Going in, I knew very little about Plain Bad Heroines. After the holidays, and in the thickest part of winter, I was in the mood for something epic and escapist. At more than 600 pages, Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines seemed like it might be just what I was looking for.
It was exactly that and more.
It put me in mind of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics (one of my all-time favorite novels), with its richly layered mysteries and plot twists, and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, due to the fairy tale-esque narration.
There are three narratives driving the story. First, we have the historical storyline concerning a series of odd deaths at a New England boarding school for girls in the early 1900s. Running parallel with that is a modern-day attempt to adapt the tragedy into a horror movie. Meanwhile, the film’s director — clearly a student of auteur theory — has secretly rigged the entire set with hidden cameras and jump scares to incorporate a found-footage element that will blur the line between film and documentary.
As intended, it drives the actors to question their sanity and wonder whether the old boarding school truly is cursed. And if so, was it cursed by the tragedy or had it been hexed long before the school even existed?
Finally, we have the meta narrative, which glues the timelines together with the help of an omniscient, unidentified narrator. The meta narrative weaves in the true story of Mary MacLane, a turn-of-the-century author and feminist whose scandalous 1902 memoir documented her same-sex affairs and is central to the plot.
The use of paratext in the form of footnotes and postscripts further blurs the lines of fact and fiction. I’ve always found footnotes in fiction kind of gimmicky, and, from my days in an MFA program, overdone. But in the postscript, Danforth explains their significance: it’s a nod to the many historical queer narratives that have been lost, destroyed, altered and buried within small-font annotations throughout history. “You can often find us,” she writes, “quite literally, in the margins.”
It adds another layer to an already sad and beautiful tale — a tale perfect for the dark night of winter.