LitStack Review: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

by Sharon Browning
Maplecroft – The Borden DispatchesMaplecroft
Cherie Priest
Release Date:  September 2, 2014
ISBN 978-0-451-46697-6

Cherie Priest is a master at taking familiar historical eras and events, and giving them twists and turns that seem utterly realistic and entirely possible, whether that be the Klondike Gold Rush (with a Seattle destroyed by a gigantic drilling engine, and overrun by zombie-like “rotters”) in Boneshaker, or the turmoil of everyday people caught up in the Civil War (with massive steam engines and mysterious cargos and zombie-like rotters, oh my!) in Dreadnought.  Both of these volumes are part of Ms. Priest’s “The Clockwork Century” series, along with Clementine, Ganymede, The Inexplicables, and Fiddlehead, and all of them are magnificently realized historical-speculative fiction in the steampunk subgenre.

Too often writers in historical-speculative/steampunk fiction get caught up in the glitz and glamour of shiny gadgetry, clinking and clanking machinery, and monacled, mustachioed (or flounced and gartered) intellectuals, but not Cherie Priest.  The story is always paramount in her novels, with the machinery and wardrobery enhancing the characters and strengthening the action in her works rather than defining them.  By doing this, her novels are extraordinarily strong.

Now she has turned her sights on yet another glancingly familiar tale:  that of Lizzie Borden, who, although legally acquitted, has been forever associated with the murder of her parents with an axe in 1892.  The actual perpetrator of the murders, and their motives, have never been determined despite the rope-skipping rhyme gruesomely stating what many take as obvious.

The murders of Andrew Jackson Borden and his second wife (Lizzie’s stepmother) Abigail loom large in Maplecroft, although much of the action in the book occurs later.  The factual characters and circumstances are all in place, with Lizzie and her older sister Emma living in a large, modern house which sits close to the sea, bought from their substantial inheritance upon the death of their father and stepmother.  Indeed, the real Borden sisters truly did christen this house “Maplecroft”.

Other players are also part of the historical record:  William Borden, the illegitimate son of Andrew, who may have tried to extort money from his father; Nance O’Neill, an actress who became (potentially intimate) friends with Lizzie and caused a rift between her and Emma; even the very real town of Fall River, Massachusetts, scene of the murders and of the very real Maplecroft mansion.  Ms. Priest does a commendable job of insinuating many documented factors into the novel that – quite rightly – give her story the ring of authenticity:  how the sisters were ostracized by Fall River society, how Lizzie changed her name after the murders to Lizbeth, how the sisters referred to their stepmother as “Mrs. Borden”, rarely by her given name.

On this strong safety net of fact and historical record, Cherie Priest’s imagination takes flight, with a simmering, sometimes fittingly grotesque horror story that would have made H.P. Lovecraft proud.

It’s been two years after the Borden murders and the sisters, Lizzie and Emma, have now settled into Maplecroft, their new home near the sea.  Lizzie, ten years younger than Emma, has become nursemaid to her sister who suffers terribly from consumption (possibly worsened by the shock of what happened to their father and stepmother).  Emma, however, still maintains a lively scientific mind, writing papers that are published in scholarly journals (mostly on marine life) and frequently corresponding with other eminent biologists and scientists, albeit under the pseudonym of E. A. Jackson, since a female researcher would have been met with skepticism at best.

Lizzie is the strong one, the protector.  She has to be, for Emma cannot fend for herself, and Lizzie has seen such things as to warrant a need for constant vigilance, things that could not, would not be believed had they not been experienced.  Unexplainable, unfathomable, evil things that were a factor in her parents’ deaths, but were not mentioned during the trial, for while evidence of such may have cleared Lizzie of any culpability, her word alone would have had anyone questioning her motivations  – or even her sanity.

So, the now exonerated but still imperiled Lizzie has two weapons against that corruption which first came to possess her parents, and which continues to attempt access to Maplecroft and the women within.  The first is her laboratory.  Although Emma is the scholar, Lizzie is the one who works in the secured laboratory in the cellar; not a laboratory for scientific pursuits, per se, but a place to document and run rudimentary experiments on the abhorrent specimens that have washed up from the nearby sea (an octopus with two heads and three extra tentacles, fish with extra sets of gills, or oversized fins, or no eyes, “lobsters with three claws, one claw, with no tail, or no legs.”), a place to house books on arcane knowledge, folklore, myths, superstition, hidden away from prying eyes (although they have scant few visitors), as well as a place to keep modern instruments of disposal – and containment.  All there to try to understand the threat that continues to stalk them.

Her second weapon?  An axe.  Lizzie has become a master at wielding an axe, and she keeps it razor sharp and close at hand.  She has to, for she never knows when they will hear the sounds – the faint sounds of something lurking in the shadows of the night, something ugly and mindless and evil, searching for ways to get in.

This backdrop is chilling, all the more so because it and the events that follow are presented in such a stoic, rational way.  No histrionics here, even though the situation goes from bad to worse, as the threat manifests itself further than the Borden sisters’ mansion; first the town of Fall River, then the state of Massachusetts, possibly the Eastern seaboard, potentially the world.  Even then, there is wonder, there is fear, there is dread and grim acceptance – but no hysterics.  Surprisingly, artfully, this allows the tension to build.  Slowly, steadily, inevitably… deliciously.

Maplecroft is subtitled The Borden Dispatches because that is how it is relayed – reports, documentation, journals, correspondences – penned by various players.  There are sections written by both Lizzie and Emma; not so much diaries, but the written recording of observations and the documenting of events and occurrences, the cataloging of thoughts and feelings not as catharsis but for posterity, in a desperate search for understanding, in case…. well, in case.  Science is held as the only way to combat the grotesque manifestations of evil – faith has long since been lost.  But so far the only science that has wielded results of any sort are those borne of superstition and old wives’ tales.  Still, they are better than giving in to the things that scratch and scrabble at windowsills in the dark of the night.

We hear from others, as well, such as Owen Seabury, MD, long time physician and one time neighbor to the Borden family who attended to Andrew and Abigail Borden prior to their deaths.  He was a witness to the alarming – and confounding – changes that were occurring to the Bordens before their lives were so violently ended, and was a staunch supporter of Lizzie during her trial.  Indeed, he even gave compelling testimony as to his strong belief in her innocence.  As he is an educated man who refused to ostracize the sisters after the trial, he ends up being drawn in to their siege against the obdurate horrors, first as confidante and later as partner in their attempts to staunch the growing corruption.

There are journal entries from others, as well, such as the actress Nance O’Neill, who gets drawn into the nefarious drama when she insists on visiting Lizzie despite Lizzie’s protestations for her to stay away; Inspector Simon Wolf, part of a larger investigatory organization (although we are not sure which one) who is able to bring perspective and insider information from law enforcement and government sources across the Eastern seaboard; and Phillip Zollicoffer, Professor of Biology at Miskatonic University and longtime correspondent with “Dr. E. A. Jackson”.  In fact, it is a specimen sent to him by “Dr. Jackson” that is a catalyst in the disastrous course of events to follow.

By keeping the action confined to reports and journals, and other types of documentation, we as readers are able to keep the horrors occurring in Fall River at bay, a true sense of being outside looking in, or looking back, as it were.  There is genius at this approach, as it allows us to watch in dread at the oncoming threat yet not feel threatened ourselves, keeping the focus directly on the unfolding story.  And yet the clarity at which Ms. Priest relays the story is magnificent.  We can not only see, but hear, taste, touch and especially smell what is going on, as rancid as that may at times be.  But the author doesn’t bludgeon us with flailing action or an overlayering of detail, either; everything is clear, and often blood chillingly clear.

Maplecroft triumphs on virtually every level, and the seamless positioning of fact with macabre fiction is spot on.  Regardless of your propensity towards Lovecraftian horror stories, if you enjoy superior writing and well fleshed out characters, you are going to enjoy this novel.  It’s one more successful feather in Cherie Priest’s cap – or one more gnarly notch on her axe, as it were.

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