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

The Accursed
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
ISBN-13: 978-0007494194
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Guideline Price: Sterling18.99

If, as the American philosopher William James observes, "the stirring of our flesh with picturesque mystery and gloom" makes "a work of art romantic", surely romance raised to fever pitch makes a work of art gothic.

In a gothic novel the ordinary (our human yearnings, impulses and maladies) is expressed through the extraordinary (haunted houses, demon bridegrooms and the like). And through the uncanny: that which is eerily, strangely familiar – although the premise of this novel, that an American college town should be full of devils and snakes, might strike some as being merely familiar.

Joyce Carol Oates is renowned as a chronicler of working-class lives, but in this enormous novel her cool eye examines, with some lively exceptions, the US elite. The Accursed takes place at the turn of the 20th century in the placid university town of Princeton, New Jersey, where, in time-honoured gothic tradition, its narrator, the historian MW van Dyck II, has had access to secret materials: journals, letters and diaries.

It is one of Oates’s considerable achievements that while van Dyck’s attitudes are ponderous and self-important (his former home has been taken over “by strangers with a name ending in -stein”), the narrative itself flows fairly effortlessly.

Such artistic sleight of hand, and the fact that much of The Accursed is slyly hilarious, are but two of the literary surprises the book holds in store.

Josiah Slade, one of the more likeable characters, observes that Princeton is "a claustrophobic world of privilege and anxiety in which one was made to care too much about too little". Certainly, its hothouse atmosphere makes it a perfect gothic setting. In 1905, when our story begins, Princeton's president is none other than that pallid paragon of Protestant probity Woodrow Wilson, the future US president famous for his inane promise that the Great War would be "the war to end all wars".

The Woodrow Wilson we meet in the opening pages of The Accursed is crabbed, self-righteous, grandiose and hypochondriacal. But most dangerously he is subtly but surely a racist, introducing the novel's prevailing theme: the horror in this horror story is the US itself, in its inward- looking complacency, its sense of itself as a nation set apart and its history of misogyny and racism.

We also meet Upton Sinclair, passionate socialist and author of The Jungle: "He had spent two months in Packingtown, in Chicago, living among the slaughterhouse workers . . . In such places, the hellishness of the class struggle is evident to the naked eye, while here in gilded Princeton you must delve beneath surfaces, to see with an 'uncanny' eye."

Sinclair may cherish high ideals about fairness and equality, but he works on his new book in contemplative solitude while his wife milks the cow, looks after the chickens and the orchard and takes care of their newborn baby.

“Upton sympathised with Meta’s frustration . . . but he did not condone her frequently voiced despair – if they were to one day help found a Socialist colony it would be in a rural environment, and so the present farm work was excellent training.”

Yet is that his Meta he glimpses, walking through Princeton in a frock he does not recognise, in the company of a strange man? And later, in the fields beyond their farmhouse, making love to another stranger?

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.