Saturday 2 October 2021

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Review: Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

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Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Published: 24th March 2021 | Publisher: The Borough Press | Source: Bought
Emily M. Danforth’s Website

1902, Brookhants School for Girls: students Flo and Clara are madly in love with each other, as well as completely obsessed with The Story of Mary MacLane, the scandalous debut memoir by 19 year old MacLane. A few months later they are found dead in the woods, after a horrific wasp attack, the book lying next to their intertwined bodies. Within five years the school is closed. But not before three more people die on the property, each in a troubling way.

Over a hundred years later, Brookhants opens its doors once more, when a crew of young actresses arrive to film a high-profile movie about the rumoured Brookhants curse. And as past and present become grimly entangled, it’s soon impossible to tell quite where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins...
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I was a big fan of Emily M. Danforth's debut novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, but even if I wasn't, Plain Bad Heroines is a book I would have picked up. A haunted school and manor, a movie about strange historic deaths filmed where they happened, and an historic curse that raises it's head again, and it's sapphic as hell? Absolutely sign me up! It wasn't exactly the story I expected, but it was so much better. This book is a masterpiece. I should warn you; I have a lot to say about this book, and this review is going to be long.

It's 1902, and Clara and Flo are two teen girls attending Brookhants' School for Girls. In love, and obsessed with a memoir released the year before, the girls are found dead, their bodies found clinging together after being attacked by a swarm of yellow jackets, a copy of The Story of Mary MacLane lying beside them. More strange, mysterious deaths linked to the book follow, leading to the school's closure. In present day, a movie is being made about the two girls' deaths and the supposed Brookhants curse, The Happenings of Brookhaunts, based on a book of the same name, written by wunderkind Merritt Emmons when she was 16. The movie is to star the it-girl and "celesbian" Harper Harper and former child star Audrey Wells as Flo and Clara respectively. But when the filming starts, on the very location the deaths took place, strange and disturbing occurrences begin to arise, and it looks like the curse hasn't yet run it's course.

This book is mad, but it's utter genius. There is so much going on in this book, it's difficult to describe, but I fell in love with it from the very first page. Surprisingly, considering the focus on the deaths of Clara and Flo, this isn't a story that's about them. In fact, the story starts with their deaths. But it's a story that is completely immersive and so gripping, I absolutely couldn't put it down.

I absolutely adore the way this story is written. It has an omnipresent narrator, whose identity is never revealed. And this narrator is telling us the story, talking directly to the reader, with their own social commentary and witty remarks, and footnotes sharing with us more information or giving us a nudge and a wink, or maybe some foreshadowing. The storytelling is brilliant, and I fell in love with it immediately. But as we are told, we're being told the real story, not the story the supposed reader thinks they know about the deaths of Clara and Flo. We are being told the story of a story of a story about sapphic girls who were obsessed with a book and died. Or we're being told the story of how the movie, The Happenings of Brookhants, was made, which is based on Merritt's non-fiction title of the same name, about two queer girls who died horrific deaths, who were obsessed with the book The Story of Mary MacLane - while also being told the actual story of their deaths. (And at the same time, a book is being written about the making of a movie based on a book telling the story of two girls who died who were obsessed with a book.) Have you got all that?

It's brilliant. It really is just brilliant. There are so many layers to this book, so many stories, so many characters, so much going on. We get two timelines, one starting in 1902 with Clara and Flo's deaths and the years that follow, mostly following Principle Libbie Brookhants and her long-time partner (Miss) Alex(andra) Trills, who also teaches at the school. Libbie was married to the school's founder, and now lives with Alex at Breakwater - or Spite Manor, as it's more commonly called - on the same land as the school. She and Alex are trying to untangle the mysteries of the several deaths taking place on school grounds, all seeming to be linked to the book The Story of Mary MacLane, a scandalous but popular memoir written by a young woman, full of her inner thoughts and desires around her attraction to women. A book that has a cult following at the school, started by Clara and Flo, who started the Plain Plain Heroines Society - a book in which they saw themselves refelected in. There are also flashbacks to Libbie and Alex's own teen years, the events of which play more of a part than they themselves know. Then we have the present day timeline, following Harper, Audrey and Merritt, before and during the making of the film. Merritt is on board to answer any questions Harper and Merritt might have, and to help them with accuracy in portraying Clara and Flo and their story. But the focus here is more on the relationships between the three, and is kind of the romance aspect of the story. What I loved about the book is how all three see each other - both as artists and as people - against how they see themselves. All three are plagued with self-doubt, and yet, for the most part, have great admiration for each other. As time goes on, their relationships change and grow, and it is all very queer and wonderful. Also as time goes on, the curse raises it's ugly head.

Looking back over the story, I'm not sure the present day timeline was needed. Or, at least, when it comes to the horror story, I'm not sure it was needed. I don't think it adds much to the story of the curse; they don't start filming until over half way in, and when they do, it's jumps forward in time often, strange things are mentioned but not seen, the curse - or is it? - playing out in various ways that aren't all on the page. And that was one of the things I was most looking forward to when I picked Plain Bad Heroines up, how the curse was going to scare the crap out of everyone making the movie. That's not to say things don't happen, they do, and they are messed up and disturbing. But even so, I was never fully scared by what happened in that timeline.

When it comes to the horror, I was much more interested in Libbie and Alex's timeline. The deaths, and the strange things that are happening, and not really knowing what's real and what's not. While ghosts are mentioned occasionally and briefly, we never actually see any. But there's definitely something there, though I feel "ghost" is too specific. There is a presence, an atmosphere, inexplicable things that don't make sense. And there's a whole question, for me, around it all. I was never really fully sure on how the curse worked. Is it just a curse, or is there something more? (And is the goddamned narrator involved?! Who is the narrator, and how are they able to know so much about both timelines as if they were there?!) Is the curse the cause of the weird and strange things happening, or does the curse affect the mind, and make you think these things are happening? This is never discussed, they're just my musings as I was reading along, for both timelines. But I love the fact that I don't really know! Even when you do know, you still don't really know, but I'll come back to that.

I only found out towards the end of the book that Mary MacLane is real. She was a 19-year-old bisexual woman who published her memoir The Story of Mary MacLane - which was originally titled I Await the Devil's Coming, but renamed by the publisher - in 1901. The book that connects everything in Plain Bad Heroines - that took it's title from the text - actually existed. And I really wish I knew before I read the book! I thought it was another element to the story that Danforth have created, but I think it would have added an extra layer of fear to the story if I had known beforehand that the book that is linked to a curse, that spans over a century, was real! Like, what is up with this very real queer book that is leading to the freaky deaths of queer women?! If I had known that going in, it would have given me the same spooky fascination and level of fear that horror movies that have their own "curses" that strikes during the filming do - which is what happens in this book, in the making of the movie of The Happenings of Brookhants! (The layers people, the layers!)

(As an aside, it feels to me like part of Plain Bad Heroines is about making people aware of this memoir of a queer historic woman that has been forgotten and erased. Which is funny, because the narrator of Plain Bad Heroines tells us that Libbie and Alex were mostly left out of Merritt's book about what happened at the time, yet they're both majorly involved in the actual events of 1902 and after, and affected by the curse.)

Plain Bad Heroines is one of those stories that is kind of open ended. We get some answers, which we get told very quickly towards the end, but they just lead to more questions. I am definitely one of those people who prefer definite answers, whether it's movies or books. Part of the excitement of the scare for me is finally realising what the actual freaky crap is. So this was kind of frustrating for me. I still have "what" and "how" and "why" questions. There are details of certain events we weren't given. We get truths, but not everything. Things are so much bigger than anyone could ever imagine, but just how big exactly? I would so much rather have these answers. But I have to say Plain Bad Heroines has left me thinking. Honestly, I cannot stop thinking about this book, and all the moving pieces, and how they intersect, and the possibilities of what the answers could be. It's actually really epic, and I guess I am kind of thrilled at imagining what was actually going on, so I guess this is one time I don't mind too much.

I have to mention deliciously queer this story is. I can think of maybe seven named secondary characters that show up semi-regularly who might not be queer, but even that I'm not 100% on, in that their sexuality is never discussed one way or another. But everyone else is. Clara and Flo are, I believe, lesbian. Libbie is bisexual, and Alex is lesbian. Harper is a lesbian, Audrey is bisexual, and I believe Merritt is, too (I don't think it mentions how she identifies). Libbie's friend Sara is into women, Harold Brookhants, school founder, is gay, Harper's friend Eric is gay, Bo Dhillon, the director of the movie, is gay. There is even a very minor character, a crew member, Kai, who uses they/them pronouns. It just beautiful to see such a large cast of main characters, and every single one of them is queer. It's brilliant.

Danforth has done such an incredible job with this story. There are so many stories, so many threads, so many moving parts. It's so well plotted, it boggles the mind how she managed to make everything to work so well. It's one of those stories you want to immediately start reading again as soon as you finish, to see everything with hindsight, how intricately woven the story is, and maybe any tiny clues I might have missed before. I do think there's the story might just be a little too long, and the pacing was off a little in the present day timeline - as I said, the filming doesn't start until past the halfway mark.

Saying all that, though, I hugely enjoyed the experience of reading. The writing is so compelling, the narrator has such an incredible voice, that I didn't really mind that I wasn't completely terrified like I hoped to be. So with that, while I don't really feel like the present-day plot was really needed in the great scheme of the story, I absolutely adored reading about those characters, who they were, how they were seen, and their relationships with each other, as well as the historical story.

Plain Bad Heroines really is a triumph of a book. It's epic and clever and completely enthralling, and the most sapphic book I've ever read. I highly, highly recommend it. It's definitely one I'll pick up again and again.

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