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.
It’s fun to watch the offhand assurance with which she injects a note of menace into the first visit we see Woodrow Wilson paying Winslow Slade. As the men chat about college politics, family life, and the power of prayer, we become aware of a jade snuff box, on which there is a serpent adorned with rubies that “glittered, with the fantastical potency of an actual serpent’s eyes.” Like Wilson, we are distracted by the exotic object, which begins to seem far more interesting than the conversation—until an ominous “little accident” occurs. Wilson drops the box, and “a cloud of aged snuff was released, of such surprising potency both men began to sneeze: very much as if a malevolent spirit had escaped from the little box.”
Unlike the gullible and conveniently credulous characters, the reader is easily able to spot the various guises in which the mysterious stranger returns to bedevil the hapless Princetonians: first as the loathsome Axson Mayte, who seduces and kidnaps Annabel; later as Count English von Gneist, whose aristocratic title and risibly “continental” moniker intrigues the lovelorn, socially ambitious local women; and then as Sherlock Holmes, whose scintillating powers of logical deduction convince Pearce van Dyck to kill his infant son (who will survive and grow up to become the novel’s narrator) with a fireplace poker.
Once we begin to realize that most, if not all, of the questions raised by the book will eventually be resolved, we’re curious, if not desperately eager, to find out what those answers are. Who is the dead girl whose ghost, surrounded by a flaming aura, appears to Todd Slade? What happened to the cousin whose revelations so distressed President Wilson that he had the young man dismissed from the university? Who is responsible for the vampire attacks and “unspeakable” assaults on a pair of students?
Throughout the book there are virtuosic scenes that remind us of Oates’s literary gifts as well as her extraliterary interests. Her enthusiasm for boxing, a subject about which she has written, proves useful in describing the brawl that erupts after Upton Sinclair dines with Jack London, a bullying, drunken, egomaniacal slob with a taste for diamond rattlesnake meat and “cannibal sandwiches” concocted from a pound of raw beefsteak dressed with condiments and served on a kaiser roll.
London’s version of socialism involves a fondness for “Jew-talk, and Jew-jokes” and a passionate belief in the supremacy of the Nordic races who come “from the great ice-fields and snowy wastes, the tundras, of the North. From the forest primeval—the abode of silent tragedy.” Fortunately, Josiah Slade is present, and together he and Sinclair defend themselves when London attacks them with a broken bottle. After reading this scene, it’s unlikely that we will think of The Call of the Wild—or The Jungle—in the same way again.
One could stock a small but first-rate library with the books mentioned in The Accursed, and everywhere we find echoes of the novels, poems, stories, and fairy tales that the characters read, and to which they allude. Johanna van Dyck is slogging through The Golden Bowl (“she had arrived at page two hundred—and scarcely knew what the story was”) when her husband goes on his murderous rampage. Along with his Gutenberg Bible, Winslow Slade possesses “first editions of works by Goethe, Kant, Hegel, Fichte…and Thomas Carlyle, among others,” volumes of Greek and Latin, the English classics, the Romantic poets, as well as Slade’s favorite, the works of the (mad) poet John Clare. Adelaide Burr is driven into a frenzy when her husband reads an Emily Dickinson poem that Adelaide hears in the distorting register of her own madness.
Sensible Josiah turns to books that he hopes might suggest “a course of action for him to take: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland; the 1818 edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus; and not least, Milton’s epic Paradise Lost and such tragedies of Shakespeare—Macbeth, Othello, Lear, Hamlet—that seemed to pertain particularly to his situation.” Annabel bores her cousin Todd by reading aloud Hans Christian Andersen’s account of little Kai’s ride in the Snow Queen’s sleigh—a journey that will be evoked by later incidents in The Accursed, most notably by Todd’s relationship, during his sojourn in the Bog Kingdom, with the seductive Countess Camilla.
It seems fitting that there are so many references to books in The Accursed, since one of the novel’s numerous subjects is literature and its power to install the reader in an invented universe that more or less resembles our own. We are never allowed to forget for very long that the “reality” we are observing has been shaped for us by a writer—by our “historian,” M.W. van Dyck II, by the authors of the journals and letters excerpted in these pages, by the fire-and-brimstone sermon with which Winslow Slade (a descendant of Jonathan Edwards) ends the final chapter—and behind it all, by Joyce Carol Oates.
Ultimately, the pyrotechnical quality of Oates’s imagination is what keeps us reading with pleasure, even fascination, despite the fact that the novel’s plot is riddled with holes, that we can see its sharpest turns coming from a good distance down the road, and that, to be honest, we don’t much care what happens to its characters. The sinners and devils far outnumber the saints and angels, and the villains lack the psychological complexity that inspire us to keep attempting to unravel the mystery of Iago or Lady Macbeth. The feet of the few sympathetic figures—Annabel and Josiah—don’t quite touch the ground long enough for us to want to follow them very far. And how many readers will stick with a book of almost seven hundred pages for information about what women wore at the turn of the twentieth century or about the crippling neuroses of Woodrow Wilson and Upton Sinclair?
It’s the author, not the characters, whom we are watching cross the high wire over the abyss. What keeps us reading is admiration for a writer who can so consistently make something colorful and inventive happen on the page, who gives us the satisfaction of recognizing a plot twist for which the ground was prepared a dozen chapters earlier.
Oates can use the conventions of gothic fiction as a lens through which to view the ways in which the darkest aspects of our history have continued to shadow the lives of those born long after slavery was abolished, labor unions established, and women granted the vote. She can send virgins and children to hell and back, dispatch a plague of serpents to spread panic at a girls’ school, cause a beloved American author to regale his dinner companions with a distasteful fascist rant. She can hide behind M.W. van Dyck II as he claims not to understand a scene whose significance is obvious to the reader. She can visit a horrific Curse upon a bucolic university town. She can summon the ghosts of departed loved ones and murder the innocent with lethal jellyfish and electric fans. She can bring her main characters back from the dead, at the very last minute. After all, it’s her novel. She can do whatever she wants.