Horror loves a haunted house. Its readers, its writers, its film producers, all of us, collectively, adore a house filled with ghosts, and the unsuspecting family that moves in. Houses with long histories of violence, murder, and the macabre are all the better for it, and half the fun of a haunted house tale is the drip feeding of this twisted past, like blood pooling on a basement floor.
Tell Me I’m Worthless is a fascinating novel that details twenty-first century challenges around extremism, sexual and gender identity, modern friendships, and facing trauma. All set against the backdrop of a virile and potent haunted house.
Synopsis of Alison Rumfitt’s Tell Me I’m Worthless
Alice, a transgender woman, and Ila, a TERF ally, were once best friends and quasi lovers. Now, they barely speak, each accusing the other of committing a heinous crime against the other on the night they snuck into an abandoned house. Their friend, Hannah, was with them that night, but she never left the house. Presumed murdered, her family sought justice, but suspicion never landed on Ila and Alice, and both have since tried to move on.
Alice is struggling to find a place for herself in the world. A drug taker, with only casual friendships and hook-ups, she finds herself tormented by a stain on her bedroom wall. She covers the stain with the poster of a disgraced singer-turned-racist, and now this singer haunts her room and looms over her while she sleeps.
Ila find herself at the forefront of an extremist gender identity movement that feel trans rights are erasing the identity of cis-gendered women. She divulges her own story with a transwoman (Alice) and is hailed as a survivor. But the house is reaching out to Ila, and whispering for her to come back, and bring Alice with her.
What follows is a masterclass in character building as Tell Me I’m Worthless builds itself under Alison Rumfitt’s careful word choice, into a modern classic, one that doesn’t shy away from vulgarity and shining a light on the increasing paranoia caused by the frightening trend of rising support for right-wing political parties.
Gender Identity and Horror
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: horror is one of literature’s most responsive genres.
When high literary works peruse the themes of violence and trauma in 1960’s America, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby was already deep in the trenches, reflecting social norms that underpinned rape back at America. While films in the eighties were looking at the legacy and impact of the Vietnam War the previous decade, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had already detailed America’s violence and tolerance for said violence in the war’s concluding year. Where genre waits to see how the dust settles, horror dances the tango.
Alison Rumfitt does something unique with Tell Me I’m Worthless and deftly navigates the complicated relationship between gender politics and identity. On one hand, Rumfitt gives us a close, claustrophobic look at how Alice reconciles her gender with her ability to ‘pass’ in modern society, and then throws us out into the wild with Ila’s chapters and those who would wish to eradicate trans-rights for fear of losing their own.
Tell Me I’m Worthless teeters on a knife edge between each point of view chapters, whipping the reader from one extreme to another. It’s quite a ride!
The Modern Haunted House
Some of the best parts of Tell Me I’m Worthless are the point of view chapters from the house itself. Here, the narrator deals with concepts of structure and architecture, but also how these are juxtaposed against history and the wider culture in which it was built. Without giving too much away, fascism in the novel takes centre stage during these chapters.
Tell Me I’m Worthless is a title that benefits from such a close look at Britain’s relationship with fascism and how right-wing policies and political parties share common modes of encouragement with one another. And the house itself personifies this.
My absolute favourite part of the novel, and this is only a light spoiler, is how the house calls out to those around it. Much is made in Tell Me I’m Worthless of how the house views itself from the block of flats across the street (and please, please, kind reader out there, spread the word that someone should write an article about the British class system and horror based on this relationship alone!)
Continually, the house calls out to those who live in the block of flats, and it toys with them, seemingly for fun. The agency Alison Rumfitt gives the house in Tell Me I’m Worthless is akin to that of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (great article on that here) and this comparison is truly justified.
Alison Rumfitt has done something truly special with Tell Me I’m Worthless and she is definitely a horror writer to watch out for!
Last Updated on March 25, 2022.