Chapelwood: Frightening, eerie and engrossing

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsChapelwood by Cherie Priest horror book reviewsChapelwood by Cherie Priest

Maplecroft, the first book in Cherie Priest’s Lovecraftian series THE BORDEN DISPATCHES, was one of the best books of 2014. With Chapelwood, the sequel, Priest delivers again with an intricate, frightening story written in a completely different tone. Many familiar characters are back, and we meet some new ones, including some adversaries who are chilling, and not only because they are the servants of the Old Ones.

Leaving the chilly, coastal and very Lovecraftian setting of Fall River, Massachusetts, Priest sets Chapelwood in Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1920s. In the old estate of Chapelwood, a new congregation has set up, led by the charismatic Reverend Davis. The church is strange, indeed, and soon Birmingham’s papers are full of the story of the unknown axe murder who they have dubbed Hatchet Harry. His victims are random. Not all of them are fatalities, but the ones who survive cannot describe their attacker. Not only that, their descriptions of the attack make no sense: the stars go out, they say, and there’s a creeping sense of cold. The newspapers see no connection between the attacks and Chapelwood, but we do.

Birmingham is swamped by other problems, though; awash in bigotry and political corruption. Reverend Davis has close ties to both the Ku Klux Klan and another group who call themselves the True Americans, who hate pretty much everyone who isn’t male, white and Protestant. It doesn’t seem coincidental that bigotry, hatred and patronage are on the rise just as Chapelwood rises.

Simon Wolf, from the “quiet agency” that investigates extremely strange incidents, while no longer a young man, is still an able investigator. His friend James Coyle, a Catholic priest, has written him letters asking for his help. When Coyle is murdered in plain view on the steps of his church, Wolf has to step in, and when he gets to Birmingham, he realizes he needs a specific expert, so he calls for the solitary woman in Massachusetts who uses the name Lizbeth Andrew, but is better known as Lizzie Borden.

Priest tells this story through alternating first person points of view using the “dossier” or report format that she did in the first book. One of my big pet peeves is books written in alternating person when all the voices sound the same. Priest is a master of differentiating her first-person voices, and the style choice here heightens suspense and creates a harmonic chorus of voices in various states of fear, defiance, bemusement, madness and hubris. No one would confuse the voice of Ruth Stephenson, a young Birmingham woman with a powerful gift and a terrifying destiny, with the voice of Lizbeth, who has already lived through horrors but will rouse herself from loneliness and longing to save an innocent soul. No one could confuse the narrative of Leonard Kincaid, an accountant with an important part to play, with Simon Wolf himself. Kincaid opens the book with a short introductory chapter that had me shivering!

This is still a story about the Elder Gods, and there are plenty of Lovecraftian images, particularly in a beautiful and chilling sequence near the very end. Ruth is a vulnerable character and a fighter, and I admired and liked her. My favorite character is still Lizbeth, who is strong and acerbic, curious, intellectual, lonely and heartbroken.

In Chapelwood, Priest creates a sense of otherworldliness via Chapelwood itself and Storage Room Six, eerie enough that at times I thought I’d wandered into Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X. Storage Room Six, in the basement of the city hall, seems to absorb things; like evidence. One character describes it in one powerful sentence,

“Photographs lighten and lighten and lighten until they may as well be pictures of sheets strung out on a line.”

There is more weirdness than just Storage Room Six; when Lizbeth needs a certain object, she finds one in an odd place, and it is clearly no coincidence.

As people confront the entity the Chapelwood congregation is trying to raise, their language becomes more scrambled, because the reality of it is beyond not only human vocabulary but probably human cognition. Watching a character as meticulous and articulate as Wolf struggle with that is just one more example of Priest’s skill.

Chapelwood resolves particular issues in Birmingham, but it’s clear that the battle is not over and there will be more Borden dispatches. Chapelwood was an engrossing read that scared me and gave me hope at the same time. I’m ready for the next one.


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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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2 comments

  1. Terry Connelly /

    I love the way you describe the story. This sounds like a book I might enjoy.

  2. Terry, I think you might.

    I saw that SIX OF CROWS, which you recommended, is one our Best of 2015 list.

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