Book Review: Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches by Cherie Priest
Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks; and when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one….
A fantastic update of the H.P. Lovecraft story engine, with a fun hook: Lizzie Borden’s alleged murderous act? Actually self-defense against a chthonian horror that had overtaken her parents and now threatens the entire town. Lizzie, her inamorata, her sister, and a local doctor race against time to uncover the sanity-shredding infection creeping through the once-quiet hamlet of Fall River.
Priest masterfully crafts an eerie sense of foreboding (utterly crucial when referencing Lovecraft) but spins the tale into her own. It’s Lovecraft updated for the modern era, without the uncomfortable racism, sexism, and other various unpleasant -isms that plagued his work (as well as a keener ability for writing; Lovecraft’s stock-in-trade was his unmatched dark imagination, but his intentionally archaic style and utter lack of ability to write dialogue must be mentioned).
What Priest is able to do with aplomb is utilize the current trend of “history+monsters=bestseller” without feeling like the umpteenth knockoff of the mashups on which Seth Grahame-Smith made his name. Unlike those tales, Priest is able to seamlessly merge HPL and history, without the (obviously well-researched) facts getting in the way of the story, or the more outré elements feeling like mere window dressing (or worse, marketing). The novel flows naturally, and its epistolary format serves both the storytelling and the characters well. Lizzie, her sister, and especially their doctor, Owen Seabury, are rendered superbly (particularly Seabury, who is a wonderful creation, and Priest absolutely nails his voice). Zollicoffer as well is a masterful handled excursion into madness. And okay, the characters occasionally lapse into ye olde “Well, I never!” vapors, but it’s a natural part of the period. Gratifyingly for a novel with an series-spawning subtitle, it leaves the world open enough to intrigue for another go-’round, but tells its particular story completely without feeling as though it’s merely an appetizer for more tales.
With its blend of Lovecraftian themes, Grand Guignol history, and sterling craft, the book was right up my alley and I loved it. Highly recommended.
(As a graphic designer sidenote, I rather enjoy the cover as well, despite its fealty to the “woman holding weapon with her back turned to the reader” horde. But…what’s with the Pink Floyd — The Wall font for the subtitle? Everything else is very well done, but that looks terribly out of place.)