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.
Thank you very much to Harper Collins Australia for providing me with a review copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
Plain Bad Heroines is out now!
Emily M. Danforth’s adult debut is a dark comedic sapphic horror that you won’t be able to put down. The plot is complex and impressive and once you’ve finished it, you’re left wondering at the sheer scale of what you just read.
Plain Bad Heroines follows five women over the course of a century. In the early 1900s, Brookhants School for Girls becomes infamous after a series of deaths on the property, and a curse has haunted it ever since. Principal Libbie and her lover, Alex, try to contain the school in the aftermath, but begin to succumb to the curse themselves. A century later, Merritt writes a book about Brookhants and the women involved, while Harper and Audrey, one a famous actress, the other barely memorable, are brought on to star in the movie adaptation, and start to realise that there was more to the Brookhants curse than anyone realised.
It takes a lot of work to so successfully weave together multiple storylines and character perspectives alongside unchronological storytelling, but Danforth manages it. This is wonderfully done through the inclusion of the narrator, who leaves substantial footnotes and puts together the convulted story for the reader. The narrator will pop in every now and again to further explain a scene or to leave creepy, foreshadowed messages to us.
This isn’t your typical horror novel, as there’s no ghosts or supernatural forces, just humans behaving in horrific ways. But in a way, that makes the book scarier then I imagined, as the novel focuses on the true horror of our society: men taking what they want from women. The novel begins with the terrible death of two sapphic lovers as they’re pursued by a male cousin, and just gets more heartbreaking from there. I will warn sapphic readers not to expect a happy romance from this book, as many queer women die. But even so, I really enjoyed the descriptions of open sapphic school love during the early 1900s, which was historically accurate.
I did struggle with the characters at times. Audrey was my favourite character from the modern trio as she had the most to prove as a pretty lacklustre actress trying to show her mettle. The moments she stood up for herself were fantastic. I had a love/hate relationship with Merritt as her arrogance and constant peevishness got on my nerves. But as the novel developed, I stared to like her, especially as she grew closer to the other women. Harper was definitely the “fun one” out of the trio, who is always there for a good time and openly embraces her sexuality. Occasionally, she got a bit tiring, but for the most part, Harper was an interesting character and kind of reminds me of a lesbian version of Jennifer Lawrence 😅. Each character, though, was wonderfully complex and fierce, and the definition of a plain bad heroine.
If you’re someone who doesn’t like horror novels all that much, I have a feeling you’re going to enjoy Plain Bad Heroines! The creepy elements and diverse characters make for an enjoyable reading experience. You’re never quite sure what to expect from this novel, and that’s half the fun.