Lizzie Borden's infamous murders took place just a couple of decades before H.P. Lovecraft first dreamed up the horrors of his greatest invention, the cosmic ocean monster-god Cthulhu. Cherie Priest has taken this historical confluence and turned it into a wild, awesome page-turner called Maplecroft.
The woman whose murder trial riveted turn-of-the-century scandal sheet readers preferred to be called Lisbeth. And in Priest's retelling of the Borden story, she didn't murder her father and stepmother at all, unless you consider monster hunting to be murder. Lisbeth was protecting her tiny Massachusetts town from two people who were gradually turning into something foul and unexplainable – probably due to their exposure to odd bits of what appear to be drift glass they found on the seashore. She's still on monster patrol, in fact, despite the way everybody in town gossips about her and the odd goings-on at her new home.
What's delightful here is that Priest has taken all the real-life historical details of the Borden murders – including stuff like the family being ill for a few days beforehand – and turned them into one of the best Lovecraftian stories I've ever read. After being declared innocent, Lisbeth and her sickly sister Emma buy a mansion called Maplecroft together, fitting it out as a perfect monster hunter's lair. There's the hidden acid bath for dissolving monsters, the lab where Emma (secretly one of the greatest biologists of the age) can conduct her work, and of course a special spot for Lisbeth's trusty axe.
Because of course Lisbeth's parents aren't the only people whose exposure to the sea has turned them into monsters. Pale, fish-like humanoids often come creeping around their house. It's as if Lisbeth's presence lures them. And it takes all her energy to fend them off, while also caring for her increasingly weak sister – and wooing her actress girlfriend, who frequently visits from New York.
Things go from merely awful to end-of-days catastrophic when Emma sends an odd sample of slimy marine life to a biologist colleague. Like all Emma's colleagues, he believes Emma is a man who is too sickly to meet face-to-face. But he delights in this new finding – perhaps too much. He begins to fall in love with the slime, experiencing odd visions of some great creature associated with the sea's dark transformative powers. He's not channeling Cthulhu itself, perhaps, but something partly Lovecraftian and partly all Priest's own. And now the once-good doctor and his slime god are blazing a path in blood to Emma's door – where Lisbeth and her pretty girlfriend are trying in vain to have a happy closeted lesbian life.
What elevates Maplecroft above your typical monster hunter story is the realistic tension between these three women, all of whom are brilliant and full of secrets. The weird story of their relationship is almost a novel on its own. But when you add in Priest's vivid evocations of the growing menace from the sea – complete with levitating fish-beasts, mind-controlling jellyfish, and noxious floods from nowhere – the book is just a knockout. The ocean's alien power has found its match in the fury of brilliant, angry sisters.
A warning, though. Once I started reading Maplecroft, I was basically glued to my chair until I was finished. So be prepared to lose an afternoon to this book – and to gnash your teeth waiting for the sequel to arrive (yes – it's the first in the "Borden Dispatches" series). Whether you're a weird fiction fan, or love true crime history, this book is a major treat.