“Annie Lisle” is a saccharine tune that unspools a little like a nursery rhyme being played in hopes of distracting the listener from something unthinkable that’s happening directly behind them. In other words, it’s an apt tune for the eerie, unofficial anthem of Brookhants, the cursed New England boarding school at the heart of acclaimed writer Emily M. Danforth’s first adult novel, Plain Bad Heroines.
“Annie Lisle” is not the melody of my own cursed New England boarding school’s song (think more pomp, less circumstance), but the impulse behind the students’ version—the desire of adolescents living far from home in the shadows of primeval forests to scare the hell into one another, and themselves—is intimately familiar to me.
The layers, of both time and story, are daunting. Plain Bad Heroines is a real, fictional story about a fictional, fiction movie being adapted from a fictional, nonfiction book written about fictional, fictional events that supposedly happened surrounding a real, non-fictional memoir by very real person, Mary MacLane.
It’s ambitious, so much so that maybe it shouldn’t work. But no one should be surprised that, in Emily Danforth’s capable hands, it simply does.
Plain Bad Heroines has a lot of main characters. Flo and Clara, two Brookhants students in love, have fallen under the thrall of (what else?) a dangerous story. Mary MacLane’s devilish words seem to have ultimately cost them their lives, and claimed that of another girl, Eleanor, as well. Libbie and Alex, longtime lovers and the headmistress and head gardener of the school respectively, are muddling their uneasy way through the aftermath of these deaths, as well as the guilt and secrets corroding at the core of their relationship. Decades in the future, unhappily grown-up gifted child Merritt has written a book about the whole ordeal, The Happenings at Brookhants, with help from her aunt Elaine, a member of the Brookhants family herself. This book is being made into a movie, starring “indie-film-darling turned celesbian-megastar-influencer” Harper, and Audrey, a former child actor with something to prove.
As the ever-informative footnotes teach us, the Very Real Mary MacLane was a master of breaking the fourth wall. Throughout Heroines, an omniscient Writer figure addresses the reader, adding a layer of satire, poking a pin into the quavering, iridescent bubble that is suspended disbelief in a way that somehow only pulls readers further into the story.
Perhaps readers are meant to feel that this voice is Mary MacLane, annotating her own legacy. Or maybe it is Merritt, since she’s a writer after all. Maybe it’s even Danforth herself, pulling back the curtain on the writing process and in doing so making readers almost complicit in the story—and therefore in what happens to the characters.
As I read, I could feel the Writer’s presence, amused and almost conspiratorial as I scribbled my theories and reactions in the margins like I hadn’t done since my own cursed days at school, like I was some besotted MacLane acolyte myself.
If Heroines taught me anything, it’s that the Writer could easily be all of the above, or someone else entirely. Whatever fits best with your storytellng. As Mary MacLane wrote, “words are just words with word meanings.”
And Plain Bad Heroines is a story so much about storytelling that it feels almost obscene to point it out. Words and themes come back to bite again and again: yellow jackets and apples, scuttling and snow, mothers and daughters, lilacs and angel’s trumpet flowers, the past bleeding into the future. And they are not sneaky, or subtly embroidered so as to flutter at the mind and subconsciously alert the reader. They’re brazen.
At some points, these motifs play against the gravity of the characters’ pain and fear, sucking readers into the terror of a hallucination or realization so completely that it’s almost surreal. At others the narrative undergoes knowing contortions so that it can point at itself with one hand while offering you an obscene gesture with the other: “This is story-telling, people!” it seems to shout, in the voice of The Happenings at Brookhants movie director Bo Dhillon, calling “cut” on a disastrous scene that somehow fits perfectly into his plan.
There is a whole genre of horror movie that I love, and that Bo is eager for The Happenings at Brookhants to join: cult classics, like Poltergeist and The Shining, movies that are just as famous for the terrifying things that happened behind the camera while they were being made, as those that occurred in front of it. More broadly, things that are made good by the stories people tell about them.
Heroines also takes a tongue-in-cheek look at how we tell ourselves stories as queer women (which all of the main characters are). There are references both indirect and explicitly to “rainbow capitalism,” and their irony in a book from a best-selling author, published by a major publishing house, is not at all lost on Danforth.
That irony is woven into the story, often joking, but also sincerely begging the question: how can you tell a story without exploitation, when we don’t have a mold in our society for non-exploitative storytelling?
There is a pervasive idea that telling a story about someone who’s died is a favor to their memory. So many queer people, including and especially women who loved women, have been erased throughout history. Today, we often say that we are striving to remember and recognize them. But sometimes we do this without acknowledging the whole of them, or by focusing more on making them interesting or recognizable by today’s standards, than on representing who they truly were. As much as we want to memorizalize them, we can’t help but want to make them fit into today’s stories. When those involved in the Happenings film set to work on it, their motives cast shadows over every scene.
These motives cast shadows over their lives, too. Looking at ourselves through such a frank lens is often jarring, both when our experiences don’t fit a popular narrative, and when they do. The characters of Heroines are all hyper-aware of how they embody the roles they’re given, in the movie and in life. As paranoia swells in the past, and Happenings happens in the future, they all begin to question themselves.
Even in her own thoughts, “celesbian” Harper hardly differentiates between the version of herself she sells, and the one beneath the commodity. On the rare occasion that she begins to wonder about the difference, the dissonance seems to almost overwhelm her. Audrey and Merritt also share the habit of looking at themselves from a distance in hopes of analyzing their adherence to the Story of Their Lives, which they seem to feel is pre-written. For Libbie and Alex, the Story appears even more preordained, with an idyllic façade that still can’t mask their sense of impending doom.
Upon closer inspection, Heroines has even more main characters than it initially appears. Each has an outward appearance, cultivated both in their own universe and in the eyes of the reader. And then they have hidden selves, simultaneously mundane and terrifying and often so recognizable that they almost ache to read.
Not all of the ambiguity is insidious, though.
What Danforth has written between Harper, Audrey, and Merritt is something crafted from a glowing uncertainty, something none of them seem eager to hurry along. It’s what anyone who has ever said, “gal pals” should have been talking about. It somehow wraps up the unbearable frustration and exhilaration of yearning with the caustic nonsense that often imbues Hollywood queerness, in a way that makes the entire relationship between the three feel as natural as the time they spend together in the orchard (no spoilers, you’ll thank me later). They may not be real boarding school students, but I felt a pang of familiarity all the same. The particular, sometimes overwhelming closeness they share proves that Brookhants isn’t picky about technicalities.
Plain Bad Heroines is a book that will raise the hairs on the back of your neck, even as it surprises you with the occasional sweetness, and renews your appreciation for masterful story-telling. The twists nest into each other so well that when you look back, it’ll likely be with chagrin, and the gnawing thought that you should’ve known all along.
Brookhants’ obligatory three-word Latin motto Esse Quam Videri (much cooler than my school’s) means, “To Be, Rather Than to Seem.” And yet, what’s so wrong with being and seeming, both? That is the question I found at the heart of Heroines: what is the difference, if any, between a story and the truth?
When things are manufactured, we see them as being less authentic. But what is it to manufacture something, other than to labor over it with great intention, whether it is a book, a film, or a self? To pour so much of yourself into it that it can’t help but be honest? All of the heroines are caught in the maelstrom of this question, wondering if telling a story with intention makes it less real. At the end of the day, ghost is just one of many words we choose to use when bad things happen, and a haunting is what you make of it.
We had our own ghost stories and superstitions at my school, about this dorm room, that cave in the woods, this locked chapel basement, or that on-campus cemetery (yes, really). They were passed down through generations of students, so that by the time we received them all wrapped in ritual, the old growth and the additions had become indistinguishable.
And much like the Heroines who are haunted by the Brookhants curse, we sometimes found that what we were most afraid of wasn’t the story itself, but rather how convincingly we could tell it to each other, and in doing so, make it true for ourselves.