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?
Among all the creatures Oates resurrects, she revives the spirit of Nathaniel Hawthorne — who, with a similarly dry wit, liked to suggest the most outlandish speculations, then dismiss them immediately. And his work isn’t the only classic you can hear echoing in the dark forest of this story: The mysterious pattern of mayhem in Princeton recalls one of America’s first novels, a tale of deadly mental influence by Charles Brockden Brown called “Wieland.” In another “Accursed” storyline, a professor falls into madness by trying to apply the methods of Sherlock Holmes. Later, a handsome young man sails off toward the frozen terror of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Arthur Gordon Pym,” while his lovely sister rides away in a creepy dramatization of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” flaps around every corner.
Those literary allusions are only a slice of this novel’s treasures. Although a creaky ghost story with all its attendant specters would seem a strange frame for a work of historical fiction about the beginning of the 20th century, “The Accursed” provides a compelling context to explore equally scary attitudes about blacks, gays and the poor. After all, to these nervous Brahmins, striking miners are just as frightening as vampires. In the twilight before World War I, the pious folk of Princeton are troubled by fiery debates about the nature of God, the rights of women, the power of capital, the future of socialism and particularly the role of blacks. Older residents can remember the good old days when Southern boys brought their own slaves to school. But now, that calcified structure of elitism is being challenged by forces earthly and occult, and the past will have its revenge. “There is a monstrousness in our midst,” one well-heeled snob scribbles in her diary.
Whereas the central, doomed family of “The Accursed” is Oates’s invention, familiar figures such as Mark Twain, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Roosevelt 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. Oates doesn’t just knock him off his pedestal; she crushes him beneath the weight of his own bizarre habits and terrors. She takes special delight in detailing Wilson’s penchant for demonizing anyone who disagrees with him, telling racist jokes and pumping his own stomach with a tube.
A professor at Princeton for decades, Oates also 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.” Internecine battles threaten to tear the school apart, and the students are devoted to socializing, not scholarship. And there’s a wickedly funny section about Princeton’s obsession with homosexuality that foreshadows our current approach to prosecuting terrorism in a cloud of paranoia and secrecy.
Charmingly, Oates subjects herself to the same wry appraisal. Van Dyck’s narrative is spiked with self-deprecating jokes that allude to her own critical reception, her inexhaustible verbiage, even her tendency toward melodrama. When the novel’s final pages veer into Shakespearean comedy and then rush into a puritanical sermon of Old Testament fury, it’s clear that this is an author fully aware of her literary extravagances.
Yes, it’s 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. And there are a few dead patches — Wilson’s trip to Bermuda never really comes to life, and the Jack London section drags — 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.
Charles is the fiction critic of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
On April 1, Joyce Carol Oates will be at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. For information, call 202-364-1919.