Bellefleur, a Joyce Carol Oates novel from 1980, sat on my shelf for a while before I finally opened it in the mid-2000s. I stepped through the door half-expecting some earnest, weepy, melodramatic family saga-soap opera, by way of East of Eden and Oates’s 1971 naturalist novel, Wonderland (whose central character, Jesse Vogel, suddenly reminds me of Mad Men’s Don Draper . . . but never mind).
What I found behind the doors of Bellefleur was one of the most outrageous, outlandish Gothic horror tales I had ever read, one whose memory I cherish in a special hollow in the storm-lashed backwoods of my mind.
So it was with some excitement that I opened her newest novel The Accursed, which, reviews indicated, appeared to be something of a return to the weird climes of Bellefleur. (Oates is known to be a champion of horror fiction and has edited several anthologies, including a collection of H.P. Lovecraft’s work; she’s also won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers of America.)
Indeed, The Accursed is a broad baggy mishmash of high Gothic, supernatural horror, romance, alternate history, and politics, both racial and sexual. It’s set during the years 1905–1906, behind the exclusive ivy-covered ramparts of Princeton University. The main narrator—and document collator--is a fussy, enigmatic regional historian named Van Dyck, who, we learn, has his own secret agenda in revealing the secret history of Princeton, a place where demonic forces struggle secretly for power.
The tale weaves together a large population of characters, some historical and some not (as in E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime et al): the Reverend Joseph Slade, a Presbyterian and former dean of the University and New Jersey governor; future U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the university’s current president; the Reverend Slade’s children, including his troubled son, Josiah and his beloved cousin Adelaide; and various other friends and relations, University faculty and administrators, and their sprawling network of families. Upton Sinclair and Jack London also wander from factual history into this fictional world.
Two major academic factions of Princeton are at war—on one side there’s the fussy, prim, and paranoid Woodrow Wilson; on the other, corpulent sensualist Andrew West, Wilson’s bitter rival for control of elite Princeton U, a man who, it is whispered about, has been engaged in what is delicately called “occult practices.” (Oates has great fun with the modes of polite indirect discourse common at that time. Her prose blushes delightfully with coy embarrassment.)
Into the middle of this academic kerfuffle drops a demon who nearly destroys this privileged sanctuary of white male power. He is sometimes known as Axson Mayte, at other times, Count Von Gneist, from Wallachia. Whoever’s path he crosses, he becomes a projection of their inner darkness: "The devil has no name and no face." Only the names and faces we give it.
Astute readers will quickly see the tribute to the great Dracula and other Gothic novels. Night-blue shadows cast their welcome everywhere, even by daylight. Like Dracula, the novel is designed as a collage of newspaper articles, diaries, and third-person narrative that chains together ghoulish hauntings, bloody murder, tender and thwarted love, vile unnatural lust, evil snake attacks, and subterranean wheelings and dealings, both in this world and those beyond our meager ken.
Further, like another Recent Novel by an Author Whose Name Shall Go Unmentioned, Oates is frankly disinterested in the Freudian/sexual interpretation imposed on Dracula and his descendants. In The Accursed, the vampires are creatures of power, control, and exploitation.
And like all Gothic novels of that era, good and bad, The Accursed does its share of lumbering and digressing. With florid, colorful, and rambling pen, Oates does a great job of keeping our minds within this time and place, so we forget just enough about ours.
Most of The Accursed is pleasurable and once in a while, genuinely eerie and creepy; especially a demonic encounter in a lonely swamp and a young woman’s realization that she has become an unwilling object of lust for the most powerful men in Princeton. There are also floating spirits, ghost-children, snake attacks, people turning into statues and other things wondrous and strange, things we like in this kind of book, spun with great skill and atmosphere.
The Accursed often loses focus and strays, however. Several chapters feel choked up with the static emanating from some of the more bilious and unstable characters; other chapters seem digressions that lead nowhere instead of weaving themselves back into the narrative (for instance, Woodrow Wilson’s seemingly pointless vacation in Bermuda.) The literary and thematic motives for sewing Upton Sinclair and Jack London into the tapestry feels forced. An episode about Sinclair and London meeting in New York is thrilling and colorful but seems to belong entirely in another novel.
Like many Gothics and Victorian novels I’ve read, the ending is contrived almost beyond tolerance and full of miraculous—and I do mean miraculous—reversals, closing with a VERY VERY LONG RANT WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS REVEALING WHO WAS BEHIND THE CURSE ALL ALONG AND THAT GOES ON AND ON EXACTLY LIKE AN INTERNET COMMENT BOARD POPULATED BY RAGE JUNKIES AND OTHER TROLLS WHO SHOUT ALL THE TIME!
The point Oates makes here is a theological and ideological one and I guess I’m supposed to be provoked into either yaying or naying on the issue, but, as always when people start shouting, I found myself wishing I were both blind and deaf. (Maybe I’m just a boiled noodle.) At any rate, I finally closed the book with more relief than probably intended. According to my Kobo reader (if it be reliable), it took 13.8 hours for me to read The Accursed, but it felt longer by a couple more.
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield