Joyce Carol Oates’ Gothic Quintet, Part V: The Accursed
Last October, I looked at the four books of Joyce Carol Oates’ Gothic Quintet that had been published up to that point. I wrote about them in publication order, starting with Bellefleur, from 1980, a novel I thought truly brilliant. I had a slightly more ambiguous reaction to 1982’s A Bloodsmoor Romance, which might have been a function of my being less familiar with the books that had inspired it. At any rate, I was considerably more impressed with 1984’s Mysteries of Winterthurn and thought 1998’s My Heart Laid Bare a successful conclusion to the sequence. If ‘conclusion’ is the appropriate word. Earlier this spring, Oates’ fifth gothic was published, as though the sequence was returning to unlife after being laid to rest.
In fact, Oates wrote all five books in the early 80s, but only published three at the time. My Heart Laid Bare, the fourth, was published a decade and a half later. Now, a decade and a half after that, The Accursed has finally been published. It was the third book written, and so can be viewed as either a belated conclusion to the sequence or else as a kind of keystone to the gothic arch of the whole series. I tend to prefer the latter. My Heart Laid Bare seemed to move away from the Gothic toward a more purely ironic, though not wholly mimetic, form of storytelling. The Accursed is in keeping with the earlier books of the series, not without irony itself, but also filled with the sublime and seemingly supernatural. I found it clarified and extended themes and imagery of all five books, resonating and completing the overall sequence.
Given the structural complexity of each individual book, the way they build themselves up almost as jigsaw puzzles, and particularly given Oates’ choice in The Accursed to withhold the final puzzle-piece of plot until the final chapter, there’s something appropriate about the publication order of the books. The Accursed may after all be best read as the final book of the five. As such, it’s a bravura conclusion, every bit as dense with meaning and as extravagantly well-written as its predecessors. And as intricate, every image linking to each other and to the core themes of the book. But it also comes to seem that the five books replicate as a whole their individual structures: the themes build, and the plot follows.
In fact, the plot of The Accursed is itself fairly complex. The book takes place in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1905 and 1906. It’s a time when Woodrow Wilson, later to be President of the United States, is President of Princeton University; but while he has a major role in the book, this is mainly the story of the Slade family, and of white upper-class Princeton as a whole — implying also the unspoken and unwritten story of the poor and the non-white. We are given the whole tale from the perspective of a historian, himself born during the course of the story; he claims to be intent on reconstructing the past based only on the notebooks and diaries and letters left behind by his subjects, but you can’t help but notice that extended passages come from no obvious source and in some cases simply cannot have come from an external text. (Only if you think carefully about what you’re reading, perhaps you will see hints and allusions that explain where the historian has found his material.)
At any rate, the novel follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the Slades: grandfather Winslow, son Augustus with grandson Josiah and granddaughter Annabel, son Copplestone with grandson Todd and granddaughter Oriana. Following a late-night talk in which Winslow tries to counsel a distraught Wilson, demons appear to be unleashed upon the family, and incidentally upon the rest of Princeton’s upper class. The first half of the book is a slow build of strange incidents and ominous events, held together by the narrator-historian’s heavy foreshadowing of tragedies to come. A bride’s abducted by a demon-lover. A vampire enters the scene. Terrible and astonishing things begin to happen apparently at random, so that at first blush the book seems almost plotless, a succession of horrors happening to unconnected people in Princeton’s high society, a story that develops less through logic than sheer pace of events. Careful examination suggests another interpretation; these things may be more closely linked than at first appears, and the Slade family connections wider. At any rate the action picks up: there are seductions, murders and attempted murders, ghosts, Sherlock Holmes or a reasonable facsimile thereof, even a strange hellish fairytale kingdom. It’s all resolved by action from the most unexpected of the Slades, followed by an epilogue giving some hint as to the long-ago act that brought this evil into the world, that brought demons into Princeton.
Or, to a long-ago act. Here as in the other gothics, Oates is interrogating and implicating the racism, sexism, and classism of American history (and, implicitly, America present). But if this book feels like a fitting climax to the whole sequence, that may be because here it is clearest what her purpose is in doing so — how the obvious prejudices of times now long past can bear upon our own era, often subtler in its oppressions. We see in this book, when all’s said and done, how injustices long gone can have horrible consequences well after the fact. If they are not acknowledged. If they are not exorcised, by confession — not necessarily religious confession, but by putting crimes into words. The whole of the gothic sequence becomes an extended exercise in exhuming the rotting sins of the past, that they may begin to be laid properly to rest. Demons, some have suggested, can be controlled when their names are spoken.
Images and motifs from the other gothics recur here: the upper-crust family with the sprawling mansion, the bog or swamp that is a place of spiritual trial, the mysterious woods, mirrors and doubles, the mysteries of time. That last perhaps especially. Again like the other gothics, the structure of The Accursed is intricate not just in its interlocked images and allusions, but also in terms of its chronology. The narrator’s concern with establishing an accurate sequence of events is a beginning of a structure, but the book’s abiding concern with things left unsaid — things hinted at, things that cannot be put into words, things brought up only to be denied out of hand — draws the reader into engagement with the text, moving backward and forward, linking images and events across pages. Resist that engagement and you will still find a good story. Give in to it, and you’ll find a book both great and challenging.
The device of the humble antiquarian narrator, unaware of the truth of matters or unwilling to acknowledge them, is perhaps the most effective of all the framing techniques used in Oates’ gothics. This narrator is a fully-fledged character, both sympathetic and obnoxious. At first, he seems tangentially connected to events, which he’s trying to put together honestly, but as you read on, putting together hints and implications, you come to see that there’s more going on; that the whole structure of the history, in fact, may derive from the historian’s need to justify or establish his own origin, and the origins of his ancestors.
The use of the historian as a frame lets Oates move between characters and styles. The historian sometimes simply lets his ‘sources’ speak for themselves. These varying voices create a multitude of point-of-view characters across the white upper-class society of 1905 Princeton. Different stylistic approaches and different structural approaches intensify the phantasmagoric feel of the book; some characters, if they are to be believed, have experiences in a horrific fantasyland, while others are focussed on the here-and-now, on their health or marriage or preparing the ground for socialist revolution.
The narrator himself, who brings them all together, has an elaborate diction and a style based on implication and rhetorical questions.
The young women then noticed that Todd was not alone in this strange space: but there stood before him, engaging him in earnest conversation, a young girl unknown to either Annabel or Willy, of slender proportions, indeed wraith-like, with long and unruly dark hair, and a round, dusky-skinned, sharp-boned face; and dark eyes that seemed to blaze with passion. The girl was very coarsely dressed in what appeared to be work-clothes, that had been badly soiled, torn, or even burnt. The fingers of her right hand appeared to be misshapen, or mangled. Most remarkably, small flames lightly pulsed about the girl: now lifting from her untidy hair, now from her tensed shoulders, now from her outstretched hand!—for the girl was reaching out to Todd, as if to grasp his hand.
More remarkably still, around the girl’s neck was a coarse rope, fashioned into a noose; the length of the rope about twelve feet, and its end blackened as from a fire.
And ah!—how the girl’s topaz eyes blazed, with vehemence!
Was the hellish vision a trick of the sunlight? Did Annabel’s and Wilhelmina’s widened eyes deceive them? The flames pulsed about the girl, and rippled, and subsided; and flared up again, lewdly vibrating, tinged with blue like a gas-jet, at their core; so subtle, in hellish beauty, they might have been optical illusions, or mirages, caused by some fluke of the fading light.
The structure of this passage is not unlike much of the book: building to a striking horrific image, then calling it into question in a way that emphasises both its possible unreality and its emotional intensity. Read closely enough and all the supernatural of the book may be doubted: there is much concern here with vision and illusion, and Princeton in this telling was awash with mind-altering substances in 1905 and 1906, contained in patent-medicines and wild herbs. There is perhaps even madness in the Slade family line.
The specific image of the burning girl is important, though. She has a direct plot significance, but also carries a heavy thematic weight. Black, female, working-class, she’s an image of the exploitation underlying — and supporting — the elegant Princeton society in which the book’s set. The work-clothes and mangled right hand point to her class origins, the exploitation and mutilation and even literal cannibalisation of the working class to create the luxuries and necessities of the rich, their linen and cotton and tobacco. Her ‘dusky’ skin points to the novel’s concern with race, and the questionable reality of race: among the many illusions the novel’s characters hold, illusions of their own ethnic purity are most tenacious and pernicious. Beliefs about racial characteristics or racial destinies literally bedevil the characters, often mixed with half-understood social darwinism: an extended monologue near the book’s end by a demonic parody of Jack London articulates this ideology of oppression.
I think it’s significant, too, that Annabel and Wilhelmina don’t get to hear what the burning girl says. The book’s deeply concerned with things unspoken and unsayable. On a plot level, the narrator’s fallibility leaves certain things in his history to be dug out of his text rather than directly stated; genre readers may be put in mind of a Gene Wolfe novel, with a surface-level story containing a series of apparent contradictions and gaps that can be seen to suggest another, deeper story underlying events. But the unsayable becomes a source of gothic imagery, as well: one of the key manifestations of the supernatural (or apparent manifestations) is a black snake that leaps down the throat of a main character, forestalling a major revelation. That not only extends the cannibal imagery, but fits thematically with the idea of things that can’t be named, can’t be thought about in this context — homosexuality, for example, and injustices like lynchings, which the white characters uncomfortably try to ignore. Conversely, after a delirious Woodrow Wilson gives a speech in which he jokes about a black women being elected president, he recovers with no memory of what he said and cannot get anyone to tell him. In this context, the book’s fascination with another minor character, novelist Upton Sinclair, makes perfect sense: he’s one of the few determined to say what the élite believe cannot be said. His book The Jungle reveals that processed meats may contain the remains of workers who fell into the machinery; but this (literally) unpalatable truth is more than many of his readers are prepared to accept.
As a theme, it all fits with the genre tradition of the gothic: with the idea of truly unspeakable horrors. With things that cannot be said directly. From a certain point of view, this is a drama of repression, of hidden things whose existence is too fearsome to admit forcing their way to the surface. One could argue, I think, that the historian-narrator’s whole constructed story is actually a sophisticated attempt on his part to deny certain key truths behind his own birth — a kind of Oedipal agon, rewriting and murdering his own father. But more than that, there’s something universal, something comprehensive, about the gothicism and the curses of the book: it involves and implicates not only personal stories, but American society as a whole, politics and religion and art, past and future. The book’s a Menippean satire, or, in Northrop Frye’s term, an anatomy: an appropriately ghoulish image.
Which is not to say that it neglects the romantic and supernatural. It’s filled with event and wonder: vampires, demons, ghosts, the Jersey Devil. It just so happens that it may be possible to read the book in such a way as to suggest that these things are deceits or hallucinations. As I’ve said, mirrors are a significant image in the book, along with twinning and dopplegangers; the book seems to be a duplicate of itself, both supernatural romance and ironic satire. The Gothic tradition is evoked, but so is the Greek. Both unite to form the whole story, which may be the point — dualities (as white with black) are illusory, products of vision. Purity’s a myth.
What then of religion, of divine opposition to diabolic wickedness? Oates mocks religious conservatism relentlessly, and as I read the book undercuts any idea of a benevolent deity that can be invoked to dismiss the devils plaguing Princeton. In fact, there’s something of a reversal of values that becomes more prominent as the book continues. Certainties are challenged; ideas of ‘natural order’ critiqued. Theology’s compliant in the crimes of authority: used as justification for those crimes, it’s the source of the ideology that brings on the curses that fill the book. Some characters struggle to break away from that ideology, but too often fail. Well-meaning male liberals still can’t help but be satisfied that the pace of female liberation is not overfast; that the world they knew is not being overturned.
On the other hand, the idea of a coming socialist utopia is challenged as well. Isn’t that just the Christian apocalypse, stripped of divine imagery? Can one truly escape time, as utopia implies? Upton Sinclair’s a kind of socialist saint, an ascetic, writing twenty hours a day, going without food, plagued by visions like Saint Anthony. But he’s also neglecting his wife and infant child. And for all his rapturous visions of a world to come, he’s remarkably foolish about the world around him. In the end, there is a guardedly happy ending in which some of the characters do seem to escape from time; but not as part of a grand apocalypse, only in a more personal withdrawal from the corrupt society of which they are a part, to attempt to find or found a new way of life. They leave the historian’s tale, and here at least the unspoken becomes not a curse but an escape.
History, then, is the nightmare from which at least some of the characters are trying to awake. But the book itself is solidly grounded in historical fact. It’s not just that Oates writes about Woodrow Wilson as President of Princeton; it’s that she gets the details of the university politics of the time right, bringing in minor figures in Princeton history not merely to figure in Wilson’s story but to extend the themes of the novel as a whole. The historian-narrator may be wrong about many things, but the book itself is grounded in reality, in the sights and sounds and smells of its era. You almost overlook this, the images are so atmospheric, so dense with meanings, the remarkable evocation of the time nearly passes unnoticed.
The characters themselves are deeply concerned with their historical moment, though, and like people everywhen, concerned with the future. To some, including Josiah Slade, it seems that the twentieth century is filling up with demons. Wilson, on the other hand, is tempted with a terrible choice for his future, a future in which he becomes President of the United States and leads a League of Nations oddly parallel to the clubs of high society — but who it is offering this choice, and Wilson’s final decision, are both surprising. His choice is in a sense no choice.
Every character, it seems, is tempted by demons one way or another. Everyone has some kind of secret, or some kind of hidden desire. Some mania waiting to emerge. They’re shaped by these hidden parts of themselves, by what is repressed and unacknowledged as much as by the obvious strictures of society. The demons that come out of the repressed, in fact, often succeed in their temptations precisely because they offer some escape from conventional society. Women are left invalids by overprescription of patent medicines and by corsets that deform the body, and are largely prevented from taking up the life of the mind: Annabel is not allowed to go to university as her brother did, while Wilhelmina’s desire to be an artist is met with horror. No wonder that a chance at escape, or at power, are taken up.
If, that is, one chooses to read the demons as ‘real.’ I think you could make an argument either way, but the idea of the curse transcends the plot; it’s larger, in a sense, than just the question of what is happening and why. The ‘curse’ is miasmic, something in the air of Princeton — in at least one case, something literally inhaled, an exotic poison causing hallucinations. Symbolically, it is oppression, power unjustly applied, stories told unfairly or stories that tell only partial truth. It is repression, societal and individual. And it is the story that justifies all these things. It is a story that explains events in Princeton in 1905 and 1906. To that extent, it becomes a way for what that society considered unspeakable to be spoken.
Oates tells that story with considerable technical skill. The structure’s unpredictable but on close examination tightly-woven. The characters have a certain flatness, but it’s the flatness that comes with a view at high magnification: you see them with a relentless clarity. There’s a sophistication of approach here: you’re both immersed in a genre story, in an atmosphere of madness and daemonomania, and invited to view the proceedings with a certain level of irony.
Here as elsewhere in the five-book Gothic sequence, genre becomes a way of understanding the world. It’s a way of trying to articulate things otherwise left unsaid. It may not always be accurate. But it also may summon out of dreamlike reality a truth unapproachable by other means. One character in this book becomes obsessed with the curse, with its many manifestations, and develops elaborate charts trying to map out the mystery; he becomes a passionate fan of Sherlock Holmes, who finally appears to him in a demonic form. I think the implication, when all’s said and done, is that the character’s mad but has hit on true things. So the book justifies its form, and the form of the sequence as a whole.
The novel concludes with a strange fable-like adventure in the demonic Bog Kingdom, a fantasy presenting a fable of class uprising and revolution. One of the young Slade grandchildren plays checkers; the way the game’s played in the bog kingdom, it’s a game not of skill but of cheating. Except, of course, there’s a skill to cheating as well. The point’s twofold, I think. One, control of the kingdom’s wagered on the game; power, therefore, comes through cheating. Two, the game’s foreshadowed earlier in the chapter by a quotation from Heraclitus: “Time is a child playing draughts; the kingship is in the hands of a child.” This is not the first time Oates has used that quote — it was the epigraph to Bellefleur, as well. The gothic sequence concludes, then, with a nod to its beginning. And the unifying image is of an underhanded playing with time: time cheated, time out of order.
I think it’s fitting. The gothics exist outside of history. They skip around as they like, while maintaining a scrupulous internal chronology; their own structure is more significant than the externals of clock time. Collectively, they present a nightmare vision of America in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The specificity of that national experience makes it universal: an examination of power and horror at a societal level. Now that they can be read all together, that can be appreciated perhaps as never before. Each takes a slightly different approach, a slightly different form and different tone, to the same basic problem. But they’re all unified by a set of similar images and by their complex dreamlike structures. Each of them is a strong book, and some are masterpieces. Together, they’re a tremendous achievement in American letters, and in American fantasy.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.
How would you advise a reader who had not read any of the volumes in the series: to read them with The Accursed as the third volume, or as the fifth?
That’s a good question, Sarah. There aren’t any direct plot connections from one book to the other, so that extent I don’t think it’s important. As I say, to me the use of the Heraclitus quote really did make The Accursed feel like it was closing off something that started with Bellefleur. I guess I’d have to say that, however Oates originally conceived the sequence, she’s had thirty years to make The Accursed work as the concluding book. So, ultimately, I think publication order is the way to go. It’d be an interesting discussion after they’re all read, though …
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