It is not without a little bit of anxiety that I’m starting to write this review of Joyce Carol Oates’s most recent novel, The Accursed, mostly because of the way Stephen King described the task of writing a review for the book in the New York Times, that being, “almost impossible to review”. He cites the reasons for this as the book’s deep ambiguity, as well as the number of dark surprises that lie in store for the expectant reader. With this in mind, I will do my best to put across the outrageous amount of fun I had reading Oates’s book and what a great concoction of gothic horror, hysteria and dark satire is held within its 704 pages.
Firstly, I thought it might be best to say that the only previous novel I had read by Oates up to this point was her other novel published in 2013 (one word you find frequently preempting Oates’s name is prolific) called Daddy Love, telling the story of a young boy kidnapped and held captive by a pedophile before escaping many years later. It was how it sounds, harrowing and hard to read, and completely not what I was expecting from Oates, as I had previously heard her described as something like the queen of American gothic fiction. As a result, I was expecting something a bit different from Daddy Love, and although I couldn’t describe the experience of reading it as enjoyable, the strength of Oates’s writing is undeniably obvious, and seen in how unflinching and sentimental her writing was in this book. This became even more evident upon starting on the first few pages of The Accursed, and realising how adeptly she can alter her style from one book to the next. Starting The Accursed is much more within the style of the Oates I had heard about.
The book is set almost exclusively in the University town of Princeton, New Jersey in the 1900s and focuses on the alleged curse that is bringing tragedy and horror to some of the most affluent families in the town. Most importantly out of these is the Slade family, who may or may not harbour a secret that may or may not be influencing the supernatural attacks that seem to follow them around. Although the Slade family are fictional, there are many other characters in the book who are not, namely Woodrow Wilson, who at the time was President of the University. We also get frequent appearances from socialist writer Upton Sinclair, mockingly brought to life by Oates, who creates him as sort of a self absorbed airhead. In turn, in one of the chapters focussing on Sinclair, we are also able to meet a larger than life characterisation of the writer Jack London, who Sinclair idolises for his socialist writing, but who in reality is a drunken lecher. In one of the most memorable events in the book we get to see Jack London start up a fistfight in a New York bar.
These scenes are bylines to the main story of supernatural hauntings, possessions and murders that haunt the families of Princeton, in forms so numerous and varied, it would be silly to list them, and would ruin the dark delight that comes with watching the curse unfold for yourself. Oates reveals these dark occurrences in a range of different voices, moving between the main narrator, a mysterious scholar, M. W Van Dyck II, who is looking to create an authoritative history on this ‘Crosswicks Curse’, to letters from Woodrow Wilson to his wife, and the crazed and cryptic journal of one Adelaide Burr, a rambling, bedridden wife of one of the Princeton elite. Oates uses this traditional trait of ‘true’ accounts and recordings of supernatural events and twists and turns it to her own liking, the cherry on the cake being the transcribed account of a rather unusual sermon given by Winslow Slade.
Nothing is intended to be taken too seriously it seems, as indeed is nothing meant to be too clear. By the end it is hard to figure out who truly died and who has not, how much of the demonic visions were real, and how much can be put down to hysteria, not unlike what would have happened in the Salem Witch Trials a few hundred years before. There are hints as to what the demonic/vampiric characters could symbolise. Allusions to slavery and the exploitation of the American working class are made throughout the book and the fact that the vampire characters all disguise themselves as fellow aristocrats could be a metaphor for the way the upper classes suck the life out of the poor and the black Americans, a metaphor commonly attached to the original Dracula character. You do get the feeling that none of this is the primary concern of Oates however, and what is more important is the sheer enjoyment that comes from reading The Accursed, and from reading a writer that is so ridiculously good that you forget how difficult the writing of this epic postmodern gothic must of been.
If this would be your first Joyce Carol Oates, wait no longer to start reading. I’m moving on to the next one.