The Call Is Coming From Inside the House: Review of Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt
Tell Me I’m Worthless. By Alison Rumfitt. Cipher Press, October 28, 2021.
In early September, The Guardian published an interview with the philosopher Judith Butler under the headline, “We need to rethink the category of woman.” Within hours, and without editorial comment, a number of paragraphs were removed from the piece—namely, those that detailed Butler’s unequivocal diagnosis of the overlap between right-wing ideologies and trans-exclusionary feminist thought. To quote Butler’s censored comments, “The anti-gender ideology is one of the dominant strains of fascism in our times”—so much so that TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) “will not be part of the contemporary struggle against fascism” as long as they continue to circulate what Butler aptly evokes as “a spectre of ‘gender’ as a force of destruction.”
The specter that haunts Alison Rumfitt’s razor-sharp debut novel, Tell Me I’m Worthless, is neither mysterious nor vague: fascism, a horror at once national and domestic, is rarely a subtle boogeyman. But it nevertheless proves fearsome in its insidious power to find footholds in otherwise unremarkable thoughts, to give niggling anxieties teeth. Working deftly with the horror genre’s intrinsic queerness, Rumfitt attends to the violence that hounds expressions of gender and desire in Britain, a country roiling under the weight of political dysphoria. The result is a daring book, as heartrending and unflinchingly honest as the bold imperative of its title.
Alice and Ila are estranged, yet linked by a shared nightmare: a gruesome night in an abandoned house that ended in innumerable scars and the loss of their friend, Hannah. Ever since, Ila has unsuccessfully sought solace and something that feels like safety with a group of gender-critical feminists fighting the so-called “current war on women,” a conflict that lets her reframe her complicated feelings about Alice in black and white terms. Meanwhile, Alice makes ends meet by making sissy porn at the request of abashed cis men online despite feeling increasingly disoriented by the figure reflected in her grainy vidoes, reciting words that aren’t her own. The novel follows the two women’s struggle to reconstruct the traumatic events that drove them apart, which, in the tradition of so many haunted houses, necessitates a reluctant return to where it all began. With this, Tell Me I’m Worthless tells the queer homecoming story astute readers find between the lines of horror novels like Stephen King’s It, where home is not a place of sanctuary, but rather something that must be survived.
The novel lies in the shadow of Albion House, an empty Edwardian wreck that seethes amid Brighton’s modern council housing and the diversifying complexions of its neighbors. Houses are overdetermined places in the realm of horror, and Rumfitt builds hers on distinguished foundations, introducing us to Albion with a wry riff on the unforgettable lines that open and close The Haunting of Hill House (“No live organism can continue to exist compassionately under conditions of absolute fascism”) and embellishing its moldering interior with deft gestures to Daphne du Maurier, Clive Barker, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
As its name insists, Albion is Britain, insofar as its walls, not sane, shelter a damning insularity under the guise of safety. Of the people who linger, unconsciously, on the sidewalk or the windows of their flat to stare, Rumfitt writes:
There are some who immediately feel safer, knowing that the House is there, and there are some who do not. For someone to feel safe, another has to be unsafe. And the one who is safe may not even be safe, they may just feel safe, up until the moment they don’t.
Rumfitt’s richly complicated characters recognize and grapple with the cost of such a gamble in terms that, even in the novel’s most bloodcurdling moments, remain palpably real. Neither the anonymity of a computer screen nor the slick language wielded by academics can protect Alice and Ila from Britain’s homegrown horrors—a creeping fascism emboldened by the atmosphere of exhaustion and stiff-upper-lipped spite pervading the country. It is not a matter of privilege, but rather of circumstance and time, that determines one’s sense of security—in the world at large as much as in one’s own body.
Skillful shifts in perspective heighten the tension of Tell Me I’m Worthless, as the narrative oscillates from the self-aware intimacy of Alice’s “I,” a world-weary narrator who wields the conventions of the genre like a needle to puncture readers’ expectations, to a third-person that holds the guarded Ila, fittingly, at a distance. Albion, too, speaks, in the recent tradition of Helen Oyeyemi and Carmen Maria Machado, its chapters dripping with some of the novel’s most tautly lyrical prose. Perspective moreover shapes the novel’s most profound horrors: a Smiths poster that seems to watch Alice like a painting out of a gothic novel, even after she scratches out Morrissey’s eyes with pen; the scrawl of a scar on Ila’s thigh that might say “panic” and the one on Alice’s forehead, like a cruel third eye; the unremitting voices on Tumblr and 4chan and Twitter that accuse and confuse even as they afford an otherwise rare space for self-definition.
Rumfitt’s prose testifies to her background as a poet, effortlessly hypnotic and fearlessly macabre as she describes the unbearable and the mundane in turn. She also possesses, it feels important to stress, a wickedly mordant sense of humor that sharpens the novel’s realism as it leavens moments of tension. (Ila reflects at a gender-critical meeting going nowhere fast: “There is a war being fought in public toilets across the country, and she needs to piss.”) For all its horrors, Tell Me I’m Worthless offers a gripping and necessary meditation on care in the face of the unbearable. Messy, discomfiting, and vital, this care is present from Rumfitt’s thoughtful content warning to the novel’s searing epilogue.
In a chapter narrated by, not Alice, Ila, or even the House, but “You”, we are asked: “Do you think they’ll be okay in the end?” For a horror novel, a genre which almost always answers in the negative, it’s a bold question to ask. In a country and a world where fascism is growing, where the BBC can publish inflammatory anti-trans diatribes with impunity, will we be okay? Rumfitt answers with the kind of resolve that crystallizes on the other side of fear—the grim determination of the Final Girl. “I think they will be. I have to think they will be.”
Sam Botz is a writer, scholar, and reader. A Visiting Assistant Professor at Northwestern University, her research interests include eighteenth-century archives of feeling, speculative fictions, environmental justice, and doomed polar expeditions. She lives in Chicago with her cat, Moira, and her dear friend and cat-co-parent.
This review was commissioned by editor Jake Casella Brookins in July 2021 from a hard pitch; the author and editor were acquainted through previous ARB work. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Cipher Press.