Brainwyrms by Alison Rumfitt
-genre: queer/trans body horror, adult, thriller
-release date: October 10, 2023 (UK: Cipher Press; US: Tor Nightfire)
-Trigger Warnings for Brainwyrms: use of c-word, use of r-word, language, mention of rape, graphic sex scenes, watersports, eating disorder, scat, molestation, grooming, incest, sexual kinks, gaslighting, suicide
When I was a child, I developed what some might consider to be an unhealthy obsession with the anthrax bacteria, after stumbling across an episode of Criminal Minds (season 4, episode 24 “Amplification”— the name is still tattooed into my brain) while my father was flicking through the television channels one weekday afternoon. I wasn’t yet aware of the intrinsic harm of copaganda, so as I watched BAU Agents hunt down an anti-war fanatic who weaponized anthrax to prove his point, I was entranced. The particular strain of anthrax the “unsub” (unknown subject, the slang term assigned to antagonists within the procedural drama) crafted was seemingly incurable, and the episode reached its climax as one of the show’s main characters— Dr. Spencer Reid, an analyst who gained a somewhat-predictable cult following amongst teen girls in my demographic— found himself infected. I watched with bated breath as the team raced against the clock to locate an antidote, determine the killer’s next target, and successfully detain the antagonist before he was able to incite a mass terrorist incident. Yet I wasn’t satisfied by the episode’s ending; I needed to know more about this pathogen: how it was engineered, its effects on the human body, and how it ranked as a serious threat. Simply put: I needed to know everything.
So I did. I checked out books from the library (and steadily ignored all the judgemental glares from my local librarians when I, a ten-year-old girl, added another biochemistry book to my stack); I watched videos that explained the bacterial structure of anthrax; I even received an anthrax plushie— shown in this week’s book photo— as a gift from a close friend. My fascination was endless.
And then, one day, it faded. I stopped wondering what else I could learn about anthrax; my obsessive curiosity simply retreated into the recesses of my brain, only to be thought of on rare occasions when I read up on previous terrorist attacks or rewatched Criminal Minds. What had once been an intoxicating hyperfixation with the spread of an unpredictable bacterium was now little more than a memory.
Well, until now.
In mid-Spring 2023, I received an ARC of Brainwyrms by Alison Rumfitt in the mail from Tor Nightfire; it actually arrived to my mother’s house first, where it suffered a bit of water damage on its plain orange cover (as the official cover art hadn’t yet been released), but it quickly made its way into my eager hands. I knew nothing about its plot, but I’d long since admired Rumfitt’s debut novel Tell Me I’m Worthless, a tense haunted house story through the eyes of a trans woman, as well as Rumfitt’s unwavering commitment to activism for sex workers, trans communities, and more. So, without a second thought, I dove into Brainwyrms— and put simply, I’ll never be the same.
Brainwyrms is a short whirlwind of a novel that centers on Frankie, a trans woman whose workplace (a gender-affirming healthcare clinic) was bombed by a transphobic terrorist, and what remains of her life in the wake of this tragedy. Frankie takes a new job as a content moderator for digital communities, where the profane and problematic trends of the internet (particularly in “gender-critical” TERF spaces and violent viral videos) reach a fever pitch. The book also quickly introduces us to Vanya, their young and deeply mysterious love interest who’s hiding a secret obsession with the realm of parasite kink (yes, this is exactly what you think it is; while I was fascinated by anthrax from a scientific level, Vanya’s predilection focuses far more on pleasure and desire). The pair grow ever-closer as the world threatens to tear them apart… and Vanya’s secrets start creeping into Frankie herself, both figuratively and literally.
I’m being careful to dodge explicit detail here, for a number of reasons; first, there are elements of this book that definitely will disturb people, and it’s frankly hard to discuss most of the book without stepping into triggering territory. I’ve included a full list of the triggers, borrowed from Ghoul Von Horror on GoodReads, at the top of this post. But the primary reason I’ve chosen to be fairly vague in my review here is because this is a book that demands to be felt, authentically and without pause. It’s raw, plain and simple— Alison Rumfitt dares to go deep into graphic sex, violence, gore, and more; many would call this “extreme” horror, and they’d be right. But at the same time, it’s also immensely brilliant and well-needed, particularly for trans people living in a cis-centric world; while some of the horror elements might be exaggerated, the passion here is anything but cliche.
Without a doubt, this is the grossest book I’ve ever read, the most shocking, the most obscene— but it’s also by far one of the best. It’s intensely political and polarizing, and I want to beg everyone in my life to read it right fucking now… but I also feel confident in saying that this book is 100% not for everyone. I firmly believe in reading trigger warnings, and it’s more important than ever for a title like this— but if you’re willing to take the plunge and get your hands a little bit dirty, Brainwyrms is absolutely worth the risk.