Borderstan on Books: Joyce Carol Oates’ Accursed Princetonians

by April 5, 2013 at 2:00 pm 0

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]

Joyce Carol Oates is one of those writers, like Stephen King, whose prolific nature is a literary feat in itself. And then to come in and turn around to readers each year massive, doorstop-sized tomes? It’s a mystery that’s just as beguiling as that coursing through early 1900s Princeton in Oates’s latest (yes, doorstop-sized) novel, “The Accursed.”


“The Accursed” by Joyce Carol Oates. (Courtesy HarperCollins Publishers)

Is this a masterpiece? No. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t one hell of a fun ride through Gothic territory that Oates has always been at home in.  In fact, this massive work is a veritable checklist of Gothic themes: old mansions people with haunting spirits, dense forests, psychological machinations, sexual repression, and more.

The titular cursed individuals are pretty much everyone in the novel (including real-life figures such as Upton Sinclair, Woodrow Wilson, and Jack London), but it’s several rich Princeton families who seem to bear the brunt of it. And it all springs with the wedding day of young Annabel Slade, during which she’s kidnapped (or does she willingly escape?) by a strange figure who may very well be the Devil; or at the very least, some lesser, equally hellish imp.

From there, the novel spirals out into several strands of hauntings and madness, as told through the words of a fictional historian who’s probably not the most reliable source (for example, one narrative strand is related from coded diary entries that only this historian could decipher).

So even as we’re reading about demonic liaisons, monstrous births, and ghostly sightings, we’re not exactly sure that what’s happening is truly happening. Or maybe a curse really does exist, brought upon by centuries of slavery and gender inequality (both issues, of course, run like an undercurrent throughout the novel).

Regardless, this uncertainty is what you keep the pages turning, and this pseudo-historical background lends an eerie feel to the proceedings (even if they’re responsible for numerous digressions that can bog one down at times). Just when you feel like things are slowing down, they pick back up again and another eerie layer is added to the story.

To put it quite simply, “The Accursed” is one of those doorstop-sized novels that, while  it certainly feels large, reads a lot quicker than one imagines it should.

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