The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares

The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares

by Joyce Carol Oates

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Seven “masterfully told” stories of suspense and nightmarish drama from the National Book Award–winning author of Them (The Guardian).
With the novella and six stories collected here, Joyce Carol Oates reaffirms her singular reputation for portraying the dark complexities of the human psyche. The title novella tells the story of Marissa, an eleven-year-old girl with hair the color of corn silk. When she suddenly disappears, mounting evidence points to a local substitute teacher. Meanwhile, an older girl from Melissa’s school is giddy with her power to cause so much havoc unnoticed. And she intends to use that power to enact a terrifying ritual called The Corn Maiden.
In “Helping Hands,” published here for the first time, a widow meets an Iraq War veteran in a dingy charity shop, having no idea where the peculiar encounter is about to lead. In “Fossil-Figures,” a pair of twins—an artist and a congressman—never outgrow an ugly sibling rivalry. And in “A Hole in the Head,” a plastic surgeon gives in to an unusual and dangerous request.
Together, these seven tales offer “a virtuoso performance” of “probing, unsettling, intelligent” storytelling from one of the world’s greatest writers of suspense (The Guardian).
“The seven stories in this stellar collection from the prolific Oates may prompt the reader to turn on all the lights or jump at imagined noises. . . . This volume burnishes [her] reputation as a master of psychological dread.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“For horror stories to be truly horrific, the reader has to care. Oates feels this deeply in her writing, and delivers with style.” —The Independent
“Further confirmation of a unique writer’s restless, preternatural brilliance.” —The Guardian

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802195036
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 12/06/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 168,245
File size: 705 KB

About the Author

Joyce Carol Oates is the author of over seventy books encompassing novels, poetry, criticism, story collections, plays, and essays. Her novel Them won the National Book Award in Fiction in 1970. Oates has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for more than three decades and currently holds the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professorship at Princeton University. 
Joyce Carol Oates is the author of over seventy books encompassing novels, poetry, criticism, story collections, plays, and essays. Her novel Them won the National Book Award in Fiction in 1970. Oates has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for more than three decades and currently holds the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professorship at Princeton University. 


Princeton, New Jersey

Date of Birth:

June 16, 1938

Place of Birth:

Lockport, New York


B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961

Read an Excerpt



A Love Story



Whywhy you're asking here's why her hair.

I mean her hair! I mean like I saw it in the sun it's pale silky gold like corn tassels and in the sun sparks might catch. And her eyes that smiled at me sort of nervous and hopeful like she could not know (but who could know?) what is Jude's wish. For I am Jude the Obscure, I am the Master of Eyes. I am not to be judged by crude eyes like yours, assholes.

There was her mother. I saw them together. I saw the mother stoop to kiss her. That arrow entered my heart. I thought I will make you see me. I would not forgive.

Okay then. More specific. Some kind of report you assholes will type. Maybe there's a space for the medical examiner's verdict cause of death.

Assholes don't have a clue do you. If you did you'd know it is futile to type up reports as if such will grant you truth or even "facts."

Whywhy in the night at my computer clickclickclicking through galaxies and there was revealed on my birthday (March 11) the Master of Eyes granting me my wish that is why. All that you wish will be made manifest in Time. If you are Master.

Jude the Obscure he named me. In cyberspace we were twinned.

Here's why in sixth grade a field trip to the museum of natural history and Jude wandered off from the silly giggling children to stare at the Onigara exhibit of the Sacrifice of the Corn Maiden. This exhibit is graphic in nature and not recommended for children younger than sixteen unless with parental guidance you stepped through an archway into a fluorescent-lit interior of dusty display cases to stare at the Corn Maiden with braided black bristles for hair and flat face and blind eyes and mouth widened in an expression of permanent wonder beyond even terror and it was that vision that entered Jude's heart powerful as any arrow shot into the Corn Maiden's heart that is why.

Because it was an experiment to see if God would allow it that is why.

Because there was no one to stop me that is why.


We never thought Jude was serious!

We never thought it would turn out like it did.

We never thought ...

... just didn't!

Never meant ...

... never!

Nobody had anything against ...


(Jude said it's Taboo to utter that name.)

Jude was the Master of Eyes. She was our leader all through school. Jude was just so cool.

Fifth grade, Jude instructed us how to get HIGH sniffing S. Where Jude got S., we didn't know.

Seventh grade, Jude gave us X. Like the older kids take. From her secret contact at the high school Jude got X.

When you're HIGH you love everybody but the secret is basically you don't give a damn.

That is what's so nice! HIGH floating above Skatskill like you could drop a bomb on Skatskill Day or your own house and there's your own family rushing out their clothes and hair on fire and screaming for help and you would smile because it would not touch you. That is HIGH.

Secrets no one else knew.

XXX videos at Jude's house.

Jude's grandmother Mrs. Trahern the widow of somebody famous.

Feral cats we fed. Cool!

Ritalin and Xanax Jude's doctors prescribed. Jude only just pretended to take that shit. In her bathroom, a supply of years.

Häagen-Dazs French Vanilla ice cream we fed the Corn Maiden.

The Corn Maiden was sleepy almost at once, yawning. Ice cream tastes so good! Just one pill ground up, a half teaspoon. It was magic. We could not believe it.

Jude said you can't believe the magic you possess until somebody instructs how to unleash it.

The Corn Maiden had never been to Jude's house before. But Jude was friendly to her beginning back in March. Told us the Master of Eyes had granted her a wish on her birthday. And we were counted in that wish.

The plan was to establish trust.

The plan was to prepare for the Corn Maiden in the knowledge that one day there would be the magic hour when (Jude predicted) like a lightning flash lighting up the dark all would become clear.

This was so. We were in readiness, and the magic hour was so.

There is a rear entrance to the Trahern house. We came that way.

The Corn Maiden walked! On her own two feet the Corn Maiden walked, she was not forced, or carried.

Of her own volition Jude said.

It was not so in the Onigara Indian ceremony. There, the Corn Maiden did not come of her own volition but was kidnapped.

An enemy tribe would kidnap her. She would never return to her people.

The Corn Maiden would be buried, she would be laid among the corn seed in the sun and the earth covered over her. Jude told us of this like an old fairy tale to make you smile, but not to ask Why.

Jude did not like us to ask Why.

The Corn Maiden was never threatened. The Corn Maiden was treated with reverence, respect, and kindness.

(Except we had to scare her, a little. There was no other way Jude said.)

On Tuesdays and Thursdays she would come by the 7Eleven store on the way home from school. Why this was, Jude knew. Mostly high school kids hang out there. Older kids, smoking. Crummy mini-mall on the state highway. Rug remnant store, hair and nails salon, Chinese takeout & the 7-Eleven. Behind are Dumpsters and a stink like something rotten.

Feral cats hide in the scrub brush behind the Dumpsters. Where it's like a jungle, nobody ever goes.

(Except Jude. To feed the feral cats she says are her Totem.)

At the 7-Eleven Jude had us walk separate so we would not be seen walking together.

Four girls together, somebody might notice.

A girl by herself, or two girls, nobody would notice.

Not that anybody was watching. We came by the back way.

Some old long-ago time when servants lived down the hill. When they climbed the hill to the big houses on Highgate Avenue.

Historic old Skatskill estate. That was where Jude lived with just her grandmother. On TV it would be shown. In the newspapers. In The New York Times it would be shown on the front page. The house would be called an eighteenth-century Dutch-American manor house. We never knew about that. We never saw the house from the front. We only just went into Jude's room and a few other rooms. And there was the cellar.

From Highgate Avenue you can't see the Trahern house very well, there is a ten-foot stone wall surrounding it. This wall is old and crumbling but still you can't see over it. But through the gate that's wrought iron you can see if you look fast, while you're driving by.

Lots of people drive by now I guess.

NO PARKINGNO PARKINGNO PARKING on Highgate. Skatskill does not welcome strangers except to shop.

The Trahern estate it would be called. The property is eleven acres. But there is a shortcut from the rear. When we brought the Corn Maiden to the house, we came from the rear. Mostly the property is woods. Mostly it is wild, like a jungle. But there are old stone steps you can climb if you are careful. An old service road that's grown over with brambles and blocked off at the bottom of the hill by a concrete slab but you can walk around the slab.

This back way, nobody would guess. Three minutes' walk from the mini-mall.

Nobody would guess! The big old houses on Highgate, way up the hill, how the rear of their property slopes down to the state highway.

Jude warned The Corn Maiden must be treated with reverence, respect, kindness, and firmness. The Corn Maiden must never guess the fate that will be hers.

Suburban Single Mom, Latchkey Daughter


The first signal something was wrong, no lights in the apartment.

The second, too quiet.

"Marissa, honey ...?"

Already there was an edge to her voice. Already her chest felt as if an iron band was tightening around it.

Stepped inside the darkened apartment. She would swear, no later than 8 P.M.

In a dreamlike suspension of emotion shutting the door behind her, switching on a light. Aware of herself as one might see oneself on a video monitor behaving with conspicuous normality though the circumstances have shifted, and are not normal.

A mother learns not to panic, not to betray weakness. Should a child be observing.

"Marissa? Aren't you ... are you home?"

If she'd been home, Marissa would have the lights on. Marissa would be doing her homework in the living room with the TV on, loud. Or the CD player on, loud. When she was home alone Marissa was made uneasy by quiet.

Made her nervous she said. Made her think scary thoughts like about dying she said. Hear her own heartbeat she said.

But the apartment was quiet. In the kitchen, quiet.

Leah switched on more lights. She was still observing herself, she was still behaving calmly. Seeing, from the living room, down the hall to Marissa's room that the door to that room was open, darkness inside.

It was possible — it was! if only for a blurred desperate moment — to think that Marissa had fallen asleep on her bed, that was why ... But Leah checked, there was no slender figure lying on the bed.

No one in the bathroom. Door ajar, darkness inside.

The apartment did not seem familiar somehow. As if furniture had been moved. (It had not, she would determine later.) It was chilly, drafty as if a window had been left open. (No window had been left open.)

"Marissa? Marissa?"

There was a tone of surprise and almost-exasperation in the mother's voice. As if, if Marissa heard, she would know herself just mildly scolded.

In the kitchen that was empty. Leah set the groceries down. On a counter. Wasn't watching, the bag slumped slowly over. Scarcely saw, a container of yogurt fell out.

Marissa's favorite, strawberry.

So quiet! The mother, beginning to shiver, understood why the daughter hated quiet.

She was walking through the rooms, and would walk through the few rooms of the small first-floor apartment calling Marissa? Honey? in a thin rising voice like a wire pulled tight. She would lose track of time. She was the mother, she was responsible. For eleven years she had not lost her child, every mother's terror of losing her child, an abrupt physical loss, a theft, a stealing-away, a forcible abduction.

"No. She's here. Somewhere ... "

Retracing her steps through the apartment. There were so few rooms for Marissa to be in! Again opening the bathroom door, wider. Opening a closet door. Closet doors. Stumbling against ... Struck her shoulder on ... Collided with Marissa's desk chair, stinging her thigh. "Marissa? Are you hiding?"

As if Marissa would be hiding. At such a time.

Marissa was eleven years old. Marissa had not hidden from her mother to make Mommy seek her out giggling and squealing with excitement in a very long time.

She would protest she was not a negligent mother.

She was a working mother. A single mother. Her daughter's father had disappeared from their lives, he paid neither alimony nor child support. How was it her fault, she had to work to support her daughter and herself, and her daughter required special education instruction and so she'd taken her out of public school and enrolled her at Skatskill Day ...

They would accuse her. In the tabloids they would crucify her.

Dial 911 and your life is public fodder. Dial 911 and your life is not yours. Dial 911 and your life is forever changed.

Suburban Single Mom. Latchkey Daughter.

Eleven-Year-Old Missing, South Skatskill.

She would protest it was not that way at all! It was not.

Five days out of seven it was not.

Only Tuesdays and Thursdays she worked late at the clinic. Only since Christmas had Marissa been coming home to an empty apartment.

No. It was not ideal. And maybe she should have hired a sitter except ...

She would protest she had no choice but to work late, her shift had been changed. On Tuesdays/Thursdays she began at 10:30 A.M. and ended at 6:30 P.M. Those nights, she was home by 7:15 P.M., by 7:30 P.M. at the latest she was home. She would swear, she was! Most nights.

How was it her fault, slow-moving traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge from Nyack then north on route 9 through Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow, to the Skatskill town limits, and route 9 under repair. Traffic in pelting rain! Out of nowhere a cloudburst, rain! She had wanted to sob in frustration, in fury at what her life had become, blinding headlights in her eyes like laser rays piercing her brain.

But usually she was home by 8 P.M. At the latest.

Before dialing 911 she was trying to think: to calculate.

Marissa would ordinarily be home by about 4 P.M. Her last class ended at 3:15 P.M. Marissa would walk home, five and a half suburban blocks, approximately a half mile, through (mostly) a residential neighborhood. (True, Fifteenth Street was a busy street. But Marissa didn't need to cross it.) And she would walk with school friends. (Would she?) Marissa didn't take a school bus, there was no bus for private school children, and in any case Marissa lived near the school because Leah Bantry had moved to the Briarcliff Apts. in order to be near Skatskill Day.

She would explain! In the interstices of emotion over her missing child she would explain.

Possibly there had been something special after school that day, a sports event, choir practice, Marissa had forgotten to mention to Leah ... Possibly Marissa had been invited home by a friend.

In the apartment, standing beside the phone, as if waiting for the phone to ring, trying to think what it was she'd just been thinking. Like trying to grasp water with her fingers, trying to think ...

A friend! That was it.

What were the names of girls in Marissa's class ...?

Of course, Leah would telephone! She was shaky, and she was upset, but she would make these crucial calls before involving the police, she wasn't a hysterical mother. She might call Marissa's teacher whose name she knew, and from her she would learn the names of other girls, she would call these numbers, she would soon locate Marissa, it would be all right. And the mother of Marissa's friend would say apologetically, But I'd thought Marissa had asked you, could she stay for supper. I'm so very sorry! And Leah would say quickly laughing in relief, You know how children are, sometimes. Even the nice ones.

Except: Marissa didn't have many friends at the school.

That had been a problem in the new, private school. In public school she'd had friends, but it wasn't so easy at Skatskill Day where most students were privileged, well-to-do. Very privileged, and very well-to-do. And poor Marissa was so sweet, trusting and hopeful and easy to hurt if other girls chose to hurt her.

Already in fifth grade it had begun, a perplexing girl-meanness.

In sixth grade, it had become worse.

"Why don't they like me, Mommy?"

"Why do they make fun of me, Mommy?"

For in Skatskill if you lived down the hill from Highgate Avenue and/or east of Summit Street you were known to be working class. Marissa had asked what it meant? Didn't everybody work? And what was a class was it like ... a class in school? A class room?

But Leah had to concede: even if Marissa had been invited home by an unknown school friend, she wouldn't have stayed away so long.

Not past 5 P.M. Not past dark.

Not without calling Leah.

"She isn't the type of child to ..."

Leah checked the kitchen again. The sink was empty. No package of chicken cutlets defrosting.

Tuesdays/Thursdays were Marissa's evenings to start supper. Marissa loved to cook, Mommy and Marissa loved to cook together. Tonight they were having chicken jambalaya which was their favorite fun meal to prepare together. "Tomatoes, onions, peppers, cajun powder. Rice ..."

Leah spoke aloud. The silence was unnerving.

If I'd come home directly. Tonight.

The 7-Eleven out on the highway. That's where she had stopped on the way home.

Behind the counter, the middle-aged Indian gentleman with the wise sorrowful eyes would vouch for her. Leah was a frequent customer, he didn't know her name but he seemed to like her.

Dairy products, a box of tissue. Canned tomatoes. Two six-packs of beer, cold. For all he knew, Leah had a husband. He was the beer drinker, the husband.

Leah saw that her hands were trembling. She needed a drink, to steady her hands,


She was thirty-four years old. Her daughter was eleven. So far as anyone in Leah's family knew, including her parents, she had been "amicably divorced" for seven years. Her former husband, a medical school dropout, had disappeared somewhere in northern California; they had lived together in Berkeley, having met at the university in the early 1990s.

Impossible to locate the former husband/father whose name was not Bantry.

She would be asked about him, she knew. She would be asked about numerous things.

She would explain: eleven is too old for day care. Eleven is fully capable of coming home alone ... Eleven can be responsible for ...

At the refrigerator she fumbled for a can of beer. She opened it and drank thirstily. The liquid was freezing cold, her head began to ache immediately: an icy spot like a coin between her eyes. How can you! At a time like this! She didn't want to panic and call 911 before she'd thought this through. Something was staring her in the face, some explanation, maybe?


Excerpted from "The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Joyce Carol Oates.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Corn Maiden,
Nobody Knows My Name,
Helping Hands,
A Hole in the Head,

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The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares: Novellas and Stories of Unspeakable Dread 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Humbee More than 1 year ago
Joyce Carol Oates hardly needs an introduction, so I've left that off in this review. It continues to amaze me that she is so prolific an author, so "current" and so singluar at the same time, while she is over 71 year old. Whether she's writing the somber story of her own widowhood, the story of a family in Niagra Falls during Love Canal days, or the story of a family torn apart by rape, Ms Oates is mesmerizing. She can also scare the life out of you! This collection of stories is well-named; they are your worst nightmares. Just in time for Halloween, but even more so, "The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares" is a book you can keep for those weekends when you have friends up: great food is digesting, you're drinking a last crystal goblet of wine and you just want a bit of quiet entertainment...a sort of send-off to bed...a reading, a story to remember. This quiet weekend would best be spent in up-state NY, in the Catskills, possibly in a lodge you've all leased for the weekend. Nice...friends, the Fall, wine, an old lodge and Joyce Carol Oates. Run for your bed and pull the covers over your head!! "The Corn Maiden," the title story of this collection is creepy. The girls perpetrating unspeakable rituals upon their "corn maiden" are creepy and vile. Jude, the primary perpetrator and leader of her little band of weirdos, is suburban-insane and twisted like few other early teens you'll ever meet. Besides all of this, and mingled with the strange ritualistic purpose for their kidnapping poor, defenseless Marissa of the corn-silk hair, are the frightening unknowns that Ms Oates serves up to us: how kids today live not knowing if they're going to survive tomorrow because of nuclear threats, not knowing if parents will be there for them, not knowing why they've been abandoned, not knowing if food is safe, not knowing if their teacher is a molester, and so on. It's a story about the horrors our children face in their nightmares. In the reading, you'll discover what else Marissa represents; that, too, is a horror, it's all disturbing. It's all good for us to think about. Others of the stories also confront the nightmares of disassociation, displacement and dysfunction in families, coupled with the distortions of nature and mind. We know that often the scariest tales are the ones closest to being true or plausible. Not to mention that often those stories happen in the rural places close to home. Joyce Carol Oates was born and raised in up-state NY...think of what Stephen King does for Maine. Do you believe a cat can take the breath away; smother a baby? Just because a child imagines she experienced abuse, does that make it true? All I can tell you is that this book is not for the faint of heart. Joyce Carol Oates is a seriously great author no matter what she chooses to write. You can count on this being an extraordinarily good book of nightmarish tales on many levels.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a fairly good read if you can look past the REALLY bad editing on the Nook version. Also most of the stories have the same basic plot, but different twists. By the end of the book I was kind of over it all. Joyce is a really imaginative writer but this collection really suffered from the editing problems.
pyewacket007 More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the stories in this collection, but the typos and errors in my digital copy really made me want to stop reading. It really irks me when I spend as much as I would on an actual book and no one has taken the time to make sure the text is clean.
showmegirl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
1 Star/Fiction; Short Stories, HorrorThe Corn Maiden was not a book that I personally enjoyed. This is my first time reading anything by Joyce Carol Oates and her writing style was so different for me that I felt like I had to force myself through the pages. The stories were engaging but I never felt connected enough with any of them to truly appreciate this authors work.When I sit down to read, it is to relax after a long day. This book required more than I was willing to give in that regard. While I am sure this author has her dedicated followers, unfortunately I won't be one of them.
TheLostEntwife on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
So this collection of short stories.. it packs a mean punch. I mean right out of the gate, Joyce Carol Oates slams her readers with a story about ¿innocent¿ young girls and the horrific acts they can commit. Seriously, people, I have goosebumps just thinking about the story and it¿s been a few weeks since I read it.One after another, each story hits where you least expect to be hit. From showing the darker side of charity, the immense pain of loneliness, the all-too-human fears we face in moments when we should be thinking of other things, it¿s all contained within this book.I¿ve only recently become a fan of short stories ¿ I¿ve come to appreciate them for how quickly I can become immersed in the story and also appreciate just how much of a workout my imagination gets from the (sometimes abrupt) endings. I¿m positive I¿ll be checking out more of Joyce Carol Oates books, just because I have a think for powerhouse female writers ¿ but I will say this¿The last story in this book I couldn¿t read all the way through. I was just too grossed out, and for that I blame my active imagination ¿ although the story was pretty damn twisted.If you want the perfect Halloween read, look no further. This book will take you beyond paranormal and sometimes silly scary stories into the very corrupt and twisted mind of some very ¿normal¿ people.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I don't get why JCO has a rep as a great writer. I think she sucks frankly. These stories were neither scary nor even good enough to keep my attention. I kept skipping ahead thinking they would get better but they didn't. The last one seems to be missing an ending. Just awful, don't waste your time and money.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Stories aren't "scary", but they are creepy. Probably creepier because they are very realistic. Author seems to understand how the darker parts of the human brain can work and what they can lead to, very dark and very satisfying!
DesC More than 1 year ago
"The Corn Maiden" was the best tale in this collection. It was great watching everything unravel. The other stories were good, especially the one involving the thrift store. I highly recommend this, and I don't like short stories!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Joyce Carol Oates never disappoints...these stories are creepy and disturbing, but also very believable....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I got through the first story which I thought was not too bad. But it didn't scare me. A bit freaky, but nothing that left me shaking. As I started to read the next "nightmare" it was so unrealistic to me. I just could not get into it! I ended up just no finishing the novel after that, which is rare for me. I regret buying this book on my nook since I can't return it. Personally, I thought Afraid by Jack Kilborn was a better read. (however though, his book was more of a suspense)
lmparker More than 1 year ago
This was my first time reading anything by this author. I can honestly say I won't be purchasing anything from her in the future and was quite glad it was a library book. It was just interesting enough to keep reading but not enough to choose to do it again.