Let me start by saying that gothic novels aren’t my thing, and had this been run-of-the-mill gothic, I would never have made it past the first chapter of this 1,000-plus-page volume. But nothing Joyce Carol Oates writes is ever run-of-the-mill, and while I still had to struggle with myself to pick this up night after night, I persevered to the end of this 1,000-plus-page volume. Did I mention that this is a very long novel?
Oates’ story focuses on a series of Inexplicable, Indescribable and Unspeakable horrors that are visited upon the wealthy high society families of Princeton, New Jersey at the turn of the last century, with the particular focus of “The Curse” being the apparently golden family of the highly-revered former New Jersey governor and retired Presbyterian minister Winslow Slade. The history of The Curse is, in fact given us in the form of a narrative by a fussbudget Princeton historian 50 years’ later, and begins with the sudden appearance in 1905 of an oily and sinister character amidst the Princeton aristocracy. Before anyone can agree on where he came from, who invited him, and what he even looks like, our shape-shifting demon seduces Slade’s favorite granddaughter Amanda, and carries her off on the night of her long-anticipated society wedding to his “Bog Kingdom,” where he starves, gang-rapes, tortures, and eventually adds her to a large collection of former wives who have been broken and turned into garbage-eating slaves under his reign.
Amanda’s stunned brother and young cousins are now beset with nightmarish visions and voices in their heads which eventually drive them to suicide, leaving patriarch Winslow Slade in an agony of grief and despair. Other high-society families—the Van Dykes, the Burrs, the Strachans, the Bayards, the FitzRandolphs—are soon all afflicted in one form or another, with the ghosts of dead family members flickering in and out of view, beckoning to the living to join them. Cardiac arrests, strokes, fainting spells, and mental breakdowns begin to decimate the privileged families that run this university town, while extramarital affairs flourish, spouses turn on each other, mothers turn on their children, and people start dropping like flies. All the while, the families struggle to keep up appearances, the women to gossip in private about the “unspeakable” events occurring around them, the men to sagely expound on growing threats to the white race, male supremacy, and their class superiority. Our historian’s narrative is stitched together from a pastiche of de-coded journal entries, letters, documents, public speeches, and hearsay, making for some mighty confused and confusing reading and adding greatly—and unnecessarily—to the overall length of The Accursed.
Oates now adds another layer to her story, the rampant racism against blacks, Jews, and immigrants that lies at the heart and soul of these privileged families. We are brought into the drawing rooms of these aristocrats as they expound on the natural superiority of their race and class, and we are presented in graphic detail with the lynchings and targeted murders of the underprivileged to which the power elites turn a blind eye. After flipping over one rock—that of the American aristocracy of the time–Oates now flips over another and offers terrifying and grotesque portrayals of some of the nation’s leading cultural and political icons of the era, from Jack London, Mark Twain and Upton Sinclair, to Woodrow Wilson (Princeton University’s president at the time), former U.S. President Grover Cleveland, and standing President Theodore Roosevelt. The displays of gluttony, addiction, misogyny, bigotry, hypocrisy, corruption, and downright hatred of humanity by these characters on both side of the divide are positively Dantesque, and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or throw up over Oates’ descriptions of London’s Satyric drunk fest or Teddy Roosevelt’s meat-gorging frenzy in the face of Sinclair’s vegetarian asceticism.
Oates mixes a variety of genre in The Accursed—mystery, horror, romance (of a sort), history, and political and social commentary. There are demons, vampires, spectral snakes and ghosts galore, but the real horrors are revealed through her aggressive exposure of the decadent underpinnings of privileged American society. And despite my sympathies with much of what Oates is trying to accomplish with her satire—for that is what The Accursed ultimately is–, I felt that her story repeatedly foundered, even stalled out, with her bizarre turns and twists into gothic horror, her interminable descriptions of social conventions, her extraneous characters, her inexhaustible details on the descent into madness of a number of her prominent characters, etc. I also found the fatal game of draughts between the 10-year-old Todd Slade—an Inexplicable if ever there was one—and the Bog King, to be so absurd as to be positively laughable, despite the fact that it was supposed to be a plot turning-point for the entire story.
Of course, the core to the mystery isn’t solved until the bitter end, when Oates’ historian lets us read Winslow Slade’s “Covenant,” which the old man was prevented from reading from the pulpit. It is unfortunately so strident in its all-caps pseudo-Biblical hysteria that I feel much of the effect of the confession was, in fact, blunted. Which is sort of the way I feel about The Accursed as a whole.