Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth

I think I’ve already mentioned that Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books. The strong female lead, the fairly unconventional take on romance, the theme of independence all really resonate with me as a reader. I’ve also mentioned that I was trying this fall to read more spooky books to get into the spirit of the season. One such book I read was Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth. I discovered it by chance on the homepage of the library catalog as one of the new books being ordered for the collection, and after reading the synopsis I was hooked. It has similar themes: lots of female characters, unusual and unconventional romances, and a strong theme of struggling for independence.

The book is told in alternating perspectives: first, in 1902, you hear the story of a girls’ boarding school as it’s rocked by a series of grisly deaths, all revolving around a mysterious and inflammatory book. Then, you’re transported to the early 2000s as Hollywood discovers the story of the cursed boarding school and starts to make a movie about it. The movie seeks to capture the horror of the original 1902 events, but succeeds too well as bizarre and frightening events start to happen on set. Caught in the middle are a number of fascinating characters – in 1902, the headmistress Libbie and her lover Alex strive to understand and overcome the boarding school’s sinister atmosphere, and they fail to protect several of their students including Flo and Clara, a bold pair of lovers, and ghostly Eleanor Faderman, who idolizes them. In the modern story, wunderkind writer Merritt, lesbian star Harper, and Audrey, daughter of an iconic scream queen, find themselves thrown together both in fear and mutual attraction as they work on the film.

The appeal of the book is partly its strong characters, complicated and fairly relatable, and partly its wry writing style. Like Jane Eyre, the narrator addresses the reader directly to tell the story (“Reader, I married him”, etc.), and the author really leans into the style, adding lots of footnotes and asides during the narrative. While it’s a fairly thick volume, with lots of story to tell at both points in history, I found that I kept reading without fatigue because of the tense atmosphere and slow-burn action. Typical of horror-style stories, you’re filled with an increasing sense of dread that something awful is going to happen. However (spoiler alert), I was surprised and a bit disappointed that while the 1902 story was full of horrible things happening, and its ending was decently grim, the modern story had a more ambivalent ending, neither grim nor hopeful. I was left with a sense of lingering questions and an uncertain future. As far as I was concerned, the last page could have read The End? (spoiler alert: it didn’t.)

Here’s my theory as to why that is: the underlying theme of both stories is resistance to oppressive norms, expressed particularly in the form of lesbian relationships. This book and its characters are entirely, staggeringly, defiantly sapphic, which comes with certain realities. My guess is the 1902 story had to end grimly, because the outlook for independent women and lesbian love at that time was decently grim. In the modern era, however, things aren’t so final. There’s more freedom and acceptance, but sexism and homophobia still exist, making for an uncertain, cloudy outlook. Therefore, the modern characters couldn’t be said to have completely defeated the curse, but they stand stronger against it. Of course, there’s a lot more going on in the book, especially as the characters struggled for independence in various ways. Some wanted to be independent of everyone, some wanted to be independent from their parents or their past, some wanted to be independent from society’s rules, and some wanted to be independent from their fame. (Their success at achieving independence predictably varied.) Altogether, I thought this was a thought-provoking, engaging book with lots of thrills and chills.

If you like historical fiction, horror fiction, dramedies, or feminist histories, I recommend you try this book. (Although, if you’re afraid of wasps, bees, and yellow jackets, you might want to think twice. They’re EVERYWHERE.)

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