Forbidden Tomes: THE ACCURSED

Happy March, ghouls – we’re beginning to get a taste of spring in the air. It’s a time of reawakening, good weather, and fertility. Unless you’re in a Joyce Carol Oates book. In one of her only outwardly supernatural works, Oates weaves a disturbing portrait of historical Princeton as it falls under the power of demons. Things get weird in the sepulchral spring of THE ACCURSED.

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It’s 1905 and we’re in Princeton. While some actual figures appear in the background, like Woodrow Wilson and Upton Sinclair (who were at Princeton then), the main story depicts the Slade family as the daughter – set to be married – is targeted by a vampiric demon. When the demon takes young Slade as his unwilling wife, the surrounding characters (accurate and fictional alike) fall into madness, betrayal, and violence. It really sucks when demons walk into history; they tend to ruin things.

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Having read a few other works by Oates, I expected this one to be like those – psychological, grim, and very disturbing. While it is all of those things, this novel sports a wonderful, crooked sense of humor as well. Like Shirley Jackson’s work, there is social satire to spare here, stemming from these real people’s responses to demonic activity. And though it may be funny, it also tends to get nasty. Oates has created a synthesis of the macabre, the grotesque, the political, and the tragic. It’s pure literary fun to watch Mark Twain, Jack London and Sinclair interact in a world where demons roam.

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Being a part of Oates’s Gothic series (which includes “Bellefleur” and “The Mysteries of Winterthurn”), this novel is written in high language and spares no detail. It moves slowly, which for some is a turn-off. But for those who are willing to wait for the Gothic nightmares to begin, the payoff is all the better for what is established before. The imagery and manifestations are suitably bizarre – possessed babies, toad-demons in a bog-castle, snakes ejecting from men’s throats – and, even better, visually represent the neuroses of the characters. Oates is brutal with the psychological dissection of her creations, and this is no exception.

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In spite of its slow pace and its ultimate focus on satire over horror, “The Accursed” is a wicked ghost story – more so because the supernatural elements explore the human characters. The period setting and springtime aura give the uncanny occurrences an air of elegance, almost loveliness. Oates’s universe is pleasant… until it’s not. The madness and horror that seep (or explode) through the historical trappings is of the highest order. It’s a hellish tale, poking through the fallacy of human belief and their sureness in themselves, finding corpses instead.

For an old-fashioned but gruesome epic of phantoms and broken minds, Oates has given us a gift. She is a craftsman of the highest order, as long as one has the patience. So take the vow and enter this work of nightmares – but know that those vows are binding.

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