Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

You ever have one of those books that you go into expecting one thing and about 50 pages in figure out that your brain was tricked at some point and the book is something tonally different than you expected? That was me with Maplecroft. I’m not entirely certain where in life I was misled, but when I picked up this book, I was quite certain this was going to be a fun, quick read about Lizzie Borden on a vendetta against the paranormal, somewhat similar to the tv show Supernatural. So I settled in, ready to be entertained by a somewhat dark but in the end popcorn-level book of fun undead axing. Turns out, there was one small but very specific mistake I made. Lizzie Borden, infamous axe murderess from the late 1800s/early 1900s, is definitely chopping up unearthly beings in attempts to protect her family and town, but they aren’t demons with snappy one liners. Nope, instead it’s Lovecraftian fish people.

This mistake might seem inconsequential to those not familiar with Lovecraftian horror, but it changed the entire tone of the book. Lovecraft is slow and meaty text, full of lumbering monsters from unknown depths and serving unfathomable Eldritch Gods. A physical threat exists, but it’s much less important than the threat to our minds. There is a sense of hopelessness and despair to Lovecraft, where even the smallest glimpses of the horrors beyond our world can drive the sanest of men mad and where any solution found is only a bandaid put on top of a severed arm.

This tonal shift transformed everything about this book for me, and I was delighted. The book no longer felt that we were making light of historical figure Lizzie Borden’s (probable) murderous actions to tell a fun and entertaining jaunt making her the hero figure of the story. Instead, Lizzie’s actions are slow and eclipsed with a sense of ongoing dread as we have to watch more and more townsfolk falling victim to the Eldritch horrors that are slowly transforming them into crazed fish-people.

Speaking of fish people, Maplecroft seems to have drawn the majority of its Lovecraftian influence from The Shadow Over Innsmouth, one of the more well-known Lovecraft works. In the story, our unnamed narrator relays his investigation into the small Massachusetts town of Innsmouth, and the strange goings on there. He describes with first a strange curiosity and later abject horror at the transformation the townsfolk seem to be undergoing, along with their continual obsession with the sea and the “deep ones” that reside in it.

Similar to many Lovecraft stories, Maplecroft is told via letters and journal entries, although unlike the story it has drawn from, there is not one sole narrator telling this tale. Instead, we get the POVs of multiple characters ranging from Lizzie to her ailing sister to the mind of a professor slowing going mad due to the eldritch influence of the deep ones. This helped with the unsettling atmosphere and sense of dread, as you could watch throughout the book as different characters begin their transformation, or react to the transformation of others. Down side of this writing style, however, was that the passage of time is solely conveyed through journal entries at the beginning of each chapter and several times I got lost about how much time had actually progressed since we last heard from our characters.

Another positive of this being influenced by Lovecraft as opposed to actually written by him is that you get to avoid some of the author ickiness surrounding his works. I greatly appreciated having multiple female POVs as our primary voices, something which Lovecraft himself would have balked at. There weren’t random lines about how inferior black people or women are to startle me out of the dread I was experiencing with a stark reminder of how incredibly racist Lovecraft was. Instead, I got to experience all the thematic elements of a proper Lovecraft Horror with more relatable and somewhat diverse characters (or at least more diverse than Lovecraft would have ever written).

Unfortunately, the ending of the book didn’t quite land for me. Around the time where a certain character begins to succumb to the strangeness surrounding the town, the book seems to come to a stuttering halt. Time seems to be passing more quickly going by the journal dates but nothing much is happening story wise. A large section near the end felt like we were sitting around just waiting for the finale to start, and once it did start, everything seemed to happen at once. The pacing of everything seemed off, and not deliberately. Characters start behaving in more illogical ways but you can’t tell if the author intended this to be a sign of their oncoming madness, or if it’s just inconsistent character writing.

That being said, I still greatly enjoyed this book. The actual ending (not the build up to the ending that I struggled with) felt very fitting for the Lovecraftian style, and I came away from this book feeling small and hopeless, but in an intended way. I’m unsure if I’ll read the next book in the series, although that’s not a condemnation of this book. Instead, it’s because I enjoyed this book so much that I don’t want to read the next one. Coming back to this world and the horrors within it seems to destroy the point of this book. The hopeless note we ended on was so fitting and perfect, telling any sort of continuation or epilogue seems contrary to the book’s thematic influence. Regardless, Maplecroft was a wonderfully dreadful book of horror and hopelessness and I’m very glad to have read it.