Joyce Carol Oates has written in all manner of modes and genres — naturalistic fiction, suspense novels (under the pseudonyms Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly), plays, poetry, memoir, and essays. In her latest novel, The Accursed (Ecco/HarperCollins), she returns to the gothic. It's a haunting, often deeply unnerving tale about a group of well-to-do residents of Princeton, New Jersey, at the turn of the 20th century who are plagued by inexplicable and sometimes horrifying events. Dark and threatening newcomers seem to be around every corner, and the rich and powerful respond with varying degrees of welcome and revulsion.
Oates, who has been living and teaching in Princeton since 1984, says she was drawn to that era in part because Woodrow Wilson was president of the university at that "tumultuous time." Research into Wilson's private life led her to include him as a character in the book. His first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, provides a name for one of the demonic visitors to the town, Axson Mayte. Oates says via email, "Nothing in The Accursed is accidental. The assumption of the novel is that the demonic is an expression of the moral failure of the white Christian ruling class to confront the evil of race discrimination which is right before their eyes."
Wilson is one of several characters suffering from health maladies, and he uses the unpleasant medicines of the day to try to cure them. "Health and medical fads of the era are fascinating," Oates says. "Virtually all over-the-counter medications were laced with opiates that must have had serious side effects."
Oates also uses the idea of "the invalid" to consider the plight of women who might have opted out of society to avoid the dangers of childbirth. "The reward of invalidism for women was a respectable way of escaping from the more physical, arduous, and even dangerous responsibilities of being a wife."
Ever prolific, Oates says she has already completed another novel, this one in a more "realistic" vein, and is now working on a set of short stories.
JOYCE CAROL OATES :: Coolidge Corner Theatre, 279 Harvard St, Brookline :: March 27 :: 6 pm :: $27.99 [includes a copy of the book; additional tickets $5 each] :: 617.566.6660 or brooklinebooksmith.com