On the surface, Emily Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines seems a novel that immediately digs its heels into prime horror territory. An all-girls boarding school in dark and mysterious, wasp-infected, apple-rot tainted woods in the heat of 1902. A curse, two horrific deaths then followed by darker, more dire happenings.
And a jarring jolt from one timeline to another.
The Winding Plot:
Plain Bad Heroines takes place between two timelines, which may as well be two worlds. First, we have the brooding, dark world of the early 20th century, set between the backdrop of world’s fairs and other affairs. This world involves a boarding school, a cursed book, and a doomed romance between two women who come together after an unfortunate contrivance. Across the divide of time and space we have our three major protagonists, creating a film of the events between the two women and their school’s curse.
Sauntering to represent the 21st century, we have a triumvirate of women ready to wield the scripts: A haughty author, Merritt, whose prickly nature keeps her at arm’s length from both the readers and her fellows for a good portion of the book. A lofty film star, Harper Harper, whose aspirations stem from humble beginnings and whose whirling romances chase the narrative. And, finally, Audrey, a semi-cursed, semi-famous daughter of a Once-Scream-Queen, clawing her way into the spotlight despite dire consequences and costs.
“Don’t find yourself regretting this. You’re much too young to haunt your own life.”
― Emily M. Danforth, Plain Bad Heroines
Danforth’s scenes in the 20th century reverberate well with dark undertones and disturbing themes. The constant buzzing of wasps, a central antagonist and motif in the text, chases both protagonists and readers as they honeycomb into the plot. A cursed book and its passages, manic and telling of the author’s state of mind and the harsh truth of a reality lived and echoed by even modern readers today, flits between pages and persons as a mark against them.
Additionally, the progressive text read by nearly all the girls in PBH, Mary MacClane’s red-backed memoir, is weaponized by those who see it as too much, too dark, improper, and overly sexual. The banning of this book and the curse it inspires lurks throughout. One can’t help but cast a wee bit of a side glance to Danforth’s other works in this regard. Known for her banned-book-list The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Danforth has never been one to shy away from the real and true aspects of adolescence. In light of this, it is unfortunate that that is where Plain Bad Heroines falls short.
Alex saw very clearly how dangerous a book like Mary’s could become in the hands of such impressionable girls, such privileged girls[…]― Emily M. Danforth, Plain Bad Heroines
The relationship between our three major modern characters meanders frequently. The line between these characters relationships is not one thoroughly established, and while seeing queer and polyamorous characters is a thrilling, refreshing bit of representation outside of pulp, the buildup to their bonding is… Sloggish. There is much made of drama, of cell phones, of movie set nonsense and conversations that feel shallow. We feel as if we only get cursory, surface glances of these characters as they endure what should have been some horrifying film making.
And oh, the film! The film of the novel that bore the curse on our two major players back in time! Much was built up of the film and it’s sets, the plots, and characters–And we only see it in glimpses and pieces.
That all said, when it comes to horror, Danforth’s use of imagery is sublime. There are some excellent passages I wouldn’t recommend eating during unless you want to be picking at your teeth in panic for a few hours.
Now, the length of this novel may cause some readers to baulk. Six hundred pages is not a jump-scare waiting to happen. The fear Danforth builds throughout the text is an insidious creep, particularly as she draws on shadows, old stories, rotting apples and grotesque visages to paint it through each page.
Reviews on this book have been mixed in parts: Those seeking an old-fashioned gothic, boarding school level horror may do better to look at Libba Bray’s young-adult focused, but still creepy, Gemma Doyle trilogy. This novel toys with convention and the ‘reality of fame’, while maintaining a firm distance and sprinkling in modern references, wish fulfillment, and the occasional makeover sequence in service of queer, WLW romance. (Which, in its favor, it does do quite well!)
If, however, you are seeking a slow, unnerving text, more questions than answers, a lingering curse and some truly interesting, exciting queer characters, then Plain Bad Heroines is just the society for you.
Just be sure to check the crevices for wasps nests, readers.
Educator, oddball, author and sometimes-poet, MSCB enjoys stirring up old ghosts, disturbing the universe, and drinking too much tea.