Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth starts in 1902, at the Brookhants School for Girls in New England, where two girls make a secret club called the Plain Bad Heroines Society. But their clandestine meetings are brought to an abrupt end when their bodies are found, covered in yellow jacket stingers. Then, more deaths on the property occur, until the Brookhants School is closed for good. Then, a century later, Hollywood is coming to Brookhants, as an auteur horror director decides to film a movie based on a book detailing what happened there. But as the actors Harper and Audrey, as well as the writer Merritt, meet and come to the crumbling school, everyone begins to wonder if the place is cursed.
This book was, in a word, weird. But, like, in a cool and spooky way.
First off, I have to give props to the narrator of the audiobook, Xe Sands, who does a spectacular job. With an interesting voice, perfect cadence, and brilliant character portrayals, she totally swept me away. The only thing I missed is the illustrations that apparently appear in the print version.
The main three heroines Harper, Audrey, and Merritt are an excellent group of protagonists. With Harper’s celebrity stardom, Audrey’s underdog talent, and Merritt’s writer-recluse prickliness, there’s a lot of complexity to their relationship with each other. Each one is full of personality and flaws, and the way they develop as individuals—and in regards to each other—is interesting to see play out.
The other characters are good, especially the ones from 1902 like Alex and Libby. Bo (or is it spelled Beau? Ah, the perils of audiobooks), Elaine, Adelaide, and of course Flo and Clara were also great characters. Overall, it’s a good cast.
The characters aside, though, the thing that’s really intriguing about this book is the layers to the plot. As we flit back and forth from 1902 to the present day, a picture is formed of Brookhants that’s both revealing and increasingly uncertain somehow. It’s like the more you learn about what happened in 1902, and the more you see is going on now, the less you’re sure of anything. And part of that definitely has to do with how the story of Brookhants is wrapped up in so much film-making drama. This book not only explores the lives of queer women in a society that isn’t accepting of them, it also pulls back the gleaming facade of Hollywood to reveal something darker. It’s strange, sometimes confusing, but also really interesting.
The spookier scenes, usually involving yellow jackets, were often quite creepy. There’s an abject terror the characters—and by extension, the readers—feel when these insects or other bizarre things intrude. I could visualize many scenes really well; despite being a sort of commentary on cinema, I could see this story working as a film or tv show. I didn’t always understand what was going on, but I think that was part of the point. You aren’t supposed to know what’s real or not.
In the end, Plain Bad Heroines is a fascinating, metafictional, layered story about a cursed boarding school and the possibly cursed movie that seeks to tell its story. The two timelines are intertwined in interesting ways, the characters are great, and the frightening scenes succeed. There’s feminism and unapologetic queer relationships, magic and horror. I feel like I’d need to read the end again to fully get it, but overall, this was a strange but enjoyable book.
Overall rating: 8.6/10