Joyce Carol Oates is critically recognized as one of the greatest American writers of fiction. Her dark and brooding stories range from tense to terrifying, and are often characterized by strange symbolism, dreamy scenes and brutal violence, all overlaid with fantastically gripping storytelling. Her novels can be difficult, intellectually and emotionally challenging, but they are worth the time and energy invested.
Oates’s latest, THE ACCURSED, is no exception. It takes place in one year in Princeton, New Jersey, but also reaches back in time 50 years or more and across metaphysical and magical space. The book is styled as the history of the “Curse” that afflicted the university town, a curse that arrives seemingly out of the blue and leaves the traumatized residents as abruptly as it came. The Curse begins as “the unspeakable,” actions and thoughts not allowed in the polite and rigid society of Princeton. But over time, as the evil grows in power, it must be confronted and atoned.
"At once a gothic horror story, historical fiction, and a critical examination of family, community, race, religion, gender, violence and the creative drive, THE ACCURSED is a literary marvel. It is scary, bizarre, shocking, creepy, dark and dense, but also funny and smart, full of a dizzying amount of literary and historical references..."
Our narrator is the amateur historian M.W van Dyck II, a native to Princeton himself who is writing in 1984. Drawing on books and documents that have, in the past, attempted to understand the Curse (also known as the “Horror”), he is also in possession of some artifacts to which no one else has been previously privy and thus sets out to reconstruct and finally explain the frightening events of 1905-1906 wherein a series of hauntings, nightmares, fights, violence and even murders racked the town and its inhabitants. In over 650 pages, the story of the Curse unfurls, in a heady and sprawling collection of letters, diary entries, surreal experiences breathlessly dictated, and van Dyck’s own research and narrative (occasionally footnoted). At the center of the story and events is the distinguished and dignified Slade family, tracing their roots to Plymouth Rock and led by patriarch and Presbyterian minister Winslow Slade of Crosswicks Manse.
Winslow Slade loved nothing more than his four grandchildren. Admitting he often had little time for his own children as they were growing up, he cherished Annabel, Josiah, Todd and Oriana. But hidden in the heart of Winslow Slade was a gruesome secret, one that opened up a terrible and evil world for those around him. Thus, beginning as early as March 1905, discord begins to creep into Princeton, which exposes deep-seated (and not so deep-seated) and dangerous ideas about class and privilege, race, gender, sexuality and power. By early June, when Annabel Slade mysteriously leaves the church during her own nuptials with another man, there has been a rising tension in town, a number of ghostly sightings, and a spate of violent acts, including the lynching of a young man and his pregnant sister in close-by Camden, New Jersey.
Caught up in the growing maelstrom are all the elite families of Princeton, including several historic ones that Oates reimagines, like Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland. Other real-life figures show up, too: a struggling and idealistic Upton Sinclair, a racist and rude Mark Twain, a drunken and horrible Jack London, and the descendants of Aaron Burr. From the poetry of Emily Dickinson to the image of the Gibson Girl, from the dining clubs of Princeton to the slums where the children of slaves live, from socialist rallies to the South Pole, Oates’s geographic and cultural range in THE ACCURSED is vast, and she skillfully satirizes American traditions and assumptions about social, political, religious, artistic and gender structures while telling a story replete with ghosts, vampires and demons.
At once a gothic horror story, historical fiction, and a critical examination of family, community, race, religion, gender, violence and the creative drive, THE ACCURSED is a literary marvel. It is scary, bizarre, shocking, creepy, dark and dense, but also funny and smart, full of a dizzying amount of literary and historical references, climaxing in a screaming church sermon meant to finally explain the Curse that resulted in so much death and mayhem. There are a few slow parts, sections of the book where the tale loses steam, but they are rare. Overall, THE ACCURSED is an intense and enjoyable novel that forces its characters (and readers) to grapple with and admit to “the unspeakable.”
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on March 7, 2013