Giving Cthulhu 40 Whacks: Cherie Priest’s The Borden Dispatches
Charged in 1892 with killing her father and stepmother, Lizzie Borden is one of the most iconic wrongdoers of American history. Her reputation as a brutal axe-murderer is reflected in everything from a playground rhyme to a Halloween special of The Simpsons. In reality, meanwhile, she was acquitted of the murders due to a lack of evidence. The crime remains unsolved, leaving plenty of room for authors of fiction to imagine their own versions of events.
Anybody who does so will be faced with another provocative question. In the years after her trial, Lizzie Borden formed a friendship with the actress Nance O’Neil – and their contemporaries appear to have suspected that the two women were more than just friends. “There was a handful of dirty minded puritans in Fall River who saw Lizzie’s association with Nance as a blatantly homosexual affair,” wrote Playbill contributor Victoria Lincoln in 1967. Lincoln – who spent her childhood in Borden’s home town of Fall River, Massachusetts – doubted the veracity of these rumours; but numerous storytellers have found them a fertile source of inspiration.
Lizzie, a 1984 novel written by Ed McBain under the pen-name Evan Hunter, followed Borden’s transformation from the model of ladylike primness to a guilt-crazed lesbian. The stage plays Blood Relations (Sharon Pollock, 1980), Nance O’Neil (David Foley, 2010) and The Greatest Actress Who Ever Lived (Carolyn Gage, 2011) all focus on the possibly homosexual relationship between Borden and O’Neil.
The real Massachusetts may never have played host to an axe-wielding lesbian named Lizzie Borden – but the Massachusetts of fiction has done so multiple times. Turn a corner in this imaginary state and we will soon find settings from some of H. P. Lovecraft’s best-known stories, such as the cursed town from The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936). With The Borden Dispatches, a series comprising the two novels Maplecroft (2014) and Chapelwood (2015), Cherie Priest joins the dots by pitting Lizzie Borden against the eldritch creations of Lovecraft.
Priest starts by inventing an answer to the longstanding question of Lizzie’s guilt: miss Borden did indeed kill her father and stepmother, but justifiably so. In The Borden Dispatches’ version of events, the unfortunate couple had begun to turn into hideous inhuman creatures, a transformation not dissimilar to that undertaken by the residents of Lovecraft’s Innsmouth, and so Lizzie was forced to slay them for their own good.
Following the trial, Lizzie and her chronically ill sister Emma now live a reclusive life together. Emma publishes monographs on marine zoology under the pseudonym of Dr. E. A. Jackson, winning the respect that she could never find as a mere woman. Lizzie, meanwhile, maintains a lesbian relationship with frequent visitor Nance O’Neil.
But Lizzie has not yet escaped her past. Other people around Fall River are turning into hideous creatures, and she has little choice but to once again take her axe and slay these monsters as they appear.
Strictly speaking, The Borden Dispatches falls into the category of alternate history, as Priest shows little compunction about killing off minor historical figures decades before they met their ends in real life. But it would be closer to the spirit of the novels to classify them as secret history, as Priest’s main concern is imagining stories that occurred but which historians failed to notice. Maplecroft, in particular, is very much a novel about secrets: Lizzie must keep a lid on the existence of the monsters, her sister’s double life, and her own homosexuality.
While the supernatural horror slowly but steadily unfolds in the background, the novel is driven by the domestic tension between the three women of Maplecroft. Emma, bedridden with illness and focused on finding a way to deal with the creatures, comes to resent Lizzie’s relationship with Nance: “Traipse upstairs like the scandalous fools you are, get it out of your blood, and then get that girl out of our house.” She requests to be relocated downstairs, away from the secret affair between the other two women, and suspects that they are only too pleased to have her out of the way. Even then, she is forced to listen to Nance “snoop, badger, fight, and ultimately yowl like a cat in heat, as if I can’t hear through the floors. I’m feeble. I’m not deaf.”
Emma turns out to be right. Lizzie keeps Nance in the dark about their dealings with otherworldly beings, and so forbids her from entering the room in which Lizzie conducts research. Here, of course, Priest is drawing upon one of the most resilient of horror stories: the centuries-old folktale of Bluebeard. And like Bluebeard’s bride, Nance cannot resist the temptation to take a peek into the secret chamber that houses Lizzie’s collected specimens…
Maplecroft clearly takes place within the Cthulhu Mythos, as indicated by the presence of the Miskatonic University, and Priest utilises some of the more popular pieces of Lovecraftian imagery – tentacled monsters are seen through partial glimpses, while people transform into bestial aquatic hybrids. When contemplating the eldritch sea-dwelling horrors that threaten Fall River, Lizzie Borden offers a turn of phrase that may have made Lovecraft himself proud: “Is this what we fled, when we left the ocean? Did we grow legs so we could run away?”
But despite these motifs, the novel never captures the overall sense of cosmic dread that characterises the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft – who, it has to be said, would have cared little for the household drama that moves Priest’s narrative. [pullquote]But despite these motifs, the novel never captures the overall sense of cosmic dread that characterises the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft – who, it has to be said, would have cared little for the household drama that moves Priest’s narrative.[/pullquote]
Not that Priest gives any indication that she set out to imitate Lovecraft’s stories to the letter. Her main influence appears to have been an earlier, altogether more famous horror text: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
When Nance becomes infected by the creatures, her ongoing corruption parallels the descent into vampirism suffered by Dracula’s victim Lucy Westenra. Lizzie’s relationship with Nance gives a lesbian twist to Lucy’s friendship with Mina Harker. The character of Owen Seabury, a family surgeon who becomes embroiled in the supernatural goings-on, fills the same role as Stoker’s Dr. Seward. Professor Phillip Zollocoffer, who falls under the sway of the eldritch beings, has similarities to Renfield; but as the novel lacks a clear-cut Count Dracula character, he is Renfield upgraded to primary antagonist.
Most obvious of all, Priest uses the same epistolary approach as Stoker, writing her novel as a collection of journal entries from various characters with the occasional news report thrown in for a touch of verisimilitude.
Anybody who has read Dracula will find the rough storyline of Maplecroft familiar, but Priest has nonetheless achieved some interesting effects by grafting Lovecraft’s concepts onto Stoker’s framework. She avoids the pitfall of trying to imitate Lovecraft’s distinctive prose style – which tends to result in a sense of fond familiarity rather than of creepiness – and instead uses her epistolary format to give each character their own idiosyncratic accounts of the weird phenomena.
Seabury, for example, struggles to describe what he has seen and ends up leaving the details to the reader’s imagination: “I would use the word ‘encephalitic,’ but it doesn’t feel quite right… Already my memory fails me, and my eyesight, too…”
Lizzie’s description of a transformed woman, on the other hand, is more concise and evocative: “the motion of her limbs was not natural… she looked like she had too many limbs, clinging and rattling, crablike, across the stones.”
Stoker’s vampires were beings of the earth, rising from soil-lined coffins, but Priest – like Lovecraft – places her horrors in the sea. The aftermath to one monster attack is related by a witness, who describes how he encountered a sound suggesting “a big millstone, underwater… muffled and soggy-like” and a smell that reminded him of a beached whale “cooking in the sun, rotting in the water”. The young victim himself, meanwhile, was seen “swimming [in] the air, above his bed. Treading water in the middle of the room”. The millstone-like noise turns out to be coming from the boy’s mouth:
[His mouth] moved like he was talking, but he wasn’t… he was making that noise, that grinding underwater noise. Like a machine with wheels and chains, and soaked-wet wood, pulling against some kind of weight. Dredging something up. Hauling something out of the ocean. […] it wasn’t a sound a boy could make.
The description of the victims’ autopsies again emphasize drowning imagery: bloated bodies and burst lungs. The ocean-dwelling horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos have found a happy home within the trappings of Victorian gothic.
Mixing Stoker and Lovecraft will inevitably lead to tension, as the two writers showed very different attitudes towards the supernatural. Dracula takes place within a solidly Christian world, where evil can be weakened and ultimately vanquished with the aid of crucifixes and communion wafers. Lovecraft, an atheist, provided no such cosmic safety-net for his characters; his stories play on an existential dread, using monstrous elder-gods as personifications of a universe indifferent to humanity. Priest finds a workable middle-ground by lending The Borden Dispatches a generally agnostic worldview, in which characters do not rule out the existence of a benign God – but do not rely on one either.
The fictionalised Lizzie Borden holds that “last century’s magic is this year’s science” and shows an open-minded attitude towards theology: “I’m praying to anyone who listens… The Divine has many names. I doubt He cares which one I call. Or She, for all we know. Doesn’t the Bible say we were created in God’s image, male and female?” Hearing these remarks, Emma tells her that she is treading on dangerous ground; Lizzie’s response is “we’re living on dangerous ground.”
Lizzie initially identifies as Christian, but appears to grow increasingly secular as the novel progresses. Towards the end she muses that, upon fleeing predators of the deep and arriving on the land, mankind’s ancestors “became the things we’d sought to escape, and we invented gods to blame.” She notes that mankind placed its primary deities in the sky, rather than in the sea or on the Earth, and concludes that we will eventually relocate them to space – a concept that resonates with the godlike extra-terrestrials described by Lovecraft.
On the whole, Cherie Priest succeeds in fusing the quite distinct approaches to horror taken by her two main inspirations. However, Maplecroft shows a conceptual weakness when it integrates a third element: heroic fantasy.
Maplecroft’s Lizzie Borden is wedged awkwardly between two interpretations, being both a mortal woman caught up in otherworldly affairs and a superhero-like figure who slays monsters with such regularity that some of her victories are allowed to occur offstage. This latter version of the character can be seen most clearly in Seabury’s descriptions:
She rushed ahead of me, a womanly shape wearing little more than a nightdress… Her form billowed as the fabric spilled behind her, and every so often I caught a glimpse of light sparking off metal. Her axe.
And, later on:
She picked up the axe and flipped it expertly, feeling for the familiar move and sway of its weight with more grace and better precision than the most experienced of lumberjacks. It was almost lovely the way she turned it between her hands—almost divine, how the light sparked of it and bounded back into the sky.
It is tempting to imagine that Priest conceived Maplecroft as an ongoing pulp adventure series – Lizzie the Cthulhu Slayer, perhaps – before rewriting the project as a self-contained novel that happened to have room for a sequel or two. The story establishes that, even after the incident with her parents, Lizzie has encountered and slain multiple supernatural creatures – enough, in fact, to grant her close familiarity with how to tackle such entities. But these encounters do not occur as part of the narrative; they are instead consigned to the backstory. As Lizzie Borden is an audience-identification character, this leaves the lingering impression that an early chapter has gone missing from the narrative. This would have been acceptable in heroic fantasy, where a protagonist is assumed to have many adventures both behind and ahead of them, but it does not quite fit Maplecroft’s general tone of creeping dread.
Fortunately, Cherie Priest addressed this weakness in the second Borden Dispatches book, Chapelwood, which features a rather different interpretation of Lizzie Borden: she is no longer a superheroine, but a world-weary individual in the later years of her life.
Most of Chapelwood’s plot takes place in late 1921, decades after the events of Maplecroft, with Lizzie now a 61-year-old woman living under the name of Lizbeth Andrew. Meanwhille, trouble is brewing in Birmingham, Alabama, a long way from Fall River. An axe murderer – dubbed “Harry the Hacker” in the press – is running rampant, and a sinister religious sect with ties to the Ku Klux Klan is gaining momentum. The situation turns out to overlap with Lizbeth’s own turbulent history, and she becomes embroiled in another round of supernatural terrors.
The novel retains some of its predecessor’s Lovecraftian element while finding time to play with other types of horror. The murders turn out to be the work of a cult member named Leonard Kincaid; this character narrates his chapters in a calmly detached manner reminiscent of Poe as filtered through Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991). Priest includes surreal, genuinely Fortean touches such as a municipal storage room that somehow devours evidence pertaining to a specific criminal case. But above all, Chapelwood embraces the imagery and motifs of the ghost story genre.
Ghosts both literal and figurative flit through the pages of the novel. Lizbeth is haunted by memories of the loved ones that she has lost, and it is sightings of a phantom “gray lady” that are ultimately responsible for bringing her to Birmingham. She herself is something of a ghostly figure: having entered popular consciousness as a character of horror, she is tormented by children – in whose imaginations she has evolved from axe-murderer to witch.
Also looming large is the spectre of the Ku Klux Klan, which is likewise depicted as a lingering presence from the past:
You’d think the war hadn’t been over for sixty years… You’d think the hooded devils would be run underground by sheer population density [but] they’re bolstered by wealth, privilege, and the momentum of history. They wield authority by the force of a habit no one knows how to break.
The voice of progress in Chapelwood is given to Ruth Stephenson Gussman, a white girl who believes that the philosophy of the Klan-aligned True Americans is “made for angry white men, and to hell with everybody else, me included”. She takes great objection to the group’s choice of name:
American ought to be a good thing, the kind of thing that brings everybody together instead of deciding who’s good enough to be one and who isn’t. I’ve read in my history books, I’ve seen pictures of the statue in New York… She doesn’t pick and choose; she takes everybody.
Meanwhile, a Catholic character remarks that “Nathaniel Barrett’s… new laws would ban any business from employing a Catholic, a prospect endorsed by a series of ‘vigilance committees’, that would, one must assume, terrorize the locals until there’s no place left for our people”. It is interesting to note that, while the novel repeatedly mentions racism and ethnic prejudice, it is religious bigotry – particularly anti-Catholicism – that gets the most thorough dismantling.
Perhaps this can be attributed to current debates about the sensitivity issues arising from white authors portraying racism faced by ethnic minorities. It could also be an attempt on Priest’s part to create an analogy for contemporary anti-Muslim sentiment – Chapelwood does, after all, give the impression that it is a novel about the “Make America Great Again” era more than it is about the 1920s. But at the same time, Priest’s decision to focus on religious prejudice serves to keep the themes of her novel more tightly woven. Chapelwood’s call for religious plurality is a logical outgrowth of Maplecroft’s agnostic open-mindedness.
[pullquote]Chapelwood does, after all, give the impression that it is a novel about the “Make America Great Again” era more than it is about the 1920s.[/pullquote]
The themes of ghosts and religious exploration merge together when the novel discusses spiritualism, a movement that was en vogue during the time of the story’s setting. The losses of World War I led to grieving families seeking ways to contact departed loved ones, and it is the resulting world of mediums and Ouija boards that Chapelwood depicts. Lizzie becomes interested in spiritualism partly because of its adaptability:
Do I agree with every jot and tittle of their sprawling and flexible views? Not at all. But the fact that their tenants sprawl, and are flexible [is] meaningful to me. Almost as meaningful as their admission that many things happen that are unexplainable by science or traditional… religious inquiry.
The Lovecraftian element comes back into play with the True Americans. Priest associates white supremacism with eldritch rituals; this is an obvious but effective update of Lovecraft, who generally equated dark skin with inhumanity and evil.
The members of the cult “believe in some mechanism that can bring the promised apocalypse to a head, luring their cosmic overlords from somewhere out beyond the stars”. Ruth describes the cult’s leader preaching about how a race of creatures “that aren’t exactly angels, or not angels how we’ve always thought of them” once lived in the oceans, ruling over humanity, before heading back to their homeworld in the stars – but “someday, they’re coming back”. When Lizbeth finally catches a glimpse of the elder god – a being with “no interest in mankind… a slumbering organism of absolute inscrutability and apathy” – she compares herself to Moses witnessing God’s back.
The horror genre has become deeply self-referential in recent years. Slasher villains quote their favourite slasher movies; Jane Austen novels are invaded by zombies; and Van Helsing meets up with Victor Frankenstein to discuss Varney the Vampire. This kind of metafiction can be fascinating when done correctly, but with bookshop shelves bulging with Seth Grahame-Smith coattail-riders, perhaps there is a danger that authors will forget what made the source material of such stories work in the first place.
Cherie Priest avoids any kind of postmodern posturing in The Borden Dispatches. Instead, she takes a selection of horror subjects – Dracula, the Cthulhu Mythos, the Lizzie Borden legend, ghost stories and even the tale of Bluebeard – and finds a territory shared by all of them in which she can set her own story. While not original, the series nonetheless carries an unmistakable freshness and vitality.