Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Accursed

In the early 1980s, Joyce Carol Oates wrote several novels in styles reminiscent of the late nineteenth century: gothic novel Bellefleur, a mystery titled Mysteries of Winterthurn, and period romance called Bloodsmoor Romance.  At that point, it seemed that Oates was done with those styles.  But, as it turns out, Ms. Oates also completed an early draft in 1984 of a second gothic novel, The Accursed, which she did not finally complete until 2012.

Set in Princeton, New Jersey, during parts of 1905-06, The Accursed is the story of the worst years imaginable in the lives of the town’s wealthiest and most powerful families.  They are cursed by supernatural forces that are determined to destroy them one person at a time, beginning with their daughters.  Particularly hard hit by the curse are the grandchildren of greatly respected theologian Winslow Slade.  Some seven decades later, M.W. van Dyck II, descendent of one of those prominent Princeton families, narrates The Accursed and presents all the evidence and history that he has assembled about those fourteen months. 

The troubles, although no one makes an immediate connection, begin with the arrival of a charming foreigner who is quickly accepted into the homes of Princeton’s finest families.  Soon dreams dominated by ghosts, vampires, and bloody slaughter become common in Princeton’s finest homes.  Even worse, the exotic “prince” is quietly using his charms to worm his way into the affections of Princeton’s young women, be they married or not – with tragic results for each of his conquests.

Joyce Carol Oates
The Accursed is filled with historical detail built around an assortment of well-known figures: Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Samuel Clemens, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London, among them.  Seamlessly mixing historical and fictional characters, Oates uses rather unflattering characterizations of these real-life figures to create the supernatural atmosphere of 1905 Princeton.  Each (especially Wilson, Cleveland, Sinclair, and London) will suffer in some way because of Princeton’s “curse.”

This novel, however, is dominated by its supernatural elements, and if it were shelved by genre, it would more likely be found on a bookstore’s Horror shelves rather than among its Fiction titles.  The demon’s horrific underworld, within which the most unfortunate victims of the curse are ensnared, is a hell on earth, a place dominated by cruelty, sexual perversion, greed, gluttony, dominance, and depravity – the perfect home for our demon and his sister.

I have read Joyce Carol Oates for the better part of three decades now, and am not surprised by the breadth of her writing.  She has done at least a bit of it all: plays, poetry, literary novels, thrillers and mysteries, journals, reviews, nonfiction, etc.  And she does all of it well.  Parts of The Accursed, however, make for tedious reading, and the novel would have been a better one if shortened by a hundred or so of its more than 650 pages.  Still, JCO fans will not want to miss this one - nor should they.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)


  1. Oates. What a pixie. I have read Black Water and several of her short stories. But the critical comments she has written on various authors (love her thoughts on Poe...) are ingenious. The skinny thing. She is such a waif! Such an insightful waif.

  2. I agree, Anonymous, that Oates is rather amazing...and so tiny. I was fortunate enough to meet her at Rice University many years ago and I vividly remember how small she is. That's why her books are so surprising I think...all that violence and psychological insight coming from so seemingly a defenseless little human is rather shocking at times. But what a pen!

  3. I read Bellefleur and remember being impressed. I'll look for The Accursed.

  4. If so, let me know what you think of The Accursed, Jenclair. I had mixed emotions about it...sometimes I think that longtime, successful authors are not edited to nearly the degree they should be.

  5. She is such a terrific writer. I think of her book My Heart Laid Bare, also set in a similar period. Historical fiction is something Oates does so well.
    Thank you for this review, Sam.

  6. JCO has long been a favorite of mine, Cip; happy to see that you enjoy her work, too. "My Heart Laid Bare" is one of hers I haven't read yet...I take it that you enjoyed it?