Release Date: September 2, 2014
Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks; and when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one….
The people of Fall River, Massachusetts, fear me. Perhaps rightfully so. I remain a suspect in the brutal deaths of my father and his second wife despite the verdict of innocence at my trial. With our inheritance, my sister, Emma, and I have taken up residence in Maplecroft, a mansion near the sea and far from gossip and scrutiny.
But it is not far enough from the affliction that possessed my parents. Their characters, their very souls, were consumed from within by something that left malevolent entities in their place. It originates from the ocean’s depths, plaguing the populace with tides of nightmares and madness.
This evil cannot hide from me. No matter what guise it assumes, I will be waiting for it. With an axe.
Cass: Oh how I wanted to love this book. A Lovecraftian spin on one of the most notorious murders in US history? Sign me right the hell up!
But I really should have known better. Cherie Priest is one of those authors that just never really clicks for me. I am consistently drawn in by amazing concepts, gorgeous cover art, and descriptive writing….only to be left with an ultimate feeling of blah. I can’t put my finger on it, but I remain ultimately unmoved by her work. Maplecroft is no exception to this trend.
Marlene: I kept waiting for Cthulhu to meet Lizzie Borden, except that isn’t quite what happens. And darn. It was a bit anticlimactic that the meeting doesn’t happen. It should. It really, really should.
The language that Priest uses feels like an attempt to mimic the formal writing and speech of the late 19th century. While that is appropriate for the period and the people involved, it felt like it slowed down the story. I was expecting the horror to be more blatantly horrific, but there was a certain amount of circumlocution that made the pace grow ponderous.
Cass: There is a delicate balance that needs to be maintained in historical speculative fiction between the need to authentically represent the era and the desire to not come across as plodding or twee (a key example of twee can be found in Shades of Milk and Honey where the author chose to “authentically” mimic the spelling of the era. It was ridiculous.). Maplecroft is not twee – nothing with the potential for Cthulhu could be – but it moves at about the same pace as The Oregon Trail (note for anyone not in an American public school in the 80s: this means that nothing of substance happens for an interminable time until your children randomly die of dysentery.)
Marlene: The concept, as Cass said, is absolutely brilliant. Lizzie Borden whacked her father and stepmother because they were essentially turning into the creature of the black lagoon. Or at any rate creatures from some lagoon or other. And also self-defense to keep the creatures from killing them.
Totally reasonable, in a slightly perverse way. NO ONE still in their right mind would want to become one of the described creatures. So of course the first thing the creatures (or whatever is motivating them) do is to mesmerize people out of their right minds.
Cass: As an attorney who advocates for victims, I tend to imagine Lizzie Borden as someone who endured years of abuse before finally taking a stand against whatever horrors her parents subjected her too. This also helps explain her acquittal despite the massive amount of physical evidcen against her. People in small towns always know what’s going on behind closed doors, even if they choose to ignore it.
This is even better! She wasn’t just defending herself and her sister – she’s fighting off the monstrous hordes….and it goes far beyond her two most famous victims….mwhahahaha!
Marlene: The set up is classic horror, albeit with some interesting historical twists. Things are creeping around Fall River, and Lizzie is the only person dealing with them, because her family was afflicted first. The portrait of Lizzie as mad scientist, forced into axing the creatures she can’t control, is compelling. She does the best she can because she feels she has no choice.
There’s an irony in this portrait, because Lizzie’s sister Emma really is a scientist, but Emma is forced to publish under a male pseudonym, and is dying of consumption (tuberculosis) as well. Emma is mentally strong, but physically weakening every day.
And it is Emma’s clandestine correspondence with another scientist that increases the spread and influence of the terrible enemy. She sends a sample of something lethal to her colleague and Miskatonic University, and it seduces him.
Cass: Emma is ridiculous. I hate her. What kind of idiot just drops something like this in the bloody mail without precaution?! Bad science! She’s also a terrible sister.
Marlene: As the death and transformation toll starts to rise, we also get treated to the practitioners of science and pseudo-science attempting to solve the problem through logical and scientific means. The local doctor becomes an ally. He adds to their knowledge while succumbing to his own form of madness.
And then there’s the mysterious Inspector Wolf, who never says who he really reports to or why he is taking so many samples. He has either an agenda or a master, possibly both, but he’s definitely reporting to someone for some unknown reason.
Cass: Meh. The Inspector just added to the pacing problems. I don’t normally mind switching up POVs, but his chapters did not add anything to the story other than pages.
Marlene: Between Emma, Lizzie and Doctor Seabury, we have the classic Freudian Trio of logic, heart and synthesis. In the end, Emma is the one who brings together the otherwise opposite impulses of Lizzie’s intuition and the Doctor’s rationalism. Lizzie starts out as the emotional and headstrong member of the team, and only gets worse after her lover, the actress Nance, becomes infected and transforms.
Emma is the one who keeps her head through the entire mess. Her brain is all she has, and she’s good at using it.
Cass: Emma thinks she’s smarter than everyone else. I wouldn’t say she actually displays overwhelming intelligence, though we do hear about her brilliance. What is the brainy equivalent of a Faux Action Girl?
In the end, Maplecroft was all delicious promise without any solid follow-through. There is nothing truly objectionable about the work, but nothing to really hook me. It is well-written, if slow. The characters are three dimensional. The premise is fascinating….but I just kept waiting for her to really pull the trigger.
I give Maplecroft a C.
Marlene: The involvement of Emma’s fellow scientists at Miskatonic University seemed like something terrifically promising that went nowhere. For his part in the story, Professor, Zolliffer could have been from anywhere. The mention of Miskatonic University sent an additional chill up the spine when first mentioned, but it didn’t seem to go to its logical conclusion–or maybe I just don’t know enough about Lovecraftian horror (shudder) and missed some nuances.
The story does have some chilling moments, but it ended on a bit of a wet whimper for me. It didn’t so much end as fizzle out. This may be intentional, as the evil is also not vanquished, but I felt slightly hollow at the end.
I give Maplecroft by Cherie Priest a B-/C+