The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

14th Mar 2013

Joyce Carol Oates The Accursed

One of our most prolific contemporary writers, with The Accursed, For Books’ Sake favourite Joyce Carol Oates shows no signs of letting up.

Her latest is a brick of book, at 700 pages, and a thrilling, spine-chilling, masterful work of astonishingly creativity. It’s perhaps hardly surprising that a writer as experienced as Oates would show such confidence and flair – and yet the scope of The Accursed, and the brilliance of its execution, are still quite astonishing.

It’s set in Princeton, New England, in 1905 – during America’s Gilded Age – and told from the perspective of a crotchety and far-from-unbiased narrator in 1984 (the point at which Oates apparently began working on the manuscript, only to put it aside for many years).

The novel tells of the terrible ‘Crosswicks Curse’ that gripped the town’s upper classes, disturbing their smooth and well-mannered existence, manifesting itself through mysterious deaths, miscarriages, elopements, and fits of murderous passion…

At the centre of it all is Annabel Slade, daughter of one of Princeton’s oldest, wealthiest and most powerful families, and bride-to-be. On the day of her wedding to a respectable if slightly sullen young man, she runs off with a newcomer to the town.

What could have possessed the virginal, obedient Annabel to do such a thing? Possessed, at least as far as our narrator M W van Dyke II is concerned, is the operative word.

a glorious pastiche of too many genres to mention This is a deliciously gothic novel – think Henry James meets Edgar Allan Poe – and a glorious pastiche of too many genres to mention. There are even vampires – or at least there appear to be – and they are far more subtle and mysterious than anything in Twilight.

Van Dyke is a historian by profession, and he presents us with various sources whose yellowed pages, marbled covers and faded handwriting are almost tangible through the years.

There is Annabel’s own account of her disappearance, narrated to her brother. There is the journal of the invalid Mrs Adelaid McLean Burr, whose distinctively hysterical voice leaps off the page.

And then there’s the Socialist writer Upton Sinclair. These, and the dozens of other cast members, are deftly drawn and adroitly handled.

It’s never quite clear to just what extent Oates is drawing on genuinely historical events in Princeton, and to what extent she is letting her imagination run wild based on a few key facts.

Equally, it’s never obvious – as in all the very best gothic fiction – just what is supernatural, and what is the distorted product of troubled and repressed brains.

What is clear is that the true evil here lies finally not in some external source, but in the pompous and fatally arrogant attitudes of Princeton’s elite.

The Accursed was published in hardback by Fourth Estate on 5th March and is available from Foyles, Amazon or your local independent book shop, priced at £18.99. An e-book edition is also available, priced at £11.99.

Rating: 5/5

Recommended for… Fans of gothic fiction, ghost stories and historical fiction.

Other recommended reading: Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger or Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu.

Claire Strickett