'Plain Bad Heroines' Is a Great Spooky Read for Winter

"It's like Haunting of Hill House's 'Two Storms' scored to a gothic version of T. Swift's Folklore album..."

plain bad heroines
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Emily M. Danforth's Plain Bad Heroines isn't for everyone, but #ReadWithMC reviewers are convinced the 600-ish-page novel will quickly develop a perfect niche fan base. In fact, one of them is already having Plain Bad Heroines Society T-shirts made. Others want the queer gothic horror-comedy to be adapted into a movie or TV show.

The story within a story within a story begins with Flo and Clara, two students at the Brookhants School for Girls in 1902, who create the Plain Bad Heroine Society and are found dead on campus shortly after. As the #ReadWithMC community notes, the storylines are hard to sum up and are best understood once you start reading—requiring a certain level of attention to truly connect the dots.

Overall, reviews were mixed regarding the pacing and character development throughout the book, though some felt the characters seemed real and represented well. Find out exactly what readers thought about Marie Claire's November book club pick, below.

"Plain Bad Heroines is basically like a nesting doll. Essentially, it’s a story within a story within a story. The Brookhants School for Girls has an infamous history. Years earlier, two students obsessed with the controversial author Mary MacLane, establish a 'Plain Bad Heroines' society in her homage and also embark on a scandalous forbidden romance. Their bodies are discovered in the apple orchard, hideously disfigured, seemingly overpowered and poisoned by a swarm of yellow jackets. The school ultimately shuts its doors when several more people die suspiciously.

In the present day, Hollywood purchases the rights to Merritt Emmons' hit book, which explores the 'Brookhants curse' and the sapphic legacy of the women who attended. 'Harper Harper,' the latest 'It' girl, gets tapped to star along with lesser known, struggling actress Audrey Wells. They arrive at the school to film on location. When creepy things start happening to the cast and crew, they need to figure out if these are staged for the sake of the movie or evidence of a very real curse.

Danforth creates a truly unique genre-kind of a pop culture/gothic romance with all of the macabre, but still references cultural touchstones like The Office and The Blair Witch Project. It’s a compelling look at different kinds of heroines that don’t succumb to society’s pressures.

I have some mixed feelings: it could use a good edit. Some characters and situations seemed more fluff and filler than essential. I also would have liked more emphasis and character development with the present day cast. However, to be clear: I’ll be sleeping with the lights on and avoiding yellow jackets at all costs." —@suzylew_bookreview

"Plain Bad Heroines is the story of three women—Merritt, Audrey, and Harper—making a movie based on the book written by Merritt. Her book is the nonfiction account of the Plain Bad Heroines, two girls attending an elite girls school in 1902 who are obsessed with each other and a scandalous memoir, and the aftermath of their mysterious death. It’s 600-ish pages of a darkly comedic, queer thriller that kept me alternately laughing and cringing. I listened to the ALC and the narration was absolute perfection. There was a lot going on here with two different timelines and a story within a story, but I never felt lost with the way this was written." —@suethebookie

"Okay. This book...it is genius. It’s a plotty onion with layers of Gothic, sapphic, and meta, all laced with a great sense of humor. It’s also, at various points, unpredictable and eerie in wholly satisfying ways. PBH features a darkly funny narrator commenting on both past and present with footnotes and illustrations that amp up the experience. The pacing in this book is perfect, and it builds slowly over time but in a captivating way. Then there’s a series of events that had me flipping back and forth and rereading more closely.

I’d highly suggest this one as a print book; personally, I struggle with audio a lot, and I feel like it would be confusing to keep track of the plot and time shifts. (Though I do know that @naturemamareads enjoyed it on audio!) And for the e-book, I heard that the footnotes actually become endnotes in the digital version, which is tough because I think they lend a lot of context and enjoyment.

I loved this book, especially as a buddy read. Thank you, @booksonthel, for putting up with my random messages shouting about how creeped out I was or trying to predict what happened next." —@readingmountains

"Whew, Plain Bad Heroines is hard to sum up—it's a series of nested stories that all feed on each other, with recurring imagery and old bloodlines and perpetual questions about what is real and what is staged. And I loved it. It's one of those rare books where I'm equally invested in each set of characters, and there are several sets of women we follow in this book. Some scenes had my skin crawling, others had me laughing and reading passages out loud to my partner. And on top of all that, it's queer, so queer! Generations of women loving women and they all felt real to me. Don't let the fact that this book is 600+ pages deter you—sinking into the world of Brookhants was a fully engulfing experience and I didn't want it to be over.

Content warnings: homophobia, death, murder, wasps, sexual assault, institutionalization." —@caseythereader

"This is a 600+ page queer ghost story. Do I still have your attention? Okay. Great! This book may be for you then.⁣

Plain Bad Heroines is described as 'A story within a story within a story and featuring black-and-white period-inspired illustrations, Plain Bad Heroines is a devilishly haunting, modern masterwork of metafiction that manages to combine the ghostly sensibility of Sarah Waters with the dark imagination of Marisha Pessl and the sharp humor and incisive social commentary of Curtis Sittenfeld into one laugh-out-loud funny, spellbinding, and wonderfully luxuriant read.' BUT 'a story within a story' barely scratches the surface of what this book is...I mean, there is A LOT here! Like, this is the type of book I think fandoms are built on. Plain Bad Heroines is a book about a movie based on a book about a curse/ghost story (not a spoiler) and, as if that wasn’t enough, the author gives us even more back story/context/random facts via footnote (after footnote, after footnote). ⁣

I found this book took me longer than usual to read, in part because of its length, but also in part due to just all the storylines. I couldn’t read this book when I was tired because I was afraid I would miss something.⁣ I know this book will find its way to its perfect fan base and it is a great seasonal pick! I was very impressed by the queer representation in these stories, so much so that I started to question whether I was even the right reviewer for this book. I’ll be looking for some own voices reviews of this book and sharing any that I find.⁣" —@reading.betweenthewines

"Yesterday I finished Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth. It’s moody and seasonally appropriate for this time of year. The story jumps back and forth in time between the events at an all-girls boarding school called Brookhants, and the later movie being made about the strange happenings and many deaths that occurred there.

I really enjoyed the writing—the author talks directly to the reader, which I thought was fun. I did find this a bit slow at times, and wanted more from the modern day story, but overall it’s spooky and sucked me in. I really recommend this one. Also I would really love for it to become a movie or show!" —@jennareadsbooks

"It's exceedingly rare to finish a book and immediately want to reread it. And yet that's what happened when I finished Plain Bad Heroines. I wanted to dive back into the world of Brookhants. PBH is above and beyond my favorite book of 2020, and possibly one of my favorite books period. I don't want to spoil anything, but, Plain Bad Heroines is about the Brookhants School For Girls in Rhode Island, with dual narratives following mysterious happenings at the school at the turn of the 20th century as well as the present day effort to film a horror movie based on a book written about said past hauntings. There are actually several other narratives and layers woven throughout (a book within a book, a movie within a movie, all within a book), and the present day Los Angeles storyline itself could be one of the great Los Angeles novels alone.

The whole novel is effortlessly charming and exceedingly witty, its characters sharp and relatable, its mysteries smart and its hauntings creepy. It's like Haunting of Hill House's 'Two Storms' scored to a gothic version of T. Swift's Folklore album only with another Inception layer on top (and maybe another one below it as well). I have so many thoughts and questions and theories. So, someone I know needs to read this book and join my Plain Bad Heroines Society. Readers, I'm already having T-shirts made." —@jurassicody

Missed out on our November book club pick? In December, we're reading Cobble Hill by Cecily von Ziegesar, author of the bestselling Gossip Girl series. Read an excerpt from the book here.


the night she disappeared

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Rachel Epstein

Rachel Epstein is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in New York City. Most recently, she was the Managing Editor at Coveteur, where she oversaw the site’s day-to-day editorial operations. Previously, she was an editor at Marie Claire, where she wrote and edited culture, politics, and lifestyle stories ranging from op-eds to profiles to ambitious packages. She also launched and managed the site’s virtual book club, #ReadWithMC. Offline, she’s likely watching a Heat game or finding a new coffee shop.