“… we cannot know if we act or are acted upon; whether we are playing pieces in the game, or are the very game ourselves.”
– Historian/narrator M.W. van Dyck II in Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Accursed”
Joyce Carol Oates is at the top of her game in her glorious new novel, “The Accursed” – a long, lush account of perhaps-preternatural happenings in Princeton, N.J., a century ago.
Terrible events (Oates’ trademark) come to pass here – but beautifully, and against a backdrop of history, literature, religion, the real and the fantastical, a veritable symphony, in fact, of place and time.
Stephen Dobyns is in his element as well in his latest offering, “The Burn Palace,” a hilarious yet strangely moving tale of dark, present-day phenomena in the fictional town of Brewster, R.I.
There is no way to compare or link the two novels but together they are testament to our enduring fascination with evil, both requiring us, by their sheer heft, to dwell for seeming months, or more, in uneasy places with uneasy people, more than one or two beset by ruses of the mind.
Oates uses M.W. van Dyck II – a fictional descendant of two of Princeton’s oldest families – to tell her tale, he a prim but fair raconteur who begins with the lean, hypochondriacal Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, a man at odds with the cunning, Falstaffian Andrew Fleming West, dean of the great institution’s graduate school:
“Fellow historians will be shocked, dismayed, and perhaps incredulous – I am daring to suggest that the Curse did not first manifest itself on June 4, 1905, which was the disastrous morning of Annabel Slade’s wedding, and generally acknowledged to the be the initial public manifestation of the Curse, but rather earlier, in the late winter of the year, on the eve of Ash Wednesday … This was the evening of Woodrow Wilson’s (clandestine) visit to his longtime mentor Winslow Slade, but also the evening of the day when Woodrow Wilson experienced a considerable shock to his sense of family, indeed racial identity.”
Thus several disparate strains are joined to create a single horrific tale of the public and private hells endured by certain individuals in the early, repressive years of the 20th century. Told in the careful, genteel tone of the era, it is the richly woven story of Wilson, Slade, Slade’s grandchildren – Annabel, Josiah and Todd in particular – as well as an insufferable invalid, Adelaide Burr, who reads Madame Helena Blavatsky and, like Dickens’ Madame Defarge before her, records her world in an often-malicious code.
A whole cast of others – including such American writers of the time as Mark Twain, Jack London, “Sherlock Holmes” and Upton Sinclair – also people this wonderful book.
For Buffalonians, there is the (not very flattering) Princeton presence of former U.S. president Grover Cleveland and his young wife Frances – who have settled in the university town after many years in public life:
“It was invariably a social coup to include Grover and Frances Cleveland in any gathering, despite Grover’s uncouth manners and buffoonish laughter, and the disappointment of his second term in office; worse yet, as many knew, Grover Cleveland had, as sheriff of Erie County in upstate New York in his early career in politics, personally executed, by hanging, at least two condemned men, rather than pay a hangman ten dollars.”
Even to hint at the deeds of the Curse thought to engulf the Slade family in 1905-06 would do a disservice to Oates, whose storytelling genius is at its peak here. It is only safe to say that the book involves Woodrow Wilson’s presidency of Princeton; his close friendship with the aging and widely respected the Rev. Winslow Slade; the marriage of Slade’s stunning but naive granddaughter Annabel; the mental and physical unraveling of those closest to her – and all manner of historically fascinating moments including an interlude in Bermuda wherein Woodrow Wilson, there for his health, meets the “very funny, if cruel and cutting” Samuel Langhorne Clemens.
There is also no mistaking Oates’ intent in having van Dyck call a comment of the Rev. Slade’s to our attention early on in the book: “of all physic conditions, anxiety verging upon paranoia/hysteria is perhaps the most contagious, even in men.”
In interviews, Oates has spoken of this seminal work as one she began nearly 30 years ago, when she first moved to Princeton – where she is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the university. What fun, then, to find a small section within the book titled “Princeton Snobbery,” and an aside later on, calling the campus “a claustrophobic little world of privilege and anxiety in which one was made to care too much about too little.”
Yes, much is at work here from the splendid, unbridled mind of Joyce Carol Oates. “The Accursed” may be her major motion picture. The time is right for it, its night terrors, apparitions and suggestions of nether worlds being so in fashion on movie screens today.
Poet and novelist Stephen Dobyns’ “The Burn Palace” attests to this fact as well. Although his is another kind of dark offering, it is a contemporary look at how fear still travels in a small town.
“Surely fear is the oldest emotion. Not love, not pride, not greed. The emotion urging you to run is older than the one telling you to embrace,” he writes in this veritable “Our Town” of a tale.
From the initial discovery – of a snake in lieu of a baby in a Morgan Memorial Hospital bassinette – Rhode Island’s town of Brewster is gripped by dread. (It helps that Peggy, the mother of the missing infant, is far from frantic: “She’s glad the baby was stolen … She says he’s the Devil’s baby.”)
Then there is a scalping – and Woody Potter, a detective with the state police, finds himself filling out “the forms of the National Incident-Based Reporting System, breaking everything into categories, numbers and capital letters, but (not helping to indicate) whether a snake was a weapon, perpetrator or victim; and scalping could only be listed as ‘other.’ ”
“The Burn Palace” proceeds in this manner – obvious and, at times, over-funny – until we realize we have more or less moved to Brewster and are now among the folk waylaid by its strange happenings (presumably to keep from seeing the dysfunction in their own lives).
Never mind that some are wiccans, and others, perhaps, ghouls. We join them.
We are particularly drawn to a boy named Hercel, owner of the snake, a boy who can make things levitate, a boy whose stepfather has begun to growl. “When a terrible crime takes place in a small town, it’s a tragedy,” our narrator tells us. “When a second takes place, it’s a curse.”
In Dobyn’s deft hands, it’s a curse with real underpinnings, the human condition in everyday garb. Best known for his “Saratoga” stories featuring detective Charlie Bradshaw, Dobyns doesn’t just give us another mystery in “The Burn Palace” – he gives us a layered slice of what sometimes feels like real life.
By Joyce Carol Oates
667 pages, $27.99
The Burn Palace
By Stephen Dobyns
Blue Rider Press
464 pages, $27.95
Karen Brady is a former News columnist.