April 19, 2013 6:51 pm

American gothic

Joyce Carol Oates’s social critique bears fangs

The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates, Fourth Estate, RRP£18.99, 672 pages

Oates has published more than 50 novels and short story collections, a number of them splendid, but there is no central masterpiece to which new work might be compared. In light of its door-stopper length, and long gestation (an early draft of the manuscript was completed in the 1980s), this latest effort looks like a belated candidate for the Great Oates Novel.

It incorporates her characteristic themes – social injustice; the corruption of youthful innocence – and like many of her previous books evinces a gothic sensibility. It is also set in a familiar Oatesian milieu: the college town of Princeton, New Jersey, where she has taught since 1978.

Narrated by an amateur historian named MW van Dyck II, The Accursed purports to be a chronicle of mysterious events that occurred in 1905 and 1906. Following the arrival of Axson Mayte – a southern gentleman with prominent eye-teeth – Princeton is terrorised by a series of demonic irruptions: ghostly chariots pass through the streets; snakes writhe on schoolroom walls; carousing undergraduates fall prey to winged creatures.

Worst afflicted by the “Crosswicks Curse” are the Slade family, whose ageing patriarch Winslow is respected as the community’s spiritual conscience. He is inconsolable as the younger generation is picked off but, as the narrative progresses, we realise Winslow knows more about the curse’s origins than he lets on.

As in previous novels such as A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982) and My Heart Laid Bare (1998), Oates harnesses gothic tropes to the purposes of social critique. Her monsters represent the insecurities of Princeton’s administrators, as they seek to protect this “bastion of Caucasian privilege” from the incursions of African Americans, socialists and women.

Hence Oates’s pin-sharp caricature of Woodrow Wilson, who served as president of the university before his term in government office. Oates paints him as a bigot who turns a blind eye to a lynching by the Ku Klux Klan. This is balanced by sympathetic portraits of the era’s intellectual elite, including Mark Twain and Upton Sinclair.

The Accursed is a big, mad, colourful romp, respectful of the literary traditions in which it participates, leavened with a piquant humour. It may not be the definitive work to crown the singularly fascinating Oates oeuvre but, for the uninitiated, it is a great place to begin.

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