Firstly, it was a hatchet not an axe, and no, Ms Borden did not deliver a series of eighty one deadly blows to her parents, despite what it says in the skipping rhyme. If she did it at all. Today we interview Christine Verstraete, author of Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter, sidestep into a couple of aspects of the Borden case itself, and generally do what we do. Oh, and we mention the forthcoming film as well.
So who’s the focus here? Lizzie Andrew Borden (1860 – 1927) became rather too famous for her own liking after being tried and acquitted for the murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892. She may well have committed the crime, but the technical evidence was circumstantial, and there were other suspects. These included a local labourer, the Irish maid Bridget Sullivan, a suggested illegitimate son of Andrew Borden, and Lizzie’s maternal uncle. None of them, however, fitted the bill as well as Lizzie herself.
Her father Andrew Borden was a rich man, but miserly and not always popular in the town. The Bordens had been landowners in the area for a very long time:
“In 1703, Benjamin Church, a prominent veteran of King Philip’s War, established a sawmill, a gristmill and a fulling mill on the Quequechan River. In 1714, Church sold his land, including the water rights, to Richard Borden of Tiverton and his brother Joseph. (This transaction would prove to be extremely valuable 100 years later, helping to establish the Borden family as the leaders in the development of Fall River’s textile industry.)” (Wiki)
His cheapskate ways and his second marriage, after the death of Sarah Borden, the mother of his children, caused friction. There were reasons for the Borden sisters, Lizzie and Emma, to dislike their step-mother Abby, whose family seemed to be benefiting over-much from money which should have eventually come to them. Widely covered in the press at the time, the case became one for considerable debate, especially in terms of sexuality and gender politics.
Eileen McNamara, of Brown University, argues that incest could have played a role, citing the extreme violence of the attacks—the first few blows were sufficient to kill each of the Bordens. She conjectures that if Lizzie or Emma were subject to abuse by their father, it would explain the apparent frenzy.
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
As we love a good complicated mystery, it’s probably worth mentioning that veteran author Ed McBain even covered the case with his own theory, involving a lesbian relationship between Lizzie Borden and the maid Bridget.
And Rafia Zakaria, writing in The Guardian earlier this year, discussed various interpretations subsequently put upon the Lizzie Borden affair:
“Where people had previously fixated on the binaries of guilt or innocence in Borden’s case, radical feminists focused on oppression and liberation. Lizzie was expiated – whether or not she was innocent.
“Where Lizzie’s contemporaries speculated about her criminality, and radical feminists about her oppression, this century just seems to enjoy the opportunity for kitsch and gore. In 2016, for instance, CA Verstraete suggested that Borden may have killed her parents because they were already dead, in her novel Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter.”
Not that feminism and gore need to be exclusive of each other in horror literature. Anyway, we’ll come to C A Verstraete in a second, as promised. We will add first that, in addition to written fictional, factual and even factional pieces on Lizzie Borden, the film industry had been there too, most recently in the TV movie Lizzie Borden Took an Ax (2014). Christina Ricci, who starred as Lizzie, described this version as “self-aware, campy, and tongue-in-cheek”.
Now there’s a new, far more serious film on its way, due late 2017, which is said to treat the matter more as a dark psychological drama, with a touch of the Gothic. As Lizzie features Chloë Sevigny as Lizzie Borden and Kristen Stewart as Bridget Sullivan, it seems likely that this version will explore the relationship between the two women in some depth. We expect a lot of intense staring.
But it’s interview time. Let’s go to someone who has put a very different twist on Lizzie Borden, and ask a few questions…
An Interview with Christine Verstraete
greydog: Christine, welcome to greydogtales. Maybe you could start by telling us how the idea of Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter came to you. Flash inspiration, something you read, or a long, slow germination?
christine: Thanks for letting me stop by your blog! I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Lizzie Borden. And after looking at the autopsy photos and records, I realized another theory could be offered for why the victims had been so viciously killed – and repeatedly hit in the head… they’d turned into zombies. It made perfect sense.
greydog: It’s more persuasive than some of the other theories we’ve read. So, we’re back in 1892. What do you find are the challenges of writing period fiction? Did you seek a late Victorian ‘voice’, or did you opt for a more contemporary style?
christine: It’s pretty hard, and hard on the reader, I think, to stick with formal English, so I tried to use modern English but without modern words. I stuck in references to the time period as I could, but some of Lizzie’s actions were a bit more modern, perhaps. Of course, Victorian life wasn’t as staid behind closed doors as we think, so some of her actions could be possible. After all, it’s not everyday you’re facing the gallows—and fighting zombies. Kind of changes your perspective, I’d say.
greydog: You obviously researched the actual case. Did you get any feeling as to what actually happened, and if the real Elizabeth Borden did kill her parents?
christine: I did a lot of reading on the crimes, the news of the day, and of the inquest and trial transcripts. Though she is guilty, in a sense, in my version of events, I still can’t quite decide whether she did it or not. It certainly seems that way, but there’s no real evidence or proof. It’s all circumstantial…
greydog: Do you think there’s a ‘statute of limitations’ issue when drawing on real-life killings? Characters like The Ripper and Lizzie Borden belong to a time which seems distant enough for many writers, but is there a stage at which it becomes inappropriate to ‘go there’ for purely fictional purposes?
christine: I think once a crime is at least 100 years old, it does put it into a different time frame. It’s of the past century and open to more interpretation. Some crimes like say, the Black Dahlia murder while just as sensational, still seem too close in time. But maybe it’s more a feeling of a crime being more open to interpretation and fictional treatments once it’s at least a generation or more away.
greydog: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the Jane Austen/zombie reworking by Seth Grahame-Smith, was a more parodic take, really. Is your Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter played straight?
christine: As straight as putting zombies in anything can be realistic, I suppose. But I did write it as if it is a real-life event. It’s the reason for the murders, and fits around the changes in Lizzie’s world with the real-life trial and a few other events in her life. I felt it important to not ignore the important and real parts in her life as that is what most people know about who Lizzie Borden is and was.
greydog: You also wrote GIRL Z: My Life as a Teenage Zombie, a contemporary piece. This is more of a Young Adult take, isn’t it?
christine: Yes, I wanted to try something different by showing a teen’s view and how her life changes when she turns part-zombie. So it’s ‘angsty’, and humorous, and full of quirks, and well, no, she doesn’t eat “that.”
greydog: The zombie theme runs and runs, much to our surprise. What do you see as its fascination?
christine: It has to be a contrast, a way of coping, to all the real-life horrors maybe? There’s so much going in on in our world today, so what better way to personify those things than with zombies? They’re the monsters in our life that can be seen and hopefully controlled when all else seems, and is, out of our control.
greydog: And what’s next from your pen? Is there more Borden to come?
christine: I loved writing about Lizzie and don’t want to give her up just yet. Coming out soon is The Haunting of Dr. Bowen, A Mystery in Lizzie Borden’s Fall River. This is a supernatural-flavored mystery novella set in Lizzie’s hometown, and told from the point of view of her doctor and neighbour. I also have been writing some short mysteries with her as the investigator. Then, of course, I have some ideas for a follow-up to Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter.
It’s a fun, scary world that I’m enjoying writing about and others seem to enjoy reading about, so, I’m happy and want to keep the readers happy, too!
greydog: Good luck with your continued explorations, and thanks for calling in.
Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter is on offer until the 15th July.
About Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter:
Every family has its secrets…
One hot August morning in 1892, Lizzie Borden picked up an axe and murdered her father and stepmother. Newspapers claim she did it for the oldest of reasons: family conflicts, jealousy and greed. But what if her parents were already dead? What if Lizzie slaughtered them because they’d become… zombies?
Over the next few days on greydogtales – The lurchers go to the seaside, and some more William Hope Hodgson scares. If you want to be warned which is which, subscribe for free via the top left hand corner…