Spiritual Terror & the Corn Maiden

The Corn Maiden (2011) by Joyce Carol Oates is a novella of psychological realism and spiritual terror, laden with masterly characterization of souls both “normal” and aberrant. To quote Charles Lamb out of context, “the kind of fear here treated of is purely spiritual,” as “strong in proportion as it is objectless upon earth.” Here are no garish torture scenes, sexploitation, ghosts, or other genre tropes. Also, thankfully, there are no middle-aged men eyeballing compliant younger women–a motif without which Stephen King would be adrift.

The corn maiden is Marissa, a sweet 11-year-old girl whose disappearance exposes her (single) mom and her (male) teacher to humiliating public exposure of their unexpectedly manifold petty secrets and vulnerabilities. Marissa has been taken by a gaggle of classmates led by a red-haired older girl called either Jude (the obscure?) or Judah (the betrayer?), who plots to reenact the ancient Native American sacrificial ritual of the corn maiden, which, in true Lovecraftian vein, she may have invented.

The Corn Maiden could have been a conventional crime thriller, but in the hands of this master storyteller, the story is relentlessly frightening, tapping into the archetypes of sacrifice, madness, and betrayal. Its narrative momentum eventually peters out in favor of a predictably “realistic” denouement, but the insight into human vulnerability and the nightmarish entrapment of daughter, mother, and teacher make this novella worth anyone’s time. Adam Verner’s audio narration is appropriately restrained and sensitive.

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