Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt

Proof copy of Tell Me I'm Worthless with yellow text on a black background and yellow tissue paper with a red stamp saying 'worthless'.

Tell Me I’m Worthless is a gothic horror novel in which the haunted house is fascism and nobody is safe. Alice, Ila, and Hannah once went to the abandoned house in the city that backs onto the woods, the one nobody goes near, and only two of them made it back. Three years later, Alice is haunted by the trauma of what happened and by a man in a poster covering a stain she can’t bear to see, and Ila has gone down a gender critical path to deal with what she saw. Maybe all that Alice and Ila can do is reunite, despite hating each other, and return to the house to confront it and what happened to Hannah and them.

From hearing about this book and hearing the author read an extract of it at an event, I knew I needed to read it. Tell Me I’m Worthless is horrifying and unyielding trans horror, a darkly, strangely hilarious exploration of trauma, complicity, and the creeping rise of fascism, and a clever take on the haunted house genre. It’s also quite difficult to describe as it leaves you breathless and disoriented, having just gone through the onslaught of facing up to truths about radicalisation, extremism, and what people might think with someone (or something) allowing it.

One of my favourite elements of it was the treatment of the gothic, especially the haunted house, and the combination of it with the political and the social. In this way, the book follows on in tradition of the gothic novel, and it particularly reminds me of the images of the old ruined house around the time of the French Revolution and how these were used in gothic novels, often preying on prejudice around ideas of degeneracy and irrational thought. The house is a place and a character, a manifestation of English fascism, but it is also inside each of them, and some of the horror comes from the fact that it isn’t just inside the house that is dangerous. Indeed, the very category of safety is questioned, looking at how safety for one person often comes at the expense of less safety for another, one house must be destroyed to make space for another, etc, and that fits in so well with the two (human) protagonists and how they reflect and distill each other.

The book also updates the horror genre in delightful ways (and utterly horrific ones), with the unforgettable use of ‘the old racist singer in the poster is haunting you’ as a new version of ‘the eyes in the painting are following you around’. Horror writing is maybe the genre I’ve enjoyed the longest, and this was the literary poetry horror I didn’t know I needed, with sharp jibes at culture mixed in with skin-crawling and brutal moments that show us that maybe the real horror was inside us all along. The entwining of gender and horror was crucial too, with both gender and the haunted house being about context and place, always morphing but always there.

There’s plenty more to be discussed about Tell Me I’m Worthless, but it’s better just to say preorder it, read it, pay attention to the content warnings at the start, and use it to see how horror can expose the real world through the supernatural and make you scared of a poster. It feels like a rusty nail through the head, but somehow in a good way.