Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M Danforth

In some ways, there is an awful lot going on in Emily M Danforth's Plain Bad Heroines, and yet somehow I kept finding myself wondering when something was actually going to happen. It's intriguing and atmospheric with an idiosyncratic, omniscient narrative voice, and the premise is sound, and yet I was left with the feeling that this chunky hipster brick of a book is less than the sum of its parts. 

At the centre of the plot is an exclusive New England boarding school for girls in the early 1900s, founded by Libby Brookhants, a young widow who has rekindled her relationship with Alex, a former classmate of hers. Like any girls' school through the ages, Brookhants is a somewhat claustrophobic environment that breeds intense relationships, high emotion and an incessant cycle of rumour and gossip, which perpetuates its own folklore and teeters on the brink of mass hysteria.

Flo and Clara, two teenage girls in love, die together in the Brookhants orchard in 1902, stung to death in other other's arms by a swarm of yellowjackets*. Beside them is a copy of their favourite book, a scandalous memoir by the 19-year-old writer Mary MacLane which inspired Flo and Clara to be, as Mary wished, 'plain bad heroines'. The gruesome deaths trigger a series of tragedies that forces the school to close, and the disused building remains the subject of various ghostly legends up to the present day.

It's in the present day that that book's second timeline takes place. Audrey Wells, a young but jaded B-movie actress whose mother is a former scream queen of horror movies past, is auditioning for a part in a film about Brookhants' dark past, in which she'll star alongside Harper Harper. Harper Harper is an indie It Girl actress perpetually cast in the role of lesbian Manic Pixie Dreamgirl - both on film and through her own social media accounts.

The Brookhants film is based on a non-fiction book by Merritt Emmons, a literary prodigy whose work explores the queer and feminist elements of the story, and it soon becomes clear that Merritt is besotted with Harper Harper and resents the casting of Audrey as her love interest. Meanwhile, the film's director is intent on shooting the whole film on location at Brookhants itself, and has some intriguingly meta ideas about the blending of fiction and documentary that are at best manipulative and at worst exploitative.

Recurring motifs - yellowjackets, red-black apples, poisonous flowers in the Brookhants orangery - pepper the story to great effect, and, once the reader has a had a chance to acclimatise to it, the sly narrative voice breaks the fourth wall to address us directly in the manner of a Victorian novel. That's also replicated in its length: it runs to almost 700 pages, and although I was happy enough to keep turning them, there are certainly times when Plain Bad Heroines is verbose and digressive in a way that isn't always successful.

Characters are introduced at length as the scene is set and, much as I was intrigued, I did find myself wondering, 150ish pages in, when something would actually happen to move things along, particularly with regard to the horror elements. Some of the digressions smacked of self-indulgence: chapters in which Merritt goes on a date with Harper Harper, for instance, felt like the author writing fanfic about her own characters. Both women have been given 'quirky' traits which I suspect we're meant to find infuriatingly attractive, but which to me were just infuriating: it's all very Gen Z, and perhaps I'm just too old to get it. I was personally much more interested in Audrey, whose shrewd pragmatism and lack of pretensions appealed to me, and which were convincing in a young woman who already has a career as a child actor behind her and is fully aware that she can't afford to be picky about her projects. Harper's curated Instagram and Merritt's intellectual snobbery are idealistic but immature: Harper and Merritt have all in their own ways experienced precocious success, and yet Audrey often seemed to me like the only grown-up.

The setting, however, is perfect. Brookhants feels like character in its own right, almost sentient as a place, in both past and present. Plain Bad Heroines is also exceptional in mainstream fiction for its LGBTQ+ female representation: every significant relationship in the book, and indeed most of the conversation, is between women, and it's a novel that would have not worked if that were not the case. There is a long association in horror between the emotional intensity of young women and girls and supernatural activity: think of stories like Carrie or The Exorcist, or the many claims of real-life poltergeist manifestations that centre on girls in early adolescence, and it's always good to see this explored by women writers. Merritt's book on Brookhants theorises that, far from segregating and isolating its pupils  in a single sex institution, the school offers them freedom: freedom to pursue academic interests they might otherwise have been denied, but also freedom to pursue same-sex relationships without the pestering presence of male suitors. This vastly underplays the toxicity that can rapidly fester in such environments (I went to a single-sex school myself, albeit a comprehensive, and I think perhaps Merritt's naivety reflects that of the author) but it's certainly a valid and important angle. Men in Plain Bad Heroines tend to be a threat to women's safety and liberty, and frankly it's not surprising that an escape from them is welcome. Flo and Clara meet their end when Clara flees from her cousin Charles, who is supervising her return to Brookhants after the summer holidays to ensure her 'friendship' with Flo isn't allowed to continue, and Libby Brookhants' own path in life is set by two fateful encounters with men with specific designs on her. I don't think it's an accident that the director who casts Audrey and Harper in the Brookhants film and steers their interactions on and off screen is a man too.

That said, although I can only applaud the LGBTQ+ representation in the book, and while I also loved the feminist themes and the allusions and homages to other classic horror narratives, I did find this novel lacking in other ways. There were moments when it all just seemed a bit too pleased with itself, a bit too self-aware and smug. I don't think Danforth always knows what to do with her characters other than to show us how interesting she finds them. Audrey is under-played while Harper Harper gets far more of the word count than she deserves, and Merritt's main role is to obsess over her. Libby Brookhants and her partner Alex are intriguing, but oddly inconsistent. And while the horror is effective - particularly where it becomes symbolic and it's unclear what's real and what isn't - there simply isn't enough of it in a novel of this length. It's certainly not a book I regret reading, but it doesn't quite fulfil its promise.

*I thought these were terrifying hornet-like creatures, but research suggests that they're actually just what in the UK we'd think of as common or garden wasps, which somehow slightly detracts from the horror. Even as someone who reacts terribly to stings, I can't quite bring myself to be horrified of something you can distract with a spoonful of jam.