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The Completist: THE BORDEN DISPATCHES by Cherie Priest

It has been a while since my last Completist column (there are only so many series I’ve finished reading), so I was very happy that this duology finished off this year. It has been on my radar since the first book in this set published last year and the timing (Halloween) is perfect for Cherie Priest’s “Borden Dispataches.” Lizzie Borden and her axe is as much of an American myth as she is an historical figure, but what if those forty whacks she took were in self-defense against creatures that bore a stronger resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft’s aquatic Cthulhu monstrosities than her father and step-mother? That idea serves as the launch pad for Cherie Priest’s darkly delicious “Borden Dispataches,” which is comprised of Maplecroft and Chapelwood. Priest magically mixes historical figures and events with the horror of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos in an elegant concoction that seems so logical that it almost begs the question why hasn’t it been done before?  Well, Priest’s storytelling skills and lyrical, completely convincing voice elevate these books to greatness.

Maplecroft takes place in the late 19th Century, only a short time before H.P. Lovecraft began writing his Cthulhu mythos, but the things lurking in the streets of Fall River bear a resemblance to the creatures good ol’ HPL conjured. Strange things are afoot in Fall River, Massachusetts and Lizzie – Lisbeth Andrew Borden – is living with her sister Emma, a biologist, with the specter of killing what was once her step-mother and father in her past.  Lisbeth had an acid and lye bath installed in their basement so the bodies of the humanoid monstrosities could easily be dispatched. Emma, suffering a debilitating malady, is studying strange stones from the ocean and corresponding with a scientist at Miskatonic University – Phillip Zollicoffer. Of course Emma writes these correspondences under the guise of a male name “E.A. Jackson,” because women of that age aren’t considered serious scientists. Added to the mix is Lisbeth’s lover, the actress Nance O’Neil, another real-life figure.

Emma soon sends some goop that may or may not be alive to Zollicoffer, who begins to become more drawn to the goop. It serves as a connection between him and the dark forces rising up in Fall River and mirrors the mounting terror surrounding Fall River. Rounding out the cast in Maplecroft is Dr. Seabury, a family friend who testified on Lisbeth’s behalf, and the mysterious investigator Simon Wolf, sent from his office in Boston to take a look at the strange goings-on in Fall River.  What makes this such a wondrously intimate read is Priest’s decision to tell these two novels in epistolary fashion. As such, Priest treats readers to a glimpse of each character’s thoughts about the unfolding events.  Of course Lisbeth gets the bulk of the novel’s diary entries, but some of the most telling from those of Zollicoffer, whose humanity and sanity become ever so thin with each of his journal entries.

Through the journal entries, Priest also reveals the growing rift between Emma and Lisbeth because of Lisbeth’s lover Nance. Emma and Nance bear grudges against each other, and eventually Lisbeth because of the attention Lisbeth shows the other. What truly drives a wedge into the relationships is Nance’s insatiable inquisitiveness about the Borden basement.

While the aquatic horrors roaming the land are potent, the strongest element in the novel is the active, engaging characters themselves. I know if those monstrosities were to dredge themselves up from the waterways near my house which are connected to the Atlantic Ocean, I’d hope for an ounce of Lisbeth’s fortitude, courage, and determination. Maplecroft is a well-told novel that ends with closure, but there is of course more to be told of the Lovecraftian horrors and Lisbeth’s battles against them.

Thirty years after Maplecroft, the second (and at this time final) novel begins. Lisbeth is alone, her sister Emma has passed, her lover Nance has disappeared, and Dr. Seabury finally lost his battles with sanity and also passed. Lisbeth is drawn to the strange occurrences in Birmigham, AL.  A person dubbed “Harry the Hacker” is taking his axe to people on the fringes of society.  There’s also a murder of a priest in cold blood that takes up the mindset of the Birmingham populace. Also returning to the action is Inspector Simon Wolf, who reluctantly asks Lizzie to join him in the investigation in Birmingham. Lizzie already knew of the events, so Simon showing up at her doorstep was not a complete shock.

So, add to the axe murderer and the murder of the priest a church whose deity is cloaked in secrecy and The True Americans, an even more sinister racist group than the rising Klu Klux Klan.  Priest ties these sinister elements together expertly and at their center is the young girl Ruth Stephenson, whose father is part of that church at Chapelwood. She was also good friends with the murdered priest, who also happened to keep a correspondence with Simon Wolf.  Ruth can also commune with spirits and when Wolf tries to get some details from the now former police chief (deposed in an election which placed a Chapelwood sponsored man with the badge), he finds Storage Room Six in the basement of the city’s administration building at the end of a dark hallway where files “disappear” and the atmosphere is saturated with horror and dread.

Nance and Emma’s absence in Chapelwood are a presence; Lizzie (now Lisbeth) addresses them in her journal entries quite frequently. What takes the place of Lisbeth’s relationships with them is her partnership with Inspector Simon Wolf. The barrier between the two characters, due to a gulf of time and polite discourse soon transforms from simply allies to friends bordering on confidants. Their dialogue proved to lighten the dark and somber mood of the horror tale. Ruth is a wonderfully witty character as well, she is not one to wait on others to take action; she is headstrong and willful enough to be an active participant in her fate.

The Borden Dispatches aren’t simply great horror tales (and they are at the top of the list of horror novels I’ve read in the past decade), but an examination of some less savory social structures. The primary protagonists are all women, with Lizzie/Lisbeth at *the* protagonist and in Maplecroft, her relationship with her lover Nance is central. Dr. Seabury, in his “diaries” expresses disapproval of such a relationship, but he is able to get past that and still help Lizzie.  In Chapelwood, there’s a layered examination of the racism and gender bias of the day, Ruth’s marriage to a Puerto Rican man is not viewed kindly, and the aura of racism haunts Birmingham nearly as strongly as does the Lovecraftian monstrosities. Those two evils work quite well together under the roof of the Chapelwood Church.

In the end, “The Borden Dispatches” are superb horror novels (excellent Halloween reads at that) and in my mind Maplecroft is perhaps a perfect horror novel in its own right.  Maplecroft takes the aquatic horrors of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, while Chapelwood connects the cosmic horror to the narrative. Though I haven’t read every Cthulhu mythos tale, for my money, Maplecroft and Chapelwood are the epitome of modern entries of that subset of horror and dark fantasy. Although there are only two novels chronicling the Borden family’s conflict with creatures out of the Cthulhu mythos, I would not mind the title of this column being invalidated.

About Rob H. Bedford (62 Articles)
Rob H. Bedford writes The Completeist Column and curates Mind Melds here at SF Signal. Elsewhere, he is the Lead Book reviewer for SFFWorld, where he is also a Moderator in their discussion forums. In addition to over a decade’s worth of reviews at SFFWorld, his reviews and articles have also appeared at Tor.com and in the San Francisco/Sacramento Book.

2 Comments on The Completist: THE BORDEN DISPATCHES by Cherie Priest

  1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // October 28, 2015 at 3:23 pm //

    I should “chop chop” and get down to reading these 🙂

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