By S. L. Edwards
You’ve heard the story before. Growing up in Dallas, we called it “The Woman in White.” A man traveling alone at night sees a woman in a white dress by the side of the road (along White Rock Lake, in my version of the story). He pulls over and asks her if he could take her anywhere. She nods, crying and gives him an address. From there the story has a number of endings, most of them depending on the character of the man driving. If wants something from the woman, he will turn to the back seat and find a corpse staring at him. If he is a better sort of man, he’ll drop her off at an old house or the gates of a cemetery. When he turns around, she’ll be gone.
That’s where “The Woman in White” ends.
It is also where Gwendolyn Kiste’s story begins.
Kiste has already been making waves this year. After seeing rave reviews of her debut fiction collection Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, I decided to pick up Pretty Marys All in a Row to get a longer sampling of her writing. Kiste manages to take a cast of ghosts, one quite literally dripping in blood, and create a set of relatable and compelling characters. The resulting story is not a horror story, but a fantasy tale constructed from intertwining legends and fables.
More importantly, the result is fun. In a genre (subgenre?) crowded with stories of dread, self-destruction, and loathing, Kiste manages to drive away from the darker aspects of fiction and strike out on her own path. Of course, the horror is still there, but is not in monsters or other people. Instead, the horror of Kiste’s story is a more relatable, commonplace and creeping fear: that of being forgotten, or of being defined solely by others. The ghosts (Marys) have all been made by their stories and their legends, confined to play out certain roles and never to stray from them. The constraints are rigid, frustrating and horrifying to the main character Rhee and her “sisters.” Though the fear is relatable, it is a deeply profound one. The fear of someone else dictating your story and your character, of being made into something rather than becoming something is not an easy subject to breach.
And yet, to come back to the first point, Kiste manages to do so in a way that is both innovative and fun. The story manages to invoke numerous few smiles, especially in its more charming and romantic moments. Rhee has a habit of spelling out her own problems, but as a young person (or the ghost of a young person) this makes sense. By pointing out her own problems, readers get the impression of someone trying to solve the mystery surrounding their being. While it may be distracting to some, Rhee’s habit also contributes to the overall tone of her character. Her impatience regarding the mystery of her being is palpable, as is her desire to have meaningful relationships with both her sisters and the people she meets on her nightly haunts.
The lofty story is accompanied by an equally lofty style. Kiste manages fold worlds, to create swirls of darkness and color that dance on along the edges of the story. Her characters are often consumed by description, invoking a vivid picture in which the reader rests the same uneasy footing as her ghosts. The appearance of her ghosts bleeds into their distinctive personalities, and even their haunted house has a personality and life of its own (as a side note, I was a fan of the endless cabinet of mead and Mary Lew). Through this careful work, Kiste presents a menagerie of ghosts and makes them as relatable and dysfunctional as any family.
The final result is a story that is fun, sad and uplifting all at once. Readers will be drawn in by the unique premise, but they should stay for the excellent characterization. They will be treated to ghosts slamming skulls against tables, long drives on abandoned highways and smiling, bloody faces peering out from mirrors. Gwendolyn Kiste’s novella has all the makings of a classic, and luckily the door seems to be open to a sequel. I for one, would love to see these ghosts (Lew) again.
Buy Pretty Marys All in a Row HERE
Buy Turn to Ash HERE
Connect with S.L. Edwards HERE