Category Archives: Gothic

Maplecroft

Maplecroft by Cherie PriestReview: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest (Roc Trade, 2014)

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.

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Filed under Alternate History, Gothic, Horror, Supernatural

The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart

The Sad Tale of the Brothers GrossbartReview: The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington (Orbit, 2009)

So, having finished reading and reviewing Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark And Grimm for Mountains Of Instead I found myself in the mood for something in a similar vein (fairytales wrenched from their recently sanitised moorings and draped in darker attire) I picked up the only remotely suitable book in my collection – The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart, debut novel of Jesse Bullington. Admittedly the cover alone was enough to tempt me, apparently even more impressive in dead-tree format, but nothing could have prepared me for what lay between the pages. Where Gidwitz took the beloved tales of the Brothers Grimm and wrapped them in robes of humour and Hammer-style blood and guts, Bullington has travelled down an altogether darker route. Drawing on no particular tales he has crafted his own medieval Gothic Illiad, taking several well-worn archetypes and bonding them together with a paste of blood, entrails, vomit and foul language. Suffice to say it was right up my alley.

The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart starts as it means to continue, with murder most foul. The self-orphaned twins Hegel and Manfried and, descended from a proud line of violent, illiterate grave robbers, run afoul of a rural farmer, Heinrich, in their Germanic homeland. In a staggeringly cruel and vicious opening act they massacre his young family by blade and fire, leaving him alive as an act of either mercy or torture, it’s hard to say which. Following their rampage they embark upon a quest to seek out one of their more eccentric ancestors in ‘Gyptland, rumoured to contain tombs the like of which they have never clapped eyes on, all ripe for the plunder. Armed with brute strength, Hegel’s uncanny ability to sense impending danger and a conviction that the Virgin Mary (not her pathetic molly-coddled offspring) is looking out for them they pursue their goal with a religious zeal which will suffer no obstacles.

Of course this is the real world and crimes as grotesque as theirs cannot be seen to go unpunished. Soon they find themselves pursued by Heinrich’s townsfolk, sparking yet another bloody slaughter. Retreating into the woods to lick their wounds following their hard-won victory things take a turn for the strange. From nowhere a manticore – part man, part beast – attacks, mortally wounding Manfried before they can dispatch it. Stumbling through the snow they finally find a cottage inhabited by a twisted crone of a witch who can cure Manfried – for a price. Having feasted on her previous litters of children she is in need of more offspring, a task for which she requires Hegel’s, erm, assistance in one of the more stomach-churning scenes of modern literature. With Manfried recovered the brothers set upon the vile harpy, leaving her for dead but little realising that their failure to complete the deed will result in Hell being unleashed to follow them.

The ensuing odyssey seems like the result of an absinthe-drenched drinking session comprising the Marquis de Sade, Comte de Lautreamont, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. No taboo is left inviolate and there is no recess of the human spirit too dark to explore. The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart is an exercise in gleeful malevolence, happily mocking the idea of just desserts and nice guys finishing first. As the scope of the novel expands to take in demonic possession, pirates, sirens, false Popes and fallen priests you soon find you have discarded any sense of disbelief and – shockingly – may sometimes actually sympathise with these two magnificently warped creations. Having the imagination and literary knowledge to tell such a familiar yet undeniably original tale is talent enough but to have it suck the reader in to quite this degree.

Aside from the gore it is easy to overlook the fact that Bullington must be something of a Gothic scholar, so wonderfully detailed is the world he’s created. Dirt and disease line every single page and you can almost smell the decay and waste in even the most opulent of the book’s settings. The tattered clothes of the villagers, the drunken fellow travellers, the crooks and swindler, princes and (mostly) paupers and above all the sense of living in an era which the gods forgot, they’re all perfectly rendered here. At one point I actually couldn’t get Monty Python and the Holy Grail out of my head while reading – “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!” – the levels of squalor and insanity being roughly parallel.

Being James Bullington’s first full-length attempt it is no surprise that The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart (damn, even typing that name makes me wish Nick Cave and t’other Warren Ellis would write a score for it) isn’t quite perfect. Despite an utterly unrelenting and exhausting opening the book unfortunately loses its way around the halfway mark. On reaching a speedbump in their quest the storytelling itself seems to stumble and you can’t help wishing Bullington would just move to the next chapter – instead there is an overly long period of stagnation and political manoeuvring where you are craving more profanity, flying limbs and spurting fluids. Thankfully it doesn’t last forever and we’re eventually treated to something of a double climax and a bizarrely abrupt ending which is rendered all the more humorous and poignant for its brevity.

Should you read this book? It’s a good question. There’s no doubt that the content may be regarded or puerile by some and simply offensive by others. If child murder, drugged-up witch-fucking, extreme blasphemy, torture, maiming, murder and many-mouthed, plague-ridden hellspawns born of hatred and babyteeth give you the heebie-jeebies then by all means stay away. If however you are made of sterner stuff, don’t take your literature too seriously or felt that all de Sade needed was a few more dick jokes then seriously, this is the book for you.

Oh, and their beards are amazing.

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Filed under Fairytale, Fantasy, Gothic