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 void behind the decorous face of order.
While Oates is best known as a naturalist writer—and Carthage, to which we’ll turn later, is a stunning example of this side of her art—she has long been drawn to the gothicky “night-side.” (So she titled her first collection of eerie tales, published in 1977.) She knows that “the surreal mode,” as she has sometimes called it, allows the writer to reveal psychological, sociological, and even political truths that may be too subtle, too complex, for any other technique. Still, The Accursed isn’t so much subtle as it is carefully enigmatic, artfully balancing on the knife-edge between what seems obviously supernatural and demonic and what is, just possibly, an instance of mass hysteria coupled with several cases of individual madness.
As Oates writes, addressing this latter possibility, “of all psychic conditions, anxiety verging upon paranoia/hysteria is perhaps the most contagious.” In either scenario, though, the novel provides a damning indictment of hypocrisy, prejudice, and “churchly humbug.” Nearly all its characters—both the diabolical and the human—are, to use the famous biblical phrase from Matthew, “whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”
The overall plot of The Accursed is this: in the years before World War I, Princeton, a bastion of privilege, has been ignoring the recent lynchings of “Negroes” in New Jersey by the Ku Klux Klan. A young instructor appeals to the university’s president, Woodrow Wilson, to intervene, to lead a protest against these outrages. But Wilson shoos him away, having more important things on his mind, in particular the dark machinations of the archenemy—not the Devil but rather the dean of the graduate school. So great is Wilson’s hatred of Andrew West that he has even spread the rumor that the man has been dabbling in the occult to achieve his nefarious aim, which is nothing less than ousting Wilson from the presidency of Princeton.
Meanwhile, the family of Reverend Winslow Slade—a former governor of the state, as well as a noted religious leader—has been preparing for the marriage of the fair and sweet-tempered Annabel. She is one of Reverend Slade’s four grandchildren, the others being her slightly older brother Josiah, an unsettled soul who hears “voices”; her seemingly dyslexic or even autistic cousin Todd (whom the servants view as a “demon”); and his sister, the little Oriana. Annabel’s fiancé is the apparently quite suitable Lieutenant Dabney Bayard, who nonetheless seems oddly formal and even uncomfortable around his future wife. (Most people have forgotten that the lieutenant, while at West Point, was chastised there for some quickly hushed-up transgression.) However, it soon becomes evident to Wilhelmina Burr, Annabel’s artistic and independent best friend, that all is not well with the bride-to-be.
Alas, Winslow Slade’s granddaughter has encountered a strangely charismatic gentleman from Charleston, South Carolina, named Axson Mayte. Courteous, even courtly, Mayte simultaneously fascinates and unsettles Annabel. With his topaz-colored eyes and quiet sinuous movements, he sometimes calls to mind a cobra or perhaps an even more deadly serpent. There are other oddities about Mayte. To some people, like Annabel and Woodrow Wilson, he comports himself as a handsome, polite southerner; to others he plays the part of a boisterous boon companion. But to Josiah he appears “a singularly ugly man…with a flaccid skin, fishbelly-white” and “a reptilian manner about the lips, his tongue quick-darting and moist.”
However, women, particularly older married women, find Mayte distinctly charming—though not quite so irresistible as that romantic heartthrob Count English von Gneist. Calling himself “The Sole Living Heir of Nothingness,” the displaced count has “spent his adult life in travel from one capital city to another.” He appears in Princeton shortly after Mayte’s sudden departure under scandalous circumstances.
In the afterword to her anthology Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque (1994), Oates writes:
Of all monstrous creatures it has been the vampire that by tradition both attracts and repels, for vampires have nearly always been portrayed as aesthetically (that is, erotically) appealing.
Are the Slades and their friends under attack, then, from demons or vampires? Oates leaves a little fuzzy the exact nature of her fiends. One is, for instance, a mysterious, pale blond woman, casually glimpsed with various Princeton husbands. A supposed “angel” will eventually appear to Woodrow Wilson. When Josiah goes searching for Axson Mayte he quickly learns that his quarry employs many identities and can change his appearance. “The Devil,” the novel tells us, “has no name, and no face.”
In that same essay on the grotesque, Oates goes on to emphasize that “the forbidden truth, the unspeakable taboo” is the recogntion “that evil is not always repellent but frequently attractive; that it has the power to make of us not simply victims, as nature and accident do, but active accomplices.” That is certainly the case in The Accursed. Its monsters awaken impulses that are already present, urging the weak or unfortunate to act out their repressed desires, whether erotic or murderous.
Still, Oates’s agents of evil also appear to possess, like The Shadow, the power to cloud men’s minds. One tragically infatuated woman confesses that forbidden love “entered me like chloroform, through the nostrils and mouth and causing a mist in the brain.” When Woodrow Wilson speaks in Charleston, he thinks he glimpses Axson Mayte in the audience and soon finds himself declaiming that the United States would never be a true democracy “until such time, gentlemen, that a Negress resides in the White House.” He later remembers nothing of his speech. A notably virtuous young woman is even observed in flagrante with an obese married man—but is she really a brazen slut or a shape-shifting fiend? How can one ever be sure? As Mrs. Adelaide Burr writes in her diary, “I know not what lies beyond Crosswicks unless it be Hell.”
But why have the Slades of Crosswicks Manor suddenly found themselves so fated, so doomed?
The Accursed is very much in the American Gothic tradition of Charles Brockden Brown, Hawthorne, Poe, and Faulkner. Its title faintly echoes “Maule’s Curse” from The House of the Seven Gables, in which a “wizard,” seemingly possessed of hypnotic powers, hexes generations of the Pyncheon family. Similarly, features of Oates’s plot recall Brown’s Wieland, in which a man murders his beloved wife and children, believing he is fulfilling the will of God. Other aspects of The Accursed call to mind those old English ballads of stolen brides and night gaunts, or fairy tales in which abused Cinderellas are made to eat slops and puny Jack outwits the giant. Even though the novel is set mainly in and around Princeton, significant episodes take place in New York City and Bermuda, on shipboard near the Antarctic, and, not least, in a nightmarish underworld called the Bog Kingdom.
Oates extends such imaginative plenty even to her novel’s form. Its dossier-like character—diaries, letters, and various documents, as well as chapters of straight narrative—generates a plot as intricately structured as any Wilkie Collins thriller. Just consider the differing voices that Oates creates. There is the prissy, mildly racist, anti-Semitic, and misogynist editor, M.W. van Dyck II, who arranges all the Crosswicks materials (in 1984) and who regularly breaks in with his own comments and hints of future developments. (It is gratifying that this self-important scholar might well be demon-spawned.) At the same time we are somehow privy to the private thoughts of Woodrow Wilson, Josiah Slade, and “Willy” Burr (who is, no surprise, madly in love with Josiah Slade). Extensive entries from Mrs. Burr’s diary reveal the tumultuous heart of a gossipy valetudinarian who has never consummated her marriage and may have suffered female circumcision or a hysterectomy from a quack doctor. (Significantly, Mrs. Burr reads Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a classic ghost story/allegory of a woman stifled by an oppressive married life.)
Strangest of all, a professor of philosophy gradually grows obsessed with solving the brutal Princeton murders by using the methods of Sherlock Holmes. Like so many others, he even believes that the great detective exists, and so is only momentarily surprised when Holmes appears on his doorstep one midnight. Oates replicates the manner and style of Sherlockian speech with her usual convincingness, though—and here I am speaking as a Baker Street Irregular—she does make a couple of trivial mistakes. The professor mixes up the hound of the Baskervilles with the dog in “Silver Blaze” that did nothing in the nighttime, while “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” to which another character alludes, wasn’t published until 1926.
But not only famous fictional characters appear in The Accursed; so do three great American writers: Mark Twain, Jack London, and Upton Sinclair. Twain—who also had a walk-on in A Bloodsmoor Romance—here acts as a tool of a femme fatale named Cybella Peck. In a particularly dazzling section Jack London rousingly addresses a socialist meeting, then later, in a saloon, drunkenly proclaims a doctrine fraught with significance for the Princeton atrocities: “The primeval spirit never checks an impulse. The free man never checks an impulse.” But it is Upton Sinclair who chiefly interests Oates.
In 1905 Sinclair’s The Jungle was appearing as a magazine serial and the ardent socialist was not yet a celebrated author. Instead he is shown here residing outside Princeton in a shack, writing twelve hours a day (rather like a certain modern author), living as a vegetarian and teetotaler (that same author comes to mind), and, unfortunately, neglecting his wife and child. At first Sinclair seems merely an observer of the tragedies swirling around him, but soon finds himself more intimately troubled by them. His restless wife Meta starts to return from long walks wearing both an enigmatic smile and muddy shoes “as if she’d been tramping in a bog.” He even thinks he sees her making love with someone in a cornfield.
While sexual suspicion and jealousy do seem to be the chief weapons of the Princeton demons, the writer and his wife are spared the usual bloody denouement. Instead Upton Sinclair’s commitment to socialism and reform enlarges the novel, underscoring its political dimension. For instance, the sickly, exploited workers of the nation’s stockyards and factories, wasting away in conditions that will kill them, are explicitly likened to the enslaved menials of the Bog Kingdom. The Accursed, after all, isn’t just a thrilling account of devils and doppelgangers; it’s also a critique of class smugness, racism, religious hypocrisy, and the repression of women.
Woodrow Wilson, for instance, expressly approves of Reverend Shackleton, head of the Princeton Theological Seminary, who “has gone on record stating that ‘no new ideas’ of any sort will be entertained there, unlike that bastion of ‘free thinkers’ Union Theological Seminary.” Our country’s future president is also made to reflect, with self-satisfaction: “So long as Negroes—darkies, as they were more fondly called, in Woodrow’s childhood—knew their place, and were not derelict as servants and workers, Dr. Wilson had very little prejudice against them, in most respects.”
The final hundred pages of Oates’s magnificent book grow increasingly dramatic, even mythic, encompassing, as they do, deadly folklore wagers, fantastic reversals comparable to the resurrection of Hermione in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, and a shocking, blasphemous confession, of almost Dostoevskyan force, in which a final mask is torn away. The Gothic imagination, after all, is also a religious imagination, a blurring together of the sacred and the profane.
Throughout most of The Accursed the citizens of Princeton are presented as strangers to one another, hiding secrets, disguising their true selves. So it is, with guarded optimism, that Oates closes her book with two marriages, one a surprise, and a hopeful vision of equality, community, and lasting happiness.
Early this year the handsome paperback edition of The Accursed was published to coincide with the appearance of Oates’s latest novel, Carthage. As in We Were the Mulvaneys (1996) and The Gravedigger’s Daughter (2007), Oates sets the new book mainly in small-town upstate New York, where she was born, though one long section takes place in Florida. All three of these examples of Oates at her best are studies of violence and how it affects families, women especially.
In fact, Carthage is even more powerful and gripping than The Accursed, if only because it’s meant to shock and upset, to feel immediate, personal, contemporary. Unlike its predecessor, the novel isn’t a pastiche, a refraction of experience through genre obsessions and sometimes archaic modes of diction. There’s a rawness and urgency throughout, signaled in part by its relentless one- and two-sentence paragraphs. The reader turns the pages as fast as possible.
Carthage is, in effect, a three-part drama, set in the years 2005 to 2012. In the opening section the nineteen-year-old Cressida Mayfield fails to come home from a visit to a friend’s house. Her parents, Zeno and Arlette, are naturally frantic; her sister Juliet is perplexed when she hears that Cressida was last seen with her former fiancé, Brett Kincaid. In fact, Juliet and Brett—a severely wounded veteran of the war in Iraq—have only recently broken up, mainly because of his depression over his physical injuries:
Intraocular lens in his mangled left eye. Titanium implant holding together the broken skull. The skin/skins of his face stitched together and a rash like stinging ants itching like hell but you must not scratch the stitches for you might tear them out and the skins would loosen and bleed and become infected. Tight-strung wires in the lower part of the body (bowels, groin), and a cath-EEE-ter stuck up inside his limp-rubber cock to drain the poison-piss so he wouldn’t turn mustard-yellow like some of the guys in the hospital you couldn’t guess how old they were—his age, or his father’s age.
Why ever, the people of Carthage speculate, would the shy, “smart” Cressida seek out Brett at a raucous roadhouse, where bikers congregate and anything might happen? And where is Cressida now?
A loving father, Zeno helps organize the search for his daughter, who, it is thought, may have gotten lost in the Nautauga State Forest Preserve. Eventually he offers sizable rewards for information about her whereabouts. But as time passes, suspicion of foul play falls on Brett, who is subject to memory loss and mental confusion, sometimes accompanied by violent behavior. What actually happened that fateful Saturday night?
The portrait of Cressida—creative, small, boyishly thin, with frizzy hair, and picked on by classmates—might almost be that of the young Joyce Carol Oates. Unfortunately, Cressida has also come to view herself as homely and unloved, while she regards her beautiful older sister Juliet as “too shallow” for the maimed Brett. In a neat twist, Oates gives her principal characters highly charged first names, but then undercuts their traditional associations: Cressida isn’t faithless nor is Juliet tragic; Arlette is devout and Zeno eminently down-to-earth.
Brett may be, at least initially, the all-American boy of his name, a varsity athlete and heartthrob, the hero of the school—yet he believes deeply in right behavior, ethical values, helping others. At one point in the past he rescued the young Cressida from vulgar harassment and possible rape. But something happened to him in the Middle East. He has secrets he won’t share with anyone, nightmarish visions of sexual violence and brutal atrocities:
Must’ve been a dream he had buried her alive.
Mouth filled with earth but trying to scream.
He woke screaming in terror struck at her with the shovel.
Threw rocks onto her until she was still. Then more rocks, pebbles, clumps of mud carried in his two hands and dumped onto the little body until it was still and the face covered.
But is he remembering Iraq or a more recent Saturday night?
Oates skillfully replicates the increasing anxiety of the Mayfield family as they search for their missing daughter with ever more desperation. Each sentence in her paragraphs—short, sharp shocks—beats like a fist against an attacker, while the pain builds and builds. She then brilliantly conveys the anguish of the Mayfields when the citizens of Carthage start to regard them as the family with the missing daughter, or even that family with the tortured raped daughter whose body was dumped into the river by a crazed vet and never found.
But is that what happened?
All of Oates’s characters in Carthage seem as real and ordinary as the people you glimpse at gas pumps and diners. Brett’s mother, Ethel, for instance, possesses the hard-edged bitterness of a slattern on the way down:
Ethel felt keenly the injustice of the world: snatching up a magazine to hold beside her face and there on the glossy cover was the face of a woman—film actress? rock star?—and Ethel demanding She’s better-looking than me? Like hell!
Or she’d demand of Brett What’s the difference between her and me, d’you know? And Brett wouldn’t know; and Ethel would say She got all the breaks, that’s what. And what did I get?—shit.
For women, good looks matter a lot—even for smart ones like Cressida. To be called plain or ugly pierces the young girl to the heart. She suffers. She even dreams of revenge.
The middle section of Carthage changes locale entirely and is, if anything, even more powerful, albeit distinctly tendentious. While the novel’s first segment focuses on what one might categorize as war-related atrocities, its second is essentially a harrowing journey into convict life. A group of students and professionals is offered a tour of the Orion Maximum Security Correctional Facility for Men at Orion, Florida, culminating in a visit to the death chamber.
In some ways, this section might be viewed as one of those extended info-dumps common to the classic naturalist novels. But instead of an introduction to daily life at the markets of Les Halles or a detailed description of nineteenth-century coal-mining operations, Oates conveys the utter hellishness and inhumanity of long-term incarceration. The unfeeling, casually brutal lieutenant in charge of this fully conducted tour could be working at Dachau with as much fervor as at Orion.
Still, for all its gut-wrenching vividness, this section feels slightly out of place, more like an autobiographical essay or piece of New Journalism than the turning point in a novel. Oates brings to bear, like Upton Sinclair describing slaughterhouses, all her outrage at the penal system and its inhumane practices. (She is, we’re told, working on an anthology called Prison Noir.) Still, her new character Cornelius Hinton, referred to as the Investigator, possesses something of the eccentric and complex appeal of Sherlock Holmes.
The Investigator—who uses several pseudonyms—is a maverick scholar, a modern-day muckraker: “We have work to do which I consider urgent work, exposing the sick underbelly of the American soul—if you’ll allow a surreal twist of speech.” He is, in some ways, like Oates herself—working long hours, paying no attention whatever to his income (which is considerable), writing shocking books that are best sellers, and believing above all that “nothing truly matters but social justice.” The works in his “Shame” series have revealed nursing home abuses, the torture of animals in medical labs, criminal malfeasance in New York courts, and, he hopes when his new project is finished, the horrors of the prison system and capital punishment. Like Oates in much of her writing, the Investigator’s intent is “to surprise, to shock, to dismay, to disgust, to convince and to emotionally involve.”
In the last section of Carthage we return to the characters of the first section seven years later, learning how they have fared since the day of Cressida’s disappearance. Surprisingly, Oates closes the book with a variant of the fairy-tale ending of The Accursed.
Thus, two superb novels from Joyce Carol Oates within a year of each other. Yet in between them she also brought out Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong and will soon follow them with this spring’s High Crime Area, a collection of suspense stories (both books from Mysterious Press). A recent article about Oates in Le Nouvel Observateur was headlined “La Machine à Ecrire.” I don’t think we are meant to read that as “typewriter” so much as, literally, “The Writing Machine.” Yet shouldn’t that epithet be tinged with admiration and wonder, as when Jacques Futrelle’s detective Professor S.F.X. Van Dusen is referred to as the Thinking Machine?
While it’s difficult to characterize so varied an oeuvre, in her major works Oates is almost always immersive, intense, and utterly relentless. Her style is seldom obviously quotable, for she emphasizes precise details and speed rather than fine writing. Yet even though her characters all seem blazingly true to life—whether they are Princeton grandees or down-and-out lesbian mall guards—they don’t quite live outside the page in the way that, say, the characters of Dickens do. They are wholly embedded in their individual novels.
In the best sense, Oates’s fiction bears witness. She’s not homey or comic (though there is sly humor at times); she’s the Balzac of the Comédie américaine, anatomizing our corrupt institutions, exposing our cheating hearts, detailing every kind of hurt and suffering, voicing savage indignation. Her work is so overwhelming, so shattering, that I think many readers, even admirers, need to steel themselves before picking up one of her novels or short-story collections.
Nonetheless, there’s no resisting Oates’s narrative power. In the broadest sense, one could even argue that she really only writes horror fiction. Again and again, she addresses our worst nightmares, gives her voice to the unspeakable. As she has said:
One criterion for horror fiction is that we are compelled to read it swiftly, with a rising sense of dread, and so total a suspension of ordinary skepticism, we inhabit the material without question and virtually as its protagonist; we can see no way out except to go forward.
In her greatest novels—and The Accursed and Carthage are among them—Oates doesn’t merely want to make your flesh creep or to make you cry, she wants to tear you apart.