The Accursed: A Novel
“. . . compulsive and engaging, . . . crackles with energy and wit . . .”
The 1970s. Joyce Carol Oates pens her famously cranky response to her critics, taking them to task for their perceived “numbers game” obsession with her writing, and the suggestion that quantity is not always quality: “So many books! so many! Obviously JCO has a full career behind her, if one chooses to look at it that way; many more titles and she might as well . . . what? . . . give up all hopes for a reputation’?”
Now in her 75th year JCO has published over a half century of novels, in addition to large numbers of short stories, poems, and other writings. Working at breakneck pace, she has published an average of two books a year. Whenever a new JCO book is published, perhaps unfairly, the thorny question of “quality” raises its ugly head. Ms. Oates argues rightly that this often takes focus away from the book itself.
So let’s get this clear from the start: The Accursed, weighing in at nearly 700 pages, might have been the ultimate example of quantity over quality. It could have been her two novels of 2013 all rolled in to one. In the wrong hands this might have become an unwieldy beast: bloated, dull, lazy, slouching onto your reading list and occupying far too much of your time. But it is none of those things.
The Accursed is a unique, vast multilayered narrative; a genre bending beast of a book, utterly startling from start to finish, compulsive and engaging, the writing crackling with energy and wit.
This is an elaborately conceived work. Blending psychological horror, tragicomedy, and historical “artefact,” Ms. Oates presents the cosseted world of Princeton, New Jersey, in 1905. This is a world she “knows” well, or at least has the research materials to hand to present expertly, as the author has had links with Princeton going back to 1978.
Her Princeton is a place of “stately Greek temples of startling if somewhat incongruous Attic beauty amid the darker, Gothic university architecture.” It is a “dreamlike” place, “sheltered from the rough vitality, vulgarity, and foreignness” of the real world. Indeed, the university “seemed to float, like an enchanted island, somewhere just a little above the Earth.”
Into these idyllic surroundings, into this haven of privilege, Ms. Oates unleashes hell. At times quite literally.
Evil itself intrudes with devastating results on the entire community. A seductive stranger comes to town. One Axson Mayte. “His eyes were large, and both slumberous and piercing; possessed of a fiery topaz glow.” Of his teeth: “one incisor, which jutted a half-inch below its fellows, to give an impression somewhat carnivorous.”
Though Mayte is tricky: “What precisely did Axson Mayte look like? No two persons seemed to agree.” Some see him as enticing and mysterious. Others, such as Josiah Slade see him as “a singularly ugly man . . . with a flaccid skin, fishbelly-white . . .” “toad-features, and ditch-water eyes . . . wormy lips . . .”
So far, so familiar. The “mysterious stranger” plot is after all one of the seven key narratives. Certainly, he sets in motion a chain of devastating events that convince the Princetonians that they are: “Accursed! The very word rippled through us, like an electric current. For now the Slades’ fate had been defined, it would soon seem to us, who would wish to imagine ourselves but observers, that this was our general fate, as inhabitants of Princeton.”
This “Curse,” fueled by rumor and hearsay, manifests itself in a number of supernatural, and viscerally horrific incidents. Which in turn fuels hysteria. And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There is a ghost of a burning girl in the woods; a number of Princetonians begin to have troubling dreams and “third eye” visions. At the girls’ school they see the devil’s snakes, swarming to overwhelm them: “shortly it seemed that the girls throughout the school, not just the choir members, had succumbed to the mysterious frenzy—screaming at the sight of (invisible?) serpents that slithered and slid, and squirmed, and coiled, and leapt, and writhed, advancing threateningly at them from all sides.”
Todd Slade is turned to stone. Josiah Slade begins to see “child-sized demons.” Annabel Slade hears seductive voices that convince her to desert her fiancé, Lieutenant Bayard, at the altar:
“Mild-mannered Pearce van Dyck, transformed into this murderous man, with a contorted face; a misshapen skull, beneath fever-damp strands of dark hair; a prim cruel smile, like the smile of a gargoyle.”
There are demons in their midst, and “each is a force of chaos and misery.”
The chaos and misery (and the supernatural elements of the book) reach their apotheosis in the “blood denouement” within Mayte’s “Bog Kingdom,” which is here, fantastically wrought by Ms. Oates:
“The master bedchamber at the top of a flight of badly worn and mossy stone steps, overlaid with grime, and the hard-dried excrement and remains of vermin—overlooking, from its single (barred) window, a marshy graveyard, the aged markers tilted and filthy from neglect, spiky grasses growing all around, and pools of brackish water interspersed among the graves. Here, creatures of a kind I have never glimpsed before freely disported themselves, like overgrown, rowdy children; such strange species, I shrank in terror from even gazing upon them for many days: great ungainly birds that were reptilian, with sharp talons; giant lizards with darting tongues, and topaz eyes; soft fleshy bulbous creatures like mollusks without shells, of the size of pigs, that drew sustenance from sucking from numerous mouth-tentacles at once.”
Of course, The Accursed could be read as a straight Gothic horror, but that would take away a great deal of the fun to be had in reading this book; to rely on the purely fantastical elements of the novel would be to ignore the sheer playfulness of JC Oates. For this is, at heart, a wooden horse novel. Irony—all kinds of irony—drives it, and shows its face through the unreliable narrator and his constant metafictions, his digressions and asides.
Our unreliable narrator is the major clue to something deeper at play here. Indeed, Ms. Oates makes him such a ridiculous character—he is petty, ornery, arrogant—that these clues are fairly hard to ignore. He talks himself up as a historian:
“As a disinterested and fair-minded historian it isn’t my place to delve into old local feuds and squabbles; to stir up old misunderstandings, slanders, and hatreds.” And yet this is exactly what he does. He cannot resist making “aesthetic and moral” outbursts in the text.
Through her narrator, Ms. Oates is able to explore the wider contexts of Princeton in the early 20th century, and she is able to ask the question: Is the “curse,” the awful chain of events and corpses strewn through the book, not a result of a “poison of place” and of time, and of contemporary society, rather than anything fantastical?
For reading between the lines, one notices a huge number of tensions apparent in Princeton, ready to boil to the surface at any minute. These tensions, these unsavory aspects of the real world, have heretofore not been allowed to enter the “enchanted island” of Princeton. They have been “unspeakable.”
For instance, when a young girl’s body is discovered in the woods, it is hushed up from the women’s delicate ears: “all of Princeton whispers of nothing else save of course we ladies of the West End, and in particular we invalid Ladies above all, who are spared.”
The Accursed presents us with a landscape of fear, true. But the real fear seems to be a fear of change. With racism, lynchings, and the Ku Klux Klan; snobbery, socialism, and suffrage; Darwinism and intelligent design versus the intellectual closed-shop of religion, and finally women and freedom (and the “freedom to be miserable”) providing subtexts, there is a sense that the “curse” is actually some kind of perfect storm, brought about by a refusal of the white, masculine hegemony to bend, to submit, rather than anything set in motion by Axson Mayte.
Though this is Axson Mayte speaking, within his Bog Kingdom, at the secret, dark heart of it, this could be any of the university elders:
“The female is the most contemptible of creatures: deficient of wit, repulsive in her mammalian nature, lecherous, and ‘frigid’; scheming, and stupid; entirely devoid of the moral and rational motive that guides men. For a short while, some of these creatures possess beauty—but it no more endures than spring blossoms, and soon festers, and stinks, like these.”
And yet some of the leading lights of Princetonian society are shown to share some of the same views, though in rather less graphic terms. Here is the damning evidence, as (unconsciously) provided by our unreliable narrator:
“The suffragette movement filled Woodrow Wilson, as it filled many men of his time, with both loathing and trepidation, for it seemed to him ‘abnormal’ for women to behave in an ‘unwomanly’ fashion; which could not fail to lead to promiscuity among the sexes and a general collapse of morals.”
And: “As a university liberal, as reform-minded as any Princeton professor, Pearce van Dyck was in favor of such changes in society; yet, privately, it pleased him that so little happened, and so slowly. And perhaps it would never happen, in fact— women’s rights. ‘There are more urgent matters. The “problem of evil,” for one.’”
Thus in The Accursed the “problem of evil” is at the fore, but in the background, waiting to crash down, encompassing the tidal wave of modernity.