Book Review: Wild Nights!: Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickenson, Twain, James, and Hemingway by Joyce Carol Oates

This is a wildly original collection of long short stories, or novelettes, on the last days of famous writers.  I had never heard of it before, but I picked it up at the library on a whim, intrigued by the subject matter.

There are five stories, each a speculative look at the period leading up to the death of a famous writer, told in an imitation of the writer’s style.  The Poe story posits the author in an isolated lighthouse off the coast of Chile, slowly going mad.  The Dickenson story is set in the future; a couple purchases a robotic model of the poetess which turns out to be far more lifelike than they would have imagined.  Mark Twain is an old man obsessed with adolescent girl admirers.  Henry James volunteers to visit and give comfort to severely wounded soldiers at a filthy overcrowded hospital during World War I.  Hemingway, broken in body and spirit, contemplates suicide in the remote hills of Idaho.

I enjoyed the first three stories the most.  The Poe story was a classic horror/fantasy, and the Dickenson story intriguing science fiction.  The final two, on James and Hemingway, were well-written but also very depressing, and that dampened my appreciation of them.

Generally the book was very entertaining.  Oates is a talented writer, and reading this made me want to read more of her recent story collections in which she ventures into the realms of fantasy and horror.  She belies the widely-held belief that prolificacy in writers leads to a diminishment of quality.  For her, at least, the opposite is true, and I would venture to say that it is probably true for most writers as well:  the more one practices one’s craft, the better one gets.

One thing I appreciate about Oates is that she is a genre smasher.  She wanders freely from mainstream fiction to science fiction to fantasy to horror and back again, and manages through it all to get published in top literary magazines.  She is an exception, though.  Most writers cannot so easily make the transition from one genre to another; many feel the need to change names, to adopt pseudonyms when genre-hopping, fearful that the reading audience would not understand.  Magazines are the same, shunning unknown writers who submit works outside of the magazine’s comfort zone.  I have never understood this mindset.  If I appreciate an author I am interested in all of his or her work, and I think an author who ventures into nonfiction as well as various genres of fiction is to be admired for his or her versatility, courage, and imagination.  One other that comes to mind is Harlan Ellison.  Due to his prodigious output he has written under pseudonyms, yes, but under his own name he has shown enormous range, with fiction of all types and all lengths, screenplays and teleplays, film and book reviews, memoirs, and other types of work too numerous to mention.

As far as “Wild Nights!” is concerned, I would recommend the book.  It is a fascinating literary exercise and a well-written collection of entertaining tales.  And as I said, after the reading of this book, I intend to seek out and read more from Joyce Carol Oates.

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