The Museum of Dr. Moses by Joyce Carol Oates

Inspired by Kevin From Canada’s coincidental choice of a “spooky” book Halloween week, I decided to finish Oates’s collection of “Tales of Mystery and Suspense” on Halloween. Some of the stories, like the title story, are quite creepy, while others are more psychologically suspenseful.

MuseumOfDrMosesMy favorite book by Joyce Carol Oates is the very dark novella Beasts. My next favorite would be The Gravedigger’s Daugther, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. This collection of short stories, however, is a fine introduction to her work if you prefer the short form.

The Museum of Dr. Moses: Tales of Mystery and Suspense lives up to its subtitle. Oates is excellent at creating suspense. She knows how to slowly turn up the tension, making the reader more and more uneasy, until she lets go the climax often leaving the reader a little breathless. The tales here focus on mystery and suspense rather than the grotesque, though several involve that element as well.

One of the most affecting of the eight stories is “Suicide Watch.” In the story, a twenty-eight year old man, Seth, is being held on suicide watch and is suspected of murdering his two year old son and the boy’s mother. Seth’s father comes to visit, ostensibly for support. The story is less about the missing child and his mother than about father-son dynamics. While the suspense revolves largely around finding out whether Seth has done something to the missing boy and woman, the father’s strained relationship with the son is the most captivating aspect. The father is in no better a position than the reader with respect to knowledge of Seth’s guilt or innocence. In some ways, the father’s position is worse than the reader’s because of his and his son’s shared history and the father’s love of his grandson. Oates does an incredible job of managing the emotional intensity of the situation and pulling the reader along to the final insight.

Oates really shines in dark, psychologically taut scenes. She does emotion, particularly needy, desperate emotion, as well as anyone I have read. Her characters are almost always damaged or involved in highly dysfunctional relationships. She manages to delve into intense emotional situations without allowing the story to crumble into melodrama. This collection nicely highlights some of Oates’ strengths, particularly if you like dark, suspenseful tales.

The closest she comes to horror is in the title story, “The Museum of Dr. Moses”. The story primarily involves an adult woman in her twenties (Ella McIntyre), her mother (Mrs. Virginia Hammacher), and her stepfather (Dr. Moses Hammacher). The story opens with Ella on her way to visit her mother. The mother and daughter have been estranged since her mother helped Ella’s no account brother one too many times.

Virginia had previously escaped from an abusive relationship with Ella’s alcoholic father. During her estrangement from Ella, Virginia remarried. Her husband is the most prominent physician in the rural upstate New York county where Ella grew up and has been since her childhood.

There are early indications that, if nothing else, Dr. Moses (as he is familiarly called) is eccentric. After the County Historical Society provides funds to display some antiques of local significance, “Dr. Moses demanded money from the society to start a museum of his own.” The society obliges with a small grant which only offends Dr. Moses. He breaks off relations with the society, but set up the museum in the old house in the countryside where he lives with Virginia.

Ella arrives at the museum and is greeted at the door by Dr. Moses. He leaves Ella and her mother alone in the parlor to talk:

After Dr. Moses’s initial, courtly greeting of me, whom he referred to as his ‘prodigal stepdaughter,’ he’d retreated upstairs, meaning to be inconspicuous perhaps, but his slow, circling footsteps sounded directly overhead; the high ceiling above creaked; Mother glanced upward, distracted. I was asking her simple, innocuous questions about her wedding, her honeymoon, relatives, Strykersville neighbors and friends, and she answered in monosyllables; I told her about my teaching job, my semidetached brownstone with its small rear garden, my regret that I hadn’t seen her in so long. Some caution prevented me asking of more crucial matters. I sensed that my mother’s mood was fragile….Truly I could not see Mother clearly, even at close range. Ella! Help me. I heard this appeal silently, as Mother squeezed my hands.

I whispered, “Mother? Is anything wrong?” but immediately she pressed her fingers against my lips and shook her head no. Meaning no, there was nothing wrong? Or no, this wasn’t the time to ask?

Oates pulls the reader more and more deeply into the very strange museum of Dr. Moses and his odd relationship with Virginia (who refers to him as Dr. Moses). As with most of the stories in this collection, the ending contains some ambiguity though it resolves this key mystery. The mood is so expertly set and the characters sufficiently vivid that this story is easily one of the most memorable and disconcerting.

In all, this is a very fine collection of stories. The genre suits Oates well and she has managed to produce some original, memorable stories.

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15 Responses to The Museum of Dr. Moses by Joyce Carol Oates

  1. anokatony says:

    Kerry, Nice review. In 1985, there was an interesting movie called “Smooth Talk” starring Treat Williams and Laura Dern. It was based on Joyce Carol Oates’ story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Supposedly the story was based on Oates dislike of the ways of the freewheeling Bob Dylan. I’ve read the story, seen the movie; both are excellent.

    • Shane says:

      anokatony,
      Just to clarify, yes Oates had been inspired to write the story after listening to a Bob Dylan song (“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”) but the real inspiration came from a sensational true story covered in Life magazine (1966). The Life magazine article, titled “The Pied Piper of Tucson,” was about Charles Schmid, a serial killer. Oates has written much fiction that has been inspired by true life crimes over the years. Her short novel, ZOMBIE, was inspired by serial killer/cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. One of her earliest short stories, “In the Region of Ice,” was inspired by a former student of Oates who was troubled and later ended up shooting a rabbi during a worship service in a synagogue. Her story was made into a very short film which won the Oscar in 1977 for Best Short Subject. In the early 1980s, Oates drew upon the same memory/experience to create her experimental short story, “Last Days,” which dramatized the shooting of the rabbi in more detail. “In the Region of Ice” can be found in the collection THE WHEEL OF LOVE, and “Last Days” can be found in her collection titled LAST DAYS. One of Oates’ most recent short story collections, DEAR HUSBAND, features the title story (“Dear Husband”) which was inspired by the Andrea Yates case–the woman who had drowned her own children.

  2. Kerry says:

    Tony,

    Thanks. I will have to find that movie (and the story). Oates is very popular in my household, as are excellent stories and movies. Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. It has been a long time since I tried an Oates — I’ll admit that she simply publishes too much for me to keep track. Thanks for keeping me up to date, but I think I’ll continue my abstention.

  4. Kerry says:

    Thanks, Kevin. You, of course, are more than welcome. I definitely understand the feeling. I get a very pleasant feeling when I decide to start reading, say, David Mitchell novels. I can reasonably hope to read them all and, even, may soon eagerly await the next one to be written.

    Oates, obviously, does not allow this small joy.

  5. Kerry says:

    Oh, and for the record, as of today, Oates seems to have:

    37 novels (two forthcoming)
    8 novellas
    3 novels as “Lauren Kelly”
    8 novels as “Rosamond Smith”
    34 short story collections (a few duplicative, I think)
    5 young adult books
    3 children’s books

    There’s also poetry, drama, and literary criticism.

  6. Okay — too awesome a list to undertake.

  7. Sarah says:

    I saw this author on Tony’s list of women writers of short fiction. It was a good list, and there were several authors I thought I might like to try.

    Dark and psychological… Joyce Carol Oates was not one of my initial choices, but she is now. I am not sure whether to thank you, or to despair at the alarming proliferation of fabulous authors I don’t have time to read.

  8. Kerry says:

    Sarah,

    If you are after dark and psychological, then I definitely recommend starting with Beasts. Of course, I am biased. It’s my favorite. Alternatively, these stories are right up that alley and can be sprinkled among your other reading…

    I empathize with respect to the lack of time and energy to read all the authors you (I) would like.

  9. Sali says:

    Hi,
    to be honest I have ever heard of Joyce Carol Oates until the last week, I wanted to work my MA thesis on American Literature and specifically the southern short story, and I was thinking of Flannery O’connor , but my professor suggested for me this writer, and at the end I will work on both writers on the theme of mystery and suspense in their short stories: A Good Man is Hard To Find by Flannery O’connor and The Museum Of Dr Moses by J.C.Oates.
    I have found your report very helpfull especially I don’t have the collection yet,thank you.

  10. Kerry says:

    Sali,

    I am glad that you found my review helpful. It would be hard to find two better short story writers than Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates. Do be aware that Joyce Carol Oates is NOT a southern writer, but hails from New York. Many of her stories, including the title story of this collection, are set in rural New York (i.e. the north). Good luck with your thesis and thanks for stopping in.

    Kerry

  11. Shane says:

    Kerry,
    I stumbled across this site on the Internet. I am going to bookmark it. I envy people who can write exquisite book reviews (I can’t…maybe that is why I just write fiction and drama!). You’re doing a good job! Oh, and I love all things Joyce Carol Oates. ūüôā You should read her short story collection FAITHLESS (published 2001). Wonderful stories. HIGH LONESOME is another great short story collection. It features some of her favorite short stories since the beginning of her career (includes “In the Region of Ice” and “Last Days”–see my comment posted above) along with more recent short stories. Her story “Landfill” was inspired by a recent, horrible, accidental death–in fact, the family of the victim tried to sue Oates because they felt the story paralleled (too closely) the actual event as mentioned in the news at the time.

  12. Kerry says:

    Shane,

    Thank you very much. I really appreciate the compliment and I really appreciate the information about Oates. I will look into the Faithless collection. My wife really likes Oates too, so that sounds like one we could definitely share. High Lonesome will go on my list too. She is an incredible author. I knew she drew on some real life events, but I suppose I had not realized the extent to which she was fictionalizing current events. With her output, I suppose she has to find inspiration where she can.

    Now you have me excited about Oates again. Thanks for the wonderful comments, Shane. I look forward to hearing from you again.

    Kerry

  13. worod says:

    hi.thank u for your help i wish i would have more information and criticism on the museum of dr moses.

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