Bad things have been happening since Mia began to mature. Her dad left. Boys at school can’t keep their hands to themselves. A lecherous stepfather has moved in. Her only refuge is an abandoned lot on her suburban cul-de-sac, crawling with feral felines—one of which follows Mia home. Ghostly white and affectionate, she is Mia’s new companion and—as Mia’s tormenters will soon discover—her fierce protector.
Of the Dark Corners stories I’ve read so far I can tell already that Miao Dao will probably be my favorite and is by far one of the strongest entries in the series. I thought I knew what I was getting into when I picked this novella up – thinking it’d be a story about a supernatural killer cat, but what I got was so much more.
To me there are two distinct schools of horror – those that are pure fantasy, usually monsters or some other form of paranormal activity; and then there is the kind of horror that is grounded in the real world, the type of every day horror that is chilling because of how common it is. Miao Dao definitely fell into the latter category as the real horror was not the mysterious feral cats but the people surrounding Mia.
Puberty can be one of the most terrifying points in a girl’s life, not just because of the change in physical appearance but the change in the type of attention that young women receive. When I look back on my own years as a developing young woman I shudder remembering how uncomfortable I was in my own skin, the way that men far older than me began to leer. The feeling of being exposed, of wanting to go back to childhood when one’s body and sexuality isn’t a pressure point. I could relate to Mia’s fear of her maturity on a level that to me was deeply unsettling.
Adding further to Mia’s struggle with puberty the stress and trauma of divorce and the uncomfortable struggle to play family with a new stepfather, a stranger intruding on her family life. There is nothing I love more than an unreliable narrator, and the tone in this novella was scattered, intense, like a balloon ready to burst as Mia lurches into the terrifying world of adults.
The choice of the name for both the book and the cat, Miao Dao initially made me scratch my head. What does a Chinese sword have to do with a cat story? But when taken as a whole it made sense, and quite frankly pretty brilliant. This was the second short story that I’ve read by Joyce Carol Oates and it has turned me into a fan of her writing.
Strengths: Real world horror, highly relatable, beautifully written
Weaknesses: Scattered narrative can be difficult to follow
Warnings: Sexual harassment, bullying, domestic abuse, animal abuse