Review: Maplecroft (The Borden Dispatches #1)

I’ve never been much of a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. Don’t get me wrong, the Cthulhu mythos and related stories changed how people thought of horror, but I’ve never been able to get past his unabashed racism and xenophobia. However, recently I’ve been taking a look at Lovecraftian works like She Walks in Shadows, an anthology of short fiction by women about women and the mythos, and films like Cthulhu (2009) which has a gay protagonist, and everywhere I looked, everyone and their mother is recommending that fans of Lovecraft’s works read Maplecroft.

Maplecroft‘s main character is the infamous Lizzie Borden, accused and acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe and inspiring a rhyme based on it. Maplecroft asks “What if Lizzie Borden did commit the murders? What if she had a very good reason for doing so?” When a series of bizarre murders occur in Fall River and the surrounding area, Lizzie, along with her brilliant sister Emma and the town doctor, Dr. Seabury, must race to uncover the truth of these incidents before Fall River is swallowed by a tide of nightmares and madness.

Or, to summarize, “queer Lizzie Borden fights Lovecraftian horrors that come from the sea”.

The book’s format is an epistolary novel, that is, the story is communicated through letters and other documents (Dracula used the same format). It’s kind of odd, thinking of all the characters taking incredibly detailed notes about everything that happened that day, but by the end of the book I didn’t really notice. The book switches between multiple first person perspectives, each character getting a chapter.

I usually start off by talking about the characters but in this case I think the overall atmosphere of the book has a much greater impact than the individual characters. The book is permeated with this sense of melancholy and madness and the deep dark mysteries of the ocean. Many characters undergo a descent, of sorts, first, making some offhand comment about forgetting something in the beginning, and having things steadily get worse until they are not themselves anymore. Even Lizzie and Emma, the characters who are at the heart of the story, are not unaffected by it. Priest nails Lovecraftian horror, and she does it without calling anyone a “mongrel” and having multiple amazing female characters. This book gave me major Aegir and Ran feels. The sea isn’t just sinister in this book. it’s beautiful and mysterious and fascinating, and it can also eat you alive.

The book isn’t all melancholy. of course, there are moments where Lizzie takes her axe and throws down with otherworldly creatures, and there’s the whole mystery of why this is happening in Fall River, and why does it seem like the Bordens are at the center of it all? There were some great moments outside of the book’s more melancholic moments: Lizzie’s relationship with Nance O’Neil, Emma writing respected research papers under a pseudonym. I found the pacing was decent, and it helps that chapters were generally short, allowing the reader to walk around in another person’s shoes for a bit before swapping them out. Some have referred to this book as “historical horror” and I would say this is accurate, although the book never feels like it neglects the horror bits to focus on the historical and vice versa.

If I had to criticize Maplecroft, I’d say that the resolution to the central mystery was a bit….weird…even by Lovecraftian fiction’s standards. The book was also way too short. I want more. I can’t stand not knowing what happens. Fortunately, the sequel, Chapelwood, is out now, so I won’t have to wait long to read more of this series.

In terms of potentially triggery content, madness is practically a stable of Lovecraftian works, but there’s also plenty of murder and suicides, that, while not graphically described, are certainly gruesome, and children are not exempt from being targets of violence. Emma also frequently coughs up blood, which might be a bit jarring for some.

In terms of representation, there are no characters of colour, but Lizzie and Nance are depicted as being in a relationship and Emma is disabled, and while this does play into the story, she is ultimately shown to be intelligent, resourceful, and not nearly as helpless as she appears (while still requiring assistance at times). As a woman writing scientific papers under a pseudonym, she also experiences sexism to such a degree that at one point she wishes she were a man. Lizzie herself feels the brunt of being ostracized by Fall River and frequently sees herself as a lone woman fending off oceanic terrors while the rest of Fall River sleeps.

Bottom line: I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I’ve been burned by the hype machine before but this book deserves all the hype it can get. I recommend it to anyone into Lovecraftian horror, particularly if you appreciate historical fiction.

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