The Accursed is an original work of Gothic fiction from the master of the genre – Joyce Carol Oates. It shimmers with psychological intrigue, phantasmagoria and dark sensuality. It is also exceptionally well-researched and beautifully detailed, crafting a parallel vision of Princeton’s leading families as they face a curse of unknown force.
The reader is first alerted to the curse during a gathering to celebrate the upcoming nuptials of Annabel Slade (a member of an elite Princeton family). Grover Cleveland, former US president, sees an apparition of his dead daughter Ruth, calling to him from a window. He is so shocked by the sight of dear little Ruth, long dead and buried, he promptly collapses. This is truly a chilling moment in the book, suggesting to the reader something truly ungodly is afoot in Princeton.
Then, on Annabel’s wedding day she is seduced, stolen away, by the repellent but strangely sensuous Mr Axon Mayte. This is followed by a series of disquieting events over the course of the year (1905-06), including mass psychosis at a girls school, murder, attempted infanticide and an appalling confession by one of Princeton’s most respected preachers, Winslow Slade (grandfather of Annabel).
Will the curse ever be solved? Will the horror end? It does – in a surprisingly satisfying way. But it takes a while to get there.
While The Accursed focuses on the supernatural it is by no means lightweight or pulpy (two terms often synonymous with vampire fiction). It is a work of Gothic literature with a post-modern bent. At 600+ pages long, it is anything but lightweight. That, my friends, is the key thing that grates with this novel. There’s just too much of it.
Oates provides incredible details about her characters that do little to aid plot development: minute details of internal Princeton University politics and dealings, the devotion of pages to the habits and dreams of Upton Sinclair (the socialist author) and long-winded descriptions of characters’ attire. Literary icons Jack London, Mark Twain and perplexingly, Sherlock Holmes (or his inspiration) also make cameo appearances.
This lengthy detail ultimately detracts from the main narrative, leaving this reader feeling frustrated and, at times, confused.
However (and with novels like this there is always a ‘however’), Oates’ clever allegorical use of the curse reminds us of the evils that lurk in the very bedrock of capitalism (the exploitation and abuse of women, extreme racism and gross economic inequality). This should be applauded. The Accursed stands out as a powerful and wondrous work of fiction, despite the lack of narrative clarity and ‘get on with it‘ factor.
Would I recommend this book as an enjoyable and easy-to-read vampire tale, perhaps something to take to the beach? No. For that, I would recommend Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot or Bram Stroker’s classic, Dracula.
Would I recommend this book as a work of fiction to be tackled and conquered, one that expands your vocabulary and your mind? Yes, absolutely. But make sure you give yourself plenty of time and chocolate if you choose to accept this reading challenge. At over one kilogram (or two pounds) The Accursed does make a good door-stop. I’m serious!
ISBN: 978-0-06-223301-1, published by Harper Collins, 2013