The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates
In one of the review-excerpts of Joyce Carol Oates’s novel The Accursed (2013) featured in the first pages of my edition, Stephen King wrote: “Joyce Carol Oates has written what may be the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel”. This intrigued me greatly, as I am very much interested in both the Gothic and the postmodern – so, offered a novel with both these elements, I set out to read it with a tentative question posed in my mind; What makes this novel postmodern and Gothic?
Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed include many of the tropes one finds in Gothic literature: specters and ghosts, murderers and ‘cannibal sandwiches’, overworked scholars and professors, mysterious and inexplicable events and landscapes, and a frame narrative to pack it all in. The frame narrative is important, as, while it is not a wholly original turn of the Gothic, it gives the reader a sense of reading a document ‘lost and found’, and of h**self being a part of a professorial research team devoted to investigate an age old enigma yet to be solved, something that is, I dare say, inherently Gothic. (We find this in other Gothic and horror writers as well, best showcased in Lovecraft, for example.)
The enigma to be solved in The Accursed occurs at a wedding between ‘part-retired Presbyterian minister’ Dr. Winslow Slade’s granddaughter Annabel Slade and Lieutenant Dabney Bayard in Princeton, New Jersey – June 4th, 1905. A few weeks before the wedding, Princeton has been visited by ‘a lawyer from Carnahan, Virginia, with an association with the Presbyterian Church’, a man rather malicious named Axson Mayte. There is, however, something odd about Axson, something that everyone who meets him prior to the wedding picks up on, but are not entirely able to accurately pinpoint. Through the investigating narrative of scholar M.W. van Dyck II we get to read different academics and historians perspective of Mayte, but the most consensual understanding is that Mayte is the first public manifestation of the Curse. Broadly explained, Mayte shows up at the church door during the wedding and, variously perceived by the invited guests as re-told by van Dyck II, inexplicably draws Slade to him before they disappear like ghosts, “as if into thin air”.
During my master’s course The Gothic Imagination, I wrote an essay about how the existence of two different, yet parallel spaces in Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967) – the real, physical space of Rosemary’s reality, and the abstract, metaphysical space of her dreams – combine in order to create a new kind of space; a transcendental reality, if you will. Impossible consequences manifest themselves in her real life – impossible because they are consequences only of something she claims to have dreamed, and not of something from her physical reality. (As I look back and browse the earlier blogposts on this site, I become aware that, for some reason, this is something that greatly amuses and interests me.) Joyce Carol Oates achieves some of the same effects in this novel, too. Through hard work, the scholar who narrates the tale (again, his name is M.W. van Dyck II) has been able to get a hold of Annabel Slade’s own journal where she has written about the time spent with Axson Mayte, after disappearing from her own wedding. Without spoiling too much, I would like to simply point out that the technique used in Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby here discussed, is also used by Oates in this segment of the novel. Mayte takes her to a place that does not necessarily exist in ‘real life’ – somewhere called ‘the Bog Kingdom’. What happens in this Kingdom is incomprehensible for both Slade and van Dyck II as they’re happening – but once we return to the ‘real world’ we see that the consequences from these events nevertheless manifest themselves in the ‘real world’ – so they must have happened, whether in this world, or the next.
(There is, additionally, another, even more striking example of this, one that shows Oates’s borrowing of this technique in a much clearer light. But telling you that would be a spoiler of significant magnitude, so much so that I will refrain from writing it here.) (You’ll have to read the book and see if you can spot it. (It’s towards the end of the book.))
Another turn of the Gothic in The Accursed is the fact that the supernatural (the ghost), or in this specific case, the Curse, is never always the same person – or ‘thing’. As in all good and solid Gothic fiction, the supernatural evil is capable of taking on different shapes – the Curse is essentially a shapeshifter. That is to say Axson Mayte is not the ‘only’ manifestation of the Curse. But is he the ‘pure’ Curse – the Master – or just a deviant of it – a servant? Or maybe there does not exist such a hierarchy of evil, and Mayte is just one of several ways in which the Curse can be allowed to stay in Princeton. Whatever the answers to this, the result is more or less the same; We can never be sure who (or where) the primary source of the Curse is. We, the readers, become paranoid. Even the characters we think we know well may be part of it. We never know where – or to whom – the Curse might strike next.
What is fresh and something I haven’t encountered before, in Oates’s Gothic novel, is the inclusion of a (rather) in-depth discussion and study of American socialist history. The readers get to follow Upton Sinclair’s revolutionary ambition about equality founded on Nietzschean philosophy, his life situation during the writing of his The Jungle, and his appreciation of fellow American socialist Jack London. On one side, I think this socialist, revolutionary aspect of the novel, while particularly interesting and engaging to me in and of itself, is ill fitted in the overall Gothic, ghost/’vampire’ atmosphere of The Accursed. I do appreciate, however, the parallel it draws up at the end of the tale, and the resulting effect of it is a trope very much belonging to the Gothic; Using Sinclair’s hard-working discipline, his vigorous vegetarianism and his admiration of London, and by raising the expectations, hopes and dreams of Sinclair (as well as the reader), of the just cause (for then only to shatter them again toward the end), Oates is able to intriguingly question the validity and power of personal ambitions, dreams and passions. So, by looking at it (‘it’, i.e, the inclusion of ‘a (rather) in-depth discussion and study of American socialist history’) like this, it is more understandably relevant in The Accursed, as the resulting effect does fit rather well in a Gothic setting.
Although the novel is rather long (my edition is 667 pages), with some passages in it that made me personally question the relevancy of this particular topic to the whole of the novel, I would certainly recommend experiencing it. The passages in questions might not strikingly or obviously fit the rest of the Gothic atmosphere of the novel, but after having finished them all and been able to put them together in the bigger picture, I realize what Oates is doing is rather innovative, creative and, ultimately, transgressive (which, keep in mind, is what the Gothic ultimately is all about.)
Stephen King was right when writing of The Accursed that it: “may be the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel.”