Five hundred pages into prolific, brilliant, unpredictable Joyce Carol Oates’ new novel — and 500 pages in wasn’t anywhere near the end — I realized how much it was spooking me by day and seeping into my dreams by night. What a spellbinding mess!
Set in Princeton, N.J., in 1905 and narrated by a creaky, superstitious historian in 1984, it describes a curse that decimated the aristocracy of the ivy-laced university town.
Why were they cursed? Ostensibly, the reason was the murder of a black child prostitute held in captivity by white ruffians. But “The Accursed” is packed with allusions to the injustices that pock American history, and to the darkness deep in every human soul.
It wouldn’t hurt, coming to this book, to be a scholar of theology and/or literature. Though it is wholly original, it often refers to or brings to mind classic literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to the Book of Revelation to Dante’s “Inferno” to Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to Stoker’s “Dracula” to Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. At the same time, it is a nod to contemporary horror — “The Walking Dead,” Tarantino flicks, last year’s epidemic of homicides in Chicago.
The 70-something author has written great novels and duds — scores of both, actually — but never one like this.
Here’s some of what happens. Pre-presidential Woodrow Wilson, lantern-jawed and uptight, is locked in a rivalry for control of Princeton University with another academic. When a distant relative expresses horror over a lynching, Wilson shuns the man, whom he suddenly realizes has black blood. Meanwhile, his neighbors the Slades are hit by a series of horrific events, most prominently, the kidnapping of beautiful Annabel Slade from her bridal altar by a sinister, seductive count who whisks her to a beyond-hellish place called the Bog Kingdom, where he leads gang rapes, beheads his board-game opponents and dines on human flesh. Later Annabel makes her way back to New Jersey and dies giving birth to a snake — or so some say.
And that’s just for starters. Annabel’s siblings die in “unspeakable” (the book’s favorite word) ways. Counts and demons visit Princeton, hovering nearby as hearts are broken and arteries are slashed. Wilson goes to a tropical island and is smitten by an enigmatic woman who is, yes, a demon. Upton Sinclair, dismayed by the corruption, seeks out his idol Jack London, who seems to have shape-shifted into, yes again, a demon.
The plot is like the worst, longest, most incoherent nightmare you ever had.
And yet, it’s brilliant. Oates’ writing shines in every line, capturing the era’s florid narrative and vocal styles. Of late, her lesser novels have had a dashed-off feel, but there is nothing of that here, perhaps because she’s been working on this story since 1984.
What is this bloody, brilliant mess about? That’s not easily answered, but a general sense that it’s an exploration of the ugly sides of human behavior and American history wouldn’t be wrong. It also might be an argument that the master of the universe, whoever it is, is not benevolent, despite our beliefs and hopes. Whatever you take away from this novel, it’s a bedazzling intellectual ride.
Just keep the lights on as you read, lest you look up to see a bronze-eyed demon smiling at you, full of opinions and plans you can’t, somehow, resist.
Pamela Miller is the night metro editor of the Star Tribune.