When I pick up a new piece of fiction, it’s hard to resist a story of girls gone bad. Stories of young women, brimming with newfound beauty and sexuality, and lacking means of escape, make for fascinating fiction. Just think of the desperately sad and self-destructive Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides, who one by one chose to remove themselves from a world that wouldn’t let them fly free. Their allure is in their violent and completely comprehensible exit strategies: as the boys who loved them later said, “We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together… We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.” These dreamy girls hold a special place in the hearts of all female readers, right next to the girl gang of Joyce Carol Oates’s Foxfire, the scorned Abigail Williams and her band of pretenders in The Crucible, and in the residents of McLean hospital in Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. The tendency towards violence, towards rebellion, is the same tendency as a caged animal would throw against the bars. For readers, no other circumstances are required to make the actions of these women plausible — and heartbreaking.
It seemed, initially, Mary Stewart Atwell would take the same direction in her novel, Wild Girls. Focusing her narrative on the small Appalachian town of Swan River, Atwell gives us a community famous for its regular outbursts of violence, destruction, and death — all propagated by terrifying teenage girls. Kate Riordan, our protagonist and mild-mannered resident of Swan River, is willing to concede that the history of violence is the strongest thing the town has to recommend it. “It was our thing, our trivia fact, and it occurs to me now that if the Chamber of Commerce had known what they were doing, people could have come to us the way they go to the Massachusetts town where Lizzie Borden axed her parents.” The town has a significant economic and privilege divide, between the residents able to send their young daughters to the posh Swan River Academy and the residents from the wrong side of town, the part that includes the Bloodwort Commune, a small community of down-on-its-luck former hippies who dabble in illicit drugs, sex, and even the occult. Kate is a local girl attending the Academy, and so she regularly fluctuates between a resentment of the Academy’s elitism (and its queen bee cliques, lead by her wealthy friend Willow) and a fear of the threats emerging from the Bloodwort compound, which suffers from its own wild-girl initiated violence at the beginning of the novel.
Each girl in Swan River is a ticking bomb — with the lore of the wild girls comes the assumption that every girl is at least a little bit susceptible once she hits puberty. “When you turned sixteen everybody started to look at you as if you were the suicide bomber at the checkpoint, the enemy in disguise.” Crystal Lemons, a girl from the Bloodwort community, was always a bit of a threat; she had, Kate says, “an interesting ripeness about her, an early voluptuousness…grown up too soon.” When Crystal becomes a wild girl and burns down a huge portion of the commune, it comes as no surprise. For if what makes a Swan River girl go wild is her circumstances, then it makes everyone in the town and academy an accessory to the violence. Kate’s friend Willow is exceptionally pretty and popular, but her chameleon-like tendency to adapt to please others raises a red flag. Changing her eye color with contacts, talking about summer homes and dressage with the Academy’s trust fund babies — Willow is playing roles with everyone, including Kate, and the sense that all girls have to negotiate their identities carefully in this community would drive anyone to madness. The threat of going “wild,” of exploding under the pressure of performance, is more powerful when Atwell treats the conditions as the cause. Gossip, prejudice, extreme poverty, and limited opportunities — all are present in Swan River, and so there’s plenty of fodder for a hotbed of violence and insurrection. In building up an Applachian crucible of backstabbing and suspicion, Atwell seems to be dabbling in the territory of Daniel Woodrell, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Donald Ray Pollock. The Swan River setting, by turns bleakly abandoned and claustrophobically crowded, makes for a perfect prison for the girls to rail against.
If Atwell had stopped right there, Wild Girls would be a treatise on female rage, a rage justified by years of subjugation and humiliation. But on top of this sociological mystery, she spreads a thick layer of supernatural schmaltz, neutering the real-life explanations for the violence and taking away the female agency in it. When Kate’s older sister, Maggie, shifts from being a motivated student and driven young woman to a wild girl, it is attributed not to a condition, but to a sudden supernatural occurrence. Kate awakes one evening at the Academy to find her sister glowing, “not focused like a flashlight beam but diffused, sourceless…the room got as hot as a sauna. Maggie knocked over the bookcase, smashed the CD player, and grinned up at us from the wreckage, hands on hips.” A few seconds later, she takes a leap out the window, the glass holding “the outline of Maggie’s body, the lines clean as if cut by a torch.” Maggie had no incentive to flee, to act out, to become a “wild girl” — she had her whole future ahead, and yet Atwell has her saddled by a glowing light and a sudden desire to destroy property. When Atwell lays out the rest of the mystery, linking the Academy girls together in a cult-like plot to destroy the town, she gives too much credit to all the wrong forces: to a handsome and manipulative Academy teacher, a series of suspicious clues at the Bloodwort commune, and multiple acts of horrifying violence. All the circumstances about poverty, education, and female expression come to naught.
It may be that true-to-life stories of teenage rage don’t interest Atwell — and it’s problematic that, regardless of their execution, stories like these can quickly fall into Lifetime movie-of-the week territory. (After all, where would Drew Barrymore and Tori Spelling be without their “good-girls-gone-bad” miniseries?) But substituting supernatural forces for real circumstances removes what was initially, for me, the true delight of Wild Girls: the exploration of how small communities can become pressure cookers for young women, and how the roles we’re expected to play during the journey from little girls to teenagers could drive anybody to violence. The supernatural and mundane can live side by side; writers like Karen Russell and Shirley Jackson manage to do this in all their stories, imbuing small towns and Florida swamps with mythical, lyrical language and extraordinary possibilities. But they all begin with supernatural launching pads: we know, when we enter Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, that it’s not merely economics contributing to the Bigtree family’s woes. But I believe more in natural horror, the gut-wrenching retreat we long for at the end of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, when we discover that human failure can be just as violent, as cruel, and as devastating as anything that might emerge from a deep dark cave or a scorching wildfire.
A few weeks ago, in many towns like Atwell’s Swan River, Halloween brought a special attraction to town: a fundamentalist Christian tradition known as “Hell House.” This “scared straight” performance is designed to keep teenagers away from sinful behaviors by showing off their dangerous consequences. The tableaus of horror and gore require no monsters and demons — instead, we see a girl lying in a pool of blood, the victim of a botched abortion after having premarital sex. Or a girl takes drugs at a rave — she is later raped, and then commits suicide in despair. After each of these tableaus, Satan appears and drags the victim off to hell. One in five attendees at a Hell House vocalized a renewed commitment to Jesus. If Atwell contributed a tableau to a Hell House, it might go like this: a handful of girls giggle and gather over an old spell book or Ouija board, prodding each other to up the supernatural ante. Dabble in the occult, and you’ll later be served up as a human sacrifice.
Granted, this tableau has a lot of flash to it, but I personally find the horrors of real life to be far less giggle-inducing. Why build a hellmouth when you already have high school?