Book Review - Maplecroft by Cherie Priest
Updated: May 9, 2018
Genre-defying mashup of American history with Lovecraftian shenanigans...that totally works!
So what do you get when Cherie Priest decides, in her infinite writerly wisdom, that she wants to combine two seemingly disparate tales into one fantastic and imaginative stew? You get Maplecroft, a surprisingly effective blend of Borden history and the mythos established by the great H.P. Lovecraft. It's a combination I would not expected to work as well as it does, and in another author's hands, it could have turned out to be something quite awful. But Cherie Priest is a master of making history, accurate or not, into something entertaining and unique.
First things first though...this is a novel told in an epistolary format, with the narrative being made up of a hodgepodge of personal memoirs, official correspondence, and general musings. This may be a turn-off to some people, as it tends to trade dramatic action for more insightful moments. Writing tends to bring out true feelings, and that is expressed well here, with characters sharing the fears, hopes, and desires that they may not be allowed to speak out loud. I think we get a true sense of who they are through what they write. True, we lose a bit of the environmental details that come from traditional first/third person writing, and like I said, the action isn't as visceral or impactful. But, thought it was a bit awkward for me at first, in the end I rather enjoyed how it was told. The epistolary format lent the novel an even greater sense of originality, while also giving it the weight of official historical records.
While it would be natural to assume that Lizzie Borden would be the primary character that we follow, we actually get several main POV characters (and they truly are POV, as we are reading from exactly their point of view as they have written it), which ultimately helps the story. Lizzie is the star, obviously, but just as important to the proceedings are her older sister Emma, as well as Dr. Owen Seabury. In fact, because of these varying viewpoints, we get to see things from multiple angles and perspectives, giving the whole affair a more complete feel.
While the basic story of Lizzie's possible culpability into the hatchet deaths of her parents is still there, it is supported by a framework of darkness and horror pulled straight from the Lovecraft catalog. While it can, at times, be distracting when an author borrows from an already established mythos, it's anything but distracting here. While Lovecraft may be a well known name, his works aren't necessarily common reading, and so what is borrowed still feels fresh. There are other pieces of the Borden's history that make an appearance here (Nance O'Neil, their home in Fall River), but most everything else is adjusted to serve the story.
In fact, one of the things that really stood out to me was how the alien nature of what was going on around them really affected the characters, leading some into madness and desolation. It's a key piece of Lovecraft's writing, and makes the supernatural tale that much darker. He believed that our mortal minds simply could not fathom the horrors awaiting just beyond our sight/comprehension, and that to even catch a glimpse would shred a man's mind. This is captured well here, though not overtly. In truth, because it is so subtle, it comes across naturally and in a believable fashion.
There are some parts that didn't work so well for me. Mainly; if humans are so weak and insignificant to the greater machinations at work, then why are humans required to realize the grand scheme? Why does it all fall apart without our involvement? While there were other minor nitpicks, they really didn't stand out enough to be mentioned, nor did they detract from the overall experience.
There are also some deep thoughts at play here, about divinity, human nature, and the lengths we'll go for the people we love (in both positive and negative examples). Several of the passages really made me pause and think, and I don't do that a lot with fiction. So kudos to Cherie Priest for writing something both entertaining as well as insightful. I enjoyed it so much that I actually went right from Maplecroft to Chapelwood. Gotta get that review up next!
4 out of 5 insane but alluring stars!