THE COLLECTOR OF HEARTS New Tales of the Grotesque By Joyce Carol Oates Dutton. 321 pp. $24.95 INVISIBLE WRITER A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates By Greg Johnson Dutton. 492 pp. $34.95 Reviewed by Douglas E. Winter, a Washington writer and attorney who is completing a biography and critique of Clive Barker. An exquisite fable called "The Sky Blue Ball" introduces The Collector of Hearts, a gathering of recent stories by Joyce Carol Oates. Its narrator recounts the epiphany of her adolescent solitude: While she is walking in a strange neighborhood, someone on the far side of a high brick wall throws a ball to her. The ball is blue, beautiful and new, "like a rubber ball I'd played with years before as a little girl; a ball I'd loved and had long ago misplaced; a ball I'd loved and had forgotten." She returns the ball to her unseen playmate, who throws it back to her, and the game of catch continues until interrupted by a desperate thought: "This is the surprise I've been waiting for. For somehow I had acquired the belief that a surprise, a nice surprise, was waiting for me. I had only to merit it, and it would happen." Now the ball is flung far from her, and recovering it nearly takes her into the path of a passing truck. Shaken, she returns the ball again, but the game, it seems, is over; when she climbs the wall, she finds no one on the other side -- just the ball, worn and cracked and old, its sky-blue color gone. The bittersweet nostalgia that imbues The Collector of Hearts is a central motif of the Anglo-American ghost story; but for Joyce Carol Oates the past is a specter more haunting than anything the supernatural might have to offer. These fictions confront the loss of innocence through experience or, more often, as reminiscence, repeatedly underscoring the collision of now and then. The revelation of "The Sky Blue Ball" is thus reprised in "Shadows of the Evening" and several other entries, including the delirious "Fever Blisters," in which two aged lovers reunite in the once-grand hotel that was home to their adulterous affair, only to learn a simple lesson: "It isn't romantic at all." Now that commercial publishers have debauched "horror" as an acceptable literary descriptive, it is fashionable for writers of dark and fantastic fiction to apply more discreet labels to their work. Oates styles these stories, like those of an earlier collection, Haunted (1994), as "Tales of the Grotesque," which suggests, somewhat unfairly, a focus on the garish, the extreme, the absurd. If anything, The Collector of Hearts is subdued in its imagery and its physical violence -- although there are moments of almost gleeful indulgence in the stuff of splatter films. Perhaps the most notorious is "Unprintable," which reads like a paean to the legendary E.C. Comics of the 1950s: a straight-faced adventure in ironic vengeance in which a prominent pro-choice activist is tormented by the revenants of aborted fetuses. Other tales enact familiar scenarios of generational and gender oppression in which the old (and usually male) corrupt, if not obliterate, the young (and usually female). In the surprisingly literal title story, a fiftyish judge seduces a naive, gum-cracking defendant; it is not an act of romance but of possession and, no doubt, murder. In a similar set piece titled only with a black rectangle, Oates depicts a woman's repressed, perhaps inexpressible memories of the shiny Sunday on which her girlhood ended in sexual abuse. What Oates brings to these otherwise obvious plot lines is a remarkable voice, often that of the victim, which gives life and meaning -- and truth -- to events that lesser writers would play out merely for shock or sensation. Unfortunately, these stories, although consistently skilled, tend to suffer in the aggregate. Unless read sparingly and with great patience, not as a book but for an occasional story, The Collector of Hearts proves a blur of obsessively similar themes and characters and plots; indeed, only "The Sky Blue Ball" and a handful of other tales remain unique and memorable. "The Affliction," in particular, offers a moving metaphor for the pain of creativity as it considers the valedictory exhibition of an elderly artist whose paintings exorcise a mysterious disease. "The affliction isn't fatal," he learns. "It's something you can learn to live with . . . . Until you scarcely think of it until it happens. And then, of course . . . you have no choice." It is tempting to some to believe that writers -- particularly those whose work is drawn to the dark side -- are not born but somehow bred. These readers seek clues from the authors' lives, preferably their childhoods, in the superficial belief that some dire event must have engendered their creative vision. Invisible Writer, the first biography of Joyce Carol Oates, offers far more reasoned and complex sensibilities. Written with Oates's cooperation by a worthy inquisitor, novelist and English professor Greg Johnson, it is a careful and detailed account of a life that is far from public. Despite having a prolific literary career (and once gracing the cover of Newsweek), Oates is indeed invisible, known to her readers entirely through her writing. Certainly her past has its share of ghosts: an autistic sister whom Johnson portrays as an eerie doppelganger, a university friend who suffered a homicidal breakdown, Oates's own near-breakdown and recurrent health problems. Just as certainly, those ghosts have been exercised, if not exorcised, in her fiction. But in Johnson's account of her life and her life's work, there is no doubt that, like the artist of "The Affliction," Joyce Carol Oates has no choice. She was born to write.