The Accursed

by Joyce Carol Oates

reviewed by Okla Elliott

Joyce Carol Oates is well-known as an investigator of all things violent and untoward in the human psyche, and The Accursed will only add to that reputation. Much in the way the dwindling aristocracy haunted the gothic novels of nineteenth-century Europe, the economics and ethics of slavery, as well as post-Civil War racial violence, haunt Oates’s American gothic.

A lynching occurs in the early pages of the novel and goes not only unpunished but largely undiscussed in the privileged community of Princeton, New Jersey. The repressed image of this event returns in evermore uncanny fashions as the novel progresses and its narrative becomes more gothicly deranged—with reports of vampirism in the streets at night, writhing demonic snakes in an all-girls school, and husbands driven murderously mad by a shape-shifting devil figure. The novel is, therefore, in many ways a meditation on how violence, particularly racial violence and oppression, shape a prestigious and wealthy community like Princeton.

Readers familiar with Oates’s 1980 novel Bellefleur will recognize important similarities with The Accursed. Both novels feature a wealthy family in decline. In both, Oates breaks from her usual psychological realism and straightforward storytelling—in Bellefleur by taking up magical realism, and in The Accursed by employing many of the trappings of the postmodern novel (faux author, faux documents, real documents, footnotes, metafictional intrusions by the aforementioned faux author, and so forth). Both novels include some of Oates’s most impressive literary pyrotechnics. And, finally, the epigraph to Bellefeur—“Time is a child playing a hand of draughts; the kingship is in the hands of a child” (Heraclitus)—makes an appearance in The Accursed when a character reads the book from which it is taken.

In many ways, The Accursed can be read as thematic sequel to Bellefleur. The key distinction between the two is on the level of readability. While Bellefleur is a literary masterpiece by any measure, it is not the page-turner that The Accursed is. In this new novel Oates has achieved a nearly flawless combination of postmodernism, gothic horror, “traditional” narrative, politically engaged literature, historical novel, and popular bestseller—a heady and enjoyable mix.

One of the many joys of The Accursed is Oates’s expert satirizing and skewering of the community of Princeton, both the city and the university, and her unrelenting depiction of the flaws of major historical and literary personages. The following are among the actual historical figures who make an appearance in the novel: a racist control-freak Woodrow Wilson; an impishly amusing Mark Twain; an endearingly (though also ridiculously) earnest Upton Sinclair; a bawdy, hyper-masculine, racist Jack London; and a racist, imperialist Theodor Roosevelt. When one of the fictional characters is “given the honor of accompanying Vice President William Howard Taft on one of numerous ‘trouble-shooting’ expeditions” to the Philippines, then in a state of unrest, Oates gives Roosevelt’s view of the situation: “We must have order there among those villainous little monkeys, and by God I will see to it that we do!” Oates has a bit of po-mo-flavored fun caricaturing these men, though a serious affection toward Sinclair and Twain is also palpable at places.

Given that she publishes between one and four books a year, Oates is sometimes accused of overproduction, and it must be admitted that not every one of her works is deserving of extended attention. That said, like the master athlete who trains constantly and thus is capable of regular record-breaking performances, Oates has also written many outright brilliant books and The Accursed is one of them. Wonderfully written at the level of sentence, paragraph, and overall structure, it has been praised by the likes of bestselling horror and fantasy author Stephen King as well as more traditional literary critics. This ability to bridge the gap between readerly communities should bring The Accursed the attention it so richly deserves.

Published on July 1, 2014