Tell Me I'm Worthless
Dan Carpenter reviews Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt: ‘the haunted house novel for our times.’
The week I started reading Alison Rumfitt’s tremendous debut novel, a small group of Twitter users rallied around a hashtag trying to reinstate the account of a TV writer turned nasty anti-trans troll. That same TV writer appears in the pages of Tell Me I’m Worthless, among a number of other personalities and pop culture figures who have fallen down the rabbit hole of extremism. Rumfitt never names them, preferring instead ‘the TV writer’ or ‘the singer’, but these real-life horrors constantly bleed through into the novel.
Three years ago, Alice, Ila, and Hannah entered a haunted house. Only Alice and Ila emerged, both with diverging, traumatic recollections as to what happened in there. Alice, a trans woman, has spent the years since trying to block the trauma; a brown stain that resembles Hannah’s face is covered up with a poster of a problematic singer; Ila has lost herself to an extremist cause, becoming a poster-child for it.
The question – what really happened in the house? – lingers throughout the novel. Was it really haunted? “Maybe I am haunting myself, maybe I have always been haunting myself,” Alice says early on. Later on, Rumfitt writes: ‘Ghosts are born from trauma and violence.’ The answers that come are complicated and uncomfortable, as the truth so often is.
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and especially its classic opening lines, are a repeated, paraphrased refrain: ‘For one live organism to continue to exist, another live organism must stop existing altogether,’ we are told. In the latter half of the novel, Alice explains – in meta terms – what haunted houses are really about: “It is about structure, architecture, and history.” In Jackson’s novel, the house feeds off Eleanor’s mental illness. ‘I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, she thought, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside.’ Here, the house is an equally destructive monster, pushing people to extremism. A prologue shows a young boy discovering fascism (via the internet) inside its walls, and one horrific moment sees someone transformed into fascism’s most recognisable, and awful, symbol.
Rumfitt’s characters occupy a fascinating grey area. Both Ila and Alice are complex characters who do terrible things during the course of the novel, not least during one brilliantly structured flashback, and often to each other. The question of whether the house is responsible for this, or whether the house has simply exploited a kernel that has always been inside them, is key to the book. Alice’s trans-ness, and Ila’s Jewish background, as well as her race, are part and parcel of this story, and the clear and present dangers to their identities that exist out here in the real world are right there on the page, as raw as they come. There are moments reading Tell Me I’m Worthless that feel entirely in sync with the times we are living in. That Rumfitt manages to do this without either Alice or Ila feeling like ciphers for specific issues is quite an achievement.
Never preachy, but unabashedly political and radical, Tell Me I’m Worthless is the haunted house novel for our time, and Rumfitt is an author whose voice I’m very excited to hear from again.
Tell Me I’m Worthless is available to pre-order now from Cypher Press