The newest novel from Joyce Carol Oates, The Accursed, inducts the reader into the stifling high society of Princeton, New Jersey, at the turn of the last century—an interminable tea party where everybody who isn't a vampire or a socialist is doing a lot of hard drugs. Woodrow Wilson is a trembling mess whose racist daymares can only be calmed with regular doses of opium. Upton Sinclair is threatening to dismantle America through serial muckraking. Everything except laudanum, hardcore Presbyterianism, and blueberry muffins is being actively repressed. (As Oates herself said last month, during a reading at Seattle's Central Library, the world of this novel is "a sort of esoteric playground for Southern boys, where graduating seniors freed their personal slaves upon leaving.") Those who preach fire and brimstone are revealed to be shameful cowards. Naturally, the only spiritual landscape befitting them is a haunted one, in a gothic novel from which God is notably absent.
The narrator is a heartbroken historian descended from an old Princeton family—the van Dycks—and the story he tells revolves around the richest, whitest family in Princeton, the Slades. Grandpa Slade is much loved, with a big family of beautiful children and an enviable public career as a minister and former governor. But Grandpa Slade is also hiding a nasty secret from his youth, and he can't keep the resulting curse from systematically murdering his family in increasingly strange and disturbing ways.
Meanwhile, the residents of Princeton engage in hysterical gossip, and famous writers make cameo appearances, offering consolation or criticism as they see fit—Mark Twain, booze-soaked and impotent; Upton Sinclair, losing the battles against both capitalism and industrialized meat; and Jack London, utterly butchering the socialist cause. London, it turns out, is a demonic hedonist so vile, he can explain his literary success only by way of the "superiority of certain races, and the inheritance of these superior traits by 'superior' specimens within these races," which "even the slant-eyed, the Jew, and the dagos" take for a fact. To cope, everyone within a five-mile radius of Nassau Hall drinks laudanum like it's Tang.
In this very long, occasionally exhausting, and exquisitely pretty social-justice lecture, Oates has made of the ugly American subconscious a marshland known as the Bog Kingdom. Both metaphor and geographical oddity, the bog is neither fully real nor fully imaginary. It seems to exist just outside of town, but disappears when it is sought. From this ghostly swamp emerge all of Princeton's repressed desires. Through the swamp pass the children of tyrannical fathers and the wives of hysterical husbands. And in the swamp live all of Princeton's victims, turned murderous. The lynched hang from silvery trees. Brutalized women scrub lead-gray palace steps. One witness describes it as a sort of whitewashed dream, "astonishing to the eye, one would have thought that the world had turned inside-out and Heaven had drunkenly reversed itself with Hell."
Oates does risk beating us over the head with these very heavy themes, and after 500 pages or so, the sheer number of demons and serpents and bloodied bosoms and wanly pretty girls begins to grate. At times, it feels like there was less joy in the writing of the novel than in the puzzling and the divining of it. But the patient reader is rewarded. A doomed expedition to Antarctica and an anachronistic Cormac McCarthy–style church sermon at the novel's end—delivered, insanely, in ALL CAPS—redeem all the talk about corsets. If you can stick with it, this is more than a history class; there is music here.
Plus, somewhere in the middle, we get to drink Old Grand-Dad Whiskey with Mark Twain in Bermuda as he freely admits that he "did not waste his time reading mere fantasies, when the actual world of pain & suffering stared him in the face." The Accursed is no mere fantasy. It addresses the world of pain and suffering directly, and raises the dead to haunt those who should have spoken. Entire generations cast gruesome judgment on the current one, and it is this immediacy of judgment that elevates an otherwise mildly creepy ghost story to a downright terrifying anthropology.