In a time when so many popular examples of queer art have their edges sanded down, Alison Rumfitt’s Tell Me I’m Worthless is all edge. A horror novel about sexual violence and national hatred, Tell Me I’m Worthless pulls no punches in its depiction of the ways fascism drives people to hurt each other and themselves. For those exhausted by cloying positivity and mawkish romance in their queer literature, this is the antidote.
The novel follows Alice and Ila, former friends and lovers who three years prior escaped an encounter with a malicious, fascist manifestation haunting a house called Albion.
The two have spent the years since each believing that the other raped and mutilated them while inside, both bearing scars which validate their memory of the events. The thing neither of them can remember is what happened to Hannah, their friend who went into Albion with them and never came out.
Alice, who is trans, makes custom sissy hypno videos to get by, troubled by the racial hangups of her clients and terrified of the ghostly apparition that crawls out of a poster on her wall at night. Ila, meanwhile, has become a figure of repute in the TERF movement, though her adherence to its values masks a deep-seated self-loathing. Tell Me I’m Worthless has no illusions about the bleak state of modern trans life, and it makes no attempt to sugarcoat its impact on these characters. Rumfitt depicts the way that fascism infects people with its language and perspectives with a brutal honesty. Early on, Alice describes her unbidden bile at seeing selfies posted by other trans people online. “You’re sharing that picture of yourself? Everyone can see you’re not a woman. Everyone knows. A pale, nasty jealousy at their apparent unselfconsciousness. I don’t ever vocalise this side of me, of course. These thoughts are intrusive. I do my best to suppress them.” It’s refreshing to see a work of queer fiction unafraid to explore such a nasty side of the trans experience, that nagging voice in the back of the head that wants you to project all your self-hatred onto everyone around you.
Rumfitt’s prose perfectly captures the simmering tension and unavoidable cruelties of the world her characters (and her readers) inhabit. The novel is full of run-on sentences which breathlessly parade an overwhelming accumulation of horrors. By the time the novel reaches its climax, the writing devolves for long stretches into pure literary abstraction, jumbled trains of thought pulled straight from a dark subconscious. If the phrase “a literary take on Rob Zombie’s Halloween II” thrills you, you need to pick up this book, though readers looking for a more conventional narrative may find themselves frustrated.
Tell Me I’m Worthless is full of historical digressions and personal anecdotes, fleshing out the lives and backstories of Alice, Ila, and the house. Like so much of the best horror media, the book is more concerned with their inner lives and the collisions of their traumas than it is with straightforward plotting or scares. Examples of the latter are certainly present, however. The opening chapter features a terrifying sequence in which Alice and a hookup she’s brought back to her apartment are menaced by two malevolent specters, one an expression of the house’s malign influence and the other a remnant of Alice’s uncomfortable sexual history. It’s a terrifying scene and a perfect way to establish the book’s intimate approach to horror.
Tell Me I’m Worthless takes on challenging themes. Sexual violence is key to the book’s exploration of fascism, and Rumfitt does not shy away from the myriad horrors accompanying the topic. The traumatic things Alice and Ila experienced within the house weigh on them in ways that are far from neat or easily digestible, and they both lash out in ways that could be read by some as unsympathetic. The book is unapologetically authentic in this regard, treating trauma not as a vague metaphor to be overcome but as a very real personal demon which one can only learn to live with. Tell Me I’m Worthless has the courage to ask readers how they can hope to resist fascist violence if they cannot look it straight in the face.
With that in mind, Tell Me I’m Worthless is not going to be for everyone. It’s a graphic book with difficult themes, and it offers no easy answers or pat conclusions. But it’s exactly these facts that make the book so valuable. We need more books as fearlessly honest about modern trans life as Tell Me I’m Worthless. Tell Me I’m Worthless will no doubt be divisive, but isn’t it so with so much great art?