Spellbinding in both its visual style and haunting gothic prose, “Plain Bad Heroines” is an extraordinary work of art from Emily M. Danforth.
What’s the racket, yellow jacket?
When I heard of a gothic horror novel with sapphic love stories, generational curses, and wasps, I knew I had to pick it up. Plain Bad Heroines was anything but bad and an impressive debut adult novel from Emily M. Danforth that quickly worked its way into my heart and earned a permanent spot on my bookshelf.
The plot is propelled by the tragic deaths of Flo and Clara, two young lovers attending Brookhaunts School for Girls. Half of the story occurs in 1902, with principal Libbie Brookhaunts trying to regain control of her life and school after her students’ fatal yellow jacket incident. The other half takes place in the modern-day, where a team of young women and an enthusiastic director are working to bring the story of Brookhaunts to life after its success as a best-selling novel despite rumors of the school grounds being cursed.
Readers spend most of the book speculating the existence of this curse.
Are the young stars truly experiencing the paranormal, or is it the meddling of director Bo, who may be causing behind-the-scenes illusions to elicit a genuine reaction from them to produce the next big found footage film?
Danforth stated that she drew inspiration from lore surrounding cursed horror movie sets such as The Omen. Her website describes it as “Picnic at Hanging Rock + The Blair Witch Project x lesbians = Plain Bad Heroines.
There have been plenty of rumors about haunted happenings behind the scenes of The Exorcist and Poltergeist that range from mysterious fires on-set to actual murder committed by one of the actors. Danforth ties that foreboding sense of unease seamlessly into her novel and leaves you questioning what is real and what is movie magic.
With that being said, the book is as romantic as it is horrific.
It’s a beautiful piece of lesbian literature and has a list of main characters who are all queer.
A hypnotic slow-burn builds tension over time (sometimes sexual, sometimes not) and threatens to blaze into a scorching fire that can destroy everything. It even dabbles into the territory of accidental non-monogamy. Much of the action is caused by The Story of Mary MacLane, a self-titled memoir from 1901 written by “The Wild Woman of Butte” Mary MacLane, whose open bisexuality and feminism made her a scintillating scandal at the turn of the century.
Plain Bad Heroines also features beautiful black and white illustrations by Sara Lautman that bring the ornate gothic beauty of Brookhaunts to life.
It was a visual delight to turn a page and see whirls of yellow jackets framing different paragraphs or haunting images covering entire pages. The prose is vivid enough to imagine the cursed grounds, but Lautman’s exquisite artwork adds an additional flare popularized in Victorian times.
The writing style stays true to Gothic tradition, with extensive detail added to each paragraph.
It can be a slow start for some but is well worth it once you start working your way through the thicket of the curse.
Once you venture in too deep, it will be difficult to find your way out until you reach the last page.
With all of this in mind, it’s not surprising that Plain Bad Heroines achieved some awards. In 2021, it earned the Locus Awards for Best Horror Novel and the ALA Alex Award. It also won the Shirley Jackson Award for Novel and Goodreads Choice Award for Horror in 2020.
All of this is unsurprising, as it immediately took the top spot of my favorite novel.
Danforth’s novel is as beautiful as it is haunting and will buzz around your mind long after reading it.