The haunting of Emily M. Danforth: Inside the world of her new gothic horror novel
Place is important to Emily Danforth. Her home, to start — and, in the pandemic age, her office, her book tour stage, her local restaurant and more — is like something dreamed up by whichever section of the universe is in charge of luring people into a literary career. It's her answer to Agatha Christie's Greenway Estate, or Stephen King's Bangor, Maine mansion (you know, the one with the spiderweb on the property gate). The author of the upcoming gothic horror novel lives, believe it or not, in an old lyceum outside of Providence, Rhode Island. The property, which Danforth and her wife purchased from a man who had used it as a gallery, was built in the 1920s to house spiritual occultists. They would, as she details over Zoom from the kitchen of the lyceum-turned-witch-free-house, gather weekly to commune over all things sorcery.
The author, who broke out with 2012's The Miseducation of Cameron Post and will release Plain Bad Heroines on October 20, has spent years renovating and decorating the space into an Architectural Digest worthy writer's lair. But of course the next question: Is it haunted? A spiritual occupation would be just meta enough to fit into her oeuvre —her upcoming novel is a story within a story (within a story) that follows an early-1900s mysterious murder at a Rhode Island girls' school, the current-day movie adaptation of a novel written about the murders, and an eerie presence that haunts all of the above. Danforth herself hasn't witnessed anything from beyond the grave, but her dog walker swears by a few otherworldly interactions. "I'm similar to a lot of horror novelists, in that I don't believe until I hear a sound in the house at night," she says. "I really am a skeptic — until I'm alone [laughs] and then I'm like, this house is haunted!"
Danforth grew up in Montana, a stretch of country that is nearly impossible not to carry with you, especially if your career depends on drawing your own experiences to the page. "I don't think I'd have been a writer, had I not grown up there," she says. "Part of it was just growing up queer in a rural place: Like a lot of artists I really was on the outside." She describes her early inner monologue, cataloguing all of the things she wanted to say but couldn't, as early practice for writing dialogue. But, more positively, Montana has a great legacy of producing Western writers — and she had early teachers who noticed (and encouraged) her very particular skill. She eventually got an English degree and an MFA from the University of Montana before taking things even further: a PhD in Creative Writing, which turned into a tenure track gig at Rhode Island College. She published Cameron Post, which became a cult-favorite novel, shortly before beginning the program at RIC. (For anyone doing the math, it was that timing that caused the 8-year gap between her debut and sophomore novels — Danforth was knee-deep in a highly demanding full-time job.
Cameron Post was optioned after its release and adapted into a film, starring Chloë Grace Moretz, that won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. One of Heroine's storylines follows a moderately-doomed adaptation, with the author behind the source material finding herself highly, er, miffed by the Hollywood stereotypes exhibited by the movie's director and young starlet. But, that's not to say that aspect of the book is inspired by real-life events. "Some of that is pure fantasy, things that I took from Hollywood gossip, and some of it are things I've heard through the industry," she says of her 2020 novel's tumultuous set. "I had a great experience with [Cameron Post] and everyone who worked on it was really generous with me."
There are, however, many elements of Plain Bad Heroines that are ripped from the headlines. Outside the walls of the Lyceum, the history and landscape of Rhode Island had as much impact of the shaping of Danforth's work as the expanses of Montana. The girls school at the center of the 1900s storyline sits in Rhode Island, and several buildings in the story are historical landmarks in Danforth's current home state. "I think place affects us as people and, for me, everything about how I move through the world is affected by my surroundings," she says. "That also works well in horror or gothic fiction because they tend to be really atmospheric stories. I don't think I would have written this book if I didn't live here — there's really something about living in a space and then wanting to write about it."
The result is a multi-faceted novel, equal parts gothic, sharply funny, sapphic romance, historical, and, of course, spooky (it is an October book, after all). Danforth set out to create a consistent feeling of dread and unease throughout the book — during the storyline that takes place in Los Angeles, smoke and ash from a distant fire are a constant eerie presence looming over it all, and yellow jackets crop up en masse and at random (filling a bathtub during a character's leisurely soak, or swarming a kitchen) — and that, for its part, certainly happened. "I like the idea of the world of the book being immersive, of the story sticking with people," she reflects. "Several readers have text me that they now see yellow jackets, and that feels pretty magical." As magical as a haunted lyceum? Maybe not, but it'll do.