Maplecroft starts two years after Lizzie’s trial, and the citizens of Falls River Massachusetts still ostracize Lizzie and her sister Emma, however, partly because of the fairly obvious affair she is conducting with the young Actress Nance O'Neil, but mainly because they believe that she killed her parents. And they are half-right. Lizzie did kill her parents, but in self-defense, because they had begun to transform, along with other denizens of the town, into some monstrous reptilian-human hybrid that may be linked with some strange, unrecognizable life-form that Lizzie’s sister discovered in the ocean.
Other townspeople who came into contact with the entity are transforming, along with a scientist, Dr. Zollicoffer, who was mailed a sample by Emma. Once more, the long shadow of the ubiquitous H.P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos are involved, and Lizzie finds herself hefting her axe to defend her lover and her invalid sister from murderous sub-human amphibians, while hiding a plethora of secrets from them for their own good, with the only help coming from their aging family doctor, Owen Seabury, who is slowly coming to the same sinister conclusions as Lizzie, and an investigator, Simon Wolf, who works for a mysterious un-named group that seems to battle the supernatural.
In Maplecroft Cherie Priest first introduced us to her take on Lizzie Borden,who fought not only the evils of the Cthulhu Mythos, and a demented serial killer who had been twisted by the Elder Gods, but also the strict mores and morals of the repressive 1890’s, all in a wonderful mash-up that managed to be both a great deal of fun and a serious work that thrilled and chilled to equal degrees. The amazing thing about Maplecroft was that Ms. Priest was able to make an alleged axe-murderer a true heroine by taking the basic facts of the case, and mixing it with the eldritch tales of H.P. Lovecraft to create a heroine who was part refined New England Lady and part Modern Feminist Icon, without sacrificing believability, or sincerity, to craft a story that managed to both move and frighten me in equal parts.
In the second installment of The Borden Dispatches, Chapelwood, she comes through again. This novel is set in Birmingham Alabama, nearly thirty years after the first one. Evil seems to be everywhere in Birmingham, because an axe murderer is on a killing spree, the Klan is taking over the government, and a mysterious church in the sticks called Maplecroft is calling some unholy deity that might well bring about the apocalypse. All the church needs is a young woman, Ruth, the daughters of one of their members, and the ritual will be complete. Ruth will have none of it. She is as strong-willed and determined as Lizzie, and she runs away from her father and his church and find a catholic priest, Father Coyle, to marry her to a young Puerto Rican laborer. Her father murders the priest in cold blood, but will certainly be set free by the corrupt judges who run the town. Fortunately the good Father was a friend of Simon Wolf, and the inspector feels like he might need some help in this case, so he calls on Lizzie Borden, who may be old and alone, but still has a spine of steel. Together the three of them, along with ex-chief of police Egan, and the former mayor George Ward, try to save the good people left in town, and the world to boot.
While I wouldn’t call Maplecroft light by any means, this book is even darker. Not only is the fate of the universe at stake, but this time the evil just isn’t outside, but inside as well. To say that the effects of bigotry and intolerance are as destructive to the soul as any outside evil is a subtle but recurring theme in this book, and Ms. Priest mingles it into the story quite well, without preaching or slowing down the galloping plot one bit. Tying the two distinct forms of evil together makes this book even more frightening than Maplecroft. It also make for a steeper climb for Lizzie and Simon as well, along with the fact that they are getting up in years. It gives Chapelwood an elegiac feel, as we see both of our heroes saddling up to battle evil for what could be the last time. The character of Ruth takes up some of the burden. She is the spitting image of the young, fiery Lizzie in the first book, and proves to be worth as her successor.
This book is narrated in the same fashion as the first, and again Ms. Priest dazzles with her skill on the page, and in demonstrating that skill while never stepping out of the heads and voices of each character. Chapelwood is a stunning jaw-dropper of a novel. My suggestion is to get Maplecroft, and read it, then get Chapelwood, and read it, then wait to see what Ms. Priest does next.