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Archive for September 21st, 2014

Review: Maplecroft

September 21st, 2014 | Category: Opinions,Thoughts on Writing

In 1892 Lisbeth “Lizzie” Borden allegedly picked up an axe and hacked up her father and step-mother. Her trial was an event, a media circus, one of America’s first. She spent some time in jail, but was ultimately acquitted of both charges. The motive was supposed to be money, she did inherit a large sum after the dust settled, but even now, nobody really knows what exactly happened.

Lizzie always wanted to be a member of high-society, she bought a giant house on a hill, named it Maplecroft, she tried to host lavish parties, tried to be accepted. Try as she did, the people of Fall River, Massachusetts, never grew to accept Lizzie, and she spent most of the rest of her life in seclusion, caring for her medically frail sister, Emma. Sadly, Lizzie would eventually die alone, abandoned by Emma after an argument of unknown cause. This is the story that is part of America’s grimmer history, taught in class-rooms to this day.

The tale of Lizzie Borden has so many unknowns, leaves so many unanswered questions. Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches by Cherie Priest is the first novel in a series that aims to fill in these blanks, to tell the whole of the life of Lisbeth Andrew Borden.

Maplecroft might be best described as a spectacular work of historical horror fiction; historical people, places, given a heavy dose of horror. Cherie Priest is one of today’s best historical fantasy/horror fiction writers, she so deftly blends fiction with American history that the fiction tends to feel more real than it otherwise might. Maplecroft could be her best work.

The story of Maplecroft is told through journal entries, letters and news clippings, all popular forms of communication in the 1800s. Much of what we know about that period of American history is through found documents, people put their thoughts to paper, they kept journals, diaries, sat down to write correspondence. Unlike today’s glut of shaky-cam “video diary” films, Maplecroft only feels more authentic through the use of this device. The story never seems forced or cliche.

We learn that strange things are happening in Fall River, that the Borden family spent many weeks wracked with illness before Lizzie took up her axe. We learn that at its worst, aside from nausea, vomiting, a strange glazing of the eyes, a sort of madness occurs, violent madness that touched the Borden parents. When Lizzie took up her axe, it was an act of preservation, not just for herself, but for Emma, her defenseless elder sister. This illness is confirmed in the journal of town physician, Doctor Owen Seabury, who attempted to treat the Borden’s, but to no avail. He knew something was very wrong, something he’d never seen. After the murders, he was Lizzie’s strongest defender, not because he felt she was necessarily innocent, but because of an incident during which he witnessed the feral transformation in Lizzie’s step-mother. He felt something unnatural, even dangerous, especially dangerous. That was in 1892. In 1894, the Borden sisters have taken residence at Maplecroft, with Doctor Seabury as their only regular visitor in the role of Emma’s personal physician. With this ominous beginning, the stage is set for the horror to come.

The Problem, as it is often called, re-surfaces and begins to spread, Doctor Seabury sees symptoms around town. Strange shark-like creatures attack Maplecroft, Lizzie grows quite adept at killing. Lizzie and Emma spend their days trying to understand the creatures, The Problem, hopping desperately to stop it before it consumes them, before Fall River is overrun, before it spreads across the entire country, maybe the entire world. Lzzzie pours over strange arcane books, trying to find facts buried in lore and myth. Emma tackles The Problem through pure science, studying nature, marine biology. Both Lizzie and Emma have reason to believe that the sea is the source of the taint that’s infecting Fall River. Doctor Owen Seabury struggles to maintain his sanity, his years of medical training feeling utterly useless. Each character’s writing feels more desperate with each passing day, the journal and diary entries show their stress, their fear, with such clarity. Reading the book is often an intimate experience, as if reading the private thoughts of actual people, not fictional characters.

I haven’t read everything Cherie Priest has ever written, but I’ve read most of it. In terms of pure craft, Maplecroft is probably her best work so far, her prose often gorgeous. Whenever I read, I love highlighting beautiful passages, writing margin notes. While Priest’s stories are always well-written and absolutely a blast to read, I’ve never highlighted any of her writing until Maplecroft. There’s one really outstanding passage that has stuck with me ever since I read it…

“We crawled primordial from the water, our grand-ancestors times a million generations; we escaped the tides, the sharks, and the leviathans of the deep, only to find ourselves on land—where we became the things we’d sought to escape, and we invented gods to blame. Not gods of the ocean, for we’d been to the ocean, and seen that the water was empty of the divine. Not gods of the earth, for we have walked upon the dirt, and we are alone here.

So we install our gods in the sky, because we haven’t yet eliminated the firmament as a possibility.

Next, I suppose, we’ll send them into space—where I expect they will live a very long time indeed, for it shall take us another million generations of descendants to reach them, and learn that they are projections of light and story, cast into the heavens by us alone. And we will be alone again (unless by then, we discover some more distant place in which to hide our image).
Over and over again, we lift God out of our reach. Over and over, push Him beyond our grasp, yet still we stretch out our fingers and seek to touch Him.

But find nothing.”

That passage has such lush imagery, captures the writing of a Christian woman struggling with her faith. Crisis of faith is a common theme from character to character throughout the novel, an interesting theme for a time in history when people were supposed to be God-fearing church-goers, who could never voice their doubts aloud. One’s private diary or journal was the only safe place to put such thoughts. The passage also captures the writing of a strong-willed woman of intelligence, again, at a time when women were not on equal footing with men in matters of intellect, of opinion.

The Borden women are both shown as strong women living against the grain, fierce protectors of a town full of people who failed to see Lizzie hanged and now are content to just quietly hate her, and Emma by association. Maplecroft is a novel about strong women (one in particular not mentioned in this review) fighting against evil that’s deep and dark as the sea. They fight bravely, vehemently, but not without fear, not without mistakes, not without human failings. It’s not a story of super heroes slaughtering monsters, it’s a story regular people just trying to hang on against malevolence beyond human understanding. They fight and not without losses, grave losses.

If you’re looking for a beautifully written story of horror, genuine stuff of nightmare, Maplecroft is the story for you. Cherie Priest did her homework on Lizzie Borden and the time in which she lived. Combine such research with her vivid imagination, and she delivers a truly unique macabre masterpiece of fully realized characters given weight through historical accuracy.

For fans of the weird, Maplecroft is a must read. I can’t wait for the next of the Borden Dispatches.