“It’s a terrible story and one way to tell it is this: two girls in love and a fog of wasps cursed the place forever after,” (Danforth 5).
In 1902 at The Brookhants School for Girls Clara and Flo, two young lovers, are found dead in the Tricky Thicket having been stung by a swarm of yellow jackets, a book they loved by author Mary MacLane found by their bodies. As conspiracies and rumours of the “devilish” power of Mary’s book spreads around Brookhants, Principal Libbie Brookhants and her partner Alex Trills start to experience strange occurrences of their own. Less than five years later with three more tragic and mysterious deaths the Brookhants school closes and becomes the stuff of stories until over a century later when wunderkind author Merritt Eammons turns it into a raved-about story called The Hauntings of Brookhants. With a film adaption starting up which includes Merritt as the scriptwriter, and starring “It Girl” Harper Harper and the B-list daughter of a 1980s Scream Queen Audrey Wells, things are about to get strange. Flitting between the past and present, the protagonists are dealt with their own horrific and devilish experience at Brookhants and may just find themselves tangled up in it’s curse.
I have such mixed feelings for this book. Plain Bad Heroines is a story within a story within a story and in that sense it’s reminiscent of House of Leaves, but even that’s a poor comparison because House of Leaves is truly it’s own individual horror, they’re only really similar in which they are layered stories that play around with the medium they are telling their story in. Plain Bad Heroines has an unnamed narrator who gives readers insights with footnotes (I still don’t know who they are but I have theories but I’d love some insights if you have any) of the characters and goings on in the story, is filled with gorgeous illustrations by Sarah Lautman (why can’t more adult books be illustrated?), at times our protagonists names are bolded to remind readers the important players in the story, and it has a few script and fictional blog excerpts all while switching between the story of the early 1900s and the modern day at the haunted and cursed Brookhants.
Despite the summary of the book giving so much attention to Clara and Flo and their sadly short-lived romance, Plain Bad Heroines has very little to do with them. Readers spend much more time flipping between the lives of Libbie Brookhants and her “gal pal, but like, with benefits” (one of my favourite lines in the book) Alex Trills in the early 1900s as they live and deal with the weirdness of The Brookhants School for Girls after the deaths of Clara and Flo and the lives of Merritt, Harper, and Audrey as they film the movie version of Merritt’s book and experience their own strange occurrences at Brookhants.
As other reviewers have mentioned, Plain Bad Heroines is a long story and it feels long. I kept waiting for something to happen, something that would chill me, and while there were a few shivers it was nothing that kept me up at night. And by the ending I was just confused about what the point of some things are and some vague loose ends from the three heroines lives that just aren’t brought up again. It’s not boring, I was interested in learning what was happening in the past and present of the story, but I just kept waiting for something that never came. It was vague in a bad way, I’m sure it was meant to keep the suspense but I just wanted things to be clearer so I could understand what exactly was going on, what the point was, why all this was supposed to be scary. I guess I was expecting more of Flo and Clara, more significance to them and they were just such a smaller part of the story than I wanted them to be.
But it wasn’t all bad, so let’s focus on the good. I loved Lautman’s illustrations and I loved learning more about Mary MacLane (yes, she’s real and yes she was a badass. If you want to buy a copy of her book, which I now plan on doing, you can do so here.). I enjoyed the normality of queerness in this book and the queer representation, we need more diverse books and I love that Danforth has created a queer horror story that only kills some of the gays. I also really enjoyed the humour of this book. Plain Bad Heroines was much more funny to me than scary, not laugh out loud funny but filled with a sharp wit that made the book fun even though it was long. If anything, I think this book would make an excellent movie or TV adaption (The Haunting of Brookhants by Mike Flannigan everyone? You know you want it.)
And I really enjoyed the footnotes (even if we never clearly discover who the narrator is), my favourite footnote being one that explained the yellow jacket song was sung to the tune Annie Lisle which was more modernly used as the Cornell song Andy sings in The Office because I had just re-watched that episode and knew EXACTLY how the yellow jacket song sounded after that.
Plain Bad Heroines is a good attempt at horror that ultimately fails to deliver any bone chilling scares (unless you’re afraid of yellow jackets, then this book might freak you right out). The book is good for readers who’d like to dip their toes into the horror genre without having to worry if they’ll be able to sleep at night (again, unless you’re absolutely terrified of yellow jackets, then watch out).
Publication: October 20th 2020
Publisher: William Morrow
Pages: 619 pages
Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Horror, LGTBQ*, Adult, Historical Fiction
My Rating: ⛤⛤⛤
“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. ”