Cherie Priest’s Maplecroft: Lovecraft and Lizzie Borden

Posted: September 16, 2014 in Genre Reading List, Hope for the Genre, Reviews
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What better way to revitalize The Girl Who Loved Zombies than a book review?

By the way, new posts every Tuesday and Thursday, may Azathoth devour the cosmos if I fail.

It should go without saying but: spoilers below. It is difficult to review anything without spoiling something. Thus, there will be no kvetching about spoilers.

Cheryl Priest’s Maplecroft, out September 2, is a Gothic epistolary yarn set in the seaside town of Fall River, Massachusetts. The town’s inhabitants are falling prey to a mysterious illness in the spring of 1894. Victims grow distant and distracted. They lose their appetites and their vitality, grow pale and bloated like creatures from the sea. Eventually, they take their own lives or those of their loved ones in grotesque and unimaginable ways. Something lurks out in the Atlantic; something just awakened calls to the people of Fall River. And only one person has any notion of what’s happening: the infamous Lizzie Borden.

Maplecroft, the first of Priest’s Borden Dispatches series, follows Lizzie, her sister Emma, and Owen Seabury, M.D., as they attempt to make sense of the bizarre phenomena afflicting their town. Emma, much older and a brilliant scientist, is also consumptive and often bedridden. Seabury, a widower, treated Lizzie’s parents before they died–from multiple axe wounds, as the song tells us, but also as the first victims of Fall River’s plague. Other witnesses to the mystery include Lizzie’s lover Nance, Detective Simon Wolf from Boston, and Phillip Zollicoffer of Miskatonic University. In true Lovecraftian style, the more our protagonists investigate, the more they risk their lives, their sanity, and their very souls.

I often say of Cherie Priest that she writes the books I want to read. From her Clockwork Century series (steampunk and zombies!) to her Eden Moore trilogy (Southern Gothic ghost stories!), I’m always happy to pick up her books, and Maplecroft is no exception. It was especially rewarding to see Priest experimenting with form–the epistolary works nearly perfectly–and returning to a darker, slower horror. What I found particularly brilliant in Maplecroft was the gradual dissolution of our heroes’ relationships. As the Bordens and Seabury delve deeper into the otherworldly threat, they lose faith in each other. They grow suspicious, petty, and cruel, without realizing what’s happening to them. Their involvement has real ramifications, and the novel closes on a rather bleak note. Little is resolved, although the immediate danger seems to have passed. I.e., it’s a damn good thing this is a series.

Priest’s appeal isn’t, of course, just zombies and gadgets, ghosts and Civil War battlefields, or unspeakable horrors and notorious mass murderers. What she does with gender–nearly effortlessly–is absolute essential to speculative fiction as a whole and horror in particular. The women in Priest’s stories are complicated heroes, not Mary Sues. Many are older. All of them have experienced trials and tragedy. They’re weathered. Real. Multidimensional. And although the men in her stories lend a helping hand when they can, these women are believably capable. Lizzie Borden fights off the creatures lurking in the night for her friends and family. But she is also haunted by what she’s seen and done. Priest reimagines her, vindicates her in many ways, but does not completely redeem her. There’s a darkness in Lizzie, too, which saves Maplecroft from being purely revisionist.

Priest handles Lizzie’s relationship with Nance equally well. Their relationship feels not at all like a gimmick, but rather adds dimension to the character (and historically, there has been some speculation about Borden’s sexual orientation). There are some beautifully written scenes between Nance and Lizzie. Lizzie’s desire to protect her lover from the terrible truths she’s learned, the animosity between Nance and Emma, and Nance’s irresistible attraction to the closed doors in Maplecroft all lend drama, tension, and suspense to the novel.

As a whole, Maplecroft succeeds completely. Like much of Priest’s work, it builds slowly, the characters and events accumulating in the book’s first half. Then, the novel turns–everything for Lizzie et al quickly goes to hell and there’s much to overcome before the end. This is not only characteristic of Priest’s work, of course, but the tradition which she manipulates here. Maplecroft is Gothic, Weird, Lovecraftian–and it follows the conventions of these subgenres very successfully. However, if you like your horror fast-paced rather than eerie, this likely isn’t the novel for you.

Otherwise: go for it.

8/10.

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Comments
  1. […] The Girl Who Loved Zombies – “It was especially rewarding to see Priest experimenting with form–the epistolary works nearly perfectly–and returning to a darker, slower horror.” And, as always, for those of you who might be tempted to order or leave reviews…here are the pertinent links! Maplecroft at Amazon Maplecroft on Kindle Maplecroft at iTunes Maplecroft at B&N (Nook and trade paperback) Maplecroft at your local bookseller via IndieBound Maplecroft at Goodreads Author: Cherie Category: misc […]

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