Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave the thing that was no longer her mother forty whacks…
Fall River, Massachussetts, two years after the sensational trial that found Lizzie Borden not guilty of the gruesome murders of her father and stepmother. Lizzie and her sister Emma are trying to live a quiet life out of the public eye. They have used their inheritance to relocate to an elegant mansion, Maplecroft, in the fashionable section of town, and keep largely to themselves–not difficult, as most of the town shuns them, believing Lizzie got away with murder.
The sisters devote themselves to one project: understanding and combatting the strange illness plaguing their sleepy hamlet. Andrew and Abigail Borden were the first to fall ill with a madness that starts as a preoccupation with the sea, becomes a growing silence and detachment from life, and then rapidly progresses to homicidal violence. It takes a physical toll, as well: the sufferers become slow, shuffling creatures with a violent aversion to daylight and a rasping difficulty with breathing. They become pallid and bloated, losing manual dexterity, but gaining terrifying strength.
It’s all connected to the sea, somehow, and mysterious bits of sea glass that have an unearthly pull on any who get near them. Emma takes a scientific approach, dissecting samples and corresponding with prominent scientists on her findings. Lizzie delves into folklore and magic, searching ancient knowledge for ways to defend her home and city from the creeping horror. One thing she knows for sure: her most effective weapon against the monsters is her trusty axe.
If you’re anything like me, the premise alone will be enough to make you pick up this book: Lizzie Borden meets Lovecraft. I mean, COME ON! Yes, Lizzie killed her parents–but only because they had transformed into supernatural sea monsters intent on killing her and her sister?! Now, that’s a premise!
I love how Cherie Priest extrapolates the actual facts of the case into a supernatural horror story. For instance, the Bordens were known to be suffering a mysterious illness in the days before the murders, thought to be either food poisoning, or actual poison. In the book, it’s because they’re all falling under the influence of the tainted sea glass; Lizzie and Emma resist the call because they isolate themselves from the rest of the household, as, indeed, they were said to have done in the actual case.
Maplecroft is an epistolary novel, a form I greatly enjoy, and which seems very fitting for the time period of the book. (Priest describes it as “a 19th century epistolary love letter to Dracula, by way of Lovecraft.”) Better, it’s the first in a planned series, The Borden Dispatches; I expect I’ll be pouncing on each as they’re published. This was an all-around excellent RIP read!
Reviewed for RIP IX.