Joyce Carol Oates' 'The Accursed': Let's get Gothic

A sweeping historical tale that is super scary and gorgeously rendered.


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For decades, the supernatural literary genre with its vampires, zombies, ghosts and demons has been geared toward adolescents, romance readers, sci-fi fans and anyone looking to drift away with a "beach read." It isn't usually associated with the midlist literary set.

Enter Joyce Carol Oates with "The Accursed," a story she started in 1984, put away unfinished, but dusted off to join her other family-centered suspense novels known as the "Gothic Saga." This series is part of Ms. Oates' awe-inspiring literary catalog (nearly 100 works, including novels, short-story collections, essays, poetry and even children's fiction). At 667 pages, "The Accursed" is a behemoth of a novel that mixes a genuinely frightening mystery with poetic, masterful language -- Ms. Oates' specialty.


"THE ACCURSED"

By Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco ($27.99).


Set mainly on and around the Princeton University campus in 1905-1906, "The Accursed" delves into the misfortune that afflicts many of the novel's stodgy, upper-crust families. Ms. Oates' narrator/historian is the author of the book that sheds light on the strange occurrences plaguing the families during that accursed year.

This is a literary device that works well because the novel is also partly historical fiction. Former President Woodrow Wilson, Princeton University's president at the time, is one of the main characters, as is Upton Sinclair, a young novelist living with his family in an off-campus cabin. Ms. Oates has taught writing at Princeton since 1978, and the lore of some of the town's most famous inhabitants must have been inspirational.

Many of the details surrounding these two men are historically accurate, which gives the book a level of authenticity even during its most fantastical moments. The story revolves around the Slade family patriarch Rev. Winslow Slade and his grandchildren, Annabel and Josiah.

The Slades are sympathetic and likable, which makes their fate as the story unfolds all the more heartbreaking. Soft-spoken Annabel is awaiting her nuptials while Josiah is a quiet reader who feels alienated from his class. Rev. Slade is one of the most respected men in the community. Early on, we learn that Rev. Slade and several other characters have an interest in the occult.

The pace picks up when one of the novel's most ominous characters, Axson Mayte, is introduced and takes an interest in the beautiful and innocent Annabel. Ms. Oates mimics the stifling formality and politeness of this era deftly, so it is especially shocking once disturbing scenes of violence begin occurring.

Even though this doorstop of a novel could stand to lose some of its length, Ms. Oates manages to maintain the mystery and suspense by focusing on many of the side characters' experiences with "the Curse."

One of the more interesting is socialite Adelaide Burr, an invalid whose journal entries are both witty and scathing. It's a testament to Ms. Oates' craft that all of her characters have unique voices, which make the historical figures such as President Wilson and Upton Sinclair all the more real.

Her sentences and paragraphs are verbose and border on being tedious, but Ms. Oates is a writer of more than respectable skill. Her talent outshines her narrative excesses. Because "The Accursed" is so vast in its scope, it risks coming across as disjointed at times.

For example, Woodrow Wilson's struggles with university politics could be a book on its own, as is his trip to Bermuda and interactions with a cigar-smoking Mark Twain, who is portrayed as a humorous curmudgeon. Upton Sinclair and his socialist cause is another narrative thread that could stand on its own, especially when fellow author Jack London makes a brash and memorable entrance.

"The Curse" affects these characters, but the heart of the story is the Slade family, which is plagued by numerous deaths, abductions and other terrifying events. "The Accursed" may not be a beach read in the traditional sense, but it is the perfect book to curl up with during the winter.

Ms. Oates succeeds in ushering the reader into this bygone era with its many social imperfections. This is a tale where racism, xenophobia and misogyny abound. One gets a sense that the wealthy families were already cursed with gossip, social politics and arrogance before anything supernatural and demonic swept through the town.

bookreviews

Jill Korber, a Pittsburgh native, is a teacher and writer living in New York (Jillkorber@gmail.com).


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