Contemporary Literature · Historical Fiction · horror

Plain Bad Heroines

Despite seeing so many mixed reviews of this one, my “I’m looking for a spooky but not too scary October read” self decided it was a winner. Plus, thanks to Libro.fm’s ALC program, I had an audiobook of it on deck (convenient, since work this month has had me driving all over the state). Though I also grabbed a copy from my library because I saw an illustrator credited as well and you know I had to see what that was all about (worth it, is the verdict there).

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.”

There is quite a bit going on in this novel (makes sense, considering its length), but let me see if I can distill it down. In 1902, at only 19 years old, Mary MacLane published a controversial and groundbreaking memoir of feminism and sexuality and just general women stuff that theretofore had not really been acknowledged openly, or even behind closed doors. It was a hit. (And, as this reader has just learned, a real publication, but that’s besides the point.) Around that same time, a rash of creepy and possibly not-explainable deaths struck at the Brookhants School for Girls. These deaths were all tied in some way to a group a girls self-proclaimed as the Bad Heroine Society (a group named after and devoted to MacLane’s words). MacLane’s memoir was on-site at all the deaths. In the present day, Brookhants is old and crumbling, but is about to get a second life as a movie adaptation of The Happenings at Brookhants, a queer, feminist account of those “cursed” days and the potential haunting of the Brookhants site. Starring current darling Harper Harper, B-list actress Audrey Wells, and helped along by the book’s author, Merritt Emmons, this horror movie (with shades of The Omen as far as on-set disasters go), is creating quite a bit of buzz (pun intended). And as the story of the original events and the current day production unfold alongside each other, a sinister tale of queer and female repression emerges, plus a whole lot of low-key horror vibes to keep it company.

Phew – I don’t know if that made sense or was too much or not enough, but I did my best. Let’s start easier…with the writing. It was wonderful. Danforth’s narrative voice is strong and clear and unique and I truly enjoyed it. Speaking directly, in asides, to the reader is a device that can, and did, get a little stale, at times. But it also felt like the right choice; it was just a long book. The scene-setting and atmosphere-creation were truly top notch. (The yellow jackets – this novel did nothing for my fear of bees – and the algae and the apples and the angel’s trumpet were all given deeply sinister descriptions and roles and hit home, but were never too much to deal with. And they leant to the atmospheric vibe similarly to the honey and keys and bees and swords in The Starless Sea, but in this case, the lasting effect felt stronger.) And the illustrations, as I mentioned, were a phenomenal addition and right in line stylistically.

Let’s talk about the plot a little. This is the part where I felt like the book suffered the most. Danforth’s vision was so expansive, and the book so long to accommodate it, I think a few things got lost. The character development was great, both in present-tense with our three leading ladies, as well as with Libbie and Alex (who led Brookhants in 1902 when the macabre deaths all occurred). And though the book did feel a bit dragging at times, I also felt like, to be fair, the depth and believability of the way those relationships evolved would not have happened in less time. This is especially true of Merritt/Harper/Audrey, as the slow build tension/fear/attraction amongst them really needed the time to marinate. Whereas Libbie and Alex in 1902 were buoyed much more by the plot-advancement that occurred more primarily during their sections.

Relatedly, Danforth walks that line of “what your mind can make you believe,” with suggestion/guilt/drugs versus actually unbelievable horror aspects, with great skill. I was super impressed by that throughout. And when the final details do emerge about who was pulling strings in the background, and for what specifically and why, the length of time and depth of effort it all took to unfold, was intense…and scarier for it. It left just enough unanswered questions to make you wonder if that’s all that was behind these events, but not so much that you know not to believe it. Applause for that.  

 Anyways, back to the places where I felt like a bit of the plot got lost. Really, it came down to the end, the last few chapters. I got a little confused in the details. The story took so long to get underway, since the set-up was so key to the atmosphere built, that when the explanations and reveals all came together, things sort of blended together for me. I wasn’t totally clear on who was related to who and how. Plus, I was confused about why Libbie and Alex were blamed/at fault since they just seemed taken advantage of to me? Maybe it was more just wrong place/wrong time and they got suspicious and they were loose ends? Or maybe I missed something? Trying to keep it vague here, to avoid spoilers. I did appreciate the “original” story of the Brookhants land that was revealed – I am always here for calling out the ways the “winners,” the powerful, the (in this case and in many others) white cis men, rewrite history to leave out the parts that make them “look bad” at best, and are straight evil/illegal at worst (as in this case).

A note worth its own moment: I deeply cannot describe how much the sapphic aspects of this novel were gratifying. From the historical depictions and realities and workarounds to the present day for our three leading ladies, the way Brookhants was a haven in all cases, for better or worse, was viscerally affecting. I felt…safe? seen? comforted? in those details. And I despite the fantastical aspects, and the creeping fearful pieces (the always-there discomfort in those horror aspects), I will also be taking that deep-seated belonging feeling away from the book as well.     

I was really unsure about the book jacket descriptions of this novel being “wickedly whimsical” and a “horror-comedy,” because I just wasn’t sure those were really achievable descriptors. But color me wrong because they’re actually rather accurate. And while some parts of the development fell a bit flat, I do have to say the overall aesthetic of sapphic, rebellious women hit the dang spot. I can’t figure out how I felt about the book as a whole yet, but I am pretty confident saying that I feel like my time with this ambitious novel was, in fact, time well spent.

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