Cherie Priest writes books that kind of defy description. She’s one of those authors whose work is really intriguing and compelling; when you start reading her stuff, you seriously cannot put it down. But any description just sounds silly, kind of like describing a Joss Whedon show. Maplecroft, book one of The Borden Dispatches, is no exception.
I first heard of the book two years ago when I interviewed Priest for a critical edition of Lovecraft I was editing and she was finishing up the novel. During the conversation I asked her If I could mention an new projects she was working on.
Well, [she replied] you can mention Maplecroft if you’d like. After the trial and all that stuff, Lizzie and her invalid sister, who is about 10 or 11 years older than [Lizzie], bought an old house across town. It was bigand was called Maplecroft. In my version of things she sets up a laboratory in the basement and tries to protect her town from these weird creatures that possess several villagers. So, it’s called Maplecroft, and it’s Lizzie Borden fighting Cthulhu with an axe basically.
I have to admit that I was a little dubious at the time. Like I said, any description of Priest’s work sounds silly. Still, I bought the book the day it was released (actually the day before, since my local bookstore had misread the calendar and shelved it early), and I began reading it immediately.
The book is great. I mean it is reallyreally good. I couldn’t put it down. I generally read several books at the same time. I read a chapter or two of one book, then a chapter or two of another and then eventually cycle back around to the first book. At the time I bought Maplecroft, I was also reading Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, and the first volume of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, The Eye of the World (not to mention the books I had to read for my day job as a lit professor). When I began reading Maplecroft, it was not long before I had put first the Jordan book down, then the King (my work reading, sadly, could not be put down).
The earlier comparison to Joss Whedon is particularly apt in this book. It is, in many respects, a 19th century Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Arguably Whedon’s most successful television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer told the story of a young woman who, after burning down her school gym, moves to a new town and becomes the only line of defense against the forces of darkness and evil. Since she has to keep her identity as the chosen one a secret, she must protect her community while allowing them to believe she is a dangerous social deviant.
In Priest’s tale, Lizzie Borden finds herself in the exact same position. Though she has been acquitted of her parents’ murder, the community still believes she is guilty, so she finds herself ostracized from the very community she must secretly protect from Lovecraftian horrors that are slowly possessing members of her village.
Priest’s use of Lovecraft lore is particularly well done here. Her descriptions of Miskatonic University blend well with Lovecraft’s own descriptions in such classic tales as “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Whisperer in the Darkness,” At the Mountains of Madness, or “The Shadow Out of Time.” More importantly, though, her descriptions of the monsters in Fall River are truly terrifying, as are her descriptions of the transformation the villagers undergo once “infected” by them. These descriptions are so vivid, in fact, that my conception of the Deep Ones in Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Innsmouth” is now inextricably combined with Priest’s descriptions of the Fall River horrors.
Lizzie’s elder sister, Emma
I can think of nothing truly negative to say about this novel. My only complaint is that there wasn’t enough of my favorite character in it. In the novel, Priest creates a kind of proto-hardboiled detective in the character of Simon Wolf, an investigator for an unnamed secret organization that apparently investigates paranormal activities. Wolf is a fascinating character, reminding me in equal parts of Peter Falk’s Lt. Columbo, Charles Dickens’ Inspector Bucket, and Gregory McDonald’s Inspector Francis Xavier Flynn. He flits in and out of the background, and in the few scenes he’s given, he steals the show. While he works perfectly in this novel as a background character, I always found myself wanting more of him (especially after his last missive which closes the tale). Thankfully, Priest assures me that “Simon Wolf [is] a much more prominent character in [the upcoming sequel,] Chapelwood.”
Other than that I have no complaints, and it seems the bulk of Maplecroft’s reviewers agree. When I set out to right this review, I hoped to find some substantive negative reviews I could argue with; however, the overwhelming majority of the reviews have been extremely positive. In fact, the only complaints I have found online involve Priest’s use of historical details and range from silly (“It has nothing to do with the real Lizzie Borden!” Seriously? The back cover mentions that the elder Bordens “were consumed from within” by something “from the ocean’s depths” and you honestly thought this was what? A biography?) to trivial (“It’s a good story, but she gets the historical details all wrong.” Again, the presence of Lovecraftian horrors already imply that the author may be playing fast and loose with the historical record).
In fact, I find Priest’s deviations from the historical record fascinating. There are places where she remains incredibly faithful, when discussing the public perception of the original murders, for example, or when discussing the details of the trial. The strained relationship between Lizzie; her sister, Emma; and her lover Nance O’Neal are also historically accurate. However, Priest’s deviations from the record allow her more freedom to tell her story. Dates are shifted to allow Nance to be on site when these terrors strike the year after the Borden murders because, as Priest explains, “I loosely framed Maplecroft as a pseudo-Dracula homage, and [Nance] made an excellent Lucy character.” These changes to the historical record also serve an important narrative function: even the greatest Borden fanatics and historians cannot predict how the story will end and can thus be just as surprised by various character fates as are the uninitiated, casual readers.
Maplecroft, the Borden home and setting of the novel
In short, if you’re looking for historical fiction dramatizing the actual events surrounding the Borden murders, this is not your book, but it doesn’t pretend to be. If you’re looking for a tightly plotted alternate history/Lovecraftian horror novel, I can think of no better place to begin. Maplecroft is available in both paperback and ebook (sadly, no hardcover), and Priest is hard at work on the follow-up, Chapelwood, which, gods willing and R’lyeh don’t rise, should be out this fall.
Cherie Priest is the author of the Eden Moore, the Clockwork Century, and the Cheshire Red Reports series. She has written fifteen novels and novellas set both within and outside these series, the most recent of which is 2013’s Fiddlehead, the sixth book in the Clockwork Century series. Her writing has received several awards including the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award and the Locus Award for the Best Science Fiction Novel both for her 2009 novel Boneshaker. Priest lives in Chattanooga, TN.