This book - a (pseudo) historical, supernatural, mystery horror story - is supposedly written by M.W. van Dyck, descendant of one of the most prominent families of Princeton, New Jersey. Claiming to have access to newly decoded journals and other materials available only to himself van Dyck unspools the story of the "Crosswicks Curse" that took a horrific toll on some wealthy, influential Princeton families in 1905 and 1906.
The first conspicuous manifestation of the curse occurs when pretty, young Annabel Slade absconds from her elaborate wedding immediately after exchanging marriage vows with handsome Lieutenant Dabney Bayard. The man she runs off with, Axson Mayte, is in town (purportedly) advising Woodrow Wilson - then President of Princeton University.
As Annabel's brother Josiah Slade, a Princeton graduate who can't quite seem to find his role in life, relentlessly pursues the runaways Annabel is trapped in a filthy, hidden castle called the 'Bog Kingdom' - where she's abused, starved, impregnated, and eventually reduced to the status of a slovenly cleaning woman alongside previous Mayte victims.
Mayte has no fixed appearance, looking tall and handsome to some and ugly and toadlike to others. Thus the wily Mayte is able to appear in different guises - including François D’Apthorp and Count English von Gneist - a great favorite with the snobby ladies of Princeton. Mayte is apparently able to exert a hypnotic effect on people, manipulating their thoughts and behavior.
Mayte's most amusing incarnation occurs when he appears as Sherlock Holmes to Pearce van Dyck (the narrator's father) who's convinced that Sherlock Holmes' "cases" - which he believes are real - hold the key to the mystery of the Curse. The elder van Dyck's compulsive analysis of the Curse using Holmes' work as a guide are the funniest parts of the book.
Soon after Annabel Slade disappears her pre-teen cousins Todd and Oriana Slade are also afflicted by the Curse as are other important Princeton families. Several husbands become obsessed with the notion that their wives are committing adultery, with unfortunate consequences and a woman decides that her newborn's 'deliberate misbehavior' requires a drastic solution.
Reverend Winslow Slade, who was previously President of Princton University and Governor of New Jersey is especially disturbed by the Curse because he's grandfather to Annabel, Josiah, Todd, and Oriana, as well as friend and counselor to other afflicted families. Moreover, the Reverend has a shameful secret that's haunted him for five decades.
The book is very long, incorporating a number of historic figures. These include grossly obese (former) President Grover Cleveland, who tries to jump out a window after seeing his daughter's ghost, but he's too fat to fit (ha ha ha); Jack London, famous author of adventure stories - who flaunts his mistress at a speaking engagement, then has a pub party and gets wildly drunk; Upton Sinclair, the painfully self-conscious author of "The Jungle" (which exposes the horrific practices of the meat industry) - who neglects his family and dreams of establishing a socialist colony in New Jersey; President Teddy Roosevelt, who invites the vegetarian Sinclair to an uncomfortable meat-filled lunch; and of course Woodrow Wilson - who has a plethora of health problems and an ongoing feud with Andrew Fleming West, Dean of Princeton's Graduate School. During the story Wilson, happily married with several daughters, also becomes victim to the Curse when he's bewitched by a beautiful woman.
True to the time period, many of the characters exhibit (what would now be considered) atrocious behavior including rampant racism, sexism, opposition to women's suffrage, disdain for immigrants, disregard for the suffering of the 'lower classes', and way too high an opinion of themselves.
By the end of the book the Curse has run it's course and the reader learns what it was all about in a satisfying conclusion. For me the book was overly long and spent too much time on ancillary characters like Jack London - whose speech to a socialist group and subsequent partying seemed to go on forever; and Upton Sinclair - whose personal life and socialist musings took up too many pages. Still, these are fairly minor quibbles about a book that's well-researched, well-written, and a rollicking good story.
I'd highly recommend the book to readers who enjoy Gothic literary fiction.
Rating: 4 stars