Book: “Plain Bad Heroines” by Emily M. Danforth
Publishing Info: William Morrow, October 2020
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: The award-winning author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post makes her adult debut with this highly imaginative and original horror-comedy centered around a cursed New England boarding school for girls—a wickedly whimsical celebration of the art of storytelling, sapphic love, and the rebellious female spirit.
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.
A story within a story within a story and featuring black-and-white period illustrations, Plain Bad Heroines is a devilishly haunting, modern masterwork of metafiction that manages to combine the ghostly sensibility of Sarah Waters with the dark imagination of Marisha Pessl and the sharp humor and incisive social commentary of Curtis Sittenfeld into one laugh-out-loud funny, spellbinding, and wonderfully luxuriant read.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!
A few years ago I picked up the YA book “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” by Emily M. Danforth, as it had been put on a Pride display at the library I was working at at the time. I read it and liked it, and saw the movie and liked that as well. I told myself that I would be on the lookout for more books by Danforth, but admittedly didn’t really pay too close attention to her publications. When I saw the book “Plain Bad Heroines” on NetGalley and read the description, it caught my eye enough that I requested it and got a copy… and then when I put two and two together that this, too, was by Danforth, I was even more excited to read it!
“Plain Bad Heroines” is a mixed bag of genres, perspectives, themes, and narratives. It definitely has a horror story within its pages, but it also has some romance, some historical high strangeness, and some cheeky tongue in cheek humor, with a number of wry citations thrown in by a humorous narrator. The crux of this story is a former school estate called Brookhants, where at the turn of the 20th century a number of gruesome deaths occurred. We get to see the timeline of these deaths, and see the mysteries surrounding them, but we also get to see a modern narrative involving a movie set and crew that is trying to make a horror movie based upon a book written about the mysterious deaths and the supposedly haunted and/or cursed grounds. The past story has a focus on Libbie and Alex, two lovers who are running the school where a number of girls, who were also involved in various sapphic relationships and were obsessed with a book with lesbian themes, died in horrific ways. The modern tale focuses on three women involved in the production of a new horror movie about the school: Merritt, who wrote the book about Brookhants and framed it as a queer feminist history; Harper Harper, the superstar actress who champions her own queerness; and Audrey, a former child actress who is hoping to reinvent herself. The two timelines are interspersed together and unfold with tragedy, humor, longing, and Gothic horror.
But even with suspense, romantic drama, Hollywood nonsense, and some actual horror moments that set me on edge, “Plain Bad Heroines” is also a very earnest, charming, and funny tale. The narrative jumps between timelines but connects with a humorous and ever nudging Narrator, with citations, side comments, and the occasional period appropriate illustration ever at hand. It works so well, and while I was worried that it may take away from the ghost story (and the body horror elements, SO MANY BODY HORROR ELEMENTS), it never did. While I mostly liked the modern story more, I did like getting the background and context of the haunted school and seeing how the curse and its fallout was affecting Harper, Audrey, and Merritt in the modern day. Fair warning: if you have a thing about yellow jackets, content warnings ABOUND in this book. Danforth hits many a horror moment, which was great to see and something I didn’t necessarily expect from her given her other book. Yet she does it with ease, and pulls off lots of unsettling moments.
But it’s really the characters that propelled the story for me, both the ones from the past and in the present. Libbie, Alex, and the other characters in the past storyline were well described and grounded in historical truths that are very sad when it comes to lesbian relationships during that time period. You know that societal constraints are driving many things out of their control, and the sadness of the complications, and the doom you know is coming, made these characters very sympathetic, even when they were making decisions and choices that may have been damaging and hurtful. But (once again) it’s the modern women who really stood out, all of their complexities and nuances on display and perfectly drawn out. While Harper and Merritt have a lot of great moments of goodness and badness, it was Audrey who really captivated me, her desperation to move on from her old life and to find something new incredibly palpable. I loved watching all of them interact, and how Danforth put the power of womens’ relationships, be they romantic or platonic, at the forefront.
I really enjoyed “Plain Bad Heroines”. Danforth is such a dynamic writer, and if you want something spooky this season that isn’t too scary, this will surely captivate you as it did me.
Rating 9: A complex, wry, and genuinely creepy book about Gothic mysteries, untimely deaths, sapphic romance, and a whole lot of yellow jackets, “Plain Bad Heroines” is a pleasant surprise from Danforth and a fun Halloween read!
“Plain Bad Heroines” isn’t included on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Sapphic Book Lists”.