A major historical novel from "one of the great artistic forces of our time" (The Nation)—an eerie, unforgettable story of possession, power, and loss in early-twentieth-century Princeton, a cultural crossroads of the powerful and the damned
Princeton, New Jersey, at the turn of the twentieth century: a tranquil place to raise a family, a genteel town for genteel souls. But something dark and dangerous lurks at the edges of the town, corrupting and infecting its residents. Vampires and ghosts haunt the dreams of the innocent. A powerful curse besets the elite families of Princeton; their daughters begin disappearing. A young bride on the verge of the altar is seduced and abducted by a dangerously compelling man–a shape-shifting, vaguely European prince who might just be the devil, and who spreads his curse upon a richly deserving community of white Anglo-Saxon privilege. And in the Pine Barrens that border the town, a lush and terrifying underworld opens up.
When the bride's brother sets out against all odds to find her, his path will cross those of Princeton's most formidable people, from Grover Cleveland, fresh out of his second term in the White House and retired to town for a quieter life, to soon-to-be commander in chief Woodrow Wilson, president of the university and a complex individual obsessed to the point of madness with his need to retain power; from the young Socialist idealist Upton Sinclair to his charismatic comrade Jack London, and the most famous writer of the era, Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain–all plagued by "accursed" visions.
An utterly fresh work from Oates, The Accursed marks new territory for the masterful writer. Narrated with her unmistakable psychological insight, it combines beautifully transporting historical detail with chilling supernatural elements to stunning effect.
Oates has published more than enough books to take risks, and her newest is exactly that: first drafted in the early 1980s, then set aside, the novel is, in addition to being a thrilling tale in the best gothic tradition, a lesson in master craftsmanship. Distilled, the plot is about a 14-month curse manifesting in Princeton, N.J., from 1905 to 1906, affecting the town's elite, including the prominent Slades of Crosswicks and Woodrow Wilson, the president of Princeton University. After Annabel Slade is strangely drawn out of the church during her wedding, an escalating series of violence and madness based in secrets and hypocrisy is unleashed in the community. This story has vampires, demons, angels, murder, lynching, beatings, rape, sex, parallel worlds,, Antarctic voyages, socialism, sexism, racism, paranoia, gossip, spiritualism, and escalating insanity. Oates uses the Homeric ring structure, and her mysterious narrator takes frequent tangents, offering backstories, side stories, footnotes, and a hilarious, subtly satirical chapter on the different-colored diaries and lacquered boxes providing his "sources." The story sprawls, reaches, demands, tears, and shrieks in homage to the traditional gothic, yet with fresh, surprising twists and turns. Oates weaves historical figures throughout, grounding the narrative in a quasi-familiar reality without losing a "through the looking-glass" surrealism. The cause of the curse is not much of a surprise, but the way it's broken is both traditionally mythic and satisfying. Oates has given us a brilliantly crafted work that refreshes the overworked tradition. The author's rage at social injustices and the horrific "cures" for invalids boil beneath the surface; she's skilled enough to let them fuel the fury without erupting into fire. Take on this 700-page behemoth with an open mind, and hang on for the ride.
I kept thinking as I read, why would an author of such impressive ability write this particular book? Despite the title, it certainly isn't a ghost or horror story since it lacks suspense and much of the character development expected or anticipated in a novel. Overall, the narrative is disjointed, the plot thin and ponderous. I continued reading right up until half-way through the book before giving up, something I don't do easily.
Painfully pedantic prose that attempts to recreate a style representative of the early 1900s but fails miserably. The themes are forced and artificial as is the narrative.