In a slim book of linked short stories, Valente (The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, 2016, etc.) frees the voices of women from the world of comic-book superheroes.
In Deadtown, Valente’s vividly imagined land of the dead, a group of dead women gather at the Lethe Cafe to share their stories with each other. They call themselves the Hell Hath Club, and they have each suffered, disastrously and violently, through their relationships with superheroes. Paige Embry was a lab intern who created a mysterious substance that turned her boyfriend into the crime-fighting Kid Mercury and spawned a supervillain. Julia Ash was a superhero in her own right, with powers that grew ever stronger and eventually turned her fellow superheroes against her. Samantha Dane embodied the term that inspired the title of the book: she was an actual woman in a refrigerator, gruesomely murdered to serve as a plot device in the narrative of her boyfriend and his freshly minted powers. The world of the Hell Hath Club is packed with delightful details—in the land of the dead, the entertainment is excellent and includes burned-down theaters, forgotten songs, and all the beloved rock stars and actresses the world has lost—and enough solidity that you can imagine the comics these characters might have come from even though they do not exist. The stories are entertaining but not a romp. Valente chooses to eschew the soothing route of “saving” her heroines or even letting them save themselves. Instead, she gives them strong voices and allows them to rage, mourn, and regret. She gives them, and the reader, the chance to be furious at the common use of death and incapacitation of women as lazy plot points and reminds us that other stories are always possible.
A ruthless but absorbing and provocative reshaping of the idea that the girlfriend dies, again.