but it wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle.

“Bearskin: A Novel” by James A. McLaughlin.

And then he started finding the carcasses.

A local mushroomer showed him the first dead bears, paws removed and guts spilled. Later, Moore found other dead animals, and he found tree-stands, and bait. Someone was killing bears for their black-marketed body parts, and they were doing it in pristine forest that was supposed to be off-limits to humans.

But as his obsession with finding the bear-killers grew, Moore crossed the wrong people. One of them, a small-town lawman, did what nobody else had done: research, and he knew who Moore was and why he was in Virginia.

And that lawman had a big mouth …

“Bearskin” is a little – no, wait, it’s a lot different than your normal thriller.

What makes it so is a quite-lengthy passage in which author James A. McLaughlin’s main character trusts a shady source in an uncharacteristic manner and descends into a hazy dream-state obsession that lasts for pages and pages. It seems to tell readers more about Moore and it serves as a bridge to an important part of the story, but it’s weird. Really weird.

And yet – the things you find in a normal thriller are all here, times two, which makes the weirdness mostly forgivable. Crime, torture, murder, stalking, a heart-pounding chase, it’s all here, mixed in with acres and acres of thick forest that serve, metaphorically, to give readers a safe place to go when this thriller gets too thrilling.

And, happily, that’s often, as you’ll see in this book. Your heart will race, your mouth will go dry and if you’re a bedtime reader, “Bearskin” may keep you awake for hours. Beware: you may never want to put this book away.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.