“I I wish someone would write a book about a simple and bad heroine so that I could really feel sympathy for her, ”wrote American memoir Mary MacLane in 1902. Simple bad heroines wears his debt to MacLane on his sleeve, beginning with an excerpt from his teenage confessional Mary MacLane’s story, and then pay off that debt not with one, nor with two “just plain bad heroines”, but with a whole cast of them, scattered throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, doing their wrongdoing from Rhode Island to California and vice versa.
Why those places? Because they are the twin capitals of American horror, the birthplaces respectively of HP Lovecraft and his nightmarish disorders (one of Danforth’s footnotes talks points out that the inscription on Lovecraft’s grave is “I am Providence,” the capital Rhode Island State), and the movie killer. Y Simple bad heroines It’s a horror novel, a real one: a big thick door of super-queer horror that never runs out of ways to keep you delightfully disturbed.
In the early 1800s, MacLane’s (real) book arrives at the (fictional) Brookhants School for Girls in Rhode Island, where its outrageous mix of uncouth and ego inspires the formation of a Plain Bad Hero Society. But then two of the club members are killed by a swarm of yellow jacket wasps, one of their admirers dies strangely, and after that things get even weirder in Brookhants (pronounced “Brook-haunts”, a play on words that the narrator rejects with a winning cheek: “I can’t help it that the school is called Brookhants and that it is said that it is enchanted”). The relationship between director Libbie Brookhants and her beloved partner Alexandra Trills is tested beyond natural limits.
Those events entangle three more bad heroines today. There’s Merritt Emmons, a child prodigy who wrote a blindingly successful book called The events at Brookhants when he was 16 and had entered his 20s with nothing to show but writer’s block. (He has been toying, uselessly, with a continuation of Truman Capote’s unfinished novel Answered prayers.) Events it is now being turned into a movie, produced by and starring the world’s hottest “celesbian” Harper Harper (her name is explained, but I won’t spoil it here); Hollywood descriptions are presumably based on the adaptation of Danforth’s hit 2012 youth debut Cameron Post’s rudeness.
And alongside Harper is Audrey Hall, a young actress who shakily follows in the footsteps of her mother, the screaming queen and horror star. Events It’s Audrey’s chance for a big break, so when the director explains that he wants her to conspire in creating a behind-the-scenes found-footage movie in which Merritt and Harper will be unwitting co-stars, she reluctantly agrees.
That brings our trio to Brookhants, and this is where things start to get really spooky. What events are being orchestrated by the conductor and which are legitimately supernatural? Could there really be a curse on Brookhants and, if so, when did it start? With the death of the girls, with the tensions between Libbie and Alex, or with MacLane’s book, which seems to carry destructive passions wherever it is found? Perhaps the trouble started earlier, when the Brookhants family home was built around an old craze known locally as “Spite Tower”, after a legend that was erected to settle scores between two brothers by blocking a privileged view.
Danforth braids the layers of narrative together with experience. She is clearly a fond of horror: in addition to Lovecraft, there are explicit nods to witch, Peter Straub, Berber sound Study, M Night Shyamalan, The Omen and countless others. Another writer might have let the metatext quell the dread, but Danforth uses it to thrillingly corrode the reader’s own sense of reality: a recurring nightmare theme causes characters to discover, or perhaps hallucinate, that solid objects They are made from the wood pulp substance of the nest of the yellow jacket wasps. Made of paper, actually.
Aside from MacLane, perhaps there is no writer with a stronger presence in Simple bad heroines than Shirley Jackson. Malevolent tower in sinister mansion? Tense intimacies between women? Hello, The curse of Hill House. But while horror has historically drawn his evil life from repressed sexuality, Danforth wants more than frustration for his heroines. Merritt laughs at Harper for suggesting that Brookhants was the “lady of planet love”: These girls, Merritt explains, had a brief stint of bullshit before being forced into society as wives.
What if that wasn’t inevitable? Death and misery were once the only imaginable outcomes for a lesbian or bisexual woman in fiction, but today they are not. What if you could create your own world? Simple bad heroines It is that creation: in this novel, everything that happens, happens between women. I’m not even sure there is a conversation between two male characters – whatever the opposite of Bechdel’s test is, Danforth defiantly rejects it. His novel is captivating, very sexy and terrifying.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism