Lizzie Borden vs Cthulhu

Cherie Priest
Roc, trade paper, 448 pgs.
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Well, sort of. Cthulhu doesn’t actually appear in this book, nor is he even mentioned by name. But a Cthulhu-esque (totally a word) miasma permeates the corners and recesses of the novel, gradually becoming more palpable and easily felt, driving to madness those to whom is it their ill-fortune to endure.

Excuse me.  I’m not sure what came over me there in that last sentence.  The prose in this novel is much (much) better.

The idea behind Maplecroft is at once both so brilliantly original and originally brilliant that I have to wonder that no one has thought of it before.  It seems so obvious.  Fall River is in Lovecraft country, or at least close enough to it as to make no difference, and the infamous events of 1892 are perfect for blending fiction with history.

Here’s a quick summary of the history.  Lizzie (1860-1927) and Emma (1851-1927) Borden were the daughters of Andrew Jackson Borden, a man who had built up his businesses to become one of the wealthiest men in Fall River, Massachusetts.  Lizzie and Emma’s mother died when Lizzie was young, and Andrew married Abby Durfee Gray, who was a spinster 6 years his junior.  By all accounts, she and the Borden girls did not get along.  Once she was grown and could no longer be forced to call her “Mother”, Lizzie began addressing Abby as “Mrs. Borden”.

The weeks preceding the murders saw tensions rise in the Borden household, presumably over money.  The Borden girls appeared to be concerned about how much their father was spending on and/or giving to their stepmother’s relatives.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Andrew left to visit some of his businesses a few blocks away.  While he was gone, Abby was murdered with a hatchet or axe in the guest room.  She was struck about 19 or 20 times (sources vary on the exact number).  Some time later, Andrew was killed, probably while asleep on the couch, by 10 or 11 blows; again, I’ve seen different numbers reported.  (In recent years the timeline as originally established by investigators has been called into question.)

Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Borden

During the investigation that followed, suspicion soon settled on Lizzie.  She was in or around the house at the times of the murders.  She gave conflicting, if not outright false, statements to the police.  She had motive.  In spite of this evidence, the police bumbled a number of things about the investigation.  The defense was able to gain an acquittal.

People have been arguing her guilt ever since.

After the trial, Lizzie and Emma bought a mansion in the nicest part of town.  Lizzie named the mansion Maplecroft.

It’s at this point, 1894, that Ms. Priest begins her story.  Her premise is that Lizzie did commit the murders, but for the best of reasons.  Her father and stepmother were being transformed into something other than human.  They were the first.  They won’t be the last.

There’s something in the ocean, something that’s trying to come ashore.  And Lizzie and Emma may have unwittingly helped it.  Now Lizzie and Emma, who is rapidly succumbing to consumption, are alone in Maplecroft and desperately trying to save the inhabitants of Fall River.

The novel is one of the more effective horror novels I’ve read in recent years.  Priest relates a series of horrific events, more and more unsettling as they go on, at a nice steady pace.  The effect is an atmosphere of dread that tightens about the reader like a noose.  As something moves closer to Fall River, the horror grows.

Lizzie Borden Maplecroft


The novel is epistolary in nature, written as a series of journal entries, memoranda, and dispatches by multiple characters.  Two things impressed me about this approach.  First, that the author was able to maintain distinct voices for all of them.  (This was especially effective for Nance O’Neil, who came across as something of a brat.)  Second, Priest is able to mimic the tone of writing in the 1890s, giving the book a period feel, but she does so in such way that the prose flows.  A modern reader would have more difficulty with actual period prose.

Of course, the author takes a few liberties with historical details.  For example, the Borden sisters had live-in servants when they moved into Maplecroft.  There are a few others quibbles, but for the most part, that’s all they are, quibbles.  The only change that really bothered me was when it was stated that Andrew and Abby Borden were avoiding light before their deaths.  Andrew walked downtown the morning he died and by all accounts it was a sunny and extremely hot day.

But that’s a minor thing.  I really enjoyed Maplecroft and am looking forward to the next volume in the series.  I want to know more about the mysterious Inspector Wolf.  I’ve read a few of Cherie Priest’s other books a few years ago and was impressed.  She’s only gotten better.

For more information on Lizzie Borden, start here, here, and here.  And for the record, yes, I think she did it.  I don’t see how it could have been anyone else.

4 thoughts on “Lizzie Borden vs Cthulhu

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