Are you ready for a world where Cthulhu meets Lizzie Borden? Yes, as in “gave her mother forty whacks” Lizzie Borden. If you can wrap your head around that concept, then you’re ready for the spook-fest that is Maplecroft by Cherie Priest. It’s a tale of the supernatural, the weird, and the dark things that come from the depths of the sea. For someone like me who was already convinced that going into the ocean equals death, this book was extra scary but also reassuring. Weird, right? But I feel better than ever about my decision to not put a toe in the ocean.
The basics: Maplecroft is the first book of The Borden Dispatches. Set in Fall River, Massachusetts, the story focuses on Elizabeth (Lizbeth) Borden and her sister Emma. They live as outsiders in the small town because their neighbors still think Lizbeth is responsible for killing her father and stepmother even though she was judged innocent by a jury.
But did she really do it? Maplecroft explores that but also the events leading up to the death of the Bordens and the bizarre occurrences that follow the grisly murders. Priest mines information from history and incorporates it into the fascinating tale. For example, Lizbeth absolutely wields an axe. However, she uses it to fight mysterious creatures. The Borden household became violently ill before the incident, and it was blamed on rancid or poisoned meat. Those bits are worked into the tale as well and feed the otherworldly tone. History is bent and flexed, and if you’re the sort who gets hung up on facts, this may not be for you. But, if you can let go, you’re in for one heck of a ride.
The story unfolds through a handful of perspectives. Each chapter is told in first person, and different characters hold the reins so you get to travel inside the minds of the players in the book – for better or worse. Some of the characters’ voices blended together a little, but for the most part, you know who’s narrating without looking at the chapter heading. Lizbeth is the protagonist, and I connected to her as my rock. She’s more emotional than her older sister Emma, but Lizbeth is mostly no-nonsense and the kind of person I want by my side in an emergency. And there are plenty of heart racing, book-gripping emergencies in Maplecroft.
Lizbeth and Emma are studying the influences of the ocean and sea glass people find on the beach, and they leverage their isolation from Fall Rivers to hide the forces they are battling. They’re only scratching at the surface with their studies, and all signs point to the water. Their encounters with the unknown are suspenseful and made me turn on more lights in the house. And while they come to some answers as things go from odd to “Oh, crap, we’re all going to die” mode, there is still much more to learn.
As enjoyable as the terrifying parts are (this is where it’s important for me to note that I’m not a person who generally loves to be frightened), the book is about more than going up against monsters. It explores relationships between siblings, lovers, and friends, mental decline, gender issues and sexism, small town prejudices, and more in varying depths. Maplecroft may pull readers in because they’re familiar with Lizzie Borden, but that’s only a starting point.
While I would have liked more explanations about the purpose of one character and the untimely demise of another, I recognize that the book is the beginning of a series and that some points must be left for later. As it stands, Maplecroft is by turns haunting, touching, bloody, and riveting. It’s a touch of dark fantasy blended with history and horror, and did I mention it stars a woman who wields a big axe?