NEW YORK (Reuters) - Novelist Joyce Carol Oates' latest novel is in the gothic tradition, but not all of the demons that bedevil its blue-blooded characters are of the supernatural variety.
"The Accursed," which came out this week, is set in Princeton, New Jersey, where the National Book Award winner has worked as a professor at the Ivy League university since 1978.
The novel tells the tale of a curse upon the town's elite families during 1905-1906.
A work of historical fiction, the book features President Woodrow Wilson and author-activist Upton Sinclair among its cast of characters.
Oates, 74, the author of more than 50 novels and two dozen short story collections, began the book in 1984, but she said she was unable to develop a satisfying structure for the story until recently.
"I had a project that was very challenging and fascinating, but I never quite felt that the voice was right," Oates told Reuters. "It was too 19th century, so I put it aside and worked on other projects, but every three or four or five years I would take it out and start examining it again."
Told from the perspective of a fictional amateur historian, "The Accursed" focuses on the aristocratic Slade family.
Debutante Annabel is swept away mysteriously on her wedding day and her older brother Josiah struggles to avenge his sister's disappearance while coming to terms with his changing ideals.
Wilson, Princeton's president at the time, is worn down by health problems and paranoia over university politics and his own prejudices against African Americans and women's suffrage.
The consequences of such views become clear as the town is rocked by lynchings of African Americans and the suffering of several women.
Although ghosts and vampires haunt the upper-class characters, Oates suggests they mirror social demons of the age.
"Things that are repressed are emerging in this lily white affluent society," she said. "What you call the supernatural could be deconstructed as being the return or the revenge of the repressed."
Oates said that reading about the conservative beliefs of many widely revered historical figures such as Wilson was "upsetting," but not surprising.
"Basically everyone was like that. It was unexamined," she said. "So the novel is really about the unexamined bigotry and the failure of this ruling class ... there's a kind of blindness to terrible social injustice."
Despite the troubling events that play out in the novel, Oates uses them to demonstrate that new ideas are constantly supplanting the old.
Younger characters in "The Accursed" like Sinclair and Josiah, both in their 20s, push back against ingrained ideas of race, gender and class.
Likewise, Oates sees young people bringing about change in today's society, such as rallying support for same-sex marriage.
"I have a lot of faith in younger generations to sort of shake off the shackles of the past," she said. "One generation comes along, and what seemed so important to an older generation just doesn't seem that important."
Reporting By Andrea Burzynski; Editing by Eric Kelsey and Stacey Joyce