‘Picnic at Hanging Rock + The Blair Witch Project x lesbians =
Plain Bad Heroines‘
[ About the Book ]
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-inspired illustrations, Plain Bad Heroines is a devilishly haunting, modern masterwork of metafiction that manages to combine the ghostly sensibility of Sarah Waters with the dark imagination of Marisha Pessl and the sharp humor and incisive social commentary of Curtis Sittenfeld into one laugh-out-loud funny, spellbinding, and wonderfully luxuriant read.
[ My Review ]
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth is her adult debut and will be published with The Borough Press March 4th. It is described as a ‘highly imaginative and original horror-comedy centered around a cursed New England boarding school for girls—a wickedly whimsical celebration of the art of storytelling, sapphic love, and the rebellious female spirit’ and, I can honestly say, that I have never read anything quite like it. Wacky and wonderful is really the only description I have for this unique and highly original novel that really played with my mind.
Before I go any further I must offer you all a small explanation about a book that Plain Bad Heroines refers to throughout the text. It is The Story of Mary MacLane and is an actual publication from 1902, penned by Mary Maclane herself. I had never heard of Mary MacLane and, for those of you who are in the same boat, here is a snippet from the Britannica website (link below)
Mary MacLane, in full Mary Elizabeth MacLane, (born May 1 or 2, 1881, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada—found dead August 6, 1929, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.), Canadian-born American writer and pioneering feminist whose frank autobiographical account of her life—written at age 19 and published as The Story of Mary MacLane—by Herself in 1902—became an instant best seller and made her a celebrity for two decades. Called the “Wild Woman of Butte,” she used a Modernist confessional style to express erotic desires. She was largely forgotten until feminist interest in women’s lives revived her work during the 1970s.
Ref – Mary MacLane | Canadian-born American writer and feminist | Britannica
Throughout Plain Bad Heroines, the words of Mary MacLane are regularly quoted in the dual timelines that the story revolves around, mainly today and 1902. The unknown narrator weaves her tale back and forth, bringing the reader on a gothic journey that spans decades. In 1902, Libby Brookhants was the principal of Brookhants School for Girls, a school that had a reputation for educating in a wider and more academic manner than others. It was a place where society girls, also known as WASPs, were given freedoms that would not necessarily be available to them in other schools. Flo and Clara, two students of Brookhants became infatuated with each other but also with Mary MacLane’s book and it’s rather ‘shocking’ content, its words encouraging them to establish a private club, The Plain Bad Heroine Society. Flo and Clara were obsessed with Mary MacLane’s words and, it is with her book on their bodies, that they are discovered dead, in the forest, on the grounds of the school.
“There’s a wickedness in that book and our girls won’t leave it alone”
Their death was a gruesome one, seemingly the victims of an horrendous ‘yellow jacket’ wasp attack. The school community gathered together to grieve the unfortunate deaths of these two young students but, not too long after, death strikes the school again. Libby Brookhants struggles to keep the school open, its reputation now in tatters and eventually in 1907 the school closes its doors permanently.
Now, over a century later, a young writer, Merritt Emmons pens a book all about Brookhants history which is picked up by a controversial horror director with the ambition of creating a gothic masterpiece. Casting Insta favourite and celesbian actor, Harper Harper, as Flo and Audrey Wells, a girl with a less than recognisable back-catalogue, as Clara, this was to be a movie that would attract some serious attention. But as shooting on location at Brookhants begins, something is very much amiss…..
Plain Bad Heroines is a sinister and tantalizing read with some seriously quirky attributes. There are some wonderful Illustrations throughout the novel by Sara Lautman which add an extra layer to the whole reading experience. I did find the many footnotes a little distracting as it pulled my mind and eyes away from the main story resulting in me, at times, losing track of where I was on any given page.
Plain Bad Heroines is an extremely unconventional read. The manner in which the narrator recounts the story brings the reader very much into the novel, like an extra member of the cast. As the darkness seeps across the chapters, you question what you are reading, what is real and what is Hollywood. It’s bizarre, outlandish and, at times, a very strange reading experience. Emily M. Danforth has written Plain Bad Heroines in quite an old-fashioned style suggesting the narrator is from a different era but this fact is never revealed. I really enjoyed the scattered references to Truman Capote and his ‘Swans’ having recently read the fabulously decadent Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. Merritt has plans to write a book with a connection to the unfinished and posthumously published Answered Prayers by Truman Capote leading to some wonderful dialogue with Elaine Brookhants who has first-hand memories of Capote.
Plain Bad Heroines is a compelling novel about a haunted and very mysterious New England prep school. Quite satirical at times when referencing the Hollywood agenda, it is a queer feminist coming-of-age story with both an effervescent and ominous edge. Very complex dual storylines reveal trickles of truth mixed with a sharp narrative and surreal imagery creating a story that leaves the reader both perplexed and highly amused. There is a constant hum surrounding this book, a bubbling sense of the otherworld that more than occasionally filters through with a very malevolent and unsettling vibe. This is a novel that will appeal to a wide mix of readers, from YA to fans of historical fiction and, of course, those readers who like things a little more on the darker side. Plain Bad Heroines is immersive, addictive, frustrating and highly entertaining featuring a brilliant cast of extremely eccentric, yet very intriguing, characters. A tale made for the big screen I would think!
[ Bio ]
Emily M. Danforth’s debut (YA) novel, The Miseducation Of Cameron Post (2012) was named to numerous “best book” lists, translated into a half-dozen languages, and adapted into a Sundance award winning feature film of the same name.
Emily’s second novel, Plain Bad Heroines, will be published March 4th by HarperCollins.
Read more at – emily m. danforth