‘The Accursed’: Monstrous in size only?

It would be fair to say that The Accursed did not meet with much approval at our group. The main complaints were: its verboseness; the narrator’s obsession with fashion and architecture; and the apparent lack of gothicness in a book that was referred to as a ‘post-modern Gothic novel’ in many of its reviews.

In regards to its size much of the criticism fell on the author, Joyce Carol Oates, and her editors for not cutting it down before it was published. It was commented that this was a novel that had been started and then put to one side before the author decided to finish it. Had her prolific output blinded those involved to its monstrous size? In many ways this text did read as a literary version of Frankenstein’s monster: narratives and styles were stitched together in such density that it appeared no storyline would ever animate the text.

Indeed, one of the other accusations laid at this novel was that nothing really happens. Perhaps, that is what makes it a truly post-modern Gothic. The supernatural elements of Gothic novel can’t truly happen other than in the constructed order of the text so that in a sense, truly nothing happens because what does happen is impossible. By the end of The Accursed we are not sure if the events proceeding it were part of the supernatural Slade Curse or a reaction to the repressive society. Whether anything happened depends on the reader’s willingness to want to see the Gothic in a text.

The classic Gothic novels are generally read as metaphors for the underlying fears of the day. Count Dracula has come to represent the fear of latent homosexuality, the New Woman, Jews, the aristocracy, sexually transmitted diseases, degeneration … I could go on. The Accursed lays the social mores of the time bare but these are never interrogated. A husband slaughtering his wife out of sexual frustration might be part of the Curse threatening the upper-class community of Princeton or it might just be one of those things. The horror behind the metaphor of the monster is not hidden in this novel so that the psychoanalytical approach so beloved of Gothic critics fails before it starts because the horrors of early 1900s’ society are not hidden simply not acknowledged as horrifying.

The ending is all happiness and fairytales and the true monstrousness – the racism, sexism, classicism – that form the backdrop of the text are largely ignored. The message of the narrator seems to be: as long as everyone is with the person they love then the reader should acknowledge that it all ended happily. The narrator is at once prudish and prurient. The reader constantly questions not only how he got all the information he is laying before us, before avowing he will destroy his sources because they are too salacious, but where his sympathies lie. We are forever having our attention or viewpoint shifted so that rather than looking directly at the horror we are invited to ponder the elegance of the ruffles on the cursed bride’s dress, or to listen in on a meeting about something ‘Unspeakable’ which is never explained to us (leaving us feeling like petulant children eavesdropping on the adults but not being offered an explanation). The obscurity or indistinctness so beloved by Radcliffe which should offer the reader’s imagination an opportunity to fill in the blanks becomes our frustration at being misguided.

Frustration was certainly the emotion that dominated our reading of this text because it doesn’t fit simply into the constraints of the Gothic narrative. It jolts you out of your reading to draw attention to its artifice and construction. Like Frankenstein’s monster, you are forced to look at every stitch.

One thought on “‘The Accursed’: Monstrous in size only?

  1. Pingback: Review of British Library Gothic Study Day | Open Graves, Open Minds

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