Book Review: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

The Accursed

Horror in the form of disgust and fear is documented in Joyce Carol Oates’s new 2013 postmodern Gothic novel The Accursed, which centers around the abnormal happenings around the Princeton Crosswicks curse. The story contains a lynching, an abduction, a “mysterious allergy,” a horrific murder of a bedridden woman by her husband, more murders, suicide, and a frenzy of snake visions, to name a few.

The novel centers around the abduction of beautiful and modest Annabel Slade and the demise of the prominent Slade family. The first hundred pages of the novel set up the relationship between Woodrow Wilson, the fictional Winslow Slade, and an eerie onslaught of characters. Woodrow Wilson is constantly “in one of his ‘nerve’ states” and there are many situations which can be attributed to mass hysteria. Yet the townspeople of Princeton themselves believe they are accursed. In one of the letters enclosed within the book, Adelaide writes to Winslow Slade before she is murdered, “there is something happening to us that has been happening from the time of our births & we have been unknowing…This is the Curse, this is the Horror of the Curse, you must pray God to save us from.”The curse is alluded to by the unreliable, neurotic narrator M. W. Van Dyck several times in the first 163 pages, but no one in town really knows anything is wrong until Annabel leaves her respected groom at the altar for Axson Mayte, the town newcomer who resembles a vampire and will not enter the church. This is by far the most gripping part of the novel, because as a low hissing sound calling Annabel’s name grows louder, the reader starts to wonder if something supernatural is actually going on. Yet, before the reader can analyze the situation, the narrator cuts in with a phrase like “…commentators will note,” disrupting the flow of the story. M. W. Van Dyck is a member of the Princeton upper class himself and cannot help but give his own opinion. And this is what is so problematic about this novel.

The Accursed reads too much like a textbook. Other famous historical figures such as Upton Sinclair  and Jack London appear in several drawn-out sections. When reading, I felt removed from story. There was not a lot of action, but mostly dialogue between two people. As Stephen King writes in his New York Times review, I felt I learned “much more about Princeton University politics, the great houses of Princeton’s lily-white West End and turn-of-the-century ladies’ fashions than I cared to know.” Often the narrator uses phrases like “As The Accursed is a chronicle of…” or “Since this is a chapter many readers will wish to skim…”, creating a sense of honesty but, at expense, distance. Sections of letters are set up like scholarly documents. If I was reading this book to learn history and write a paper on the Crosswicks curse, then I might appreciate those markers.

This is not to say the detailed dialogue is not relevant. The social commentary that is not beaten on the reader’s head is eye-opening. Annabel’s best friend Willy admits to Josiah Slade that “it might be that Annabel did fear [her groom]…she feared you all…she might have behaved out of desperation, simply to escape.” We do get an explicit, revolting account of Annabel’s time in the Bog Kingdom where Axson Mayte starves Annabel, forces her to be a maid with other victims, and even invites his drunk friends to rape Annabel in the marital bed. But you have to read the book to find out his motives.

If you are looking for detailed accounts of every little conversation and circumstance somewhat vaguely related to the fictional Crosswicks Curse and the downfall of the Slade family, this is the book for you. The narrator believes Annabel Slade’s confession is “disturbing and in some respects an obscene document, which I choose to present without censorship or distortion,”  which is probably the reason why he chose to be so meticulous. However, as a We Were the Mulvaneys fan, I expected a more engaging story from Oates.

If you get lost and confused as I did, pause the narrative to read the epilogue. “The Covenant” is where Oates reveals the biggest secret of the novel. And normally I don’t like finding secrets out before the book is over, but in this case, the novel was just too long for being too detailed that I had to find a reason to finish it.

Laura Palosaari