Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth is a sapphic gothic horror and historical fiction, set in The Brookhants School for Girls.

Thank you to HarperCollins UK and HarperFiction for giving me a free Advanced Review Copy of Plain Bad Heroines in return for an honest review.

First of all: it has taken me SO LONG to get to this book, for which I can only apologise. I was given a copy of this book in August 2020, and has now just been published in paperback, so I am definitely way behind on this one! (I’m in the process of fixing this, so there are quite a few reviews to follow — my NetGalley has been seriously neglected over lockdown.)

Plain Bad Heroines is available in eBook, audiobook and paperback format from Amazon, Waterstones, Hive and all good booksellers — or add it to your list on Goodreads.

My review

Plain Bad Heroines first caught my eye with that stunning and very eye-catching cover — and the premise of a gothic horror really intrigued me too!

The story changes between 1902 and 2014. In 1902, two young students, Flo and Clara, are students at The Brookhants School for Girls. They become obsessed with Mary MacLane, a young author of a memoir — even starting their own fan club, The Plain Bad Heroine Society. Unfortunately, both girls are killed by an angry swarm of yellow jackets (or wasps), and more victims die soon after in strange circumstances. Fast-forward to 2014, and a book exploring the school’s history is now going to be made into a horror film. The book’s author, Merritt Emmons, is thrown together on set with the two stars: celebrity actor and ‘it girl’ Harper Harper as Flo and former child star Audrey Wells as Clara.

I read this as both an eBook (given to me by the publisher) and as an audiobook (purchased myself). I really loved the audiobook narrator, Xe Sands — she did a fantastic job and really gave life to the characters! The narrator throughout the book has a very tongue-in-cheek style of humour, which I thought Xe captured well, and when reading the eBook I definitely heard the story in her voice.

I loved all of the main characters in this book, from both historical settings and modern day. I think I most felt sorry for Alex, the partner of Brookhants School’s headmistress in 1902. She seems to be most affected by the curse, and I think she deserved better! The relationship between Merritt, Harper and Flo were intriguing, being intertwined and a little messy. It felt like all three were a little out of their depth. Harper particularly gives an interesting commentary on the cult of celebrity and social media, with her every move tweeted and Instagrammed for everyone to see and comment on.

However, the book is really long at 623 pages, and I felt that it could have been cut shorter. The ending especially was a bit of a disappointment for me — it felt like it was building to a big crescendo which never happened. I was also a little confused by what happened and what was going on at the end, which was a shame as the rest of the book is incredibly well-written, with vivid scenes and incredibly atmospheric. While this is supposed to be a horror, I was left feeling dissatisfied and unsure how much of the goings on were real and how many were imagined.

Overall, I did enjoy Plain Bad Heroines and it’s one that I think I would go back to in a few years time. I’m not sure I’d refer to it as a horror, but it’s certainly an atmospheric story that pulled me in with all the mystery and goings on. The narrator of the story is also interesting with lots of pop culture references and humour that kept me interested throughout.

(Also, I only found out afterwards when I finished the book that Mary MacLane’s I Await the Devil’s Coming is a real book, not fictional, and that ‘yellowjackets’ are actually wasps, or perhaps hornets. Maybe this will spare somebody some confusion!)

The blurb for Plain Bad Heroines

Our story begins in 1902, at The Brookhants School for Girls. Flo and Clara, two impressionable students, are obsessed with each other and with a daring young writer named Mary MacLane, the author of a scandalous bestselling memoir. To show their devotion to Mary, the girls establish their own private club and call it The Plain Bad Heroine Society. They meet in secret in a nearby apple orchard, the setting of their wildest happiness and, ultimately, of their macabre deaths. This is where their bodies are later discovered with a copy of Mary’s book splayed beside them, the victims of a swarm of stinging, angry yellow jackets. Less than five years later, The Brookhants School for Girls closes its doors forever—but not before three more people mysteriously die on the property, each in a most troubling way.

Over a century later, the now abandoned and crumbling Brookhants is back in the news when wunderkind writer, Merritt Emmons, publishes a breakout book celebrating the queer, feminist history surrounding the “haunted and cursed” Gilded-Age institution. Her bestselling book inspires a controversial horror film adaptation starring celebrity actor and lesbian it girl Harper Harper playing the ill-fated heroine Flo, opposite B-list actress and former child star Audrey Wells as Clara. But as Brookhants opens its gates once again, and our three modern heroines arrive on set to begin filming, past and present become grimly entangled—or perhaps just grimly exploited—and soon it’s impossible to tell where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins.

A story within a story within a story and featuring black-and-white period illustrations.

Emily M DanforthAbout the author, Emily M. Danforth

emily m. danforth’s first novel–The Miseducation of Cameron Post— is a coming of GAYge story set largely in Miles City, Montana, the cattle ranching town where she was born and raised. It was made into a feature film of the same name in 2018.

emily’s second novel is a sapphic-gothic-comedy titled Plain Bad Heroines. Plain Bad Heroines is set largely in Rhode Island, the state where she’s lived for almost a decade with her wife Erica and two dogs, Kevin and Sally O’Malley.

emily has her MFA in Fiction from the University of Montana and a Ph.D in English-Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. For several years, she was an Assistant Professor of English at Rhode Island college. emily has also worked as a lifeguard, a swim instructor, a bartender, a waiter, an aquatics director at a YWCA, a door-to-door salesperson (for one summer in college), and a telemarketer (for about 2 weeks in college).

emily’ favorite slasher movie is April Fool’s Day (1986).

Her favorite drink is iced coffee with extra ice. (Followed closely by the Aperol Spritz.)

Plain Bad Heroines is available in eBook, audiobook and paperback format from Amazon, Waterstones, Hive and all good booksellers.