MedHum Monday Presents: Body Horror and Medicine in Maplecroft

DailyDose_darkstrokeWelcome back to the Daily Dose–and a cross-over post about fiction and medicine. A few weeks ago, we invited Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook (Center for the History of Medicine of the Countway Library, Medical Heritage Library) to talk about Lizzie Borden’s trial (see Lizzie Borden Took an Axe). Today, she has returned to talk more about the Maplecroft novel that uses this tale as it’s starting point. The horror of this novel isn’t all science fiction–it’s frequently medical in nature.


As I discussed in my first post about Maplecroft, people in the town of Fall River are changing: their bodies altering into something inhuman and, as time goes on, inhumane. A good portion of the story is taken up with figuring out exactly what the contagion is, and how it spreads, but the essential terror of the situation remains: if you are touched by whatever this is (and part of the fear is not knowing how that might happen), you will change. You will be forced to change and, in the end, no character really escapes although some of them still appear to be as they were. However, this is not the only place in the novel where Priest draws on medicine to inform her story.

Throughout the novel, one of Priest’s narrative trio is Emma Borden, Lizzie’s older sister, an invalid suffering — apparently though it is not made specific — from the late stages of consumption. She’s frequently bedbound, almost always housebound, and almost always in need of her sister’s help to move. On her bad days, she coughs blood.

Emma Borden’s physical weakness is a continual theme in her chapters of narration; there’s barely one that doesn’t mention her frustration at not being able-bodied. In this case, the body-related horror is almost entirely her own; the other narrators, Lizzie and Owen Seabury, are sympathetic — and, in Lizzie’s case, directly caregiving — but they don’t seem to experience any particular distress related to Emma. She is simply Emma, who has been sick for so long that it seems as though she has always been that way. Given the nature of the other events in Fall River, too, Emma’s malady is reassuringly normal: she has a known, quantifiable condition. Her symptoms are recognizable and intelligible. They may not be curable, but then neither is she on the quick downward path to bodily transformation or death. Despite her apparent frailty, though, Emma is a resilient character.

And Emma is often furious; not only has her body become this thing that she has to haul around with her, that transforms her physical life into one of pain and restriction, but it has also traps her mind, forces her to construct an elaborate alter ego in order to interact with the larger world. In Emma’s case, the larger world means something more specific: she wants entry to the scientific and academic world, a path made difficult to her even in good health because of her sex. In this instance, then, her illness forces her into creativity: she makes up a (male) persona to allow her to interact with academia through the post. Here, too, in a narrative sense, illness — specifically, Emma’s illness and the choices she has made to grant herself a life outside that illness — is a major plot driver. One of her long-time postal correspondents proves unexpectedly susceptible to a sample of sea-life Emma sends to him; his actions are the main drivers for action outside of Fall River and, eventually, the catalyst for the crisis of the story. Emma’s illness, then, acts in a kind of veiled fashion to spread illness to others and nearly bring destruction back on herself.

If you would like to read more about the history of consumption itself (tuberculosis), have a look at the Harvard page on the history of contagion: here. Interested in the history of the TB vaccine? Try the History of Vaccines blog.

As a final thought, if Maplecroft appeals to you, then I welcome you to the grand world of Mythos horror: you will never look at sushi the same way again.

Stereoscopic views in and around Fall River
Stereoscopic views in and around Fall River



Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook works processing history of medicine collections at the Center for the History of Medicine of the Countway Library and as the Project Co-ordinator for the Medical Heritage Library. In between times, she’s an Irish history scholar, a crochet enthusiast, and a F/SF/Weird/Horror devotee. Find her at @CrowGirl42

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