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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 romance. “Quickening of a heartbeat that must be my own yet seems to emanate from without, like a great vibration of the very earth.” Then, as the action begins, van Dyck’s voice descends to the basso of the gothic, dropping portentous hints calculated (he hopes) to “unobtrusively” snag the reader’s interest:

Fellow historians will be shocked, dismayed, and perhaps incredulous—I am daring to suggest that the Curse did not first manifest itself on June 4, 1905, which was the disastrous morning of Annabel Slade’s marriage, and generally acknowledged to be the initial public manifestation of the Curse, but rather earlier, in the late winter of the year, on the eve of Ash Wednesday in early March.
This was the evening of Woodrow Wilson’s (clandestine) visit to his longtime mentor Winslow Slade, but also the evening of the day when Woodrow Wilson experienced a considerable shock to his sense of family, indeed racial identity.

Van Dyck’s story thus begins in the office of Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University. (Wilson is one of several historical figures—among them Grover Cleveland, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, and Jack London—who have major and minor parts in the novel.) Like a strikingly high percentage of his neighbors, Wilson is a nervous wreck. A neurasthenic hypochondriac who refers to his gastric upsets as “turmoil in Central America,” ambitious and strong-willed but decidedly uncharismatic, a man who views his wife and daughters with affectionate condescension and vague distaste, Wilson has his eye on the prize: aggrandizing his power at the university en route to a possible bid for political office. Instinctively he grasps the necessity of avoiding conflict and of playing it safe.

Unsafe, in this case, would mean taking a public position condemning the recent lynching of a young man and his sister in nearby Camden, a brutal double murder carried out by the Ku Klux Klan. It’s bad enough that reports of the incident have interrupted Wilson’s obsessive ruminations on the power struggle he is waging with his academic rival, Dean Andrew Fleming West. Worse yet, Wilson’s distant cousin, who brings the dismaying news of the crime, hints that he, and presumably Wilson, are of mixed race, a fact that would surely impede the college president’s social and professional ascension.

Soon after this upset, Wilson seeks solace and guidance from his spiritual adviser, Winslow Slade. A former president of Princeton University, a semi-retired Presbyterian minister whose private library includes a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, Slade is one of New Jersey’s most respected citizens. But the community’s good opinion can do little to help him when the Curse descends on his family, resulting in the death of his beloved grandchildren: tiny Oriana, the peculiar and (by contemporary diagnostic standards) autistic Todd, idealistic Josiah (the closest the novel has to a hero), and Josiah’s sister Annabel, whose calamitous wedding day will indeed mark the first public manifestation of the Curse that devastates the Slades and dooms quite a few of their neighbors to a range of gruesome fates.

Among the witnesses to Annabel’s precipitous exit from the church in the company of a toadlike stranger is Upton Sinclair, who is living with his wife and child in a rambling, uncomfortable farmhouse outside Princeton. As he waits for his novel, The Jungle, to find its audience, Sinclair makes plans to change the world and envisions the coming socialist revolution as a train wreck that will selectively choose its victims according to their income and status:

Think of a railroad accident—the wild exhilaration of such drama—for here we have the image of all that’s most powerful brought to a sudden stop…the complacent passengers in their private Pullman cars, with every sort of luxurious accoutrement, thrown through the smashed windows, and broken in body and spirit, their blood draining into the common earth…. What power has the Railroad Trust now?

Deeply disturbed by the “shame of child labor” and “the debased and dehumanizing conditions of the Southern Negroes,” Sinclair is so oblivious to the suffering in his immediate vicinity that his wife Meta winds up holding a gun to her head and threatening to shoot herself. In addition to moral blindness, Sinclair has difficulty in understanding and interpreting the most basic information he receives from the world around him. He may be the only person in town to conclude that the demonic shape-shifter with whom Annabel elopes is her new husband.

The unattractive traits that the radical Sinclair shares with the conservative Wilson—debilitating nervous and intestinal complaints, selfishness, egomania, the inability to believe that women might be sensate human beings—suggest that neither is qualified to become the leader of men that he fancies himself to be, and that the social problems and otherworldly threats besetting Princeton are beyond the reach of the very different political and ideological solutions that the two men propose.

By this point in the novel it may have dawned on the reader that Oates has invented an entirely new fictional category by combining several familiar popular genres: The Accursed is a gothic-academic-historic novel of ideas.

Among the benefits of mingling these forms is that the reader is saved from having to ask, or from worrying about, the sorts of questions that might occur to us in the midst of a more conventional novel. Were this a straight-up historical romance, one might sensibly wonder how a narrative set not long before Freud visited the United States could so remind us of the Puritan Boston—with its primitive superstitions and pathologically repressive mores—portrayed by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Surely it cannot be true that, at the dawn of the twentieth century, half the residents of Princeton appear to have suspected the other half of dabbling in witchcraft.

Some of the most amusing and disturbing sections in The Accursed purport to be excerpts from a journal kept in secret code by Mrs. Adelaide Burr, a sexual hysteric and fantasist who admires the Theosophic principles of Madame Blavatsky, who considers Edith Wharton and Teddy Roosevelt to be traitors to their class, who refers to herself in the third person as “Puss,” and who—rather like Upton Sinclair—manages to get everything wrong. She is by no means the only character who wishes that men and women could live together in chaste harmony, like brother and sister, but she is uniquely successful in forcing her husband to respect her desire. A running joke throughout the book is that the phrase “the unspeakable” functions not merely as a euphemism but as a synonym for sex, employed by a wide variety of erotophobes, from Mrs. Burr to the disciplinary committee that expels a group of Princeton students for indulging in the unspeakable.

Readers drawn to academic novels will hardly mind being excused from the faculty meeting long enough to witness the grotesquely obese Grover Cleveland having a sort of apoplectic fit after seeing the ghost of his daughter on the roof of a house he is visiting, or to watch the eccentric but clever Todd play a high-stakes game of draughts with the devil, in the infernal Bog Kingdom. Drawn through the narrative by its many startling supernatural events and by the mysteries surrounding the Curse—its origins, its manifestations, its explanation, and its eventual exorcism—horror-story purists are unlikely to object to the wealth of information they are receiving on subjects including the excesses of late Gilded Age capitalism, period fashion, domestic architecture, the history of the labor union and feminist movements, and the sadistic undercurrents of Princeton’s eating-club culture. Meanwhile, readers of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may note that The Accursed is not the first work to use the tropes of the gothic to express its author’s unease about the troubling aspects of human nature, about the legacies of the past and the disturbing directions in which society seems to be headed.

It is no surprise that the author of almost forty novels has, along the way, mastered the technical challenges required to sustain a long piece of fiction: how to maintain our interest, how (in this case) to help us distinguish one haunted house from another, how to alert us to a detail that will become important only later on, how to stage a polite conversation between two characters and a riotous, heavily populated scene of mass chaos. In The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates does a great many of these things—and does them very well.

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