The Museum of Dr. Moses by Joyce Carol Oates

November 1, 2009

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.