Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines is a dual narrative gothic novel about a girls school, a curse, and how to tell a horror story, as well as love between women in both the 1900s and the present day. In 1902, Brookhants School for Girls is struck by tragedy, as students Flo and Clara—madly in love and both obsessed with a scandalous memoir of the day—are found dead in the woods after a wasp attack. And then in the present day, Brookhants becomes the set for a film starring a celebrity lesbian actress and a B movie star’s daughter, but the production seems cursed itself.

I had no idea what to expect from this novel, except a vague awareness it had a blurb from Sarah Waters and having read Danforth’s earlier YA book, and as I was reading an ebook, I wasn’t even aware quite how long it was. Plain Bad Heroines opens with a distinctive, opinionated narrator who gives extra comments in the footnotes (the tone quietens down a little as the novel goes on, but not much), moving between the two narratives and the numerous main characters (three in the present day, and a handful in the 1900s) to set up everything. The present day story is deeply linked to the older one, but refreshingly isn’t focused on the characters finding out the secrets of the past; instead, it makes jokes about the popularity of historical lesbian films and looks at the horror tendency to make the actors go through horrific experiences (often in the name of a ‘curse’).

With dual narrative books, it is often the case that you’ll prefer one narrative to the other, and perhaps controversially (seeing as this is marketed as a dated gothic story) I preferred the present day story, following Harper, Audrey, and Merritt as they become the (partly unexpected) focus of the making of an experimental film. Though some of the humour and satire felt a bit forced, it is a classic story of clashing personalities and unnerving happenings combined with some ideas of what is consent on a film set or for celebrity social media. In contrast, the 1900s narrative was more of a feminist gothic tale, blurring the line between curses and jealousy and students gripped by a craze. The two teachers and lovers, Libbie and Alex, have a fully sketched out backstory, but it felt like the narrative could be a bit slow and not really about the girls school after a certain point.

This is two stories combined with a metafictional twist into one book, and whilst it doesn’t always come together, it is bold and fun and does leave you with a lingering sense of buzzing. Instead of just being one book, it seems like many, and though this may leave you wishing you got more of your favourite (I would read another book just watching Harper, Audrey, and Merritt make bad choices), it makes Plain Bad Heroines feel like something a bit different. One not just for fans of gothic horror, and coming with knowing hints of Bret Easton Ellis and some YA elements, this book probably should come with a warning not to read if you’re scared of wasps.