Watch the Girls by Jennifer Wolfe (Grand Central Publishing, 2018)
Jim brought this book over from America for me. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things horror and loves everything about the movies, too, so I wasn't surprised that Watch the Girls had caught his eye. Horror and film have gone hand-in-hand since the latter's invention, and my first thought was that a well-written portrait of the treatment of women onscreen was to be welcomed.
Jennifer Wolfe is also an author for young adults, writing as Jennifer Bosworth, her married name. Watch the Girls is, however, her debut as a writer of mainstream fiction. She grew up around horror movies and worked odd jobs in the film industry for a decade. I'm all for writers living a bit before writing, so when I saw this my interest in Jennifer Wolfe's writing grew exponentially.
A decade ago, Liv Hendricks abandoned the acting career her mother propelled her towards as a child when her youngest sister Miranda disappeared. Liv then burned through what was left of her trust fund after paying damages for breaching her contract. After that she waitressed until an agent discovered her.
Rediscovered, really, since she'd been a child star as Olivia Hill. She reinvented herself onscreen in 'Bullsh?t Hunters', which draws direct inspiration from the Scooby Doo franchise (complete with large dog, team of four investigators and van) to look into real mysteries and sniff out the BS. Liv is fed up of it, and her contract has already been rejected for renewal when she unwittingly spills all about her childhood to a journalist in a bar.
In the social media storm that follows, Liv does a promo video for 'Shot in the Dark' hoping to raise funds to start her own show. A benefactor steps up suspiciously quickly with a readymade mystery for her to investigate. Four young women, who the media persist in referring to as 'girls', have disappeared along the Dark Road outside Stone's Throw, and the benefactor introduces himself as Jonas Kron, the horror director who is the big shot in this otherwise sleepy small town.
Kron wants to have the mysteries solved to a tight deadline so that Stone's Throw can get back to normal and he's prepared to pay big money to make it happen. It's all too good to be true, but Liv is so delighted just to have work coming in that she doesn't ask any questions but heads up to Stone's Throw to find out what happened to the young women on the Dark Road.
I was pleased that Watch the Girls was told in the first-person. It provided an intimate portrait of the central character around whom this entire story revolved. Liv had so much depth to her courtesy of her backstories as child actor and grieving sibling that I rooted for her throughout. She was relentlessly likeable despite her best endeavours to be a hardened ass drinking her life away who is never able to trust anyone long enough to form real intimacy. But she was brave, loyal and decent.
None of Liv's life's early choices had been hers, so much as foisted on her by her pushy mother and a succession of studios. In the process she lost all sense of her identity and is still struggling to find that even now in her early thirties. How many of us feel like that without having the very reasonable explanations that Liv's childhood offered?
The main theme of Watch the Girls is the infantilising treatment of young women in horror, especially cinema. The novel expands into a wider consideration of how they are used and then spat out by the film industry. My daughter is about to go to film school this autumn to study directing so this is a thorny topic that interests me personally. We can all hope that the emergence of a growing number of female directors and others in positions of power in the creative industries will address this structural power imbalance for the good.
The juxtaposition of in-depth backstories and a plot full of tension and action made this a genuine page-turner. Watch the Girls combined these with a thoughtful analysis of the role of women onscreen and in the horror genre more generally. It represented a thoroughly welcome and much needed contribution to the debate.
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of Psycho by Robert Bloch here. Or you might like to take a look at my review of The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature here.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton here.