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       Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense, p.1

           Joyce Carol Oates
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Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense

  Also by Joyce Carol Oates

  The Barrens


  Rape: A Love Story

  The Female of the Species: Tales of Mystery and Suspense

  The Museum of Dr. Moses

  A Fair Maiden

  Give Me Your Heart: Tales of Mystery and Suspense

  The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares

  Daddy Love

  Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong

  High Crime Area: Tales of Darkness and Dread

  Jack of Spades: A Tale of Suspense

  The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror

  DIS MEM BER and Other Stories of Mystery and Suspense


  and Other Tales of Suspense


  Copyright © 2018 by The Ontario Review, Inc.

  Cover design by Royce M. Becker

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of such without the permission of the publisher is prohibited. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or anthology, should send inquiries to Grove Atlantic, 154 West 14th Street, New York, NY 10011 or [email protected]

  The poem “Night-Gaunts” by H.P. Lovecraft was originally

  published in the December 1939 issue of Weird Tales.

  Reprinted with the permission of Arkham House.


  Published simultaneously in Canada

  Printed in the United States of America

  ISBN 978-0-8021-2810-2

  eISBN 978-0-8021-4628-1

  First Grove Atlantic hardcover edition: June 2018

  This book was set in 12 pt. Adobe Garamond Pro by

  Alpha Design & Composition of Pittsfield, NH

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is available for this title.

  The Mysterious Press

  an imprint of Grove Atlantic

  154 West 14th Street

  New York, NY 10011

  Distributed by Publishers Group West

  18 19 20 21 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


  Out of what crypt they crawl, I cannot tell,

  But every night I see the rubbery things,

  Black, horned, and slender, with membranous wings,

  They come in legions on the north wind’s swell

  With obscene clutch that titillates and stings,

  Snatching me off on monstrous voyagings

  To grey worlds hidden deep in nightmare’s well.

  Over the jagged peaks of Thok they sweep,

  Heedless of all the cries I try to make,

  And down the nether pits to that foul lake

  Where the puffed shoggoths splash in doubtful sleep

  But ho! If only they would make some sound,

  Or wear a face where faces should be found!

  —H.P. Lovecraft

  for Janet Hutchings



  Also by Joyce Carol Oates

  Title Page



  The Woman in the Window

  The Long-Legged Girl

  Sign of the Beast

  The Experimental Subject

  Walking Wounded



  Back Cover

  The Woman in the Window

  Beneath the cushion of the plush blue chair she has hidden it.

  Almost shyly her fingers grope for it, then recoil as if it were burning-hot.

  No! None of this will happen, don’t be ridiculous.

  It is eleven A.M. He has promised to meet her in this room in which it is always eleven A.M.

  She’s doing what she does best: waiting.

  In fact, she is waiting for him in the way that he prefers: naked. Yet wearing shoes.

  Nude he calls it. Not naked.

  (Naked is a coarse word! He’s a gentleman and he feels revulsion for vulgarity. Any sort of crude word, mannerism—in a woman.)

  She understands. She herself disapproves of women uttering profanities.

  Only when she’s alone would she utter even a mild profanity—Damn! God damn. Oh hell …

  Only if she were very upset. Only if her heart were broken.

  He can say anything he likes. It’s a masculine prerogative to say the coarsest cruelest words uttered with a laugh—as a man will do.

  Though he might also murmur—Jesus!

  Not profanity but an expression of awe. Sometimes.

  Jesus! You are beautiful.

  Is she beautiful? She smiles to think so.

  She is the woman in the window. In the wan light of an autumn morning in New York City.

  In the plush blue chair waiting. Eleven A.M.

  Sleepless through much of the night and in the early morning soaking in her bath preparing herself for him.

  Rubbing lotion onto her body: breasts, belly, hips, buttocks.

  Such soft skin. Amazing … His voice catches in his throat.

  At first, he scarcely dares touch her. But only at first.

  It is a solemn ritual, creamy-white lotion smelling of faint gardenias rubbed into her skin.

  In a trance like a woman in a dream rubbing lotion into her skin for she is terrified of her skin drying out in the radiator-heat, arid airlessness of The Maguire (as it is called)—the brownstone apartment building at Tenth Avenue and Twenty-third where she lives.

  From the street The Maguire is a dignified-looking older building but inside it is really just old.

  Like the wallpaper in this room, and the dull-green carpet, and the plush blue chair—old.

  Dry heat! Sometimes she wakes in the night scarcely able to breathe and her throat dry as ashes.

  She has seen the dried-out skin of older women. Some of them not so very old, in their sixties, even younger. Papery-thin skin, desiccated as a snake’s husk of a skin, a maze of fine white wrinkles, terrible to behold.

  Her own mother. Her grandmother.

  Telling herself don’t be silly, it will never happen to her.

  She wonders how old his wife is. He is a gentleman, he will not speak of his wife. She dares not ask. She dares not even hint. His face flushes with indignation, his wide dark nostrils like holes in his face pinch as if he has smelled a bad odor. Very quiet, very stiff he becomes, a sign of danger so she knows to retreat.

  Yet thinking, gloating: His wife is not young. She is not so beautiful as I am. When he sees her, he thinks of me.

  (But is this true? The past half-year, since the previous winter, since the long break over Christmas when they were apart (she was in the city; he was away with his family in some undisclosed place very likely Bermuda for his face and hands were tanned when he returned) she has not been so certain.)

  She has never been to Bermuda, or any tropical place. If he does not take her, it is not likely that she will ever go.

  Instead, she is trapped here in this room. Where it is always eleven A.M. Sometimes it feels to her as if she is trapped in this chair, in the window gazing out with great yearning at—what?

  An apartment building li
ke the building in which she lives. A narrow shaft of sky. Light that appears fading already at eleven A.M.

  Damned tired of the plush blue chair that is beginning to fray.

  Damned tired of the bed (he’d chosen) that is a double bed, with a headboard.

  Her previous bed, in her previous living quarters on East Eighth Street, in a fifth-floor walk-up single room, had been a single bed of course. A girl’s bed too small, too narrow, too insubstantial for him.

  The girth, the weight of him—he is two hundred pounds at least.

  All muscle—he likes to say. (Joking.) And she murmurs in response Yes.

  If she rolls her eyes, he does not see.

  She has come to hate her entrapment here. Where it is always eleven A.M. and she is always waiting for him.

  The more she thinks about it the more her hatred roils like smoldering heat about to burst into flame.

  She hates him. For trapping her here.

  For treating her like dirt.

  Worse than dirt, something stuck on the sole of his shoe he tries to scrape off with that priggish look in his face that makes her want to murder him.

  Next time you touch me! You will regret it.

  Except: at work, at the office—she’s envied.

  The other secretaries know she lives in The Maguire for she’d brought one of them to see it, once.

  Such a pleasure it was, to see the look in Molly’s eyes!

  And it is true—this is a very nice place really. Far nicer than anything she could afford on her secretary’s salary.

  Except she has no kitchen, only just a hot plate in a corner alcove and so it is difficult for her to prepare food for herself. Dependent on eating at the automat on Twenty-first and Sixth or else (but this is never more than once a week, at the most) when he takes her out to dinner.

  (Even then, she has to take care. Nothing so disgusting as seeing a female who eats like a horse, he has said.)

  She does have a tiny bathroom. The first private bathroom she’d ever had in her life.

  He pays most of the rent. She has not asked him, he volunteers to give her cash unbidden as if each time he has just thought of it.

  My beautiful girl! Please don’t say a word, you will break the spell and ruin everything.

  What’s the time? Eleven A.M.

  He will be late coming to her. Always he is late coming to her.

  At the corner of Lexington and Thirty-seventh. Headed south.

  The one with the dark fedora, camel’s-hair coat. Whistling thinly through his teeth. Not a tall man though he gives that impression. Not a large man but he won’t give way if there’s another pedestrian in his path.

  Excuse me, mister! Look where the hell you’re going.

  Doesn’t break his stride. Only partially conscious of his surroundings.

  Face shut up tight. Jaws clenched.

  Murder rushing to happen.

  The woman in the window, he likes to imagine her.

  He has stood on the sidewalk three floors below. He has counted the windows of the brownstone. Knows which one is hers.

  After dark, the lighted interior reflected against the blind makes of the blind a translucent skin.

  When he leaves her. Or, before he comes to her.

  It is less frequent that he comes to her by day. His days are taken up with work, family. His days are what is known.

  Nighttime there is another self. Unpeeling his tight clothes: coat, trousers, white cotton dress shirt, belt, necktie, socks and shoes.

  But now the woman has Thursdays off, late mornings at The Maguire are convenient.

  Late mornings shifting into afternoon. Late afternoon, and early evening.

  He calls home, leaves a message with the maid—Unavoidable delay at office. Don’t wait dinner.

  In fact it is the contemplation of the woman in the window he likes best for in his imagination this girl never utters a vulgar remark or makes a vulgar mannerism. Never says a banal or stupid or predictable thing. His sensitive nerves are offended by (for instance) a female shrugging her shoulders, as a man might do; or trying to make a joke, or a sarcastic remark. He hates a female grinning.

  Worst of all, crossing her (bare) legs so that the thighs thicken, bulge. Hard-muscled legs with soft downy hairs, repulsive to behold.

  The shades must be drawn. Tight.

  Shadows, not sunlight. Why darkness is best.

  Lie still. Don’t move. Don’t speak. Just—don’t.

  It’s a long way from when she’d moved to the city from Hackensack needing to breathe.

  She’d never looked back. Sure they called her selfish, cruel. What the hell, the use they’d have made of her, she’d be sucked dry by now like bone marrow.

  Saying it was sin. Her Polish grandmother angrily rattling her rosary, praying aloud.

  Who the hell cares! Leave me alone.

  First job was file clerk at Trinity Trust down on Wall Street. Wasted three years of her young life waiting for her boss Mr. Broderick to leave his (invalid) wife and (emotionally unstable) adolescent daughter and wouldn’t you think a smart girl like her would know better?

  Second job also file clerk but then she’d been promoted to Mr. Castle’s secretarial staff at Lyman Typewriters on West Fourteenth. The least the old buzzard could do for her and she’d have done a lot better except for fat-face Stella Czechi intruding where she wasn’t wanted.

  One day she’d come close to pushing Stella Czechi into the elevator shaft when the elevator was broken. The doors clanked opened onto a terrifying drafty cavern where dusty-oily cords hung twisted like ugly thick black snakes. Stella gave a little scream and stepped back, and she’d actually grabbed Stella’s hand, the two of them so frightened—Oh my God there’s no elevator! We almost got killed.

  Later she would wish she’d pushed Stella. Guessing Stella was wishing she’d pushed her.

  Third job, Tvek Realtors & Insurance in the Flatiron Building and she’s Mr. Tvek’s private secretary—What would I do without you my dear one?

  As long as Tvek pays her decent. And he doesn’t let her down like last Christmas, she’d wanted to die.

  It is eleven A.M. Will this be the morning? She is trembling with excitement, dread.

  Wanting badly to hurt him. Punish!

  That morning after her bath she’d watched with fascination as her fingers lifted the sewing shears out of the bureau drawer. Watched her fingers test the sharpness of the points: very sharp, icepick-sharp.

  Watched her hand pushing the shears beneath the cushion of the plush blue chair by the window.

  It is not the first time she has hidden the sewing shears beneath the cushion. It is not the first time she has wished him dead.

  Once, she hid the shears beneath her pillow on the bed.

  Another time, in the drawer of the bedside table.

  How she has hated him, and yet—she has not (yet) summoned the courage, or the desperation, to kill him.

  (For is not kill a terrifying word? If you kill, you become a killer.)

  (Better to think of punishment, exacting justice. When there is no other recourse but the sewing shears.)

  She has never hurt anyone in her life!—even as a child she didn’t hit or wrestle with other children, or at least not often. Or at least that she remembers.

  He is the oppressor. He has murdered her dreams.

  He must be punished before he leaves her.

  Each time she has hidden the shears she has come a little closer (she thinks) to the time when she will use them. Just stab, stab, stab in the way he pounds himself into her, her body, using her body, his face contorted and ugly, terrible to behold.

  The act that is unthinkable as it is irrevocable.

  The shears are much stronger than an ordinary pair of scissors, as they are slightly larger.

  The shears once belonged to her mother who’d been a quite skilled seamstress. In the Polish community in Hackensack, her mother was most admired.

  She tries to sew to
o. Though she is less skilled than her mother.

  Needing to mend her clothes—hems of dresses, underwear, even stockings. And it is calming to the nerves like knitting, crocheting, even typing when there is no time-pressure.

  Except—You did a dandy job with these letters, my dear! But I’m afraid not “perfect.” You will have to do them over.

  Sometimes she hates Mr. Tvek as much as she hates him.

  Under duress she can grip the shears firmly, she is sure. She has been a typist since the age of fifteen and she believes that it is because of this skill that her fingers have grown not only strong but unerring.

  Of course, she understands: a man could slap the shears out of her hand in a single gesture. If he sees what she is doing, before the icepick-sharp points stabs into his flesh.

  She must strike him swiftly and she must strike him in the throat.

  The “carotid artery”—she knows what this is.

  Not the heart, she doesn’t know where the heart might be, exactly. Protected by ribs. The torso is large, bulky—too much fat. She could not hope to pierce the heart with the shears in a single swift blow.

  Even the back, where the flesh is less thick, would be intimidating to her. She has a nightmare vision of the points of the shears stuck in the man’s back, not deep enough to kill him, only just wound him, blood streaming everywhere as he flails his arms and bellows in rage and pain …

  Therefore, the neck. The throat.

  In the throat, the male is as vulnerable as the female.

  Once the sharp points of the shears pierce his skin, puncture the artery, there will be no turning back for either of them.

  Eleven A.M.

  Light rap of his knuckles on the door. Hel-lo.

  Turning of the key. And then—

  Shutting the door behind him. Approaching her.

  Staring at her with eyes like ants running over her (nude) body.

  It is a scene in a movie: that look of desire in a man’s face. A kind of hunger, greed.

  (Should she speak to him? Often at such times he seems scarcely to hear her words, so engrossed in what he sees.)

  (Maybe better to say nothing. So he can’t wince at her nasal New Jersey accent, tell her Shhh!)

  Last winter after that bad quarrel she’d tried to bar him from the apartment. Tried to barricade the door by dragging a chair in front of it but (of course) he pushed his way in by brute strength.

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