In America, there’s nothing we like better than an unsolved mystery. The slaying of the Bordens has spawned several movies and books, all trying to explain what happened to inspire such brutal murders. Maplecroft by Cherie Priest is one of the most imaginative. In this novel, Priest has seamlessly blended the unfortunate lives of the Borden sisters with Lovecraftian strangeness. While they may seem unrelated topics, it is obvious that the author has done her homework on the Borden sisters. All of the dates corresponding to real events in their lives were unchanged. And the setting is close enough to the setting in Lovecraft’s work to tie the two together. Ms. Priest even utilizes locales from Lovecraft’s work, such as Miskatonic University.
The book is written in a highly Victorian form, as a series of journal entries and missives. This helped to completely root the reader in the Victorian era without having to add too many other Victorian elements. But also as such, it presented three problems for the reader. One, only the information that the characters wish to share end up on the page. Secondly, some of the tension is removed when the reader knows that the character “writing” the scene lives to write it down. Lastly, some of the tension is also removed with musings on religion and other thoughts that the character adds during the later chronicling process.
Don’t, however, assume that these minor things make for a boring book. Lizbeth Borden and her accompanying cast are a strange group and the events surrounding them make things even stranger. Something unusual is happening to Fall River, the hometown of the Bordens, and what happened to their parents was just the beginning. Following the women and their allies as they try to learn what is happening and how to stop it keeps the reader going until the end. The chilling descriptions of people-turned-monsters are truly horrifying and make the reader as interested to find out what is happening to them as the characters are.
Possibly most extraordinary is how the inner thoughts of the characters, ruminating on very Victorian concerns, reflect concerns in modern society. Each of the characters, at one point, considers his or her own stance on the loss of religion in a highly religious society, a woman’s struggles to make a name for herself in science, and the acceptance of homosexuality. Priest’s chosen era, the 1890s, is when all these things were first being considered on a wider scale, but are still hot-button issues in modern society. By presenting them in a historical setting, though, they can feel less immediate and allow for a little more introspection. Priest’s handling of all the issues is expert, presenting them not as a vast statement, but without commentary beyond their importance in her characters’ lives.
Maplecroft is a tale of horror and acceptance and how sometimes saving others can overcome a desire to hide one’s self away from the world and criticism.