Chapelwood is the second in Cherie Priest’s ‘Borden Dispatches’ series. It posits a world in which the supernatural, the eldritch, the deeply strange, lives beneath our world. The original turned around the travails of Elizabeth Borden as she was exposed to this world, leading to some incidents with an axe. This sequel, set some time later, keeps the eerie, sinister atmosphere, and gives the reader characters both old and new to use as a view onto the world.
The book is set up in an epistolary style – for example, entries from diaries, characters sending case notes back to their office, that sort of thing. It’s a clever device, and fits into the early-twentieth century setting perfectly. The prose has a feel of that time about it – it’s accessible, and not laced with jargon or obscure period language conventions, but there’s a taste of the time about the way certain parts of the text are phrased. The format also allows for several points of view (totting it up, I think there were five), whilst giving the reader a certain separation, to help keep the narrative clear. Epistolary texts aren’t common, but in this case the format is both thematically appropriate and narratively effective.
The world…well, the text is set in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1920’s. It’s shown to be a town which, independently of any supernatural shenanigans, is not in a happy place. Priest does a good job of showing us a town on the cusp – striving to be better than the past, but able to teeter back into madness at a moment’s notice. There’s some interesting undercurrents at play, in dialogue and in character expectations – there’s misogyny, there’s casual segregation. More overtly, there’s an exploration of the Ku Klux Klan in town politics. An election is available to be bought – and the sense of pervasive corruption this engenders is entirely unrelated to the supernatural. The feel of a town at war with itself, of the petty rivalries and bigotries at play, is evoked wonderfully.
Beneath that, however, is a slithering current of the strange. It’s not glaring in the narrative – for the most part, there are oddities, instances where the inexplicable becomes the probable. Priest does an excellent job of bringing the creeping dread across in the text, without venturing into schlock. The pacing’s pitch perfect - there’s a marvellous sense of tension, and a feeling of horrors unseen, just out of the eye of the narrator (and the reader), which makes each turn of the page into a nerve-wracking adventure.
The plot starts with a mystery, of sorts, as a man begins murdering citizens of Birmingham with an axe. He seems to be wrapped up with a shadowy church, which also has ties to the Klan, and to the dubiously named “True Americans”. Quite what the agenda of these groups is becomes gradually clearer throughout the text, as the now older Elizabeth Borden, amongst others, begins to investigate. Everything is, of course, not what it initially appears.
It’s not perfect – there’s a few instances of supporting characters needing clearer roles, and some people may not enjoy the slow burning pace at the start of the narrative. It is, however, very good at what it sets out to achieve – a historical mystery blended with a view into the unnatural and paranormal.
With that in mind, I’d say this one is well worth a look. It has an unsentimental yet atmospheric setting in the Birmingham of the 1920’s. It has interesting, sympathetic protagonists, with emotional depth and breadth. It has a clever plot, with an intriguing mystery at the core. And it has a kind of quietly eerie horror about it, which makes it an extremely compelling read.