Three friends go into a haunted house. Only two make it back out, and they want nothing to do with each other anymore.
This is the backstory of Alison Rumfitt’s “Tell Me I’m Worthless,” a dark novel about the rising threat of fascism and the potential to hate that lies within us all.
The two protagonists are Alice, a white trans woman who suffers from severe social anxiety and makes porn for a living and Ila, a mixed-race Jewish lesbian who has gotten involved in the trans-exclusionary radical feminist movement. Both are deeply traumatized by what happened that night. If they want to move past it, they must reunite and go back into the house where they lost their friend Hannah.
This story is not for the faint of the heart. With violence, rape, frank portrayals of bigotry and other triggering topics, the novel’s overall atmosphere is crushingly bleak.
I read most of “Tell Me I’m Worthless” alone in my room at night with the lights off, which made the experience all the more immersive. From the very beginning, there’s a sense that something is off.
Alice believes her own room hates her and that the singer on her band poster comes out at night: “Sometimes, at night, in the dark, when I can’t know for sure if I am sleeping or lucid, the man, the one with the hair and the jawline, he crawls out from the poster, he stands over my bed, the flowers still in his hand, and he flickers in and out of focus. He pushes out from the past, away from his bandmates and into the now. He wants me.” It’s a creepy detail that conveys Alice’s paranoia and makes the setting feel menacing.
“Tell Me I’m Worthless” is an effective work of horror with many gruesome moments that are sure to stay with you. I’m not easily disturbed, but I was unsettled.
Though there are supernatural elements, much of the horror comes from real-world bigotry. For me the most memorably uncomfortable scene involved Alice coming across a man’s transmisogynistic erotic fantasies on a fetish forum. It affected me because it felt so real, exactly the kind of content that exists on certain parts of the internet. Hate, as Rumfitt demonstrates, is pervasive.
The house works by amplifying people’s existing prejudices and its influence is spreading throughout the United Kingdom. Hannah, ordinarily a loyal friend, becomes a virulent homophobe in the house and shouts slurs at Alice and Ila. Radicalization is depicted as a physically painful process that renders a person unrecognizable, a metaphor that resonated with me as someone who has lost friends to hate groups.
“Though there are supernatural elements, much of the horror comes from real-world bigotry. Unfortunately, the political aspects are also where Rumfitt loses me.”
Unfortunately, the political aspects are also where Rumfitt loses me.
I am not opposed to overtly political fiction. Many of my favorite books are incisive commentaries on issues such as racism, poverty and misogyny. Nor do I disagree with Rumfitt’s message, which is that everyone harbors subconscious prejudices, and that fascism gains its power by stoking feelings of resentment that already exist.
Hannah believes Alice and Ila are jealous of her for being a straight white cis woman and therefore ‘better’ than them; Alice plays anti-Semitic pranks on Ila and thinks immigrant families are stealing jobs from the British, a belief she inherited from her right-wing father. This alone would be enough to get the point across. But Rumfitt outright tells the reader what to take away: “Is it clear how all of this works? How easy it is to slip, unthinking, into ways that the House wants you to be?” It reminded me of classroom lectures. I like drawing my own conclusions about a book, not having them spoon-fed to me.
My second major misgiving is with the ending. The third-to-last chapter is one of the most blistering walls of text I’ve read in a while, a scream of rage and grief that ends on a powerful and nightmarish image: “Alice, guts trailing across the floor, shuffles towards her friend. They embrace, covered in each other’s insides. ‘I love you,’ says Ila. ‘I love you,’ says Alice.” I would have been fine with it ending here.
But it continues for a few more pages, and what comes next feels so much weaker in comparison that I couldn’t help but be disappointed.
I did not love everything about “Tell Me I’m Worthless,” but I haven’t read many other books that are so consistently unnerving. I recommend it for those who like horror and don’t mind the occasional diatribe.
Natalie Ortiz (PO ‘25) is from Los Angeles. She loves horror and anything spooky.