One of the first books I read in 2023 was Alison Rumfitt’s novel Tell Me I’m Worthless. There’s a small subset of books I’m fond of that seem to follow a traditional narrative path, right up until the point that they don’t. Brian Evenson’s Last Days is one, as is Percival Everett’s Assumption. Rumfitt’s debut fits in here as well: it’s something of a haunted house story, but as the novel continues on towards its conclusion, it got weirder; Rumfitt moved away from the tropes of haunted house narratives to push towards something deeper and scarier about trauma and inheritance.
Here’s the thing about turning your narrative on its head: you have to be a very talented writer to do that and make it work. It’s not terribly controversial to say that Evenson and Everett are damn good at what they do; based on Rumfitt’s first novel, I think it’s fair to say that she is as well, and when I caught sight of Brainwyrms on the new releases table at WORD later in 2023, I immediately picked it up.
I’m happy to report that Brainwyrms is further evidence of Rumfitt’s skill at her craft. And while it’s also about familial trauma, violence, and hauntings both literal and figurative, it’s also a very different project than her first novel. It’s also — and I can’t stress this enough — not an easy read. For starters, there’s the presence of a violent, transphobic hate group — one which carries out a terror attack that leaves protagonist Frankie traumatized after her workplace is destroyed.
Much of Brainwyrms focuses on Frankie’s relationship with Vanya, and the unsettling places it goes. Before the novel proper begins, Rumfitt notes in a content warning that “Brainwyrms features (very) taboo sex that many would consider unsafe or unsanitary.” This is very true. Without spoiling too much, it seems at first that Frankie and Vanya have compatible kinks. But given that the opening scene of the novel finds Frankie and Vanya on a mysterious seashore, with Frankie (who’s trans) suddenly very pregnant, it’s clear that something is going to get very strange at some point. And that opening scene casts an unsettling shadow over what follows it, as Rumfitt explains precisely how these two characters came to be in that place.
Besides being a tale of body horror and cosmic horror, Brainwyrms is also a novel with conspiracies lurking just below the surface. It’s also a profoundly political novel, and a righteously angry one at that. If you’ve ever wondered how seemingly intelligent, thoughtful people can become overtaken by transphobia, this novel uses horror to find an answer to that question. And Rumfitt pulls no punches here, including a blistering parody of a certain bestselling author who seems bound and determined to burn through all of the goodwill they accumulated over the first decade and change of their career.
This novel is wholly irreverent and possesses a punk rock fury; at times, reading Brainwyrms called to mind the work of Stewart Home or Kathy Acker more than any neo-Lovecraftian scribes working today. Some books are written from a place of anger; in this case, you can feel its heat as you make your way towards its terrifying moment of ultimate revelation.
by Alison Rumfitt
Tor Nightfire; 304 p.