Books! Review of Cherie Priest’s Maplecroft

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In America, there’s nothing we like better than an unsolved mystery. The slaying of the Bordens has spawned several movies and books, all trying to explain what happened to inspire such brutal murders. Maplecroft by Cherie Priest is one of the most imaginative. In this novel, Priest has seamlessly blended the unfortunate lives of the Borden sisters with Lovecraftian strangeness. While they may seem unrelated topics, it is obvious that the author has done her homework on the Borden sisters. All of the dates corresponding to real events in their lives were unchanged. And the setting is close enough to the setting in Lovecraft’s work to tie the two together. Ms. Priest even utilizes locales from Lovecraft’s work, such as Miskatonic University.

The book is written in a highly Victorian form, as a series of journal entries and missives. This helped to completely root the reader in the Victorian era without having to add too many other Victorian elements. But also as such, it presented three problems for the reader. One, only the information that the characters wish to share end up on the page. Secondly, some of the tension is removed when the reader knows that the character “writing” the scene lives to write it down. Lastly, some of the tension is also removed with musings on religion and other thoughts that the character adds during the later chronicling process.

Don’t, however, assume that these minor things make for a boring book. Lizbeth Borden and her accompanying cast are a strange group and the events surrounding them make things even stranger. Something unusual is happening to Fall River, the hometown of the Bordens, and what happened to their parents was just the beginning. Following the women and their allies as they try to learn what is happening and how to stop it keeps the reader going until the end. The chilling descriptions of people-turned-monsters are truly horrifying and make the reader as interested to find out what is happening to them as the characters are.

Possibly most extraordinary is how the inner thoughts of the characters, ruminating on very Victorian concerns, reflect concerns in modern society. Each of the characters, at one point, considers his or her own stance on the loss of religion in a highly religious society, a woman’s struggles to make a name for herself in science, and the acceptance of homosexuality. Priest’s chosen era, the 1890s, is when all these things were first being considered on a wider scale, but are still hot-button issues in modern society. By presenting them in a historical setting, though, they can feel less immediate and allow for a little more introspection. Priest’s handling of all the issues is expert, presenting them not as a vast statement, but without commentary beyond their importance in her characters’ lives.

Maplecroft is a tale of horror and acceptance and how sometimes saving others can overcome a desire to hide one’s self away from the world and criticism.

Wednesday Morning Coffee

The invention of the hoop skirt in the southern states during the Victorian period really did stand to reason. Have you seen how many layers the average Victorian lady wore? There’s at least four layers of petticoats (for propriety, you can’t have any gentlemen even getting the impression that you have legs, let alone get a glimpse of their shape), topped by bustle or other type of flounce (also sometimes worn as a separate layer over top the skirt), and a skirt. On the top, there was a a chemise, a corset, and a corset topper, only to be covered by a shirt and a jacket. Good gravy.

When I wore a similar construction as a Halloween costume this past year, I was hot. Capital letters hot. H. O. T hot. And it was October and already chilly. I was not even wearing any of the proscribed petticoats, bustle, chemise, or corset. And I was still ready to die.Really, it’s no wonder there are so many stories of Victorian ladies fainting. It wasn’t their delicate constitutions, it was that they were just overheated.*

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So really, a construction that holds your dress out from your body must have been the only way to survive. That and the paper fan. Thank heavens someone invented shorts.

* this is not an actual fact. Please do not include this in a history paper.