When the Ax Came Into the Forest
I read Alison Rumfitt's horror novel, "Tell Me I'm Worthless"
For the stone in the wall shall cry out
and the beam in the frame shall answer it!
Ah! you who build a city by bloodshed,
and who establish a town with injustice!
—Habakkuk 2:11 – 12
Shudder, creatures! Tremble! In this edition, a book review.
When the Ax Came Into the Forest, The Trees Said, “The Handle Is One of Us.”
The elevator pitch for Alison Rumfitt’s debut novel, Tell Me I’m Worthless, would be, “anti-fascist transgender homage to The Haunting of Hill House.” And it is that, that’s why I read it tbqh. But if you want to know how it is those three things, maybe a better summary would be, “Hallucinatory (anti)pornographic horror rant about complicity, about how good it feels to be used by an ideology that hates you.” This book reminded me powerfully of David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives, and it’s about cuddling even closer to those knives—because, you know, what if the knives are right? What if the knives are right about you?
When Worthless begins, Alice and Ila are no longer friends. Alice is a trans woman and Ila is a poster girl for trans-exclusive feminism. But you can hear it in the names, can’t you? Ali – Ila. They were together once. They were closer than BFF. But then one night they decided to break in to an abandoned house. Alice said it would be a political gesture: a squatters’ attack on the landlords. They didn’t know (they sort of knew) the house was haunted. They didn’t know (they really didn’t) that it hated them. And in the house they suffered what the section heading tells you was “irreversible damage.” They did it to each other.
This is a raw and violent book, uninterested in subtlety. One of the cover blurbs calls it “punk” and I feel that—there’s kind of an anarchist sticker-book energy, there’s a haunted Morrissey poster and an extended section of Google-translated porn pastiche. It’s inevitable in this kind of book that some of the rough use of the reader is clumsy. There’s a brief prologue in which a character is radicalized online, which would work better if he didn’t seem like he was invented by the author purely in order to be radicalized online; the explicit reworkings of Hill House include frankly banal anticlimaxes like, “and whatever walked there marched on Rome.” There’s a creepy little motif of servants, and especially maids, and as a motif it works brilliantly, but Rumfitt is self-parodically English enough that no actual servants have an inner life—when real servants appear they’re a fairy-tale chorus. If you want, like, “Bluebeard’s Housekeeper,” which I suddenly now do, this book won’t give it to you.
But don’t think that this novel is a self-righteous piece of Discourse. It is very hard to read, genuinely both frightening and horrifying; it crawls around in the sleaze and the real misery of the reader’s mind (lol my mind); it’s about reconciliation, #actually, it’s about hope to a degree that’s shocking and countercultural, and it’s also self-lacerating, a humiliating book. God, I honestly loved this thing. Don’t read it if you aren’t prepared for visceral descriptions of rape and self-harm, and also chambermaid fantasies (other motifs: the factory; the pervert) and guilt and self-doubt. There’s a certain gallows humor in the novel’s roundelay of rape accusations, if you are down for that.
There’s a lot of sharp thinking behind the raw flesh. Thinking about trans experience: how being trans can be camouflaged as something else, including as trauma, because there is so much trauma for it to hide in. Thinking about porn: porn as hypnosis and propaganda, an alchemy of pain into pleasure that is never as safe as you tell yourself it is. Thinking about politics: fascism as a kind of anti-solidarity, something marginalized people like because its dehumanizing fantasy offers the comfort of the familiar. Once you start thinking in these terms you see it everywhere: people striking out sideways, and thinking what they’re doing is self-protection when they’re mostly just finding a safe target. On its face this framing is too individualistic—it psychologizes politics instead of looking at the material and institutional reasons people do what they do—but every haunted-house tale is inherently about institutional life as well as the individuals within it.
One possible Christian way of thinking about evil actions is that they are often misdirected attempts to pursue some good. If that’s what these acts of self- and other-harm are, what might the goods be? For this analysis to work I think you have to posit that harm to others, in this novel, is always at its core an attempt to destroy oneself. (That isn’t always true IRL but lol it’s true enough to be exposing.) The acts of self-destruction in Worthless mingle ecstasy and analysis. The ecstasy, if it’s seeking some good (which maybe it isn’t), might be seeking the loss of self within God: “Why not be utterly changed into fire?” The analysis is just humiliation, a standard Christian response to one’s pride. Anyway iirc the only place where religion appears in this novel is when Ila walks past a church “with boarded-up plywood on the windows, and a sign outside reading TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED. God’s body, decaying, has now been cut off from society; do not touch him, for he is owned by a variety of contractors, and they have legal power over the likes of you.” Ila’s far from a reliable narrator here but I think we’re meant to recognize her longing.
Climbing a tower is unskilled work. Cleaning is also unskilled work. Filming yourself making sissy hypno is unskilled labour. Climbing a tower, being chased by an unseen entity which might be the woman who raped you when you were in a haunted house, is not an easy job, and it seems unfair to describe it as unskilled, considering there are a lot of factors which go into it, certainly not everybody could do that job. For one, you have to be physically fit enough to climb all those stairs.
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A couple notes about gay Christian spiritual stuff (roses are red/palare is prayer/growing closer to God/can make you look gayer).
My friend Steve Christoforou is writing a newsletter about the lessons he’s learned in over a decade of Orthodox Christian youth ministry. It’s good!
Peter Gabriel, “Mercy Street.” All of the buildings, and all of the cars/Were once just a dream in somebody’s head.
I really wanted to make Magritte’s “Labors of Alexander” the theme image for this post but I couldn’t find an image of it under a Creative Commons license. You’ve gotta go look at it, though, it really fits. Instead, your image is by darksouls1 and found via Wikimedia Commons.
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