On a Very High Wire

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Marion Ettlinger/Corbis Outline
Joyce Carol Oates, Princeton, New Jersey, 1999

Two thirds of the way through The Accursed, a woman who has been rusticated, against her will, from civilized Princeton, New Jersey, to a dilapidated and eerie manse in the wilds of Pennsylvania observes, “We are like people in a gothic novel.” It’s a funny line, if not for the overburdened wife who delivers it then certainly for the reader who has been thinking the same thing for the last four hundred pages. Yet it’s not merely a throwaway joke, a knowing authorial wink at the audience. As frequently happens in this expertly crafted novel, a moment of levity is being used to distract and disarm us, so that we are doubly appalled by the scene of grisly mayhem that soon follows.

Part of what’s enjoyable and impressive about The Accursed is the chance it offers to watch Joyce Carol Oates recycle and reinvent the conventions of genre fiction to achieve something more substantial and ambitious than the chills we expect from the horror novel. The propulsive plotting and the clichés of the ghost story—the occult curse, the terrifying visitations, the diabolical stranger with designs on the beautiful virgin, the sepulchral underworld to which the living are abducted—are employed here to conjure up the truly frightening specters that have haunted our nation since its inception.

Just as the classic eighteenth-century gothic novels commonly feature prefaces describing the provenance (a mildewed manuscript discovered in a locked chest) and attesting to the factual accuracy of the wildly improbable narrative we are about to read, so The Accursed begins with an “author’s note” by an amateur historian named M.W. van Dyck II. After dismissing previous works on the subject, our narrator lists his qualifications for documenting “the Curse, or, as it was sometimes called, the Horror” that created havoc in Princeton from 1905 to 1906.

A native Princetonian, a descendant of one of the town’s most distinguished families, and a graduate of its university, van Dyck also claims access to “personal documents—letters, diaries, journals—never available to outsiders.” The unsavory aspects of his personality are instantly apparent. He is a pompous, prudish, bigoted snob; his childhood home, he informs us, has been “barbarously” gutted and renovated by “strangers with a name ending in -stein.” He can barely conceal his sympathy for the men who opposed women’s suffrage. Only gradually do we realize how his flaws not only mirror the failings of several of the novel’s principal characters but also reflect the book’s larger thematic concerns: the ways in which racism, class prejudice, sexual repression, and misogyny can deform and poison a culture.

As a narrator, van Dyck fades in and out of a book that includes journal entries, letters, a confession, and a sermon. But he’s fully present at the start. The bombast of his author’s note gives way to the faux lyricism and the hyperventilation of cheap …

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