In his New York Times review of Joyce Carol Oates's The Accursed, Stephen King asserts that "Joyce Carol Oates has written what may be the world's first postmodern Gothic novel: E.L. Doctorow's 'Ragtime' set in Dracula's castle." King's assertion is a little perplexing. Literary, genre, and boundary-crossing fiction have often married the postmodern and the Gothic, often to great commercial success, from Mark Z. Danielewski to Shirley Jackson to, arguably, Susanna Clarke. The Accursed may not be without precedent, but it is an odd and fascinating beast of a novel—sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes problematic, always interesting.
Marked by a dry, academic style that belies the chilling ugliness and beauty of the events that befall the aristocracy of Princeton, New Jersey in 1906, the novel purports to be a chronicle of "a cultural crossroads of the powerful and the damned": nothing could be truer. In The Accursed, the powerful are the damned. Privilege is guilt for Oates's vast ensemble cast, ranging from original characters to historical figures like future U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and Socialist writer Upton Sinclair. Oates's novel wears its radical conscience on its sleeves. True to the American Gothic tradition, The Accursed pairs literal and metaphorical hauntings with the national crimes that "haunt" the conscience of the United States: slavery, lynchings, sexual and domestic violence.
The novel chronicles the experiences of the fictional Slade family over the course of one "accursed" year, from 1905 to 1906. The Slades' ordeal begins—or does it?—with the seduction or abduction of young Annabel Slade from her own wedding altar by a "demon bridegroom." (The characters of the novel—in accordance with period views on women and sexuality—care little for Annabel's complicity in the matter.) This shocking and surreal event plunges the Slade family into shame and despair and Princeton into a series of increasingly horrifying supernatural events: the Slades and other Princetonians are plagued by paranoia and visions of the dead, Princeton students are savaged by vampires, upstanding people are tempted with devilish bargains, husbands are driven to violence against their wives and children with a possessed fervor that almost recalls Tiptree's "The Screwfly Solution." There's much darkness to be had in Oates's Princeton, and none of it romantic.
Indeed, the literalized supernatural horror in The Accursed often reflects systematic and institutional violence. The 1905 story opens with news of a lynching in New Jersey and a young lecturer's unsuccessful appeal to diffident university president Woodrow Wilson to speak out against the Ku Klux Klan. The "Crosswicks Curse," so named for the Slade family manse, is at once a reckoning against the privileged and an actualization of their cruelest beliefs and desires. The ambiguity of this metaphor is part of what makes The Accursed interesting: are the perpetrators "accursed" for their crimes, or are their victims "accursed" in being fated to suffer them? Oates's moral compass may be straightforward, but the allegory is not, which serves the story well; the Curse is supernatural horror as a metaphor for unspoken (and "unspeakable") social evil, but it's also supernatural horror. Often where the novel fails as social commentary, it succeeds as postmodern, atmospheric gothic horror. Erudite horror and literary fiction fans alike may find much to like in The Accursed.
Unreliability in narration is a key element of the story, which unfolds as a secret history compiled by a far-from-impartial historian. Oates's distinctive narrator, M.W. van Dyck, is opinionated, neurotic, and defensive as he attempts to tell the story of the Crosswicks Curse in 1986. As a member of the Princeton aristocracy himself, he harbors his own obvious bigotries: in the first pages of the novel, he complains in the preface that his old family home in Princeton has fallen into the hands of "strangers with a name ending in -stein" (p. 2). Van Dyck suffers from personal entanglement in the story as well. It's no spoiler to say that the infant van Dyck and his family suffer memorably at the hands of the Curse; these chapters are among the saddest and most horrifying in the novel. Van Dyck in general is one of the novel's more nuanced characters, perhaps in part because he cannot be filtered through his own simplifying gaze. Other unreliable narrators share the stage with him in excerpts from the "historical record," whether the blackly humorous and horrific diaries of invalid Adelaide Burr or the young Slades' surreal accounts of an otherworldly gothic kingdom ruled by a demon king.
The story follows a number of characters, jumping from viewpoint to viewpoint (through van Dyck, usually) and tracking a few major characters. The Slade family is the centerpiece, through patriarch and ex-minister Winslow Slade and his children and grandchildren. The breaking of Annabel's marriage at the hands of the Demon Bridegroom is the catalyst for the plot, but it is her brother Josiah who functions as the closest thing the story has to a hero. Josiah's journey begins as a quest to rescue and avenge Annabel, but his personal transformation as a socialist is the real heart of his story. Less central but still major are the story of family friend Wilhelmina, a young bluestocking artist, and her own search for personal independence. The young Slades and their friends are reasonably likeable, though nothing to write home about; of more interest is young, learning disabled Todd Slade, who plays a crucial and surreal role in the story's finale. Oates paints her young people as more sympathetic and open-minded than their predecessors; they represent the world's hope for change, literalized when a demon prince snarls at the climax, "Most intolerably, is a 'child' not one who will replace us?" (p. 611).
Other recurring characters include Adelaide, one of Aaron Burr's descendants by marriage: petty, sarcastic, and often paranoid. Adelaide's enciphered diaries provide humor in the story and also horror: when describing her husband Horace's disturbing transformation, she speaks repeatedly of the propensity of men to "turn" suddenly to cruelty towards women. "One day, you shall see, they turn. Husbands turn, & there is no solace then but the grave" (p. 370). The resonance of this term with vampire fiction is not accidental. "When I love thee not," she writes later, "then is Chaos come again" (372). Adelaide is one of the book's most well-drawn characters; so is Woodrow Wilson, a murky, cowardly, often unsympathetic character who is nevertheless not vilified. The novel's fictitious characters are interspersed with fictionalized versions of historical people, to the point that non-aficionados of early 20th-century American history might have trouble telling them apart. This is no real obstacle to the enjoyment of the story, though, and contributes to the verisimilitude of van Dyck's secret history.
Even through van Dyck's academic frame, Oates's prose is competent and haunting. In one of the book's most overtly fantastical chapters, Annabel Slade describes the passage of time in the Bog Kingdom of her Demon Bridegroom: "Upon the hour, a great bell tolled. An undersea bell it sounded like, and we the inhabitants of an ancient sea" (p. 269). Some of the creepiest and most sinister iterations of the Curse are those which Oates does not directly describe, including a gruesome murder involving an electrical fan. Oates's characters frequently muse on their fates and the nature of the Curse in an almost metafictional fashion: "But as we Slades are accursed, anything may happen to us now. No one will mark it" (197). Later in the novel, satirist Mark Twain remarks cynically to Woodrow Wilson, "When you climb to the pinnacle, Mr. Wilson, as I have no doubt you will do, as I have done—there is but one direction left for you: the sudden step out, into empty space" (p. 366). A more chilling statement of The Accursed's fate for the privileged could hardly be made.
The Accursed is long and discursive, as much a portrait of a place and time in United States history as it is a gothic narrative. Is it a successful one? Somewhat, and imperfectly so—for all its idealism, the novel bears some of the earmarks and nearsightedness of aging white, heterosexual feminism. Several different white female characters are given viewpoints and voices, but the book's major black male character is sidelined and its chiefest black female character exists, unfortunately, to be murdered. In many ways The Accursed is more the story of white characters' feelings about black characters than the story of black characters themselves, a tired and common flaw in white social justice narratives. Queer characters fare no better: in fact, they're literally demonized, the novel's sole homosexual viewpoint character being a cowardly and self-loathing vampire who preys violently on undergraduates. These are flaws of omission; with more characters to counterbalance them, none of these portrayals might be so problematic. However, as the entire novel spins thematically on its idealism, cracks in this idealism are deep cracks in the narrative.
There are still worthwhile things about The Accursed as a social novel: the portrayal of socialist Upton Sinclair feels nuanced and sympathetic, depicting his arrogance and shortsightedness but still ultimately paying respect to his ideals. Wilhelmina and Josiah have an interesting exchange on the subject of Annabel and rescuing her from her "ruin": "Shouldn't she be allowed her freedom? Her freedom even to be made miserable?" (p. 233) Overall, however, the story aspires to subversion and falls short in many respects.
Not long after Annabel's abduction, Josiah thinks of his cousin Todd: "He is accursed. But he has always been" (p. 225). One could say as much of the Slades, and of the wealthy and powerful of Princeton: they are accursed, but as Oates suggests, they always have been. As American Gothic fiction, The Accursed is flawed. As an epic historical drama, it unfolds skillfully and wraps up in a satisfying if unsubtle conclusion. As horror, it's lovely, well-written, and unromantic, sometimes closer to magic realism than outright fantasy. Oates's Gothic opus is long and intricate, not for the faint of heart, short of attention span, or reactionary of opinion, but it's certainly worth your time.
Gabriel Murray (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives and works in Queens, NY. He writes speculative and historical fiction and blogs at Orestes Drunk and Pylades Fasting about interactive fiction and miscellanea.