By EW Staff
July 27, 2020 at 03:00 PM EDT
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William Morrow

How to describe Plain Bad Heroines? It's a queer romance, it's a horror-comedy, it's a Victorian novel, it's a Hollywood farce, it's a gothic campus tale. The novel from The Miseducation of Cameron Post author Emily M. Danforth, out October 20, begins with several mysterious deaths in 1902 at the Brookhants School for Girls involving students obsessed with the (real-life) author Mary MacLane, and simultaneously deals with a movie adaptation of a novel about said mysterious deaths. The excerpt below reveals more details about the macabre private school deaths. 

A MACABRE AFTERNOON TO BEGIN

It’s a terrible story and one way to tell it is this: two girls in love and a fog of wasps cursed the place forever after.

Maybe you think you already know this story because of the movie made of it. Not so, but you’ll discover that soon enough. For now, let me acquaint you with Vespula maculifrons: the eastern yellow jacket. If you’re imagining some do-gooder honeybee humming about the pastel pages of a children’s book, don’t.

Eastern yellow jackets are aggressive when provoked, relentless when defending their underground home. They don’t make honey, but might I offer you instead the desiccated insect paste they use to grow their masses? A given colony’s workers are all stinging, sterile females who, in autumn—when they’ve been laid off from their busywork and can sense that the coming freeze will bring their deaths—just want to want to fly around, bored and gorging on carbs. (But then, don’t we all?) Because they also feed on carrion, some people refer to them as meat bees. That’s technically incorrect, but it sounds good.

Most crucially for our purposes here, you should know that when they’re in distress, yellow jackets release a pheromone to call on potentially thousands of their angry friends to help them come get you. In this case the you was Clara Broward and my God was she ever in love with Florence “Flo” Hartshorn. And my God did that fact ever upset Clara’s wretched cousin Charles, who was just now chasing Clara through the thick woods surrounding the Brookhants School for Girls. The air in those woods was weighted with the scent of fern rot and ocean tide, apple mash and wet earth. And more than that, it was humming with the trill of yellow jackets. A few were probably already swirling around Clara like dust motes sprung from the beating of a rug, their buzzing pitch threaded to her pulse as her messy steps propelled her toward a clearing, and the Black Oxford orchard, where apples felled in a recent storm now spoiled in the heat.

And it was hot, the day humid and gray—one of those overripe summer days that sometimes linger into fall. And waiting there in the orchard with those spoiling black apples, lolled beneath a tree with juice dripping from her chin, was Flo—the love of Clara’s young life. A life about to end.

Two lives about to end, careful Readers.

We know that the year was 1902, and the state the tiniest in the nation: Rhode Island. We know that the Brookhants fall term had been in session for six weeks. And we know that Clara took off into that section of woods, onto the orchard path, because several of her classmates watched her do it. She’d just been delivered back to cam- pus after a weekend stay at her parents’ house across the water in Newport, a house that they were then readying to close for the season. Cousin Charles had been the one tasked with driving Clara to campus. More than a few students had noted this because what he’d driven her in was still something of a loud and chugging novelty, even for the wealthy Brookhants population: a gas-powered automobile. And not just any automobile, but a Winton—same as the Vanderbilts—which is exactly why Charles had gone out and bought the damn thing, along with the even stupider driving goggles that went with it. And he was, of course, wearing them when they pulled through the Brookhants gates, and then, as he slowed, he pushed them up, which smooshed his hair back into a nest atop his horrible head. Maybe some of the girls had, in fact, later said that he looked rakish and fine, but for now let’s discount their certainly incorrect opinions.

The important thing to know is that Charles and Clara were arguing as they arrived. And they continued to argue, the onlookers said, as he parked his loud contraption in the circle drive before Main Hall. They seemed to say their goodbyes very unhappily, Charles lunging from the car before gathering Clara’s belongings only to dump them on the ground, all the while continuing to lecture her. Then he climbed back into the driver’s seat and pouted there, his arms folded tight across his chest, his dumb face bitter as a cranberry and nearly as red.

But whatever the commands she’d just been given, Clara did not stoop to gather her things and go inside her dormitory, as one might have expected of her.

As, it seems, Charles was expecting of her.

Instead, she left the pile of clothing and cases and walked a few yards to a cluster of her gape-mouthed fellow students. She then asked where she could find Flo. Several of those students, including a third-year, Eleanor Faderman,* told her to try the orchard. They told her that’s where Flo had been headed earlier.

* Remember this name.

With this news, Clara started her march across the wide lawn, which ended in a playing field rimmed with woods: where began the orchard path.

During these moments, stupid Charles still stewed behind the steering wheel, his great engine chugging. But he did not then pull down his goggles and drive away from campus. Instead, he watched Clara. Watched, disbelieving, each step she took away from him and toward the tree line.

And then she disappeared completely into the dark mouth that was the path’s entrance.

Brookhants students later told stories of flaming yellow jackets...drowning themselves, bodies hissing, in the fountain.
Illustrated by Sara Lautman

This is where the onlooking classmates begin to differ in their accounts. Some later insisted that Clara knew her knuckle-dragging cousin had left the car to chase after her. Those students claimed that she’d started to run even before reaching the woods, seeing or sensing Charles coming fast behind.

Others said she didn’t know, hadn’t seen. And Clara herself could never say again.

Certainly, she would have been sweating, in the heavy afternoon heat of that bruised day, and this would have been part of the call to the first yellow jackets who found her. And unfortunately, everything about her clothing—the day dress with ruffled lace, the shoes more slipper than not—was most unsuited for an activity like running through the woods. Though it should be said that Clara often found her clothing unsuited for activities with Flo, usually just because she had too much of it on.

Flo herself solved the problem of unsuitable women’s clothing by wearing the castoffs of her older brother. Or sometimes Flo’s mother, when she hadn’t spent all of her monthly allowance from Flo’s grandparents, would even buy Flo a pair of pants or men’s boots. But then Flo’s mother was a sculptor, and her friends were all artists, most of them European. She liked to find ways to flout convention and usually supported the same instincts in her daughter. (When, Readers, she was remembering to remember that she had a daughter.)

Clara’s parents, on the other hand, were fourth-generation Americans shaped predominately by the conventions of their gilded social class. A few smart investments—steel and timber did the trick— and they’d watched their inherited wealth grow to numbers so high that even they could scarcely conceive of them. As such, they had a fastidious respect for the orderly following of the rules and systems from which they benefited. It all made them feel quite secure in the correctness of their position within the social order, and security was Clara’s mother’s favorite feeling, outranked only by virtuous womanhood. (She was cousin Charles’s favorite aunt, after all.)

That terrible afternoon, Charles, wanting to slow Clara, had perhaps called out to her, announcing his gaining presence. Surely his voice would have been as startling to her as the drift of a phantom, her path suddenly narrower—the low branches more like claws, her breath too shallow for her pace.

Even before what happened happened, Brookhants students had plenty of stories about those woods. They had stories about Samuel and Jonathan Rash, the brothers who had farmed the land more than a hundred years prior, stories about their spite-filled feud and its strange, resulting tower.

The students also had stories about the fog that gathered and hung in the woods, heavy as gray hopsacking dunked in a well. It blew in from the ocean only to drape itself over every leaf and briar, filling gaps and crevices, lingering for too long and hiding too much. And they of course had stories about the yellow jackets, everywhere, always, the humming of the yellow jackets, the flick of them about you. The woods were haunted, the students said. The woods were the source of sinister nighttime things that might scuttle their way across the lawns and up a vine-choked wall and in through your open win- dow, until they were at the foot of your bed, now stomach, now pillow. But you had to cross through the woods to get to the orchard, and usually, at least for Clara, every single time before this time, the orchard had been worth it.

The orchard, with Flo, and with Flo’s hands and mouth, too.

It’s worth mentioning that some of the Brookhants students also had stories about Flo and Clara. There were several girls who knew them well, their friends—girls who joined their club: the Plain Bad Heroine Society. And there were others, many others, who admired them. A few who probably envied them. But there was also a group, small but not insignificant, who felt quite bothered by them, who were wary of them; wary of their ideas and passions and the bold- ness with which they seemed to claim them.

Maybe this small but not insignificant group was even afraid of them.

From Plain Bad Heroines © Emily M. Danforth 2020. Reprinted courtesy of William Morrow, HarperCollins Publishers.

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