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Sunday October 13, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Sunday October 13, 2013 MYT 8:22:00 AM
By TERENCE TOH
LET me get straight to the point: Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed is not an easy novel to read.
The good: labelled as a Gothic/horror work of historical fiction, the novel perfectly captures the ideals, values and personalities of turn of the century Princeton, New Jersey, the United States, and contains chilling murders, a bride’s abduction by a demon bridegroom, sinister secrets, and ghostly apparitions.
The not so good: the almost 700-page novel definitely takes its time in getting to these juicy bits, weighing itself down with pages of side stories, lectures and historical notes that seem mostly tangential to the main plot. The book also has tons and tons of characters, with the closest thing to a hero vanishing three quarters of the way in.
Clearly not a novel for novice readers.
The 76-year-old Oates is renowned as one of America’s master storytellers: she is the author of many critically acclaimed novels such as Bellefleur, We Were The Mulvaneys, The Tattooed Girl, and The Gravedigger’s Daughter, among others. She is also the recipient of the US National Medal of Humanities, the US National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, among many other accolades.
Her latest novel, The Accursed, is presented as an account of mysterious events that take place among the elite families of Princeton from 1904 to 1906, compiled from historical documents by one M.W. van Dyck II, a descendant of one of the families affected. Visions and dreams haunt the innocent, and the most unexpected people start committing the most heinous of deeds.
The novel is populated by both fictional and historical characters, all with their own agendas. Princeton University president (and future US president) Woodrow Wilson frets over his legacy at the university and a mysterious woman he encounters. Upstart (and real) author Upton Sinclair fears for the future of the Socialist movement.
Brave salt-of-the-earth lad Josiah Slade goes on a quest to rescue his sister Annabel, kidnapped by the demon bridegroom, while his companion, the spunky Wilhelmina Burr, pines for him. Meanwhile, Josiah’s grandfather, the esteemed preacher Winslow Slade, reveals secrets that threaten the fate of the town.
The Accursed is presented in epistolary format, with the story told in the form of narratives, journal extracts, letters, and so forth (think Bram Stoker’s Dracula). This style is admittedly not always easy to get through.
Oates cleverly blends her novel’s supernatural themes with social commentary on the prejudices, misogyny and hypocrisies of the era. Issues such as women’s suffrage, lynchings of blacks in the American South, and religious problems of evil are all explored in great detail: sometimes too much detail, in fact.
Oates’ writing is crisp, with some of her passages positively lyrical, and her research faultless: She brings Princeton to life with wondrous vigour. Her characters are generally well-drawn – though The Accursed is also populated with many unreliable narrators, which adds creepy layers to its already formidable plot.
The novel has some terrific scenes. The Bog Kingdom (where Annabel Slade is taken to and which she relates is an underground realm populated by nightmare creatures) is absorbing and chillingly atmospheric, while “The Temptation of Woodrow Wilson” is a suspenseful account of the titular character’s experience with an amoral supernatural messenger. In one chapter, a minor character is revealed to be a bloodsucking creature of the night; in another a character tries to murder a baby: these supernatural scenes are very well-written, and were my favourite parts of the novel.
Unfortunately, with the book’s slow pace and propensity to ramble, getting to these parts occasionally felt like a taxing marathon. I am not against long books; however, I felt that a lot of the stuff in the novel, particularly extraneous detail about the private lives of Princeton residents, could have been edited out without any major impact.
A major sideplot revolved around authors Sinclair and Jack London (both real people) and the rise of the socialist movement. While the chapter was memorable, their story felt disconnected, and went on for too long: occasionally when reading, I had to double-check my book cover to make sure the novel hadn’t suddenly morphed into A Brief History Of Socialism.
Also difficult to read were chapters of excerpts from the diary of Adelaide Burr, a victim of the curse, written in a rambling, stream-of-consciousness style, to say nothing of the final and highly crucial Epilogue, which was TWENTY PAGES WRITTEN COMPLETELY IN ALL CAPITALS. Those chapters made me question if I was being paid enough to review books like this!
I also did not like the book’s climax, where the fate of Princeton is determined through a game between a boy and the closest thing to the novel’s villain. I personally thought it felt out of place, anticlimactic and overly bizarre.
Overall, a highly divisive read. Those looking for a straightforward horror story will probably not become fans, while fans of postmodern and unconventional historical fiction will most likely adore it. While I personally think The Accursed is not really my style, I must admit there were enough interesting parts in it to keep me generally invested through the arduous read.
A challenging but somewhat rewarding novel for those with perseverance.
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