There is a special joy when a dedicated reader finds a book, written by a gifted writer at the peak of her powers, who journeys into slightly different territory and completely masters it. That joy is what I felt as I finished Maplecroft by Cherie Priest.
Priest has written a lot and she has never tied herself to a single sub-genre. She’s crafted dark fantasy, steampunk, steampunk zombie books and vampire fiction. Now she has essayed Lovecraftian Gothic with Maplecroft, a book about the old gods, eerie, frightening things that emerge from the sea, and a famous American figure — Lizzie Borden.
Maplecroft (the actual name of the house Lizabeth Borden and her sister moved into when Borden was acquitted of the axe murders of her father and stepmother) takes the form, mostly, of a “found manuscript” comprising notebook and journal entries, letters and reports regarding a series of incidents in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1893-1894. The bulk of the material is provided by Lizbeth Borden, her sister Emma who has tuberculosis, and the town doctor Owen Seabury. Another correspondent, a professor at Miskatonic University, gives the reader valuable and frightening clues about the cause of the strange sicknesses and deaths along the Massachusetts coast starting in 1893.
Most people who write a Lovecraft pastiche try to capture his writing style, and words like “eldritch” and “ichor” crowd the page. Priest chooses a different route and hews to a naturalistic style. Priest’s writing here is top-notch; I’m guessing the layers of styles she uses required hard work on her part, but the work doesn’t show, and the sections read smoothly. For the most part, Lizzie’s notebooks, the letters from Lizzie’s lover the actress Nance, and Seabury’s reports perfectly echo the slightly formal but highly descriptive style of written personal narrative of the time. Some of the language is breath-takingly beautiful.
“She moved so quietly, you see – so practiced. She so beautifully disturbed the darkness, all flapping shape in gray and white. Like an owl. With that kind of grace and silence.”
“She glimmered, and what little light remained in the room winked against the glass, showing off Her sinuous, swimming shape, twisting in the jar, a very slow whirlpool, or a carousel, or the ethereal winding of a cotton candy machine. She pivoted to show me Her whole self. She unfurled, and I was transfixed.”
Some is just funny:
… He is a small weasel of a lad, intelligent without being wise — and very quick to spout whatever is in his mind. It’s as if there’s no one at all working the drawbridge between his brain and his mouth.
Lizzie and Emma are products of their time and upbringing, and Priest doesn’t forget that. Lizzie refers to her stepmother as the “cold, interloping daughter of a pushcart peddler,” and Emma, who is a scientist, corresponding with the world through a male persona, cannot hide, in her personal journal, her feelings of disgust — and envy — for Lizzie’s relationship with Nance.
The relationship between Emma and Lizzie, two strong personalities thrust together by a catastrophic event, is a powerful part of the book and creates nearly as much suspense as the inhuman creatures who come and slap at the doors and walls of the house… nearly as much as the strange chunks of sea glass, with their siren song.
Like any good gothic, much of the terror is internal and psychological, even though there really are creatures clawing at the house. People in the town of Fall River begin dying in ways that are unbelievable. Dr. Seabury assumes this is a form of contagion, and soon he discovers that the contagion has made a steady path from the north down to Fall River. He may have fallen under the sway of the sea glass, and in his notes we see him fighting to maintain clarity. It is not clear whether Emma’s bitterness and anger comes from her brush with the inhuman, or simply from the events of her life, but the Miskatonic professor is another matter completely. The changes in him are obvious from his writings.
I would love to find words for this book that were different from “dark,” “brooding,” “atmospheric,” but the fact is that the book is dark, brooding and atmospheric, almost perfectly so as the deaths become stranger and the changes inside Maplecroft itself grow more terrifying. Without spoilers, I will say that there is a scene involving a bathtub that rivals anything H.P. Lovecraft ever wrote. Seabury, the rationalist and closet atheist, seeks a medical model for the changes, while Lizzie ranges farther afield, looking not only at the scientific but at the superstitious as well. Emma, like Seabury, clings to science. All of this is in the framework of an isolated seaside town, a threatening ocean, and a dark multi-level house.
The sea-creatures and the alluring singing sea-glass put this squarely in the realm of Lovecraftian Weird but the relationship between Lizbeth and Emma makes this book successful as a psychological thriller as well. Lizbeth and Emma are the sole survivors of the disaster that overtook their family and still follows them, but they are ten years apart in age, and the fact that Lizzie has someone in her life while Emma does not is a source of tension that grows stronger as the book continues.
Priest breaks up the writings of the point of view characters with a few more random documents. There is a report from a very mysterious “inspector.” One of my personal favorites is the “informal report” of a fire chief to one of the county supervisors. In the long-suffering tone of all good public servants who have to answer to politicians, the chief comments more than once that his department could probably have saved more buildings during the mysterious fire that broke out, if only he had the steam-powered wagon he had requested. The chief’s outrage and indignation over the suggestion of an insurance adjuster that his team was at fault is authentic, funny and a bit of fresh air in a claustrophobically dark story.
The book is subtitled “The Borden Dispatches,” which implies that there will be more to come. Certainly, while the immediate crisis is resolved, there are plenty of unanswered questions left, and a feeling of foreboding. The strange force from the sea has been held back, but clearly not vanquished.
Boneshaker has always been my favorite Cherie Priest book. I’m afraid that it must now accept the place of “sentimental favorite,” because Maplecroft has usurped the title. In terms of the story, the authentic historical feel, the tone and the sheer intensity of the descriptions, I think this is her best work yet.