The Comédie Humaine of Joyce Carol Oates

The Accursed

by Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco, 667 pp., $27.99; $15.99 (paper)


by Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco, 482 pp., $26.99
Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates; drawing by Pancho

At 667 pages instead of 666, The Accursed is obviously one page too long.

Joyce Carol Oates’s extravaganza of demons, vampires, doppelgangers, seduction, possession, murder, and terrible family secrets has been called, by one who should know (Stephen King), “the world’s finest postmodern Gothic novel.” In its pages the devil—or more precisely one of his “satans”—appears in Princeton, New Jersey, in the year 1905 and over the course of fourteen months wreaks havoc on the town’s wealthy and privileged citizens, especially the family of the minister Winslow Slade.

When The Accursed was first published last spring, it was widely praised by reviewers (including Francine Prose in these pages). Yet besides being a narrative tour de force, it also strikes me as an ideal introduction to Oates for younger readers or for those unsure of where to start when faced with her voluminous oeuvre. If one subsequently turns to Oates’s latest novel, Carthage, which is set in the gritty here and now, the pair together brilliantly showcase the power and range of this major American writer.

Oates originally drafted The Accursed—then called “The Crosswicks Horror”—back in 1981. It was reportedly the third-written of her celebrated pastiche novels, studies of the American experience through the lens of the various genres of nineteenth-century popular fiction. Bellefleur (1980) was a sprawling Gothic; A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), a romance; Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984), a trio of detective stories; My Heart Laid Bare (held until 1998), an account of a family of grifters and con artists. “The Crosswicks Horror” was, obviously, to be a tale of terror and the diabolical.

But Oates never published the book. As she has explained in interviews, her practice has long been to write a novel, put it aside for a while, work on other projects, and eventually come back to the manuscript with a fresh eye for revision and polishing. For some reason, though, she fiddled with “A Crosswicks Horror” for more than thirty years. Why? One might speculate that she wanted to gain a better feel for Princeton, the city in which she has been teaching since 1978. Or perhaps she simply hoped to make the book better, deeper. At all events, the resulting shocker was certainly worth the wait.

In the preface to the anthology Dark Forces (1980)—which includes Oates’s most famous horror story, “The Bingo Master”—the editor Kirby McCauley comments that the tale of horror is always about

a breaking down. In one way or another such stories seem concerned with things coming apart, or slipping out of control, or about sinister encroachments in our lives. Whether the breakdowns are in personal relationships, beliefs, or the social order itself, the assault of dangerous, irrational forces upon normalcy is a preeminent theme.

In effect, such works peel away our carefully maintained veneers, exposing, in that useful if overused phrase, the heart of darkness within. Supernatural fiction reveals the…

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