THE ACCURSED. By Joyce Carol Oates. Harper Collins. 669 pages. $27.99.
Joyce Carol Oates returns to the gothic novel in “The Accursed,” her new major work that’s prompting much discussion in literary circles. Earlier efforts in this genre include “Bellefleur,” “A Bloodsmoor Romance” and “Mysteries of Winterthurn.”
The classic elements — an air of foreboding, mystery, anxiety, suffering, ambiguity, paranoia — all are familiar in her work, and “The Accursed” provides these in spades.
After writing the first draft in the early 1980s, she left it and went on to other endeavors because, she says, she couldn’t “quite find the narrative ‘voice.’ ”
She sets the tone quickly: “How vast the world was, and how mysterious! How small, how provincial, how dreamlike was Princeton, New Jersey.’ And then she describes the horrifying abduction of a young bride on her wedding day and the manifestation of the “curse” that changed everything. Oates draws the reader into a dastardly tale efficiently, but the process and plot unfold far too slowly, with too many characters, some of whom are well-known to history, such as Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University; Grover Cleveland, retired to Princeton; descendants of Aaron Burr; and the fledgling socialist writer and ascetic Upton Sinclair.
Although the story revolves around Annabel Slade’s abduction and the family’s anguish, especially that of her brother, Josiah, it is much more than that, and Oates does not let the reader off lightly; there is much mayhem to deal with. Hallucinatory incidents abound, the dead appear out of nowhere, and monsters and strange worlds are experienced by many of the principal characters.
Additionally, the author deals with the deplorable intolerance of that time in America: lynchings, workers treated like serfs, child labor in factories, women’s struggle for the vote, discrimination, hypocrisy and the greed of big business among others issues. Oates gives us a sample when she introduces celebrated adventure writer and purported supporter of the common man Jack London. On a riotous night at MacDougal’s in Times Square, London, the newly elected president of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, is portrayed as a hypocrite, bully and racist, no champion of the working classes at all.
“The Accursed” is allegorical and ambiguous in many ways, perhaps including her choice of title. In citing the racism, sexism and prejudices of the upper classes of that era, it would seem that these — “the exploitation of one class by another, more powerful class” — are the book’s accursed vampirisms.
Reviewer Frances Monaco is a writer based in Charleston.