Accursed (Oates)

The Accursed
Joyce Carol Oates, 2013
669 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780062231703

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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—June 16, 1938
Where—Lockport, New York, USA
Education—B.A., Syracuse Univ.; M.A., Univ. of Wisconsin
Awards—National Book Award for Them, 1970; 14 O. Henry
   Awards; six Pushcart Prizes
Currently—lives in Princeton, New Jersey

Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most influential and important storytellers in the literary world. She has often used her supreme narrative skills to examine the dark side of middle-class Americana, and her oeuvre includes some of the finest examples of modern essays, plays, criticism, and fiction from a vast array of genres. She is still publishing with a speed and consistency of quality nearly unheard of in contemporary literature.

A born storyteller, Oates has been spinning yarns since she was a little girl too young to even write. Instead, she would communicate her stories through drawings and paintings. When she received her very first typewriter at the age of 14, her creative floodgates opened with a torrent. She says she wrote "novel after novel" throughout high school and college— a prolificacy that has continued unabated throughout a professional career that began in 1963 with her first short story collection, By the North Gate.

Oates's breakthrough occurred in 1969 with the publication of Them, a National Book Award winner that established her as a force to be reckoned with. Since that auspicious beginning, she has been nominated for nearly every major literary honor—from the PEN/Faulkner Award to the Pulitzer Prize—and her fiction turns up with regularity on the New York Times annual list of Notable Books.

On average Oates publishes at least one novel, essay anthology, or story collection a year (during the 1970s, she produced at the astonishing rate of two or three books a year!). And although her fiction often exposes the darker side of America's brightest facades—familial unrest, sexual violence, the death of innocence—she has also made successful forays into Gothic novels, suspense, fantasy, and children's literature. As novelist John Barth once remarked, "Joyce Carol Oates writes all over the aesthetical map."

Where she finds the time for it no one knows, but Oates manages to combine her ambitious, prolific writing career with teaching: first at the University of Windsor in Canada, then (from 1978 on), at Princeton University in New Jersey. For all her success and fame, her daily routine of teaching and writing has changed very little, and her commitment to literature as a transcendent human activity remains steadfast.

• When not writing, Oates likes to take in a fight. "Boxing is a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost," she says in highbrow fashion of the lowbrow sport.

• Oates's Black Water, which is a thinly veiled account of Ted Kennedy's car crash in Chappaquiddick, was produced as an opera in the 1990s. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)

Praise for Oates from the UK
• One of the female frontrunners for the title of Great American Novelist.— Maggie Gee, Sunday Times

• A writer of extraordinary strengths...she has dealt consistently with what is probably the great American theme— the quest for the creation of self...Her great subject, naturally, is love.—Ian Sansom, Guardian

• Her prose is peerless and her ability to make you think as she re-invents genres is unique. Few writers move so effortlessly from the gothic tale to the psychological thriller to the epic family saga to the lyrical novella. Even fewer authors can so compellingly and entertainingly tell a story.—Jackie McGlone, Scotland on Sunday

• Novelists such as John Updike, Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer slug it out for the title of the Great American Novelist. But maybe they're wrong. Maybe, just maybe, the Great American Novelist is a woman. —The Herald

Book Reviews
Some novels are almost impossible to review, either because they're deeply ambiguous or because they contain big surprises the reviewer doesn't wish to give away. In the case of The Accursed, both strictures apply. What I wish I could say is simply this: "Joyce Carol Oates has written what may be the world's first postmodern Gothic novel: E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime set in Dracula's castle. It's dense, challenging, problematic, horrifying, funny, prolix and full of crazy people. You should read it. I wish I could tell you more.... The book is too long, but what classic Gothic isn’t? It sprawls, there’s no identifiable protagonist or unity of scene, and yet these many loosely wrapped Tales of Princeton are feverishly entertaining. Oates’s hypnotic prose has never been better displayed than it is in the book’s final fabulism.... I could tell you who wins...but it’s a secret.
Stephen King - New York Times Book Review

The Accursed is…spectacular—a coalescence of history, horror and social satire that whirls around for almost 700 mesmerizing pages…The delights of this macabre novel gather thick as ghouls at midnight in the cemetery. I've never been so aware of Oates's weird comedy…With its vast scope, its mingling of comic and tragic tones, its omnivorous gorging on American literature, and especially its complex reflection on the major themes of our history, The Accursed is the kind of outrageous masterpiece only Joyce Carol Oates could create.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

The Accursed is a unique, vast multilayered narrative; a genre bending beast of a book, utterly startling from start to finish, compulsive and engaging, the writing crackling with energy and wit. This is an elaborately conceived work.
New York Review of Books

Oates’ atmospheric prose beautifully captures the flavor of gothic fiction.... In Oates’ hands, this supernatural tale becomes a meditation on the perils of parochial thinking. It demands we think—with monsters—about our failure to face the darkest truths about ourselves and the choices we’ve made.

(A 4-star review.) A brilliant Gothic mystery that has the punch of historical fiction. Currents of race, class and academic intrigue swirl under the surface, but it’s the demonic curse that propels the action... Oates casts a powerful spell. You’ll close The Accursed and want to start it all over again.

(Starred review. ) [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.... The story sprawls, reaches, demands, tears, and shrieks in homage to the traditional gothic, yet with fresh, surprising twists and turns.
Publishers Weekly

Historical fiction with a spooky Oatesian twist: at the turn of the 20th century, strange things start happening in peaceful, polished Princeton, NJ. Folks dream about vampires, the daughters of the town's classiest families start vanishing, and a bride-to-be runs away with a vaguely menacing European, presumably a prince and possibly the Devil. As her brother gives chase, he encounters characters from former President Grover Cleveland and future President Woodrow Wilson to authors like Upton Sinclair, all cursed with dark visions. Do these visions hint at personal or collective anguish?
Library Journal

A lush, arch, and blistering fusion of historical fact, supernatural mystery, and devilish social commentary... A diabolically enthralling and subversive literary mash-up.

(Starred review.) Oates finishes up a big novel begun years before—and it's a keeper. If the devil were to come for a visit...where would he turn up first?.... Princeton, N.J., long Oates' domicile, ...on "the disastrous morning of Annabel Slade's wedding." No slashing ensues, no pea-green vomiting; instead, the good citizens of Princeton steadily turn inward and against each other, the veneer of civilization swiftly flaking off on the edge of the wilderness within us.... It just could be that the devil's civilization is superior to that of America.... The Curse is the one of past crimes meeting the future, perhaps; it is as much psychological as real, though Oates takes pains to invest plenty of reality in it. Carefully and densely requires some work and has a wintry feel to it, it's oddly entertaining, as a good supernatural yarn should be.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also, consider these LitLovers talking points to get a discussion started for The Accursed:

1. How would you define The Accursed? Is it a vampire story, social commentary, satire, fictional history, gothic tale? What elements of those different genres can you identify in this book?

2. M.W. van Dyck, II is The Accursed's intrusive narrator—interjecting frequently, inserting digressive footnotes, and passing judgment. Is he a reliable narrator—are we to take his word for events in the book? Or are we meant to be skeptical? How would you describe him?

3. How are we to view the events that take place in this novel? Are we to suppose that they "happen" to the fictional characters in the course of the story? Or are we to gather they are the result of the characters' subconscious? Are they dreams? In other words, is this realistic fiction...or fantasy?

4. What is the Curse? What is its foundation? What, metaphorically, is Oates suggesting by the Curse? Who is cursed...and why?

5. The Accursed asks us to ponder the nature of evil? What is "evil" in the scope of the novel? Which of the book's characters are evil? What do you consider evil? Who or what are our real life demons? Are they personal demons or collective (societal)?

6. Follow-up to Questions 5 & 6: Talk about Winslow Slade. What did you think of him initially...and what did you come to understand about him by the novel's end, particularly in light of his final sermon?

7. Discuss the era's attitudes toward—and treatment of—women, African Americans, Jews, workers, and immigrants? Were you shocked at those private and public utterances—views held at the turn of the 20th-century (not so terribly distant from our own time), even by prominent people, whom we admire to this day?

8. Socialism, much "accursed" in American history, even in this day, is a prominent subject in The Accursed. What does it have to do with events of the novel? In other words, why does Oates spend so much ink writing about the socialist movement? Is she sympathetic or opposed to it? What is your understanding of socialism and its vilification?

9. Is there a hero in The Accursed? Are there more than one? Whom do you find admirable? What characters, male or female, if any, do you come to care about in this book?

10. Talk about the women—in particular Adelaide Burr, Annabel Slade, Wilhelmina Burr, Mrs. Peck. What do you think of them?

11. Speaking of Mrs. Peck—what do you think of her offer to Woodrow Wilson—and his refusal? Why does he refuse her help? Who is Mrs. Peck?

12. How are the various historical figures presented in this book—Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, Jack London, and Teddy Roosevelt? Is Oates's treatment of them at variance with what you might have expected?

13. Reviewers cite the book's frequent humor. What parts of this book do you find funny?

14. This is a very "literary" book, with references and parallels to literature: Emily Dickinson, Sherlock Holmes, Grimms Brothers fairly tales, Edgar Allan Poe, and Bram Stoker, to name a few. Can you identify some of them? Why might the author incorporate so many allusions into her work?

15. In the chapter "Ratiocination Our Salvation," Josiah Slade and Pearce van Dyck debate the use of Sherlock Holmes's method of observation and logic to solve the mystery of the Crosswick Curse. For van Dyck, Holmes's ratiocination is "the solution to our human folly; for young Slade, Holmes is merely fiction...and the so-called "puzzles [come] with ready-made solutions" from Conan Doyle. "They're not true mysteries," Slade argues. Van Dyck counters, "But I think they are. They are the distillations of the sprawling, messy, impenetrable mysteries that surround us." Later in the novel, however, Slade begins to think more seriously about van Dyck's approach.

     Here's the discussion question: Do life's mysteries have logical solutions—does Joyce Carol Oates believe they do? What does her novel suggest? What do you think? Is all of life open to reason and logic? Or are there life events too mysterious to be explained by human understanding? (See our LitCourse 2 on the history of the novel and realistic fiction. It includes a Holmes short story for it's course reading.)

16. Could this book have used a tougher editor?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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