Spoken Word

Snuggle Up to Joyce Carol Oates

Symphony Space hosts “Scary Stories for a Winter’s Night”

by Laura Scott   |   Jan 15, 2009

Snuggle Up to Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates (Photo: Jeff Sciortino)


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There is a particular joy in listening to a well-told tale when it’s well read by an actor. The twists and turns coming to you in measured tones, without your eye skipping ahead on the page, feeling the action funnel into your being and play out in your imagination. For over 20 years, New York City has relied on “Selected Shorts” for just this. Live readings happen at Symphony Space. Recorded programs play weekly on NPR. Readers have included Cynthia Nixon, Alec Baldwin and William Hurt. Eudora Welty’s stories are a popular choice. Classics are often paired with selections from contemporary writers such as Aimee Bender and Alix Ohlin. An overlying theme usually dictates the programming.

This month, Symphony Space is hosting “Scary Stories for a Winter’s Night with Joyce Carol Oates.” Of the three selections to be read, the scares in Oates’s “Thanksgiving” are the most abstract. The story takes place in a world destroyed by disaster, natural or man-made, in the wasted remains of a most familiar institution, the grocery store. The un-attributed destruction is eerie. The characters’ victories are small, and the fear is from the devastation of our very lifelines, such as the commercial source of the food that nourishes us. But “Thanksgiving” is nowhere near the clear-cut horror of the other two tales to be read. Both Dan Chaon’s “The Bees” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” are about trespasses coming back to haunt those who trespassed against others.

Most everyone knows Poe’s story of the guilty murderer. The perpetrator assures the reader of his sanity, even as he relates details of cutting up the body of his victim. Then you learn the reason the murderer confessed: His guilt could not be contained within his madness. In Chaon’s story, a man is also guilty of heinous deeds, but he committed his crimes due to his own human frailty, alcoholism. After leaving behind the wreckage of his first family, drying out, and establishing a happy and healthy life with a second family, the old comes back, literally, to haunt the new in a chilling tale of regret, loss and revenge.

Though none of the stories read on this most chilly winter’s night will be heartwarming, the tales of terror will definitely get your blood pumping.

January 21 at Symphony Space. Don’t miss a single story. Subscribe to the “Selected Shorts” podcast.