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.
The most obvious of these is racism, which is presented as its own kind of unnatural horror. The novel opens with reports of a lynching, and before long Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton and not yet of the United States, is withdrawing from a young relative whom he realizes has African-American forebears. But while overt racism remains a constant throughout the book, the prejudice surfaces in other forms as well. Returning from the underworld known as the Bog Kingdom, the runaway bride tells of becoming, essentially, a slave, and the theme of judgment by skin color, of “superior” and “inferior” beings, recurs regularly.
In 600-plus pages, Oates takes on numerous other social issues, too, notably the suffragist movement and early feminism (specifically in the form of Wilhelmina Burr, who longs for a life outside of marriage). Reformer Upton Sinclair even pops up as a character. His meatpacking-industry exposé, “The Jungle,” has just been published, and he is in Princeton, enforcing his own spartan idealism on his wife and possibly driving her into the arms of a demon. Jack London and Mark Twain also make cameos, usually disrupting the peace of mind of various Princetonians. Even Sherlock Holmes makes an appearance.
Or maybe he doesn’t. It’s that kind of book.
This novel has almost as many narrators as characters, and all of them are unreliable. The overall framing device is a chronicle being written by a historian in 1984 (when Oates reportedly started this novel) looking back on the events of 79 years before. His history is based on journal entries and letters from many of the players, many of whom indulge in the patent medicines of the day, which seem to be largely composed of opiates. These writings, in turn, revolve around — and often reveal — their authors’ biases, prejudices, and desires, some of which are clearly influenced by quack cure-alls. Throw in the supernatural possibilities, and even death may be reversible, depending on who is speaking.
This is not a quick read, and even fans of Oates’s earlier Gothics may find themselves jumping back to check on who said what in an earlier section. Still, for those who enjoy total immersion in this kind of historical fiction, “The Accursed” is good fun, as mesmerizing as a demon and as addictive as a patent cure.