After the first half of the first story in Give Me Your Heart, a strong feeling of dread never left me. Joyce Carol Oates is the author of hundreds of short stories and more than fifty novels, one of which won the National Book Award and three of which were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Her work is often violent, and her topics often include rural poverty, sexual abuse, and female childhood and adolescence. She’s compared to Kafka and Sylvia Plath — for good reason.
Give Me Your Heart includes these elements and adds in a dose of survivorhood. Although terrible things happen, and some protagonists are guilty, some are plucky and lucky enough to escape certain tragedy. All ten of these stories are plausible, despite their often random violence. Events are often just under control. I found myself reading too fast so that I could get to the scary part and stop dreading it. In some of the stories, the worst thing that might happen actually happens. In others, it doesn’t, but you’re strung along until the very end wondering if it’s going to.
The settings and characters are very modern, nothing like the crumbling, antiquated horror and suspense I associate with writers like Poe. Oates’ language is current too; in fact, the dialogue is expertly done and never rings false. She writes just as well in third person ("Smother": "Alva learns that the 'Pink Bunny Baby' case was one of the most notorious murder cases of the decade in the Northeast... The Pink Bunny Baby was never identified.") as she does in first person ("Strip Poker": "How long I am shivering and trembling like a trapped rabbit, I won’t know afterward, and even at the time what is happening is rushing past like a drunken scene glimpsed from a speeding car or boat on the lake."). The collection relies heavily on the trope of the missing or dangerous father.
The first story, "Give Me Your Heart," is epistolary; the letter writer’s demands of an old lover are to "give me your heart," literally. In "Split/Brain," the violence is horrifying for two reasons: it’s perpetrated by a family member and the protagonist allows it to happen. "The First Husband" takes a husband’s jealousy from a point that many readers will identify with — the almost irrational urge to snoop — to a violent conclusion that feels almost too likely. In "Strip Poker" a young girl is in trouble. She’s inventive and talks her way out of trouble (I started to breathe again), but the last sentence puts her back in harm’s way — on purpose. "Smother" reminds us that family can’t be counted upon and that it’s hard to tell mentally ill people from the rest of us. "Tetanus" is the story of yet another broken family and yet another child who is harmed by someone who means well, at least at first. "The Spill" is full of compelling characters and ambivalent feelings. Who’s in danger? Are they really? What are the consequences of passive violence? In "Nowhere," another young girl is in trouble, partly because of her own bad decisions, and partly because another father has made his family suffer. In "Bleed," one young girl gets revenge—unknowingly—for the harms perpetrated upon another, and a young boy has to pay the price. And "Vena Cava" is chillingly of the moment, providing a look into the horror of coming back from war a changed man. It would be upsetting as history, but it punches readers in the gut by being explicitly about the War Against Terror.
If you like to be horrified by a master, Give Me Your Heart is for you.