|Horror parodies of Victorian literature and historical figures are de rigueur today, from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. And Cherie Priest’s latest novel could easily fall into that subgenre Lizzie Borden: Cthulhu Whacker. The novel reframes the famous (acquitted) ax-murderer as the thin bloody line between humanity and eldritch horror.
But Priest, the award-winning author of the steampunk series “The Clockwork Century,” plays it serious in Maplecroft. The novel captures the unspeakable terror of Lovecraft’s best work, without the overt racism that tainted his ouevre. Told in the epistolary style of Dracula and Frankenstein, Maplecroft picks up the Borden story a couple years after her famous 81 whacks. Through letters and journal entries, it follows the ax-wielding Borden and her consumptive sister Emma as they face nameless creatures from the stygian depths that are invading the quaint fishing community of Fall River.
The Bordens have retreated to the reclusive estate of Maplecroft on the edge of Fall River, where Lizzie, now known as Lizbeth, has built a grisly laboratory to research the mysterious glass objects that are washing ashore in the village. Emma, bedridden with tuberculosis, studies biology, corresponding with professors across New England about the detritus the sisters find along the shore. Phillip Zollicoffer, a fellow at Miskatonic University, becomes obsessed with an amorphous, jellyfish-like sample that she sends him under the gender-neutral pseudonym of E.A. Jackson.
Meanwhile, the local doctor Owen Seabury, the only witness who stood up for Borden during her trial, starts observing strange behaviors and physical changes in a Fall River orphan. Recognizing the symptoms as similar to the Borden parents before their deaths, he contacts the sisters to discuss the case. And Lizbeth’s lesbian lover Nance O’Neil has arrived at Maplecroft, driving a wedge between the sisters. She also becomes obsessed with discovering the secrets hidden within the house’s locked cellar. Lizbeth must take up her ax again to defend the people she loves as well as the town that condemned her.
Maplecroft treads several fine lines. Not only does it flirt with the historical horror parody genre and true horror, but it also strikes a balance between the factual and the fantastic, from the details of the Bordens’ life in their antiquarian manse to Lizbeth’s rumored relationship with real-life actress O’Neil.
Even more impressive is Priest’s channeling of Lovecraft. She brilliantly evokes the Old Ones without ever mentioning Chthulu, Dagon or The Necronomicon. Of course the misshapen, piscine appearance of the townsfolk and the effulgent jewelry that Mr. Borden had given to the sisters’ stepmother hark back to The Shadow Over Innsmouth.
What Priest really captures, however, is Lovecraft’s talent for documenting the descent into madness from tampering in things best left unknown. The Borden sisters are driven but damaged, while those around them are infected by association from poor, doomed Nance to Dr. Seabury.
But Zollicoffer’s transformation is the starkest; documented through his journal entries as he seeks out the sea and the mysterious correspondent who sent him the fetid creature that haunts his mind.
Much speculation has been made that this is the start of a new series, “The Borden Dispatches,” but Maplecroft has a certain finality to it, at least for most of the characters. The character of Inspector Wolf, a detective from Boston who is also pursuing the blasphemous horrors, was introduced but did not play much of a part in the story. Perhaps he will join Lizbeth in future novels?
Regardless, if there is a sequel or series in the works, Maplecroft is a magnificent riff on the Cthulhu-verse that effectively captures the essence of Lovecraft without all of his Aryan übermensch baggage. ~~ Michael Senft
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