Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches

The cover of Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches

I recently finished listening to the Audible audiobook of Cherie Priest’s Maplecroft, which is a novel that exists at the alarming intersection of Lizzie Borden Avenue and Cosmic Horror Lane. I won’t make you wait to find out my thoughts. I loved it. A lot. More on that in a minute, though.

First, a confession: I have avoided Cherie Priest up until this point, for carefully-calculated reasons.

See, her previous novels—at least, the ones with which I’m familiar—have all belonged to that bratty new kid on the block, the weird girl with the goggles and the top hat. Steampunk. Now, the problem with genres is that they’re kind of like wine. A new genre needs time to age and get its alcoholic feet on the ground before it can be properly enjoyed. More so than Sturgeon’s Law might suggest, the clumsy fumbling at the bra-clasp of a new genre creates an almost uniform environment of straight-up crap.

Seeing as steampunk is pretty new, I have kept a safe distance, which is why I have not indulged in any Cherie Priest up until this point, despite her obvious popularity.

That changed with Maplecroft, which tingled almost every single one of my James senses when I first heard about it. Bizarre creatures from the sea? Horrifying transformations? Two women standing lonely sentinel at the gates of sanity, shouting back the madness? Sign me up.

I hesitate to call this a book review, because as soon as I call it a book review it immediately sounds like I’m a pompous asshole passing judgment on another writer.

Not to say I don’t do that. I will judge the shit out of a bad book. And if it’s bad enough, I’ll judge the book’s author, too. Some fine day, you may get to see some of the corrosive vitriol that I secrete when I read an unsatisfactory novel.

Today, to paraphrase the heir of Gondor, is not that day.

The main thing that I want to focus on is how incredibly, unabashedly good Cherie Priest is at invoking the spirit of Gothic horror.

“Son of a BITCH, James!” you say, “You just told us this novel was on Cosmic Horror Lane. Why do you suck so hard at giving directions?!”

Well, here’s the thing about cosmic horror and Gothic horror. They’re really not that different, mainly because cosmic horror was a direct offshoot of Gothic horror. HP Lovecraft loved him some Edgar Allan Poe, and it shows in Lovecraft’s florid prose and his penchant for the bizarre. In a lot of ways, the only thing that distinguishes Poe and Lovecraft is scale.

And the fact that Poe also wrote comedy. Which everybody forgets. Edgar Allan Bro had the driest sense of humor.

Anyway, Cherie Priest knows just the line to tread with the horrors from the sea in Maplecroft. The creatures are grotesque without being overwrought. The strange happenings in Fall River and beyond are surreal, yet they never seem thoughtless or random. And the unnameable nemesis behind it all (if there is a singular entity responsible) is responsible for destruction, yes, but it also portends madness.

It is difficult to pull off genuine, believable madness in a story, and the fragility of the human psyche is an intrinsic element of Gothic horror. Once upon a time, it was simple. Madmen were the ones who gibbered in the corner when they were lucid and who sat locked in catatonia when they weren’t. Bedlam was the gold standard for the insane. But nowadays, since psychology has become a science, a writer has a further obligation: to determine what kind of mad a character is.

The reality that level of character detail offers is even more important in Maplecroft than in most Gothic horror. This is because Lizzie and Emma Borden both, in their own ways, are attempting to use science as a tool to impose their will to survive on an unfeeling, uncaring universe. Any sense of inconsistency or incongruity would disassemble the novel’s carefully-constructed balance between the fantastical and horrifying and the real and scientific.

Long story short, Maplecroft is one of the only novels in recent memory that made my skin properly crawl. You should read it. Or listen to it. The narrators for the Audible audiobook were incredible.

In the meantime, I’ll need to investigate some of Cherie Priest’s other stuff…

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