Plain Bad Heroines
by Emily M. Danforth
“That’s history for you, my darlings. When you dig it up, it always carries a whiff of rot.”
Published Oct. 20, 2020 by William Morrow
Genre: historical fiction/horror
Date finished: Sept. 25, 2020
Content warnings: bugs (hornets), suicide, gore, drug use, homophobia, sexual assault
Our story begins in 1902, at The Brookhants School for Girls. Flo and Clara, two impressionable students, are obsessed with each other and with a daring young writer named Mary MacLane, the author of a scandalous bestselling memoir. To show their devotion to Mary, the girls establish their own private club and call it The Plain Bad Heroine Society. They meet in secret in a nearby apple orchard, the setting of their wildest happiness and, ultimately, of their macabre deaths. This is where their bodies are later discovered with a copy of Mary’s book splayed beside them, the victims of a swarm of stinging, angry yellow jackets. Less than five years later, The Brookhants School for Girls closes its doors forever—but not before three more people mysteriously die on the property, each in a most troubling way.
Over a century later, the now abandoned and crumbling Brookhants is back in the news when wunderkind writer, Merritt Emmons, publishes a breakout book celebrating the queer, feminist history surrounding the “haunted and cursed” Gilded-Age institution. Her bestselling book inspires a controversial horror film adaptation starring celebrity actor and lesbian it girl Harper Harper playing the ill-fated heroine Flo, opposite B-list actress and former child star Audrey Wells as Clara. But as Brookhants opens its gates once again, and our three modern heroines arrive on set to begin filming, past and present become grimly entangled—or perhaps just grimly exploited—and soon it’s impossible to tell where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins.
My thoughts (spoiler free)
I’m not much of a horror reader, so even though I loved The Miseducation of Cameron Post, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about Emily M. Danforth’s next book. I should have known better than to doubt her.
The book is set during two timelines—one in the early 1900s following the students and teachers at a Rhode Island boarding school where people keep dying, the other in present day Hollywood during production of the film adaptation of these events. At Brookhants School for Girls, two students are found dead surrounded by hornets, holding a copy of the controversial autobiography of Mary MacLane. As the book is passed around, the deaths keep coming, each one more strange than the last.
Plain Bad Heroines is a fascinating mix of horror and comedy that shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. I found myself laughing even as my skin crawled. The narrator’s voice is snarky and openly judgmental of the characters, with so many great footnotes, and the author manages to strike a tone that’s both unnerving and amusing, unlike any I’ve read before.
It’s not a book that’s full of jump scares or constant danger right around the corner, but there is an atmosphere of wrongness that permeates the entire book, crawling under your skin and making the most ordinary things feel sinister. (I’m never going to look at a hornet the same way again.) There were certainly moments of genuine horror, when I wanted to throw the book across the room rather than keep reading. On top of all that, the author creates a sense of unreality that leaves you questioning how much of what you’ve read is real. You never know exactly what to trust.
“There was that in the air which is there when something is going to happen.”
I’ll admit that I was somewhat more invested in the present day storyline, which follows three young women involved in the making of the movie. There’s Merritt Emmons, the author of the book about Brookhants; Audrey Wells, the former child star playing one of the girls killed by hornets; and Harper Harper (not a typo, that’s actually her name), the biggest up-and-coming actress in Hollywood who’s playing the other girl. This storyline seemed to have more movement to it. Plus, these characters felt more like real people reacting to the weird things happening around them (because don’t worry, the horror elements are not exclusive to the historical storyline), as opposed to the historical characters who felt more like characters in a book. Which, you know, they are, but.
Still, the way these stories wove together was wonderfully done. Even with the framing device of a story within a story (within a story), you never know exactly which stories to trust or whose perspective is accurate, sometimes leaving you with more questions than you started out with. At 608 pages, it’s a long book, and I think it could have been somewhat shorter. But the writing is so sharp and the mystery is so delicious that I honestly didn’t even mind much.
This is a haunting, smart book about dark spots in history, queer women, ambition, Hollywood, and more. With a completely unique writing style and a story full of dread and unexpected twists, it’s definitely one I recommend. I can’t guarantee that it won’t keep you up at night, though.
“The possibilities of this life are magnificent.”
*ARC PROVIDED BY NETGALLEY IN EXCHANGE FOR AN HONEST REVIEW. QUOTES ARE SUBJECT TO CHANGE.*