Apparently Lizzie Borden took an ax (it was missing an ‘e’, I’m trying to track it down) and gave her mother forty whacks. Really? Whacks with an axe (hey, the ‘e’ came back!)? Surely one chops with an axe? You whack someone with a blunt instrument like a club or the lid of a piano. Or did she do it with the axe handle? Or the flat of the blade? Anyway, she went on to give her dad much the same treatment, with an extra whack/chop for measure. Daddy issues. To be honest that was about the extent of my knowledge of Miss Lizzie Andrew Borden and her alleged pursuits. While a staple of American legend it always seemed a bit ho-hum to a European. I mean, who needs the Bordens when you already have the Borgias? Well thankfully Cherie Priest’s latest novel, Maplecroft, has set me straight on the history of America’s most notoriously (allegedly) wayward woman.
Well, only for exceedingly twisted values of ‘straight’. The story opens with Lizzie (hereon known as Lisbeth) caring for her sickly sister Emma in Maplecroft, the mansion they procured for themselves following the deaths of their parents. Being mostly unaware of the details behind the Borden story I did a little research into the affair prior to reading. Priest has done an amazing job of gathering up all the strands of the real-life incident and investigation and weaving them into her re-telling: a violent sickness had befallen the household for a few days; the maid was alerted by cries from Lisbeth; the bodies of the parents, Abby and Andrew were discovered, bearing 19 and 11 axe wounds respectively (40 and 41? Pfft…). Lizzie was the chief suspect but later acquitted by a jury, the real killer remaining undiscovered.
And it’s here that Maplecroft begins its delightful divergence from reality. For you see, Lisbeth did indeed take the axe to her parents. But she did it to protect not only herself and frail Emma but to save her town and perhaps the world. Dark, nameless horrors lurk in the shadows of Fall River, slimy boneless fiends, denizens of the deep and disciples of the dark gods which lurk beneath the roiling waves. Yes folks, we’re deep in Lovecraft territory here and it’s one of the most enjoyable excursions I’ve had there in a good long time. Starting with an innocent mailing of a slime mold sample to a distant professor, Maplecroft slowly builds the tension until all and sundry are losing their minds and their lives and the world is on the brink of disaster.
On the one hand we have an awakening god making its murderous way across America to find the woman who unwittingly brought him to life. And back at the ranch we have Lisbeth struggling to contain her wildly intelligent sibling while dealing with her increasingly curious girlfriend and the unwanted attentions of a private investigator. Juggling these two strands together, Cherie Priest turns Maplecroft into an unexpected winner on a number of levels. The narrative voice she adopts is utterly beautiful, telling the story primarily through the eyes of Lisbeth and Emma yet doing so in a manner very firmly rooted in the period. Such is the thickness of the nineteenth century atmosphere that you could almost be forgiven for thinking you were indeed reading an undiscovered Lovecraft novel. Priest has had plenty of practice with her forays into steampunk and now it just feels so natural, not at all forced, unlike the caricatures of older literary styles which usually crop up when an author attempts to imitate literature of an earlier era.
But it’s the attention to detail which really grabbed me. There’s not a single element of Lisbeth’s world which goes unexamined and it serves to pull you right in and keep a hold of you, immersing you in the antiquated horror all around. From the trusty axe with which she dispatches her unwordly foes to the wonderful acid bath under the floorboards of her basement, this is a world painted in deep, rich colours. You’re going to hear the creatures scratching against the door, you’ll see the stress take its toll on beleaguered Lisbeth and you will smell, the unimaginable stench of the elder gods at work. In marked contrast to the master whose works inspired Maplecroft, Cherie Priest has no qualms at all when it comes to describing the indescribable and it simply works.
I’d venture so far as to say that if you have no experience of HP Lovecraft then Maplecroft would actually be a wonderful place to commence your addiction. It’s not truly related to his works but the similarities in tone and subject are simply incredible and Priest’s work is a great deal more accessible. If you’re already a fan of unnameable horrors then you can’t go wrong with this book. It’s Lovecraft for a new generation, written with an obvious love for the source material and doesn’t sully the name in the slightest. Cthulhu would be proud.