[A] shapeshifting novel ... A hot amalgamation of gothic horror and Hollywood satire, it’s draped with death but bursting with life ... Indeed, Plain Bad Heroines may be the only novel I know that should come with an EpiPen. What makes all this so much fun is Danforth’s deliciously ghoulish voice, a kind of Victorian Gossip Girl ... The supernatural elements grow across these pages as slowly — and ominously — as black mold ... It stings — but oh, the sensation is exquisite.
...there are times when a reader wants nothing more, and nothing less, than an exquisitely plotted, winkingly crafted romp. Plain Bad Heroines, a queer historical meta-novel by Emily Danforth with at least a dozen layers of formal flourish, is joyfully and delightfully middlebrow; I say this with reverence in my tone and adoration in my heart. It’s 600 pages you can read in a weekend, a supersized Slurpee that will satiate you and leave behind a sugar high ... There are direct asides to the dear reader, George Eliot-esque epigraphs and even ink sketches of bustle-skirted ladies in distress. It’s also — to use a word rarely employed in high praise — fun ... There is no literary embellishment in which Danforth won’t indulge. Her narrator winks at us from the footnotes ... In less dexterous hands, this sort of high-camp homage — which pops up perennially from novelists as varied as Susanna Clarke, Marisha Pessl and Reif Larsen — could fail spectacularly ... She’s gifted at braiding characterization, suspenseful plotting and frequent injections of flat-out terror. And she knows that piling it on past the breaking point is a formal innovation all its own ... What’s more, Danforth writes potent women ... The sheer queerness of it all is exhilarating. No stock lesbians, and no coyness. Every major character is a queer woman — every last one — and each of them wears her sexuality differently, an idea that shouldn’t feel revelatory in 2020 but annoyingly doe ... It’s successfully played on and inverted the myth of a book as a haunted object, and at the same time made us afraid that even closing the book won’t prevent a zealous little insect from crawling out of its pages.
[An] indulgent greenhouse of grotesqueries shadowed by gothic elements and pepped up with metafiction and mystery ... the story is illustrated with deliciously unsettling black-and-white line drawings by cartoonist Sara Lautman ... Danforth delivers her narrative in an urbane, droll voice akin to a Victorian novelist writing for BuzzFeed. Her diverse, largely gay and lesbian cast takes a large, glorious step forward for LGBTQ representation in the horror genre ... The relentless, multilayered curse lends psychological and body horror elements, but the brooding atmosphere and careful characterization make Plain Bad Heroines an easily cultivated obsession.
... the book plays luxurious games with the reader, nesting stories within stories (within stories) as the hauntings unfold. Whether it’s the straightforward gothic of the 1902 plot(s) or the compulsive, prickly-sexy contemporary film production’s messy queer attractions, Danforth nails each beat. Plain Bad Heroines is scary, witty, and darkly taunting—without ever losing the core of heart inside the ghoulish cleverness of the prose ... I fucking loved this book. Readers whose genres of choice are gay novels, gothics or horror, and tricksy metafiction will be satisfied… but so will folks who appreciate the painful, beautiful stories of loss and dissatisfaction that run through the book. Plus it’s genuinely frightening or upsetting at points as the hauntings build, which is worth a lot to me in a spooky novel. From the chapter headings to the grimly sketchy illustrations provided by Sara Lautman that interrupt the text, the book is an experience, and I luxuriated in it ... Historical time feels as relevant as contemporary time, no matter which section of the book the reader is immersed within. The characters and plot are doing the most, too, through Danforth’s controlled but exuberant prose. It knows how fun of a book it is, as the narrator’s constant manipulative asides to the reader make clear ... written in the tradition of the gothic with all the punishment, death, and fear of women’s desire one might associate with the genre… but it’s also steeped in metafictional self-reflexivity that tells the audience how to read it ... a gothic that leaves them (and us) haunted, changed, but whole together. Ghosts and all.
[A] layered, farcical take on the sins of woman — though after 623 pages, it remains unclear what, exactly, her take is ... ultimately, Plain Bad Heroines explains very little. Though no words feel wasted — this is, after all, about a movie within a movie, based on a book within a book — both narratives end anticlimactically ... The literary skill Danforth demonstrated in that bildungsroman is still present here. She uses vivid language to capture each time and place, in a narrative that is rare even among lesbian fiction: Not one of the five leading women is straight ... Danforth’s brash narration is as much a liability as it is an asset. By the end of the book, her footnote-loving omniscient narrator has turned this lovable quirk into a blunt instrument ... neither plain nor bad, but the spell it casts is merely a glamour, beguiling readers with clever quips and striking imagery.
... at once a sexy, funny, and spooky tale ... Plain Bad Heroines is visually luscious, from the buzz and sting of yellow-jackets and the sheen of black Oxford apples to the strange skim of black algae on water ... Dark, affectionate, creepy, this is a new classic in queer fantasy ... a suspenseful rush that will leave the reader flipping furiously to the end.
The present-day story is the most effective, benefiting from the twin motors of sexual tension and a secret revolving around the making of the increasingly metafictional film. The Hollywood satire feels legit, and Audrey balances the more fictive-feeling Harper and Merritt. Libby and Alex are beautifully written, but their action sometimes lacks the narrative drive found in our trio of Hollywood hotties. A character unto themself is the chatty, dramatic narrator, who is also responsible for the many comic or explanatory footnotes. Sara Lautman’s black-and-white illustrations add a further gothic flair ... freewheeling, ambitious ... Recommended for fans of queer kissing, Victorian romance, ghost stories and Hollywood high jinks.
There’s a fascinating interplay of past and present, and fiction and reality, in Plain Bad Heroines, Emily M. Danforth’s debut novel for adults ... smart, feminist and funny ... Danforth propels her story not with scary moments but with beautiful writing, indelible characters and complex relationships.
... ambitious ... a dizzying kaleidoscope of sapphic desire, sorrow and strangeness, wrapped within meditations on how narratives influence each other, why we read horror and who gets to tell our stories ... Danforth pays homage to gothic horror, even including illustrations by Sara Lautman, centering complex queer women across generations. She revels in the genre’s unreliable narration, blending it with the constructed fabrication of social media posts and meta-mockumentary, leaving her characters and her readers questioning what, after all, is real ... a celebration of complex lesbians and disastrously delightful queer women. Because this is a very long book and there are so very many characters, it does stand out that they are very white. I don’t mind this, but I did find myself wishing the novel felt a bit more aware of its whiteness, especially as it moves through time and the unnamed narrator is so very aware of everything else ... a lengthy but haunting read. Don’t expect a tidy ending, not for the novel or for any of its characters. Revel in the uncanny strangeness of its premise, its languorously practiced execution, the sweet rot of the orchard, and the gentle hum of ceaseless, nearing dread. Let the thrill of parallels wash over you, the nascent desire a thing with claws ... Some stories are doorways, and this one is a puzzle box that opens to a tangle of vines, ominous and inviting, with defiant queer women at its core.