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Classic authors get a biographical makeover

The classic authors who appear as fictionalized characters in Wild Nights! aren't the ones most of us met in Intro to American Literature. Edgar Allan Poe copulating with a one-eyed amphibian? Mark Twain pursuing pubescent girls? Henry James clubbing a cat to death? Joyce Carol Oates may cause a few elderly professors to keel over, but the rest of us can take perverse delight in her five surreal tales.

In each, Oates imagines the final days of a famous author, drawing from biographical fact but freely embroidering with Gothic excess. In Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House, she places the author of The Fall of the House of Usher on a solitary South Pacific island and documents his descent into utter madness (and interspecies sex). The curious EDickinsonRepliLuxe has a modern-day couple purchasing a 4-foot robot modeled after poet Emily Dickinson; her silent hovering and enigmatic pronouncements cause the marriage to unravel. Twain, in Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish 1906, corresponds with a 15-year-old whose life he destroys through casual neglect, while James, tending to World War I wounded, wades through blood and human waste in The Master at St. Bartholomew's Hospital 1914-1916.

The final entry, Papa at Ketchum 1961, is the least outrageous but most disturbing. Here Oates unleashes the inner turmoil of Ernest Hemingway as he props a shotgun against his chin and prepares for suicide. Oates' Papa is paranoid, misogynistic, boastful and pathetic — an indelible portrait of genius gone sour.

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