Some months ago, a fellow writer told me that Joyce Carol Oates was writing a vampire book. It turns out there is some truth in this seemingly far-fetched statement, just as there are grains of truth sprinkled throughout The Accursed, a sprawling tale of terrible events afflicting Princeton high society between 1905 and 1906. Oates began drafting the novel in 1984, when she first moved to this best-known of New Jersey college towns and became interested in its history. She put the project aside for many years but returned to it — and completed it — in 2012.
The resulting book is a grand literary pastiche in style and substance, its genre-bending plot pieced together from secret journal entries, newspaper accounts and firsthand recollections. The Accursed follows the story of a young bride, Annabel Slade, who disappears from her own wedding ceremony under mysterious circumstances: Some say she was abducted by a handsome newcomer to the town, others that she went with him willingly. Her brother, Josiah, wonders if there are even darker forces at work, and is determined to find Annabel and return her to the family fold.
Set within the grand houses of Princeton’s most distinguished residents and against the storied backdrop of its eponymous university, Oates’ novel is populated with fascinating characters, including specters, demons, jilted spouses, likable lunatics (such as the memorable Mrs. Adelaide McLean Burr), novelists and United States presidents (past and future). Oates’ atmospheric prose beautifully captures the flavor of gothic fiction, an effect heightened by references to spiritualists like Madame Blavatsky and the darkly erotic Bog Kingdom, a Princetonian netherworld where proper Victorian social and sexual relations have all gone topsy-turvy. And yes, there is even a vampire to be found by readers willing to dig for him.
But don’t let the vampire distract you from a more central character in The Accursed: M.W. van Dyck II of Eaglestone Manor, a historian so passionate about the “Crosswicks Curse” and its victims that he can’t always distinguish the narrative forest from the trees. With van Dyck, Oates slips from pastiche to parody, for he is a cartoon of a historian, one drawn along bumbling, antiquarian lines. As a result, readers are treated to seemingly irrelevant plot detours and labyrinthine discussions of family trees, real estate transactions and arcane source materials. In one chapter, the dismayed historian cannot help enumerating all that he has had to leave out of his account. In another, van Dyck contemplates the work of the historian (which he sees as the recording, assembling and interpretation of facts), and laments its failure to help him understand what really happened in his hometown of Princeton back in 1905.
One of the reasons our fictional historian remains mystified is that he fails to appreciate what Oates and so many other writers before her have discovered: Vampires and other supernatural beings are useful monsters to think with. These otherworldly creatures illuminate the darkest corners of the human mind and spirit, put flesh and bones on our nightmares, and encourage us to explore issues of difference and deviance. Running like a black thread throughout the many stories in The Accursed are disturbing accounts of racial violence, class warfare, religious prejudice and misogyny. Oates’ real monsters are not the rulers of the Bog Kingdom or even the mesmerizing Wallachian count (whom the reader cannot help but compare to Dracula), but the members of Princeton’s beau monde, who preach from their pulpits and judge without compassion. The curse that afflicts the town did not begin with the abduction of a young bride on her wedding day, but with the secrets these monsters keep.
The Accursed is, in the end, neither a paranormal romance nor an easy read. With its many digressions and historical asides, it is not a page turner. And it’s not a “vampire book” any more than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a young-adult romance. In Oates’ hands, this supernatural tale becomes a meditation on the perils of parochial thinking. It demands we think — with monsters — about our failure to face the darkest truths about ourselves and the choices we’ve made.
Deborah Harkness is the author of the best-selling A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night, the first two books of her supernatural All Souls trilogy. A professor of history at the University of Southern California, Harkness has published scholarly books on the history of magic and science.