The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates
The hothouse atmosphere of Princeton proves a perfect setting for real-life historical figures to get some gothic surprises
Joyce Carol Oates
The stranger in the midst of Princeton’s eminent Presbyterian families is a shape-changing demon with sulphurous eyes called, alternately, Axson Mayte and Count English von Gneist. As Mayte he enchants Annabel Slade away from her husband just moments after their marriage and spirits her to his infernal Bog Kingdom, a nightmarish place that is nonetheless described with unnerving pathos and beauty. As “the Count” he manages to charm most of Princeton, while his demonically beautiful sister (Camille, of course) almost seduces Woodrow Wilson – as already suggested, there is much that is playful in this book.
Two other real-life (or larger- than-life) characters we come upon are Jack London and Teddy Roosevelt, both boorish carnivores – The Accursed may convert at least some of its readers to vegetarianism.
There is also commentary on Upton Sinclair’s prolific output; he writes tirelessly and prodigiously – could this be Oates having sport with those who remark on her own remarkable number of books, sometimes almost censoriously, as if writing so much were a crime?
There is a plethora of characters, but the most emblematic of this novel’s themes remains Woodrow Wilson, who embodies the “Curse” through his vainglory (he is told that “one day you will hear orisons of worship through war-torn Europe . . . seas of adoring Italians chanting your name in the squares of Rome – Viva Voovro Veelson!”). And also through his narrow-mindedness.
He confesses that he doesn’t like Europe much, even Germany leaves him cold, and the southern countries are of course in thrall to the pope. In fact, in addition to exploring the “uncanny” and the world of repressed desires, The Accursed is a meditation on American Calvinism.
Many of its characters are Presbyterians who stoutly insist on the “rational” (although one lady, who will die a terrible death, reads Mme Blavatsky in secret). But, in general, they find allusions to the spiritual distasteful and papish. Yet spirits, demons and ghosts swarm around them.
Oates’s style is well suited to the gothic genre. There is a barely suppressed, almost mesmeric urgency in many of her sentences, conveyed in part by her use of italics. She displays her impressive scholarship with a light touch, as when a character observes, “We are like people in a gothic novel!” and her husband reflects that the “ladies of Princeton would far rather inhabit a novel by Jane Austen”. (Austen’s Northanger Abbey blasts the gothic form.)
There are quite a few other droll literary allusions throughout the novel, and even a guest appearance by Sherlock Holmes.
The Accursed is a weird and wonderful book: one senses that Oates had great fun writing it, especially as, like the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, she has lived and taught in Princeton for many years. The chapter called A Game of Draughts is particularly moving and suspenseful. And there are even a few happy endings amid the ghoulish goings-on
Elizabeth Wassell’s most recent novel, Sustenance, was published by Liberties Press in 2011.