on Brainwyrms by Alison Rumfitt

Both of Alison Rumfitt’s novels open with a content warning. As well as flagging potentially distressing material, these warnings function as upfront statements of Aboutness. “Tell Me I’m Worthless is a book about two things, primarily, and those things are trauma and fascism,” reads the opening of Rumfitt’s first novel, published in 2021. In her latest, Brainwyrms, the scope has widened somewhat. This, we are told, “is a novel about the situation in which we find ourselves in the UK.” As a lapsed Briton myself, I see the need for caution. This country contains scenes which some may find disturbing.

As I write these words, the United Kingdom is caught in multiple interlocking crises. In the midst of a worsening crackdown on refugees, with the cost of living spiraling out of control, and public infrastructure close to collapse, the British media and political establishment have become infected with what Rumfitt calls a “brain-eating transphobic parasitic mindvirus.” This virus has become particularly acute over the last few years, with notable flare-ups including the U.K. Guardian being criticized by its U.S. counterpart for a transphobic editorial, the Minister for Women and Equalities referring to trans women as “men using women’s bathrooms,” and a former Economist editor turned transphobic pundit trafficking in antisemitic conspiracy theories.

It is a profoundly dangerous and degrading situation, and it seems to be getting worse. As Rumfitt states in one of many direct addresses to the reader, “This country is a grey country . . . and in recent years two things have become certain: it’s getting hotter and it’s getting greyer.” This novel is a work of horror and satire. It offers nothing so comforting as a solution. What it does offer is a raucous play amid the muck of the problem, an analysis of the filth through which a nation’s unhealthy obsessions continue to slither. An image of the worms that are coming for us all.


Since the start of her career, Rumfitt’s work has been defined by a kind of heady, allusive taboo breaking. Her first book, 2019’s The T(y)ranny, is a poetry collection described as “a critical deconstruction of Margaret Atwood’s work through the lens of a trans woman navigating her own misogynistic dystopia.” Dealing with Atwood’s most famous novel, Rumfitt makes a simple observation: “Trans women are not mentioned in The Handmaid’s Tale.” This line of thought develops through brutal imagery which recalls Atwood’s most chilling passages:

In Gilead they hang me upside down

they cut out my insides and replace them with

a working womb perhaps but I’m not happy about it


It hurts

And through passages which combine political critique with observational comedy:

Atwood says everything in the book really happens or has happened. I guess it resonated with America and Britain and Canada because in the book it was happening to white women. Canada in the book by the way is portrayed as some utopia which someday we’ll escape to. Maybe it’s heaven. Maybe when we die we see some gates think it’s heaven but it turns out they’re border gates guess what, it’s fucking Canada.

The fact that Rumfitt cut her teeth with this kind of blackly comic lit crit is important in understanding her subsequent work. Her novels incorporate much literary theory, sometimes as epigraphs and more often as pronouncements or references within the narration. Her first novel, Tell Me I’m Worthless, centers on the tangled fates of three young women who enter a house haunted by the spirit of fascism. We are told that vines crawl across the house “like the repressed returning,” and the narrative voice proclaims that

There’s a difference between a ghost story and a haunted house story. This feels so basic, but also so hard to articulate. A ghost story is about the thing that it tells you it is about: a ghost, an ephemeral thing from beyond the grave, trying to contact the living. A haunted house story is about more than that. It is about structure, architecture, and history. Like Jamaica Inn, a haunted house that isn’t haunted at all, but people said it was to cover up the truth of the matter. There aren’t any ghosts in the House. And yet it continues to be haunted despite this fact. 

These metafictional turns do not undermine the fear in Rumfitt’s stories. Rather, they heighten it. In this instance, the taxonomy of supernatural fiction is built up only to be knocked down by the primal force of the House. This is an entity that defies literary distinctions because it simply doesn’t care. It’s the classic gothic fear of the defiance of human rationality, only having recuperated the very approach which identified that fear in the first place. A genuine novelty, this: a horror story from which no student of English literature is safe.


According to Rumfitt, Brainwyrms is an attempt “to work out every worst-case scenario I can think of.” The novel’s inciting incident is a terrorist bombing of a U.K. gender identity clinic, which leaves Frankie, the only worker to survive the blast, severely traumatized. She strikes up a relationship with Vanya, a much younger nonbinary person, after the two meet in a fetish club. But as their relationship develops, Vanya’s controlling and manipulative landlord, Gaz, seeks to drive a wedge between them. Frankie and Vanya are soon embroiled in a larger conspiracy, as it’s revealed that the obsessive transphobia infesting the British media is being exacerbated by an unearthly invasive species: brain worms. 

The plot alternates between the shocking and the absurd, germane to Rumfitt’s main focus on a broad satire of British transphobia. Like Tell Me I’m Worthless, the book is a sickening lurch through the psychedelic landscapes of hatred, but where the previous novel focused mainly on the central characters, here Rumfitt also offers frequent and extended pastiches of transphobic literature. Observer columns, forum posts, and, of course, tweets take up a significant portion of the book, and Rumfitt displays a poet’s knack for the grotesquely perfect detail.

After the bombing of Frankie’s workplace, we read an Observer column titled “The gender clinic bomber is repulsive, but that doesn’t mean we should discount her fears.” Written, of course, by a woman named Karen. The attack inspires false flag conspiracy theories, whose scapegoats include “Stonewall and George Soros, though one person claimed, incomprehensibly, that David Attenborough was responsible.” And when a corporate pride billboard outside Frankie’s flat is destroyed by masked arsonists, Frankie reflects: 

She had hated it, hated its cloying tone, hated the way it made her feel lonely. But now it was gone and there was nothing left . . . she realised that things were going to get very, very bad, and that she should probably get out of this country before it was too late, or consider detransitioning, or just kill herself. Things were getting very bad very fast.

It’s enough to make one wish for the sanctuary of Canada. But even the more liberal parts of the Anglosphere are closed off in the novel. Rumfitt’s narrative voice reflects that “They like to tell you if you don’t like this country you should just leave, but where am I going to go? Canada? New Zealand? Iceland? I can’t go to NZ ’cause I’m too autistic. I’d be a burden on their health service, apparently.”

The frog is boiling, but the pot is sealed shut.


In a recent article for Esquire, Neil McRobert identifies Rumfitt as part of a new set of horror writers he dubs “Generation H.” A loose cohort including Eric LaRocca, Hailey Piper, and several others “taking a shake at the status quo,” Generation H, as described by McRobert, is a more diverse, boundary-pushing set than the genre’s traditional stalwarts, with a large number of LGBTQ+ authors among them. He notes that many of these authors are published by Titan Books, and we may add that several others, including Rumfitt, are published in the U.S. by Tor Nightfire, the horror imprint launched by Macmillan in 2021. (We may also add Gretchen Felker-Martin, who doesn’t appear in McRobert’s article but made her mainstream debut with Tor Nightfire in 2022 and has blurbed both of Rumfitt’s novels.)

Brainwyrms’ relationship to Generation H goes beyond a loose social connection and a shared publisher, however. Like Eric LaRocca’s Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, it shows a fascination with parasitism, including one memorable subplot about a tapeworm. Like Hailey Piper’s No Gods for Drowning, it involves a pantheon of inscrutable gods and a pivotal scene on an otherworldly beach. And like Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt, it features something awful happening to J. K. Rowling. (Or, rather, to “Jennifer Caldwell.”)

Over the last few years, Rowling has become an object of perverse fascination to the left. Between her opposition to Gender Recognition Act reform, her accusing the trans rights movement of “offering cover to predators,” and her words being quoted by a Republican senator in opposition to equalities legislation, she has become the default figurehead of the international transphobic backlash. As such, she has also become a prime target for satire, and Brainwyrms sets about this task with gusto. Jennifer Caldwell is described as “a walking god, a walking Twitter account” in the eyes of her acolytes, and her work is memorably lampooned as a series of children’s books “which started off mostly whimsical and ended up as strangely violent holocaust allegories in which witches were burned alive in ovens.” This comes to a head at the book’s climax, when Frankie is trapped in an orgy of hate-fucking among the anti-trans establishment and Caldwell is depicted as a fount of the titular brain worms:

Jennifer’s smirk became a smile. Then the smile grew wider than was natural, and her lips parted, revealing a mouth full of writhing white worms. The worms were in her eyes, too. They were hanging from her nostrils. She vomited a tidal wave of them down over Frankie’s face.

[. . .]

Jennifer was laughing.

“Oh, it feels so good!” she said. Whatever control she might have had over her excretion of the worms was now gone. They flowed out of her eyes, dripping down her sagging cheeks. “It feels so good, I could cry.”

It’s a brutal skewering of the transphobic movement’s most famous figurehead. Yet at the same time, there is a sense of Rowling as an influence the book can’t quite escape. Some of this is deliberate provocation: the underground lair of the novel’s evil sex cult is described as a “chamber of secrets.” But when the novel depicts a public toilet haunted by “[a] girl crying beneath the urinals,” it’s hard not to think of Rowling’s creation of Moaning Myrtle. Tying Rowling’s depiction of a victim of patriarchal violence to the current furor over trans people in public toilets is a canny satiric move, but this scene feels more melancholic than gleeful:

All the things you saw. All the orgasms. All the junkies shooting up because they never opened that safe injection site that they said they would.

The first kisses, the deaths. The slow-dancing together beneath the flickering light.

Was this country ever Great? No, but the public toilets were Great, I say, reaching out to you as you fade. The public toilets were Great.

When Gretchen Felker-Martin refers to fascistic transphobes as “the Knights of J. K. Rowling,” it’s with an air of transgressive glee. But while Rumfitt is hardly short on transgression or glee, she also identifies a kind of wasted potential in Rowling’s movement. In conversation with Frankie Miren, she observes that

there is a root to their argument which they, likely without realising, share with a lot of trans arguments. A lot of TERFs talk at length about not feeling like women, not feeling any sort of association with it as a category or role beyond their biology. This makes me sad!

For all of Brainwyrms’ cathartic play with the trappings of British transphobia, there is a sense of resentment at its necessity. As Rumfitt’s authorial persona laments, “I’ll never know what sort of writer I would have been if I didn’t live in this fucking world that forces me to write about transphobia.” It is easy to yearn for the work Rumfitt might produce in a more just world, and to worry about the future of works like hers in an increasingly censorious political environment. 

But the books we have are no less powerful for being produced under appalling circumstances. Brainwyrms may be Rumfitt’s finest effort yet; bleak, audacious, and utterly mesmerizing. A howl of rage and a knowing, rictus grin. Read it, while you still can.


Brainwyrms. By Alison Rumfitt. New York: Tor Nightfire, 2023. 304 pp. $17.99.


William Shaw is a writer from the U.K., currently living in Virginia. His work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Doctor Who Magazine.