On a lovely spring morning in 1905, a young bride walks out of the church where she has just been married and rides off with a man who is not her new husband. That man may, in fact, be a demon. He is certainly a stranger to the bride’s tightknit community. And her departure — whether an abduction or a voluntary flight from an unwanted marriage — becomes the first manifestation of what becomes known as the Crosswicks Curse. By the time the curse, named for the bride’s family home, is dispelled, it will have taken the form of alluring ghosts, seductive vampires, and a plague of snakes in a girls’ school. It will be, in other words, business as usual for a Gothic novel. For, while Joyce Carol Oates’s “The Accursed,” deals with modern themes, this densely written doorstopper of a book is at its heart a throwback to the 18th-century potboiler.
Oates has long dabbled in Gothic fiction, updating the once-popular form without losing its staples of horror, romance, and the supernatural, and “The Accursed” is the fifth of the Gothic family sagas that began with 1980’s “Bellefleur.” In this latest outing, Oates, who has taught at Princeton University since 1978, uses the New Jersey college town as the site for her ghost story and gives it relevance with quite contemporary demons.