Plain Bad Heroines
Emily M. Danforth

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers. Because I am obsessive and, as I have noted before, in possession of graphic design software, my full, formatted notes can be found here.

I definitely owe Merritt Emmons an apology. The first time I read this book, I thought she was unjustifiably nasty. I sort of stand by that, but this go-round I also found her uncomfortably close to home, which is a disturbing thought. Even if I still don’t necessarily like her, I get her. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the rest of the book, which I don’t get at all. There are books that overexplain themselves and books that underexplain, and both can be aggravating in their own ways, but Plain Bad Heroines falls into a completely separate category for books that don’t explain themselves at all when maybe they probably should.

There are, of course, two very flashy deaths at the beginning of the book, but the story actually gets its footing a century or so earlier with two stupid men and one witchy woman. All-American dudebro farmers Samuel and Jonathan Rash leave Connecticut and move to Rhode Island, where they buy two neighboring parcels of land across the water from Newport. Despite the prime real estate, there is a rub: their farms are separated from each other by a splinter of land owned by Simone Verrett, descendant of a clan of supernaturally charged women. Their efforts to buy her land fall flat, and Jonathan angrily wages war against her by increasingly violent means. When an attempted rape goes south, Jonathan builds a tower out back of his house, later called Spite Tower, to block Simone’s view of the water. Around this time, both of the brothers’ farms begin to suffer from bizarre happenings that start to look an awful lot like witchcraft. After a night of drinking and fearmongering at the local tavern, they go home and strangle Simone in a drunken rage, then bury her in the woods near the hot springs on her land. Their farms go back to normal upon her death, but a curse remains upon the land, born from the energy of the woman they murdered.

A hundred-some years later, the cursed land has become the site for the Brookhants School for Girls, an elite boarding school that prepares affluent white girls for college. The Rash brothers’ feud is now the stuff of local legend, though modern retellings have it that Spite Tower was built to block Samuel’s view of the water, and Simone’s existence has been erased entirely. In the absence of all three of them, lumber magnate Harold Brookhants bought the land and built a mansion he called Breakwater, which incorporates Spite Tower and thus is colloquially known as Spite Manor; and, as the name makes clear, he also founded the school and appointed his young wife, Libbie Packard Brookhants, as the principal. With Harold now gone (he was old as fuck by nineteenth century standards), Libbie has been running the school for the last eight years and living in Spite Manor with her college sweetheart, Alexandra “Alex” Trills. Neither is entirely satisfied with her lot in life: Libbie is restless and has a roaming eye, while Alex is jealous and insecure. Their relationship is not helped by Libbie’s flamboyant ex-flame, Sara Dahlgren, or by their new maid, Adelaide “Addie” Trevert, whose attraction to Libbie is entirely mutual. They first met Harold when he learned that Libbie was in trouble by Sara’s cousin, Simon Everett III, and, following a thorough gaslighting by both Harold and his spiritual confidante, Madame Odette Verrett, Alex convinced Libbie to accept Harold’s offer to provide the two of them with a quiet, domestic life, without quite realizing that Libbie is a rolling stone.

Nevertheless, life rolls along well enough until 1902, when students Clara Broward and Florence “Flo” Hartshorn fall in love with each other over the pages of The Story of Mary MacLane (now titled I Await the Devil’s Coming in accordance with MacLane’s original intentions), becoming so obsessed with the book that they form their own after-school club, known as the Plain Bad Heroine Society. Their passionate romance ends in tragedy the day Clara steps into an enormous yellow jacket hive nestled in the woods surrounding the school while fleeing from her odious cousin Charles. Clara and Flo die almost at once, enveloped in yellow jackets; Charles runs away and survives just long enough to board the Titanic. The girls are discovered near the nest, disfigured beyond recognition, with Mary MacLane’s book beside them, though it later disappears. These two deaths spark a series of unexplainable incidents within the school and the general vicinity, extending as far as Spite Manor, and tie into the death of a third student, Eleanor Faderman. While Libbie desperately tries to hide the fact that Clara and Flo were in possession of her own personal copy of the Mary MacLane book – as much to avoid culpability as to conceal the explicit mash note written in its margins by a still-smitten Sara Dahlgren – Alex and the rest of the Brookhants teachers double down on their argument that the book is inherently dangerous and should be banned from the school. Unbeknownst to Libbie, Alex feels that the deaths of the girls are all her own fault, and she attempts to prove to Libbie that the book is cursed while growing increasingly suspicious of both Addie and her mother-in-law, Hanna Eckhart, another household servant.

Things at Spite Manor grow even more strange as Addie begins to behave oddly, in ways that increasingly make it seem like she is deliberately deepening the wedge between Alex and Libbie. The conflict between her and Alex ends with Alex falling to her death from the top of the Spite Tower staircase, though this happens in such a way that it looks as if Hanna is responsible. Mad with rage and grief, Libbie becomes so violent in her efforts to get rid of Hanna that her family commits her to the Rhode Island State Asylum for the Incurable Insane, which seems to be the end of her. However, life (or Sara Dahlgren) finds a way, and she is released a year or so later against the wishes of her family. Upon returning to Spite Manor, she briefly meets her ten-year-old daughter, Ava, who was born in France and raised – or, less charitably, groomed – by the Verrett clan per the terms of Libbie’s agreement with Harold, then attempts to break the Brookhants curse. She is caught by Addie, who identifies herself as a member of the Verrett clan and reveals that Libbie’s entire adult life, including the Mary MacLane book and Ava’s conception, has been manipulated by the Verretts in service to their own goals. With her cards mostly on the table, Addie attempts to seduce Libbie into living in Spite Manor and co-parenting Ava with her, but Libbie refuses. Upon her rejection, Addie uses some form of magic to paralyze Libbie before shoving her into the waters of Narragansett Bay, because apparently Hell hath no fury like Verrett scorned. Libbie is generally accepted to have died this night; however, there is a single photo from Sara Dahlgren’s collection, taken sometime around 1920, that includes a woman who looks remarkably like Libbie’s mother at a similar age.

All of this brings us to 2015 (rendered in the book as “20__” for no apparent reason), when horror director Bo Dhillon begins work on a film adaptation of a nonfiction book titled The Happenings at Brookhants. Happenings began as a blog but eventually morphed into a book, and was published five years ago by then-sixteen-year-old Merritt Emmons, who spent a good chunk of her childhood visiting Brookhants under the tutelage of family friend Elaine “Lainey” Elizabeth Bishop Brookhants. Now twenty-one, Merritt was hailed as a wunderkind upon publication but hasn’t written anything since, partly because she suffers from a whopping case of impostor syndrome and partly because she is stuck on the idea of finishing Answered Prayers, a novel started by Truman Capote. Her natural gift for self-doubt is magnified by Elaine, who was so heavily involved in the conception, research, and writing of Happenings that the book does not genuinely feel like Merritt’s own work. Her own doubts notwithstanding, she is the accepted author of the book, and is therefore invited to Hollywood to participate in the film. She is joined by lesbian It-girl and mega-influencer Harper Harper (think Taylor Swift level of hype) and B-list actress Audrey Wells, who are cast as Flo and Clara, respectively, and the three of them become the heroines in the latest cycle of the Brookhants curse.

Though the intention is to shoot a movie based on Merritt’s book, Elaine also sold Bo on the idea of interweaving the official story with documentary-style footage of the actual filming. With this goal in mind, Bo pits the three heroines against each other in a predictably exploitative cash-grab, but their tumultuous relationship is upstaged by the genuinely unexplainable phenomena that continuously interrupt production. Even the explosive showdown that takes place after the heroines catch on quickly gets sidelined when Elaine suffers a stroke, which puts her in the hospital and ultimately results in her death. With her passing, the Brookhants property goes to Merritt, as stipulated in Elaine’s will, and the curse seems to lift, at least temporarily. Filming wraps without further delays, black algae stops growing in the camera lenses, and the three heroines are still alive by the end of production. Merritt even manages to finish her book, which she reframes as a companion novel to Answered Prayers rather than an official continuation (complete with a heroine named Capote Capote) and secures a publisher deal for two more books. There are also hints that Plain Bad Heroines is itself a Merritt-authored book, though this is never directly stated or confirmed. I’m just spitballing at this point, because the narrative voice sounds like her, and it is explicitly stated that she writes more than one book on the Brookhants curse. The story ends – or does it? – with the modern Plain Bad Heroine Society quoting Mary MacLane on the red carpet, and the curse seemingly still alive and well.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I don’t get it. We are given a lot of information, but the book doesn’t have quite the web it thinks it does. The connections are too nebulous, and nothing is explained. The writing is good, and the historical component is compelling. I actually don’t really need the modern day Hollywood generation of the curse, which is not nearly as interesting as the story of the school. The characters are okay, if a bit lacking in staying power, though I did like the development of Merritt’s relationship with Audrey. At the same time, I kind of wish Audrey hadn’t been labeled “normcore Anna Kendrick,” because I now have a picture of Anna stuck in my head and I can’t get it out. (As for Harper, I have been picturing Billie Eilish and I have absolutely no idea why.) I’m almost embarrassed to say that Merritt might have become my favorite of the three modern heroines despite all the hate I heaped on her head during my first reading, if only because her pedantic, impersonal viciousness is so similar to mine.

“Merritt doesn’t like me,” Audrey said, shaking her head. She was nine parts embarrassed to one part impressed by his orchestrations.

“Ehh, maybe,” Bo said. “I’m not sure that’s it…Have you ever heard of Thomas de Mahy, the Marquis de Favras?”

“No,” Audrey said. His question felt like a trap. Another one.

“Riddles, Bo,” Heather said again.

“No, it’s not a riddle,” Bo said. “He was an aristocrat, got caught up in French Revolution drama and publicly executed as a martyr. But he’s most famous now for his last words, which he spoke immediately upon reading his death warrant: I see that you have made three spelling mistakes…Dude’s about to be offed and still it’s: I see that you have made three spelling mistakes. That’s Merritt. That’s Merritt exactly. It’s not about liking or not liking you.”

You see what I mean? Between that, the writer’s block, and the impostor syndrome, I can’t hate Merritt anymore. I see too much of myself in her for my earlier irritation to still hold true. (Also, NOT me doing the Merritt thing and spending all my time making an outline and combing through the book for a detailed annotation document in preparation for this review, in lieu of actually writing the review.) On the other hand, I am now supremely irritated with Audrey’s mother Caroline, a retired actress-turned-real-estate-agent who keeps deliberately turning up at the most inopportune moments – by design, of course, though I still feel like she could’ve declined some of Bo’s invitations – so I guess you win some, lose some.

Having said all that: What the fuck is the deal with the curse, and why can I not get a clear answer on anybody’s motives? How hard is it to close a loop without opening a completely new path? More specifically, what the hell does the Verrett clan actually want? Harold’s interest in the occult is fairly clear-cut, but then it turns out that the Verretts have been pulling his strings – why? What are they trying to get? This is infuriating. The clan’s vendetta goes all the way back to Simone Verrett, who was a direct descendant of the clan – or cult, which is more of their vibe – and was not supposed to be raised outside of its influence, but that doesn’t explain why Addie has spent years watching Libbie, or why her aunt Odette got her claws into Harold. I have no idea how either Libbie or Harold served the Verretts’ goals, though both are said to have been a means to an end. If the Verretts merely wanted to retrieve their runaway members, they should have done that a hundred years earlier, when both members were still alive. Nor are they wreaking vengeance upon the descendants of those runaways: Simone was an only child, and had no children herself. The Verretts appear to have rigged Ava’s conception, but so what? Who is Simon Everett? Is he actually Sara Dahlgren’s cousin, chosen specifically by the Verretts for his name, or is he a Verrett operative?

This is the trouble with a book like this: it works so hard to be twisty and clever that it fails to answer any of the questions that it poses. For what it’s worth, my personal theory is that the Verretts needed a wealthy American man shrewd enough to make a fortune but stupid enough to fall for their mysticism without asking some informed questions. (“Why are you helping me” and “What are you getting out of this” would have been a fine start, though Adelaide seems to think Simone’s parentage was somehow the most pertinent question he should have been asking.) Harold fit the bill completely: he had the cold hard cash they would have needed to buy land in America, and he also had such a fear of dying that he was willing to invest a considerable sum in a wild plan to adopt a child to serve as a vessel for his own soul. The power entrenched within the land that would become the Brookhants property was the icing on the cake, and it wasn’t difficult for the Verretts to convince him that they could help him achieve immortality if he only purchased this land on their behalf. Under this line of reasoning, it would seem like the Verretts simply arrived too late to drag Simone and her Verrett-descended mother back to France, and they have now spent hundreds of years trying to gain ownership of a chunk of land that – in their view – should be Verrett-owned. They chose Libbie as the mother of Harold’s vessel simply because she happened to be a young socialite who would be desperate to get rid of a child conceived out of wedlock, and they raised Ava as both their own child and the heir to the Brookhants estate.

It’s a tidy theory, and it makes a sort of sense. If only this conclusion were supported by the available data. In reality, there is nothing to suggest that the Verretts were after the land, which ultimately passes to Elaine. The Verrett genealogy is murky at best, and I do not know if they are all directly related, or if they groom young girls adopted from anyone at all, though their magical abilities would tend to suggest a biological connection. If the latter is the case, my theory doesn’t hold so much as a drop of water. Ava is not related to the Verretts, unless Simon Everett was descended from the clan himself and planted among Libbie’s friends for the sole purpose of baby-daddying; or perhaps the Verretts altered Ava’s DNA to ensure that she was biologically related to them, the way they were supposed to make her biologically related to Harold, which does fit with Libbie’s observation that Ava doesn’t look like her at all. (Again, these are both possibilities. But they are never suggested, much less confirmed.) If neither of these statements is true, however, their inheritance of the land upon Ava’s death would make less sense, given that they live in France. In any case, they lost the land when it passed to Elaine, who is said to be descended from Harold’s youngest brother and theoretically should not be related to the Verretts at all, unless her mother was another Verrett plant. If she was not – and there is nothing in the text to support this idea – what was the point of all that work if the land remained in Brookhants hands? Yet even this is not a conclusive rebuttal, because Elaine seems to possess some Verrett traits, among them violet eyes and a tendency to direct the trajectory of Merritt’s life in the same way that Addie directed the trajectory of Ava’s.

What, then, is the answer? That Elaine is another incarnation of Addie, who wears a number of faces throughout the book? She’s so controlling in her relationship with Merritt and so pushy about her own private, unexplained agenda that it almost fits. (Yes, I am fed up with Elaine. No, I did not cry when she died. If she wanted a book about Brookhants, why didn’t she just write it herself instead of brainwashing the nearest ten-year-old into writing it for her?) While we’re at it, why the hell did Addie just have to sell Sara Dahlgren a stack of Mary MacLane books? That part is never explained, no more than the Verretts’ goals or even the extent of their abilities. We know from Simone’s history that Verretts can die, or, more precisely, that they can be killed. But there’s no reason to assume that they have a normal lifespan if left to their own devices, so it is possible that Addie stepped into a new role as Elaine Brookhants, purported cousin and heir of Ava Brookhants. This might do something to explain the easing of the supernatural goings-on in the wake of Elaine’s death, though that may just be the cyclic nature of the curse, which throughout its history has gone through periods of inactivity before renewing itself all over again. Alternatively, it may be that it entered its next inactive phase with the death of the final surviving Brookhants, and that it will come back when Merritt fully assumes responsibility for its upkeep. Or it may be that I’m overthinking this, and there is no answer.

I would really like for there to be an answer. I obviously don’t speak for all of humanity, but I need a solid solution to this or any mystery. I cannot enjoy a circle that has no beginning. The parameters of the curse are so purposefully vague that I almost wonder if Danforth has any answers to any of my questions, or if she just made it up as she went along, with the intention of letting the readers come up with their own conclusions. If this is the case, it is inexcusably lazy, and it’s not working. Every conclusion I come up with is insupportable by the information we are given, and, having now read this thing two times, I can tell you that it doesn’t get clearer with repetition. I would also have appreciated some clarity on the identity of the sardonic narrator, who sometimes seems like Merritt and sometimes doesn’t. The narrator states in the beginning that she knows things that she could not possibly be expected to know in the context of research, but she then goes on to say that she can “see quite a lot from this vantage point” – which, you guessed it, is never explained. What does that mean, exactly? That Merritt now has Verrett powers, bestowed upon her by the similarity between their name and hers, and can channel the spirits of those who lost their lives on Brookhants land? I hope that’s not the case, because that’s an even more ludicrous ask than a good 99% of this book.

If – as a reader – you can enjoy the fact of the story without needing any sort of an answer, this book is fine. The queer representation is great (despite the exceedingly grim synopsis above, not all of the gay people die), and it displays the kind of sly humor I love best. As a satire of Hollywood, social media culture, and creative exploitation, it is on point, though I maintain that the Hollywood story is largely uninteresting, frequently unpleasant, and not really necessary. I think if Danforth had leaned into the school angle, if she had cut out the Hollywood part entirely, taken the trouble to tie up her loose ends, and just fucking explained herself even just a little bit, this could have been phenomenal. Unfortunately, the nonexistent planning detracts from the story as a whole, and the book mostly comes off as annoying, confusing, and, not unlike its inspiration, entirely too assured of its own cleverness. As to that inspiration: I liked the integration of Mary MacLane, when I understood that Mary was a real person, but she is by this point obscure enough that I’d never heard of her, and she seemed like an in-universe invention when I first picked up the book. I’ve started reading her first memoir, and I’ve gotta say, Plain Bad Heroines gives off the same “I am a genius, nobody could possibly understand me” vibe that oozes from every pore of I Await the Devil’s Coming. I’m sorry, but right now Mary really just sounds like me as a teenager. From self-satisfied writers convinced of their own genius: Kind Devil, deliver me.

Of course, what really annoys me is the fact that after that whole essay I just wrote, there is something about this book – almost like a curse, if you will – that is preventing me from unhauling it. This is especially galling considering the width of the book. Not that I’m out to fat-shame a book, but damn, I could really use that shelf space. I’m even loosely considering buying the audio book. The thing is, when it’s good, it’s good. The best of it is by necessity tangled up with the worst of it, but that’s just the way it works. At its best, the book is sharp, subtle, and addicting, and, even if it isn’t my favorite book by any measure of a yardstick, I would still read it a third time.