“It’s a terrible story, and one way to tell it is this: two girls in love and a fog of yellow jackets cursed the place forever after.”
Emily M. Danforth’s adult debut Plain Bad Heroines is an intricate, capital-G Gothic tome of sapphic love, tragedy, and so many yellow jacket wasps. Seriously, just an exorbitant amount of wasps.
What is this book about?
“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.”
This book is for you if you like Gothic metahorror and cursed boarding schools.
Content warnings: Multiple on-page character deaths (of queer women), suicide (off-page but mentioned in detail), vomit
Rep: sapphic main characters, gay side character
Plain Bad Heroines is truly many-layered. Danforth balances several characters, storylines, subplots, and intertextual sources. It’s told by an unidentified narrator to you, the Reader and narratee, whose footnotes and conversational style of narration lighten the mood and create that playful kind of dark humor promised in the synopsis. The mood is also definitely there. This book certainly delivers on the cursed boarding school slash behind-the-scenes Hollywood production telling the story of said cursed boarding school front. A certain eeriness lurks beneath the story, sometimes veering into shocking or tragic territory. The setting is also established well, immersing the reader especially in the spooky New England coastal town experience.
It’s undeniable that some serious craft is at work here. Unfortunately, the structure wasn’t always totally effective, sometimes harming the reader’s experience in its complexity by getting in its own way of the actual story and overall mood. I often found myself distracted by all that was going on in the book, rather than focusing on what was happening on the page. I also found that the pacing was affected by the structure; the two timelines were rarely telling parallel stories, and so jumping between the two created a kind of intuitive imbalance. I did appreciate how the recurring symbols threading both timelines together, such as the wasps, created a sense of cohesion. I’m also torn about how to feel about all of the sapphic death in the twentieth century timeline; it just didn’t always come across as meaningful, and one character in particular deserved better.
Overall I had a lot of fun reading this book. I’m definitely questioning some of the decisions that were made, but I think a lot of readers will find value hidden in these pages. If you’re into Gothic metafiction with a curse and a whole lot of queer characters, Plain Bad Heroines might just what you’re looking for this spooky season.
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Thank you William Morrow for providing a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.