Gabino Iglesias Reviews Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt

Tell Me I’m Worthless, Alison Rumfitt (Cipher Press 9781838390020, £9.99, 272pp, tp) October 2021. (Nightfire 978-1-25086-623-3, $17.99, 272pp, pb) January 2023.

Alison Rumfitt’s Tell Me I’m Worthless is not a comfortable read, and that’s a good thing. Raw, strange, and packed with drugs, guilt, grief, vio­lence, slurs, and blood, this is the kind of horror book that inhabits the dark space between spooky horror – in this case, a sentient haunted house – and the kind of real, everyday horrors that are just as awful.

Three years ago, Alice and her friends Ila and Hannah went into a haunted house. Only two of them came out, and they didn’t come out un­scathed. What went on that night was horrible and left a lot of physical, emotional, and psychological scars. In fact, Alice and Ila haven’t been the same since that night. Alice floats in a permanent state of fear and anxiety, drinking a lot, making a liv­ing recording herself for men who pay her to say things, and going to parties where her social anxi­ety usually wins, leaving her exhausted and scared. And Ila’s life isn’t much better. When Ila asks Alice to return to the haunted place where it all started, she doesn’t want to go, but also understands that going there is the only way out, the only way to – just maybe – make things right.

If this book had one of those lists of trigger warn­ings other books have, it’d be a long one: violence, grief, mental health, slurs, addiction, pornography, transphobia, bigotry, mutilation, rape, etc. This is not a complaint; it’s a recognition of the plethora of subjects Rumfitt tackles here head-on and without pulling any punches. Tell Me I’m Worthless is a work of trans fiction, written by a trans woman, and featuring trans characters. It is a novel that explores grief, sexual abuse, anti-trans sentiment, the #MeToo movement, the power of memory (and misremembering), and identity in a social context. As such, it should be hard to read and eye-opening, and this novel is both.

There is a lot about Tell Me I’m Worthless that deals with real horrors, but this is also a narrative that comfortably fits in the horror genre. Yes, there is a haunted house – a house named Albion – but the best part about it is that the house is not just a place where bad things happen; it is a character with a name, a history, a voice, and its own de­sires. Albion even gets its own chapters on top of being at the core of Alice, Ila, and Hannah’s story together, and those chapters make it a character as memorable as Alice and Ila.

There were a lot of passages I wanted to quote in this review (there’s half a page discussing who you should support when two ‘‘others’’ have a dis­pute that is absolutely brilliant), but the one thing they all had in common was Rumfitt’s style, and using the space to talk about that is much better. Rumfitt doesn’t ‘‘lead’’ readers into certain topics; she dunks them into things headfirst and without apologies. There are (un)healthy doses of violence, transphobia, grief, confusion, pain, and abuse here, but there is absolutely no wavering when it comes to splattering them on the page and showing how they operate and how they affect people in different ways. In that regard, this is a narrative that does much more than offering the points of view of an ‘‘other’’; it slaps readers with the realities of that ‘‘other,’’ and that makes it required reading.

Despite the plethora of things Rumfitt does right here and the fact that the novel’s raw power and relentless darkness are more than enough to make it a book horror fiction fans should check out, readers should be aware that this isn’t a straight­forward story. There are several passages where the narrative meanders and enters things like Albion’s history, comments on transphobic websites, a long thread on 4chan, and other things. Also, the novel’s chapters are divided between Alice, Ila, and Albion, and sometimes there is a bit of back and forth in terms of time as the narrative is seen from different perspectives.

Tell Me I’m Worthless brings to the table a very enjoyable combination of creepiness and depth that sets it apart from other haunted house narratives. This is a hallucinogenic, powerful, transgressive novel that uncompromisingly goes into uncomfortable territory and then wallows there, digging deeper and deeper into the things that make us human, and eventually posits that love might be the way out of the things that trap us the hardest.

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CrimeReads. His work has been published in five languages, optioned for film, and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl, and Meg Gardiner. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other print and online venues. He’s been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

This review and more like it in the March 2023 issue of Locus.

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