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“Brainwyrms” Is the Perfect Twisted Novel for Clive Barker Queers

From the very first page of Alison Rumfitt’s latest novel Brainwyrms, there’s an oppressive sense that something — who knows what exactly — is absurdly wrong. Its introduction is author Rumfitt winkingly declaring herself a cisgender woman in the first sentence (“you can make that decision for yourself”), joking she would never write about transness, or queerness (“whatever that might mean”). Just a few pages later, before we’ve even truly been introduced to the two characters wandering an unnatural and ethereal landscape, the reader bears witness to two people, who exist somewhere between loathing and loving each other, going through something miraculous: a trans woman giving birth.

What she is birthing, the reader has no clue, but what Rumfitt has birthed is another brilliant work of horror, one that is as much in conversation with her last novel, Tell Me I’m Worthless, as it is wholly unique. Both are overwhelmingly about the ways far-right rhetoric, from racism to transphobia, creeps into our minds through practically every facet of the lives we lead, but Brainwyrms fixates on the way we internalize and externalize that hatred through the lens of body horror.

Frankie, a trans woman whose life has been thrown into disarray after a transphobic woman bombed the gender clinic she worked at, is who the reader must latch onto for some semblance of normalcy. To many, she’s the kind of abrasive character that self-harms in myriad ways just to feel semi-functional, whether that’s her binge-drinking and shameless sexual habits — complete with a breeding kink despite the knowledge she (as a trans woman) cannot get pregnant — or the way she quite literally doom scrolls for her latest administrative job, endlessly being confronted with non-stop hatred on social media to be flagged and blocked.

She’s as relatable as she is potentially off-putting, prone to diving into questionable situations and bluntly voicing all her negative thoughts on the page, like when she refers to herself as a “fat clown” when she’s out at a party in a tight dress and questionable make-up. But it’s hard not to have some hope for Frankie when she meets Vanya. Their meet-cute, if you can call it as much, is nothing short of riveting: a bathroom hook-up that begins by indulging a mommy domme fetish and ends with a golden shower. From there, the relationship doesn’t just intensify, but slowly morphs into something unsettling, with the reader only being given hints as to what lies just beyond the idyllic, consensually kinky, fantasies of this coupling.

Bouncing between characters, perspectives, and writing styles is one of the ways Rumfitt expertly builds tension in Brainwyrms. One chapter may be told traditionally through third person (and these are largely dedicated to Frankie and some external character asides) while the next is a second person stream of consciousness mass of text as intimidating as it is engrossing. Second person is often how we experience Vanya’s point of view, a deceptively simple tactic that forces the reader into their place, being guided through their memories, their traumas, and their desires, to sometimes beautiful and often unsettling effect.

However distinct their prose and histories might be, Frankie and Vanya are complementary voices whose insecurities and histories intersect in fascinating and often surprising ways. What feels familiar at one moment may soon become something grotesque; feelings of disgust and pleasure are intertwined just as much as this couple’s bodies are. Beyond the core duo, Rumfitt includes a variety of interesting asides, be they social media posts incorporated into the text (from posts on parasite forums to tweets) or simply a complete shift to characters on the periphery of the narrative, whose triumphs and demises (mostly the latter) have far more impact than one might expect from a relative stranger.

To put it all simply, Brainwyrms loves to tear the reader in two, much like childbirth itself (or dysmorphia, am I right folks?) might tear someone’s mind and body apart. There’s an undeniable playfulness in the way Rumfitt presents sex, kink, and violence, but there’s also a seething rage underneath it all. Even its very title is representative of this balance, as much about how ideas are a virus that become reality as it is a casual joke about how whatever idiot on Twitter you disagree with has worms for brains.

That the novel literalizes these brainworms and creates monstrous transphobic cults around them (complete with reference to Eyes Wide Shut) is only one of the delights that lies within. Rumfitt seems to take absolute glee in the way she presents certain scenarios, whether that’s throwing her characters into uncomfortable sexual situations or creating a shameless stand-in for a certain children’s book author who shall not be named who is even more overtly monstrous than her existing counterpart. But that sense of humor is distinctly tied into the anger, and ultimately fear, that fuels Brainwyrms: it is a novel that speculates we aren’t quite so far from the dystopia it depicts, simply because everything, from our government to our sources of entertainment and distraction, is a tool being used against us.

There’s far more than just a hint of Clive Barker present in Alison Rumfitt’s writing here, and this isn’t limited to their shared ability to present eroticism and violence with as much sensuality as outright disgust. It isn’t even just that their protagonists have both been accused of being so unsavory as to make the reader question whether or not they’re worth rooting for. It’s in the way they both find inspiring ways to filter their queerness through humanity as much as through monstrosity. Characters indulge in the taboo, find comfort in the things that others find obscene, express their most volatile desires and shameful fears, and navigate the world they’ve been born into, like only characters created by someone with the experience of queerness, and of transness, can truly ever express.

In a world that is killing people like the author, and more than likely like the target audience of the novel, subtlety is an afterthought. Horror should be brash and should strike a raw nerve, especially when the commentary is about something as urgent as the ever-growing grasp of transphobia, and transphobic violence, over contemporary culture. Of Tell Me I’m Worthless, Alison noted she “never wanted to write a subtle ghost story” and Brainwyrms follows suit. It’s about the way all those horrid thoughts crawl into our mind and stay there with us and how fascist ideas are pushed by those with power, seducing the masses into believing the most vulnerable of us all are the real villains. There’s no reason to be subtle when any number of famous individuals are using social media, or comedy specials, or crime novels, to fearmonger.

This is exactly why Brainwyrms is as infuriating as it is deliciously twisted. For all the worms oozing out of orifices, the real terror lurks just around the corner, down the street, or on the very websites this will be posted on. And, well, that’s fucking horrifying.

Brainwyrms by Alison Rumfitt is out now.

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Juan Barquin

Juan Barquin is a queer Miami-based writer and programmer who aspires to be Bridget Jones.

Juan has written 5 articles for us.

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