The Accursed

THE ACCURSED
By Joyce Carol Oates
669 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers.

Some novels are almost impossible to review, either because they’re deeply ambiguous or because they contain big surprises the reviewer doesn’t wish to give away. In the case of “The Accursed,” both strictures apply. What I wish I could say is simply this: “Joyce Carol Oates has written what may be the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel: E. L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime’ set in Dracula’s castle. It’s dense, challenging, problematic, horrifying, funny, prolix and full of crazy people. You should read it. I wish I could tell you more.”

Yet telling more is the reviewer’s (usually thankless) job. Still, spare a little pity for the critic, if you please; I’m doing delicate surgery here. This is an enormous, craftily sustained work of fiction, and while I consider the Internet-fueled concern with “spoilers” rather infantile, the true secrets of well-made fiction deserve to be kept. Imagine how unfair it would have been if Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review of “Psycho” had led with the information that Norman and Norman’s mother were one and the same! Ick, right? In deference to the ick, I’ll keep most of Oates’s secrets, but she owes me (and anyone else faced with the task of discussing this novel) an apology for making the job so difficult. The reader’s job is also difficult because “The Accursed” asks a lot of him or her. All I can say is, don’t lose your courage, and wait for the sermon at the end. It doesn’t explain everything, but it does explain a lot, and in splendid pseudo-biblical prose.

“The Accursed” purports to be the definitive account, written by one M. W. van Dyck II, of the so-called Crosswicks Curse, which afflicted — or infected — the bucolic college town of Princeton, N.J., in the years 1905 and 1906. The ambiguities start with van Dyck himself, an amateur historian who is racist, prudish and snobbish. He’s also an obsessive-compulsive fussbudget. I learned much more about Princeton University politics, the great houses of Princeton’s lily-white West End and turn-of-the-century ladies’ fashions than I cared to know. At several points I found myself thinking, “O.K., van Dyck, enough about the corsetry, let’s get back to the unhappy Slades of Crosswicks Manse.” For it’s the unhappy Slade family from whom the Curse (always capitalized) spreads outward, and we care about them just enough to make their various fates interesting.

Annabel Slade (lovely, modest, corseted) is abducted by a demon lover named Axson Mayte in full view of a standing-room-only church congregation mere seconds after her marriage to dashing Dabney Bayard. She’s spirited away to the Bog Kingdom, a terrible wasteland where she is subjected to the Unspeakable (van Dyck loves that word) and then made to clean the filthy lower levels of the castle with her fellow abductees, who have been reduced to the state of half-human zombies. She escapes and returns home, dirty and barely sane, just in time to die giving birth to something both Unspeakable and Ambiguous (perhaps a snake, perhaps an infant with its innards on the outards).

Annabel’s brother, Josiah, heroically prevents a murder, only to blame himself when the would-be murderer dies and demon voices begin haunting him and urging him to spill more blood. Growing ever more unstable, he begins to see his own privileged class as cannibals, dining on the immigrant wretches who labor and die in the mills and meatpacking plants in order to provide the fine houses and expensive clothes that our narrator enumerates so lovingly. Josiah finally signs on to a poorly mounted expedition to the South Pole, where he sees visions of his soiled sister, Annabel, beckoning from passing ice floes. Poor haunted Josiah finally gives in to the demon voices that command him to throw himself into the cold ocean.

Josiah’s young cousin Todd Slade either disappears or is turned to stone or both. (Hey, I don’t make the news, I only report it.) Todd’s sister, Oriana, jumps from the roof of her house — or is she pushed? ­Winslow Slade, a respected Presbyterian cleric, a former New Jersey governor and the grandfather of these poor unfortunates, is haunted by the death of a young prostitute years before the advent of the Crosswicks Curse — or was she murdered, perhaps by Winslow Slade himself? And, just by the way, are Winslow Slade’s grandchildren really dead? (You begin to grasp the reviewer’s problems.)

Before the Crosswicks Curse runs its course, Adelaide Burr, a bedridden wife, will be murdered in truly horrific fashion (one does not like to say how, only that the letters Oates will receive concerning the death of Adelaide are apt to give a whole new meaning to the term “fan mail”); a gaggle of girls will be driven from their school by a frenzy of snakes; a loving mother will attempt to drown her infant son in the bath; Jack London will gobble raw meat; an overworked and undernourished socialist writer named Upton Sinclair will suspect his wife of infidelity; and Joyce Carol Oates will employ enough semicolons to qualify for a place in the Guinness Book of Punctuation.

Every extravagant phenomenon described by our narrator — who narrowly escaped being bludgeoned to death and becoming another victim of the Crosswicks Curse — might be dismissed as mass hysteria, not much different from that which swept Salem in 1692, but it’s impossible to be sure. Oates is cagey, and setting the reader’s mind at ease is not her intention. There’s plenty of support for the mass hysteria idea (teenage girls believing they see snakes everywhere certainly seems Freudian) and enough repressed West End secrets to fill all the various notebooks, some coded, that M. W. van Dyck uses as his primary source materials. (The chapter in which van Dyck lists these notebooks is extremely amusing.) Yet Oates saves the greatest secret for the end, revealed in that scarifying hellfire-and-brimstone sermon Winslow Slade calls “The Covenant.” By then this reader was more than ­half-convinced that the events related in “The Accursed” really were of supernatural origin, cleverly masked by what we denizens of the 21st century know (or think we know) about how the subconscious mind may produce angels and demons at will.

Along the way, Oates gives us marvelous set pieces. The best of these is a memorable late supper, following a speech given by Jack London, where the drunken writer mocks the earnest but painfully shy Upton Sinclair. Oates’s portrait of London — flushed with drink, downing what he calls “cannibal sandwiches” and roaring proto-fascist praise of “the Nordic soul” — is riveting: we want to look away, and can’t. In a companion piece, the vegetarian Sinclair is invited to lunch at the White House only to find himself among a host of voracious meat-eaters, chief among them Teddy Roosevelt himself, who bemoans the fact that the deviled ham of his childhood is now being spiced up, “as it were, with the expectorations of hunkie TB carriers.” We hardly need the disillusioned Sinclair to reflect on “how very like Jack London the president was.”

Two other presidents, one past and one future, also appear in the pages of “The Accursed,” neither to good advantage. Grover Cleveland is a morbidly obese glutton whose usual breakfast, as described by his much younger wife, consists of beefsteak, Virginia ham, pork chops, whiting, fried smelt, “even, occasionally, corned beef and cabbage.” His portion of the Curse is to see his deceased daughter, Ruth, gamboling on a steeply sloping roof and trying to lure him to his death (luckily, President Cleveland is too fat to fit through the window).

Woodrow Wilson is also present and accounted for, painted in scalpel-sharp Oatesian prose as a high-functioning but deeply paranoid university administrator, convinced that his archenemy, Dean Andrew Fleming West, will do anything to bring him low (as might in fact be the case — I told you, this book swarms with ambiguities). The man who would survive at least two strokes to become one of America’s pivotal presidents is here depicted as a racist, sexually repressed hypochondriac whose daily intake of patent medicines includes morphine, heroin and opium. He is also the proud possessor of his very own stomach pump, to the use of which he seems addicted.

Wilson’s demon is Dean West; Cleveland’s is his dead daughter; Upton Sinclair’s is Jack London. This incarnation of evil appears to Annabel Slade as Axson Mayte, to her brother as François D’Apthorp and to many of the fashionable West End ladies as — wait for it — Count English von Gneist. In his most hilarious incarnation he shows up as Sherlock ­Holmes, ostensibly to aid our fussbudgety narrator’s father (Pearce van Dyck, a big Holmes fan) in explaining the Curse by deductive means. Holmes also urges Pearce to murder his wife and baby with a red-hot poker. The great detective claims it’s “elementary, my dear friend.”

Oates saves her most amazing literary trick for the end of this remarkable Gothic, when at least some of the dead (there’s a high body-count) come back to life. She suggests that it’s quite all right to have it both ways; that ambiguity is, in fact, the human condition. “There is the unknown world within, that quite suffices,” Josiah Slade thinks.

The book is too long, but what classic Gothic isn’t? It sprawls, there’s no identifiable protagonist or unity of scene, and yet these many loosely wrapped Tales of Princeton are feverishly entertaining. Oates’s hypnotic prose has never been better displayed than it is in the book’s final fabulism, which concerns a game of checkers between a brave child and a demon who cheats at every opportunity. I could tell you who wins . . . but it’s a secret.

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