The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates

I held off with this review as long as I could, but in honesty, I have to review it as I do the others. Let me preface it by admitting that I was suckered in once more by exquisite writing and the often humorous remarks of the narrator, the promise of a dark gothic tale a la Edgar Allen Poe meets Stephen King, and the author’s creative hand. I wanted to love The Accursed, but alas, this gothic novel was a tale unfinished… by me.

The narrator of this story–an exploration of the strange, otherworldly happenings that plagued Princeton, NJ in 1905-06–purports to be a historian who’s undertaken to uncover the truth behind these occurrences with details never before known. Evidently, he managed to read the heretofore undecipherable handwriting of someone’s diary. I had a problem with that because M. W. van Dyck, the narrator is an unreliable narrator who inhabits the minds of a few historical personages, ex-President Grover Cleveland, for one, and future president Woodrow Wilson, for another. The narrator’s portrayal of these men is not kind–especially Wilson’s. I find it difficult to countenance what could be called fantasy but are plainly tall tales about historical characters, because some of the things Oates reveals as Wilson’s thoughts, discussions and conversations in particular, she couldn’t possibly know. They’re so unflattering I doubt the man would have alluded to them in his diaries. Unless Mr. Wilson came back from his tomb to whisper these things in Oates’ or van Dyck’s ear–which would have been a coup and very fitting for a gothic tale–they leave a bad taste in my mouth, especially since when I include historic characters in my own writings I do my best not to defame them.

The story, and the Curse, cut several bloody swaths through the lives of its characters–through ghostly apparitions, marriages, kidnapping, sexual and physical abuse (by the demon), intimations of molestations, murder, and instances of herd behavior worthy of the Salem witch trials, while splattering the pages with the narrator’s racist and sometimes titillating remarks, his preoccupation with footnotes, semicolons, with Woodrow Wilson’s stomach pump, and with more detail about ladies’ fashion, hats, and corsetry than I cared to know because it took me away from the characters and the story, which was difficult enough to hang onto without these interruptions.

In short, my favorite part of this novel was the cover. If you want a summary of the story, read the dust jacket. I can’t give you a complete one because, for the first time in more years than I can remember, I failed to push through a novel to the end, quitting 5/7th of the way through, throwing my hands up in despair.

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