In 1905-6 in Princeton, New Jersey, a series of strange events and people threaten to change the course of history. As Woodrow Wilson struggles to remain in control as president of Princeton University, a curse descends upon a prominent Princeton family, the Slades. That the family is targeted is not so clear in the beginning… and the event that triggered the curse is revealed only at the very end. Why others are victims of mad attacks remains unexplained.
In addition to an interesting portrait of what life could be imagined to be in early 20th century Princeton, Joyce Carol Oates also provokes some interesting encounters between well-known historical figures, such as Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London. She makes an interesting use of names of family members and acquaintances of Woodrow Wilson, but keeps twisting real life events to turn her story into a gothic extravaganza.
One character of particular interest is Mrs. Peck whom Woodrow Wilson encounters while vacationing in Bermuda to restore his health. He was staying in a hotel but got invited to move into her villa where other guests were in attendance, including Mark Twain. Wilson develops a close friendship with Mrs. Peck. In real life, Woodrow Wilson had an amorous relationship with a Mary Peck met under similar circumstances, and kept this relationship for more of his life. This may have been the matter of scandal, except the relationship was rumored to have remained platonic. In the Joyce Carol Oates novel, Mrs. Peck is called Cybella, and reveals herself to be a European noble, a countess, later married to a count and therefore twice a countess, but also an angel sent by God to protect him. She reveals this last piece of information about herself when she comes to meet him in Princeton and they are sitting down in a park to have a serious discussion. When he reflects on the situation and hesitates in his response to her, she disappears and he finds himself alone in the park.
This is just one example of a “spirit” or non-human being intervening in the story. Some seem to be more of the vampire type, but there were also ghosts. That is interesting… Gothic stories often include the intervention of other-worldly beings. But others often end with an explanation of how strange manifestations were really not the work of “spirits” (this is the case with The Mysteries of Udolpho).
The narrator of this book is an historian whose father commits one of the unexplained crazy actions in the book. He is often silent but sometimes quite vocal and visible as the historian who attempts to elucidate the origins and workings of the curse that affects the Slade family and others connected to it. He claims to use as his sources a variety of materials, many of them diaries and notebooks written by the main characters in his story. Some of these documents are more or less credible, often ignored by others or forgotten in archives for a long time. Or, in one particular case, written in code.
I have read quite a few books in recent years where the narrator is a historian, sociology or anthropologist writing based on historical documents or from original research to explain a situation and tell a story. Quite a popular device with authors, it seems.
All in all, Joyce Carol Oates’ book was quite an enjoyable read and I am certainly looking forward to reading more of her books. From my perusal of the web, I get that she is quite eclectic and that I can expect very different things from her other works.
By the way, the NY Times review of this book, by Stephen King, is wildly entertaining.
Links to information about Woodrow Wilson:
Links to reviews of The Accursed: