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Turns out Joyce Carol Oates' acclaimed 'The Accursed' not for everyone

"The Accursed," by Joyce Carol Oates. Echo Press. 669 pages. $27.99

Joyce Carol Oates published her first book in 1963, and among the 70 more she's written in the past half century are novels, short stories, poetry, plays, essays -- in short, just about every literary genre one can imagine. This one is something else

Writing for The New York Times, Steven King called it "the world's finest postmodern Gothic novel," The Washington Post described it as an "outrageous masterpiece," and The New York Review of Books referred to it as "utterly startling from start to finish." This is clearly a novel that shouldn't be ignored, but can it be fully understood?

Not, I confess, by me.

Most of it takes place in 1905, in the little college town of Princeton, N.J., where college president Woodrow Wilson has gone to an old friend, the Rev. Winslow Slade, to complain about the man who, he believes, is trying to take his job. Wilson believes that his rival is drawing on the occult in his effort to replace Wilson. Slade is kind to his old friend, but does not want to get involved. Wilson has had another shock; a distant cousin, Yaeger Ruggles, has come to ask him to denounce the lynching of two black people. Wilson is a Southerner with mixed feelings about the Klan, and tries to stall his cousin. He is also alarmed because he had a sudden suspicion that his cousin might have black blood.

Numerous mentions are made of Wilson's health problems, and it seems amazing that he covered them up so successfully that he was elected president of the United States before his final breakdown.

There is a lot of talk in this novel about social status and the fierce elitism that characterized that time. There are several narrators, one a "historian" who interrupts frequently to comment on events. Another is a member of one of the most important families in town -- Adelaide Burr, sometimes called "Puss." She is also an elitist and anti-Semite, which will color her reporting.

Before long, strange things begin to happen. Former President Grover Cleveland is there for a rest, and one day he sees his 8-year-old daughter Ruth standing on a nearby roof. Ruth had died the year before. Also living in this small town is a struggling writer named Upton Sinclair. Sinclair wants to write a book that will not only advance the Socialist cause but make him rich and famous. Both things happen with his expose of the meat-packing business, "The Jungle."

The author refers to "the curse," but we're not told what it is -- other than it affects the Slade family. Then we learn. Just as the beautiful 19-year-old Annabel Slade has said "I do" in her marriage to socialite Dabney Bayard, she is snatched from the altar by a mysterious man who calls himself Axton Mayte. Mayte is described by some as a handsome Southern gentleman, to others he is an ugly wizened gnome who may be in league with a devil. Or the devil himself. In any event, he takes Annabel to a deserted castle, populated by rats and other repulsive creatures, including crawling human wrecks he refers to as "your predecessors, dear Annabel."

Her brother Josiah is looking for the missing bride, and so in a half-hearted way is Dabney, her husband, (who subsequently enters a life of debauchery) but there is no trace. Now sexual repression begins to play a role. Mrs. Burr begins complaining that her husband Horace, "smelling of spirits," has been forcing himself into her room at night. She is clearly repulsed, and so ashamed that she has to wash out her sheets so her maid will not know of her "degradation." (She will later drive Horace to murder her.)

At this point I began to feel that this sprawling novel was falling off the track, as half a dozen stories began competing for my attention. There is a long section on Jack London, who has been invited by Sinclair to speak at a Socialist meeting, is an hour late, and then drinks his way through the evening, frequently shouting "Revolution Now!"

Bodies are found lying about, some of which disappear as mysteriously as they came; Todd Slade, Annabel's young brother, finds a burning girl in the woods who suddenly vanishes; Sinclair's young wife threatens suicide, then takes their baby and leaves him. A number of characters hear hissing sounds and voices, often just before they die. A "distinguished theologian from Heidelberg" by the name of Count English von Gneist arrives in town. After seducing several women, it is suggested that he may be Axton Mayte in another form.

There is talk of vampires, and at least one vampire attack. There is also talk of Darwinism and the fight against creeping atheism. Virtuous women are impregnated by demons, with tragic results. One character is dispatched to the Arctic, where he freezes to death. Woodrow Wilson has an affair with a glamorous German countess, who offers to solve his problems by killing off his chief rival. There is a long evening in which Sinclair is invited to dinner in the White House and finds himself appalled by that "buffoon," Teddy Roosevelt.

About the time I was losing it entirely, the curse is lifted, and most of the dead are restored to life. It has something to do with a confession by Winslow Slade, in which he acknowledges that it's all his fault, but I was too confused to care. I just know I'll never feel the same about Woodrow Wilson.