Plain Bad Heroines is an ambitious book.
It introduces itself this way: "It's a terrible story and one way to tell it is this: two girls in love and a fog of wasps cursed the place forever after."
It's an accurate summary, if a bit too condensed. An expanded version would be: “A number of boarding school students read a cursed copy of The Story of Mary MacLane*, experience a sexual awakening, and die tragically.
Decades later, it's a tale intriguing enough to capture the attention of filmmakers—although the curse isn't done exacting its price just yet.”
Told using two alternating storylines, Emily M. Danforth's sophomore novel feels like a go on a very long, queer-centric, horror roller coaster ride. Its ambitious premise necessarily requires the reader's patience, so before you strap yourself in, you'd better be certain you can commit to sticking it out until the end!
In 1902, Principal Libby Brookhants and her partner, Alex Trills, are up to their eyeballs trying to keep Brookhants School for Girls open and sort out what led to the chain of gruesome deaths among their students.
They discover that some girls, inspired by Mary MacLane, had set up a club called the Plain Bad Heroine Society. However, Libby and Alex never fully understand the secrets of the club, as they are soon plagued with cursed circumstances of their own.
The horror elements really shine in Libby and Alex's chapters of the book. The Brookhants estate is a hotbed for sinister forces, someone somewhere is descending into madness at any given moment, and as the plot tightens like a noose, everyone on the estate seems suspect. And everywhere one turns, pesky yellow jacket wasps buzz about like bright harbingers of doom.
Meanwhile, attempting to bring the story of the Brookhants girls to life in the 2010’s are our modern-day heroines: Audrey Wells, a former child star growing up in the shadow of her scream queen mother, plays one of the Brookhants girls. She stars alongside Harper Harper, Hollywood's hottest new thing who had just recently been plucked from obscurity in Montana. And rounding off the trio is Merritt Emmons, the prodigious young author who wrote The Happenings at Brookhants, the book on which the movie is based on.
Using this bevy of diverse heroines, Emily M. Danforth paints sapphic love in many different shades. There’s nothing plain or bad about this range of WLW pairings: established adult relationships, unrequited crushes, teenagers in the first flush of love—and more (which I dare not elaborate on because they would be massive spoilers!).
Here's where the roller coaster stalls. Plain Bad Heroines isn’t simply a past storyline and a present storyline intertwined. It’s actually layer upon layer of stories: it's a book about three young women making a movie about a book written about girls at a boarding school who die after reading a cursed book. It's a lot to keep track of, structurally, and this is where many of the book's weaknesses lie.
Far and away, the Brookhants story was much more interesting—schoolgirls discovering their sexuality for the first time, a curse demanding blood on the Brookhants estate, psychics and witches and creepy maids, oh my. However, the shifting POVs prevent the reader from being fully transported into that world, because we kept getting pulled back to the modern-day storyline. Which, admittedly, didn't feel as compelling.
One of my main qualms about Plain Bad Heroines was that I didn't see any growth in the Hollywood girls. Their experience filming the movie and crossing paths with each other didn't change or challenge them, and who they were and what their struggles were remained exactly the same at the end. Even the relationship they developed was barely explored, as the book ended abruptly before it even began.
Furthermore, the writing itself is circuitous and long-winded. We're given lots of character backstory, dialogue, footnotes, and descriptions to set the scene, culminating in a thick brick of a book. But while this set off the Brookhants tale, it was less effective in the Hollywood storyline—again, because Audrey, Harper, and Merritt didn’t have character arcs that made uncovering the tiny details of their lives satisfying.
Ultimately, I feel like the book would have been better served if the modern-day storyline had a more concrete direction, or if it had been solely about the happenings at Brookhants, which was already juicy material on its own.
Despite all that, as a horror story centered fully on queer characters and relationships, there is no question that Plain Bad Heroines is an important addition to bookshelves and libraries this year.
If you love gothic novels, historical fiction, and a cast of women making *lesbian eyes* at each other, Plain Bad Heroines may be the perfect Spooktober read for you! With 500-plus pages full of Danforth’s tortuous prose, slowly-unfolding plot points, and genuine shivers-up-your-spine scares, Plain Bad Heroines has more than enough twists, drops, and turns up its sleeve to keep you up for many, many nights.
*a memoir that elicited a lot of pearl-clutching in the 1900’s for its candid confessions of lesbian love