What follows is a “massive chronicle” — a patchwork of narratives, letters, diaries, journals and sermons that together unveil the grotesque assault that once shed America’s bluest blood. “The subject matter is disconcerting,” van Dyck admits, “if not frankly repulsive,” but the truth will out.
At the center of this spectral tale, spiked with a “frisson of dread,” live the Slades, who can trace their lineage back to Plymouth Plantation. The living patriarch, the Rev. Winslow Slade, was once governor of New Jersey and now basks in the joys of retirement. As one of New England’s wealthiest and most esteemed Presbyterian ministers, he’s still sought out by men of influence. 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 first grandchild struck is beautiful Annabel, betrothed to gallant Lt. Bayard. Honestly, can anything worse befall a young bride than getting married in a book by Joyce Carol Oates? It’s always something old, something new, something borrowed, something slew. This time the flowers don’t just wilt, they emit a poisonous aroma that drives men to murderous rage. Nine years ago, Oates published a powerful novel called “The Falls” about a marriage that ended on the first day of the honeymoon, but that was matrimonial bliss compared with the marriage in “The Accursed,” which lasts about 30 seconds. It’s such a masterly scene, elaborately foreshadowed, gorgeously festooned as only Oates can, and then run in delectable slow motion — with some dialogue in parseltongue — right up to the fantastic climax of Part I.
The delights of this macabre novel gather thick as ghouls at midnight in the cemetery. I’ve never been so aware of Oates’s weird comedy. Through it all, van Dyck maintains his skeptical, 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?