An Interview With Cherie Priest, Author of Chapelwood

61rpKf6FLIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Cherie Priest is an author who has tacked several sub-genres and been a huge influence anthem all. Her Clockwork Century took steampunk out of Victorian England, set it in the American West, and populated it with working class characters, which was not the norm in steampunk at the time. You can find my review of her young adult book, I Am Princess X, here. In Maplecroft, a book I adored, she pits Lizzie Borden and her axe against Lovecraftian monsters. Chapelwood brings Lizzie to Birmingham thirty years later, where strange things are afoot. You can find my review of Chapelwood on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Thank you, Cherie for finding time to do an email interview with Geek Girl in Love!

Your books have a strong Lovecraftian influence. Why is Lovecraft still so relevant and influential today?

Because although his social politics were sometimes wildly problematic, he consistently steered away from the worst of the horror tropes by making his protagonists competent, informed, and credible. Let me put it this way…there are two primary ways to make a story scary: You can make your protagonists weaker than the threat, or you can make the threat greater than the protagonists. Especially in the wake of the slasher flicks of the 80s/90s, modern audiences became accustomed to the former – and all too often that meant pretty young idiots getting mowed down courtesy of their own stupidity. But after a while, that wasn’t scary anymore. It was just messy. I think that’s a significant part of why the big horror bubble of yesteryear went bust.

Lovecraft, on the other hand, gave us characters who behaved in smart, reasonable ways that the audience couldn’t really fault. It’s easy to feel smug when the clueless loser dies in a squicky fashion – but it’s genuinely suspenseful and unsettling when the vehicle character behaves more like WE would, without making dumb decisions or rash choices. (Or so we’d like to think.)

Anyway, that’s my big takeaway from Lovecraft – to make the danger bigger instead of the characters weaker, and I think it’s a big component of his enduring appeal.

Did you know when you wrote Maplecroft that the sequel would take place 30 years later? What led you to such a huge time jump?

Honestly, when I wrote Maplecroft I wasn’t expecting to write another one, period. I really wanted it to be a standalone, but my publisher had other ideas. In the end, though – I’m quite pleased with how Chapelwood came out, even though it wasn’t part of my original plan. As for the time jump, I wrote it that way because I wanted the books to remain independent stories, for one thing; and for another, the Birmingham ax murders were really horrifying and interesting…and they happened to occur in the 1920s.

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I felt that Maplecroft and Chapelwood were very different in tone and scope. Can you talk at all about how the books are similar and different, and why?

They’re both explicitly Lovecraftian, but they approach the mythos from two different angles. To oversimplify, much of Lovecraft’s horror can be divided into two camps: the oceanic, earthly horror (terror from below)  – and the cosmic, outer space horror (terror from above/out there). Maplecroft draws inspiration from the former, and Chapelwood from the later.

Will there be any further books in this series? Warning: slight spoiler alert ahead!

There are none planned at this time, but I’ll never say never. If the books really take off, I’d be happy to pursue them further; thus the Chapelwood ending – where it is, I hope, clear that the Quiet Society will go on, and Ruth will be part of their future investigations. But ultimately, that’s up to the publisher and to the market. So…if you like the Lizzie books, recommend them to your friends! 🙂

Book Review: I Am Princess X, by Cherie Priest

I Am Princess X is incredibly riveting and clever, although it loses a lot of its narrative daring about two-thirds of the way through. This would be a bigger problem if not for the fact that you can read the whole book in just a few hours – it’s short and fast-moving. So by the time you get to the more conventional style you are almost done with the book anyway.

Libby and May became best friends when they were both nine, and they started writing a series of comics and stories about Princess X. May wrote the stories and Libby drew the pictures. A few years later, Libby and her mom died in a car accident. But a few years after the accident, May starts seeing “I Am Princess X” stickers everywhere and she discovers a webcomic that clearly refers to her and Libby. Is Libby alive?

The book combines the format of a novel and the comic format, as May reads the comic for clues. Eventually the comic format is largely dropped – which is unfortunate, because the parts of the story told in comic format are incredibly effective and scary. The book suffers when it becomes less of a mystery and more a straight forward catch the bad guy story.

There are some missteps in the book in addition to the change in style. One odd thing about the book is its insistence on explaining pretty basic terms. Honestly, this book is aimed at teens. Are there any teens who don’t know what “Dropbox” is? Also, May finds an ally who is a hacker. He is in trouble because he was, frankly, a criminal douchebag to his ex-girlfriend. I never liked this character but I felt like I was supposed to like him even though he expresses no remorse and no acknowledgement of how harmful his actions towards his ex would have been had he not gotten caught. A reformed jerk has to, you know, reform. They have to take responsibility for their past actions, not just try to clean up with new ones. His character was so weirdly drawn that I felt like there was a subplot involving him being a villain that was dropped.

Still, the book is well-worth checking out just for the first two-thirds of the book, which is inventive, mysterious, horrifying, exciting, and moving. I had literal chills as certain clues were revealed and I was just desperate to figure out what was going on. If there’s a sequel, I’ll read it. As much as I love to read romance, I was thrilled that this YA does NOT include a romance. It keeps the focus on the friendship between Libby and May.

Book Review: Maplecroft, by Cherie Priest

cover of MaplecroftI love being a blogger as opposed to an academic because I can write things like “Holy crap this book is scary”.  When I was an English Lit student, I was supposed to write things like, “Maplecroft uses the matrix of sisterhood to deconstruct the Lovecraftian mythos.  The Monsters are both Freudian and Jungian symbols, revealing the inner psychology of the siblings and the historical framework in which they navigate illness, gender fluidity, sexuality, and sublimated aggression”.

Here’s what you should actually know about Maplecroft:  it’s a fantastic book and holy crap it’s scary.  Do you guys remember in “Friends” when Joey liked reading The Shining but he had to keep it in the freezer when not reading it because it was so scary?

Friends

I did not actually keep Maplecroft in the freezer but I also didn’t keep it in my room when I was trying to sleep.  It was banished to the living room, from which it made shuffling, gibbering noises all night.  I considered the freezer, but the house was really dark and I didn’t want to walk that far because I was like this:

Joey in Friends

Maplecroft opens two years after the famous Borden murders (as in “Lizzie Bornden took an axe and…”.  In real life, Lizzie was never convicted.  In the book, Lizzie did kill her father and stepmother, but only because they had turned into murderous, unearthly monsters.  Lovecraft fans will be pleased to know that there’s a lot of gibbering in this book.  Lizzie and her sister Emma, who is dying of consumption, live in a house called Maplecroft.  Lizzie built a laboratory and a “cooker” in the cellar and she spends her nights killing monsters with her axe (they hate iron) and her days tending to her sister and trying to figure out what happened to her family and why these gibbering slimy monsters with long glassy teeth (they look like anglerfish teeth, which Eeeeeeuuuuuugggghhh) keep surrounding her house.  The sisters live in near total isolation ever since Lizzie sent her lover, a woman named Nance, away for her own protection.

angler fish

No.

The plot quickly thickens as more people get involved.  Nance comes back, and she REEEEEAAAAAALLLLY wants a look at the cellar.  The local doctor investigates terrible, unearthly crimes and wants to help Lizzie.  An inspector from Boston shows up – but who does he work for?  No one knows.  And a scientist that Emma sent a sea creature to has started writing Emma letters like this:

I will come to you and we will meet and you must explain to me as much as you can as much as anyone can what has become of the ocean not the ocean but which lies in the ocean, from whence cometh the sample I have named Physalia zollicoffris I have named it after myself because it came before myself and now it is myself, we are the same now you see or you will see I will see to it I will see to you.

So, yeah, that’ll end well.

I’m sure you could read this book with great satisfaction even if you know nothing about the Lizzie Borden murders but I found that knowing some of the background made the story richer.  A lot of historical details are woven into this book and made to serve the story – most notably, the fact that the Borden family complained of feeling sick, maybe poisoned, for some time before the murders.  Like any good speculative fiction, the outlandish parts of the story work because they are anchored in mundane things.  For instance, Lizzie talks about having problems with her stays creaking, Nance has freedom to explore sexuality because she’s an actress, Emma struggles with consumption, and the women have a realistic if torturous dynamic.

Because of the way the supernatural elements work, you can’t always tell whether people are feeling resentment and hostility towards each other because they are succumbing to possession, or because they are trapped in an untenable situation.  Emma and Lizzie in particular resent and depend on each other.  Monsters aren’t that scary because they are pretend, but sibling conflicts, being trapped by illness as either a sufferer or a caretaker, being kept from pursuing careers and lovers because of gender, and social isolation – those things are scary because they happen all the time.  They were very real parts of Lizzie’s life.  There’s so much tension in the book that it’s almost a relief when she actually gets to hit something.

This is the first book in a series.  It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger but it’s clear that a sequel is on the way and I’m DYING HERE.  It looks like the sequel will come out in September 2015.  In the meantime, I hope Lizzie gets to take a nap, because that woman is exhausted.