'The Accursed': Joyce Carol Oates' macabre comedy

"The Accursed" by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco, March 2013) Photo Credit: Handout

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THE ACCURSED, by Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco, 669 pp., $27.99.

'The Accursed" is the latest addition to Joyce Carol Oates' boundless body of work, and it's spectacular -- a coalescence of history, horror and social satire that whirls around for almost 700 mesmerizing pages.

The book comes to us framed as a work of amateur history, the pet project of M.W. van Dyck, a member of one of the august old families in Princeton, N.J. "I have been privy to many materials unavailable to other historians," he tells us. What follows is a patchwork of narratives, letters, diaries, journals and sermons that together unveil the tragedies that struck Princeton in 1905.

At the center of this spectral tale live the Slades, who can trace their lineage back to Plymouth Plantation. The Rev. Winslow Slade is one of New England's wealthiest and most esteemed Presbyterian ministers, but nothing matters more to him than the happiness of his four grandchildren. How sad, then, that those beautiful children are torn from him, one by one, during a series of chilling events known collectively as the Curse.

The delights of this macabre novel gather thick as ghouls at midnight in the cemetery. I've never been so aware of Oates' weird comedy. Through it all, van Dyck maintains his scholarly tone, even when a lonely undergraduate is ravished by a self-loathing gay vampire, or a minister chokes on a giant snake, or a gossipy invalid is murdered with an electric fan. The scent of demons grows pungent, and viscera pile up at the bottom of these pages, but our narrator shuffles along, assuring us he's just clearing the cobwebs from a story too long encumbered by myths and rumors. "Where my objectivity as a historian is an issue," he tells us, "I must err on the side of caution." Did I mention the boy who turns to stone?

Whereas the central, doomed family of "The Accursed" is Oates' invention, familiar figures such as Mark Twain, Jack London, Upton Sinclair and Grover Cleveland rise from their graves fully reanimated in these pages. Central among them is Princeton's most famous president, Woodrow Wilson, a brittle monomaniac shown here in all his paranoia and imperialism years before he ascended to the White House and made the world safe for democracy. A professor at Princeton for decades, Oates luxuriates in exposing the school's ivy-strangled traditions in "a claustrophobic little world of privilege and anxiety in which one was made to care too much about too little."

Although a creaky ghost story would seem a strange frame for a work of early 20th century historical fiction, "The Accursed" explores equally scary attitudes about blacks, gays and the poor. After all, to these nervous Brahmins, striking miners are just as frightening as vampires.

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Yes, "The Accursed" is exhaustive and exhausting as it sprawls across all this disparate material. It's no wonder the word "faint" seems to lie on every other page. There are a few dead patches, but those ragged edges only make the book seem more like something van Dyck has curated over his lifetime. With its vast scope, its mingling of comic and tragic tones, its omnivorous gorging on American literature, and especially its complex reflection on the major themes of our history, "The Accursed" is the kind of outrageous masterpiece only Joyce Carol Oates could create.

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