The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

In recent memory I’ve never been happier to return a library book than I was when I dropped off The Accursed.

I liked the book, but I’m glad its over.

It was a challenge to read, at times, until I let go and gave myself to it. I quit trying to want it to be somethings else, I suppose, although I wasn’t conscious of wanting it to be anything in particular. Maybe shorter? Less windy? But that would have taken away the flavor and pleasure of reading this story.

From the publisher: This eerie tale of psychological horror sees the real inhabitants of turn-of-the-century Princeton fall under the influence of a supernatural power. New Jersey, 1905: soon-to-be commander-in-chief Woodrow Wilson is president of Princeton University. On a nearby farm, Socialist author Upton Sinclair, enjoying the success of his novel ‘The Jungle’, has taken up residence with his family. This is a quiet, bookish community – elite, intellectual and indisputably privileged. But when a savage lynching in a nearby town is hushed up, a horrifying chain of events is initiated – until it becomes apparent that the families of Princeton have been beset by a powerful curse. The Devil has come to this little town and not a soul will be spared. ‘The Accursed’ marks new territory for the masterful Joyce Carol Oates – narrated with her unmistakable psychological insight, it combines beautifully transporting historical detail with chilling fantastical elements to stunning effect.

That brief description makes it sound like the book is a cohesive, chronological story, a unified narrative, but it is not. There is a narrator, a self-proclaimed amateur historian who is the son of one of the main characters in the book. The events he relates bounce around between various characters, some of their journals and letters, actual events, and imagined dialogue. He makes it clear that he’s trying to piece together–in a much more comprehensive manner, he claims, than past historians–the tragic events that occurred around Princeton in the early years of the twentieth century. Yet he also condenses time and burns some evidence, which makes him a rather unreliable historian and narrator.

I was left with the impression that novel is practically a textbook example of issues surrounding historical interpretation, primarily of how subjective historical interpretation always is, to varying degrees for a plethora of reasons (ego, class, gender, race, available evidence, hearsay, etc). The novel shows how history is not something concrete, but is rather an individual’s piecing together of “evidence” that he or she decides/prefers to use when trying to create a larger “story” where there sometimes is no story and/or attempting to mold an argument for this or that interpretation of events.

The Accursed will appeal to readers who are:

  • Established Oates fans (who certainly don’t need me to tell them about this book)
  • Aficionados of late 19th century/ early 20th century fiction
  • Gothic fiction fans
  • Interested in any of the historical personages represented within the novel

Oates does an excellent job of weaving historical figures into this novel with multiple story-lines, some that cross paths, some that do not. The storyline that I most enjoyed was the one featuring Upton Sinclair. There’s a scene where Upton Sinclair and Jack London meet at a bar after a socialist rally that was so sublimely written that it was both beautiful and painful to read.

I’ve enjoyed the handful of books that I’ve read by Oates and plan on reading more. My advice for this one is to read a few pages and if you get sucked in take it home and stick with it.

The Accursed
Joyce Carol Oats
Ecco, March 2013
Source: library copy
Rating: 4/5 stars (really liked it…and its growing on me the more I think about it!)

I’ve often read books that I hated to see come to an end, but its more rare (at least in my experience) to read a book that I liked but was happy to be done with it. Has this happened to you?


  1. It sounds like you have to be in the mood for this. I *think* I'd like it.

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