A review of Gwendolyn Kiste’s debut collection that originally appeared in Black Static #59:-
WEIRD WANDERINGS: GWENDOLYN KISTE
With more than seventy stories appearing in numerous venues over the course of the past four years, including one apiece at Black Static and Interzone, American writer Gwendolyn Kiste’s name will be familiar to anyone who reads widely within the speculative genres. And now fourteen of those stories have been gathered together under the auspices of publisher JournalStone to form Kiste’s first collection, AND HER SMILE WILL UNTETHER THE UNIVERSE (JournalStone pb, 208pp, $18.95).
The collection opens with ‘Something Borrowed, Something Blue’. Told in the second person, it is the story of a woman who starts to give birth to birds, her plight signalling both the end of her marriage and a gradual alienation from society, with an unhealthy interest from the government, all culminating in a glorious moment of transformation. It’s a strange piece, the events off kilter from normal reality, painstakingly told and with genuine envelopment in the human plight of the protagonist, before plunging over the precipice and into the wild. The use of second person underlines the character’s sense of disconnection, while you get the feeling that by rendering the situation into something routine, with planned procedures to deal with any contingency, society strips the marvellous of both its wonder and the terror implicit in such an overturning of the apple cart. Finally we have the old adage of children who “fly the nest” given a form of literality here, and in the end metamorphosis we see the distinction between what is important and what is ephemeral that is at the story’s heart made flesh and blood. I’m waffling. Let’s just say I loved this strange, arch-weird story and leave it at that.
The next story is set in a world where people are inexplicably disappearing, and the ten questions of the title are a test to determine people’s “at risk” status. Set against the backdrop of ‘Ten Things to Know About the Ten Questions’ is the unfolding story of the friendship between Tally and Vivienne, showing how relationships can survive what is simply an intensification of arbitrary conditions, the characters vividly drawn and sympathetic, even as their relationship helps to undermine the rigid and scared society in which they live. With its policy of policing our friends and neighbours, it’s not hard to see this as a codification of the war on terror, or some similar nonsense, but at the same time the technique used, intruding the “questions” into the text, forces the reader to think about how we too engage with society, with friends and family, reminding us that in our social media reality it is all too easy to simply fade away. Sabrina, the protagonist of ghost story ‘The Clawfoot Requiem’, finds a unique way to preserve the spirit of sister Savannah, who committed suicide. With a central conceit worthy of Poe at his darkest, Kiste gives us a compelling tale of madness and portrait of a person in desperate straits doing what she can to make sense of the tragedy in her life. The story treads the thin line between the supernatural and psychological horror, this ambiguity adding to its power, with no doubt as to who is the real villain of the piece and an exposure of the self-righteous and judgemental for what they truly are, showing the damage they cause through their actions.
Along with ghost stories, fairy tales provide much of the inspiration for Kiste’s work. In ‘All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray’ the tale of the sleeping beauty who is awoken by the kiss of a prince is turned into a consumerist wet dream, with the owner of an orchard where magic apples grow getting rich on the back of poor people’s wish for their daughters to marry into wealth. It’s an intriguing and challenging conceit, with a subtext about the commodification of magic and romantic aspirations. Told from the viewpoint of the daughter of the orchard’s owner, this elegant and enticing story ultimately offers a powerful indictment of sexual stereotypes, with our heroine eventually seeking an escape from the traps and lures of convention through acceptance of the wildness of life and self-dependence. Molly Jane Richards writes letters to ‘The Man in the Ambry’ in a tale that maintains its ambiguity to the very end, with the reader left to decide if this is all in the character’s imagination or has some body to it, before the terrible revelation of the final pages. The conversational tone is kept up throughout, correspondence with an imaginary friend, one who perhaps is given a little too much substance as a result, with the matter of fact nature of it all reinforcing the abiding sense of weirdness.
A game of hide and seek assumes a chilling significance in short tale ‘Find Me, Mommy’, offering us a matter of fact and compelling portrait of grief transformed into madness, with echoes of ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ in the text and hinting at how evil comes into our lives when we are at our most vulnerable. Kaylee is haunted by ‘Audrey at Night’, the ghost of her former best friend whose trust she betrayed in the worst possible way, a truly intimidating spectral presence who claws her way across the bedroom floor, getting ever closer, giving us the most unsettling and memorable image in the entire collection, one that brings to mind Sadako of The Ring. But at the climax of this chilling tale of guilt and redemption Kiste turns it all around in a graceful plot twist that questions alliances of the past and puts their relationship under a microscope.
Children are sent to ‘The Five-Day Summer Camp’ for indoctrination, so that they will lead happy lives. It is a harsh depiction of a dystopian society, powerful and effecting, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest relocated to a fundamentalist boot camp for children, but also with its picture of sisters Arabella and Madeline one that is ultimately triumphal, showing the human spirit and will to the anarchic is not so easily extinguished. And yet in the final section there’s cause for a frisson of unease, Arabella’s last thoughts containing a hint of both rebellion and embryonic sociopathy, posing the question of whether sociopaths are the ones best situated to resist tyranny. Next story ‘Skin Like Honey and Lace’, offers a variation on the vampire myth, with female predators (possibly mermaids or selkies) who “feed” on the skin of humans. Kiste is superb at showing how alien these creatures are, but also the common ground they share with humanity, the need to be loved and love in return. It is a perfect slice of urban fantasy fused with horror, wet work woven into the bones of the story, as the predators feed and bodies are disposed of, but underlying this a very real emotional current, one that makes us care for these creatures even as we find much of what they do to be abhorrent.
Flash fiction ‘By Now, I’ll Probably Be Gone’ is a beautifully phrased evocation of revenge from beyond the grave, the words delivered in short bursts, so that they’re laid out on the page like the lines of a poem, a breathless eulogy for lost love and betrayal. Revenge is also prominent in ‘Through Earth and Sky’, with a witch avenging the death of her sister and raising her grandson in the old ways. Eloquently written and with a lyrical quality to the phrasing as the narrator addresses an audience who will never hear her words, it’s a powerful ode to the magic that resides in nature, and a plea for that power to be used wisely, at the same time underlining the folly of those who can believe in nothing greater than themselves.
The next story, which previously appeared in Interzone #264, gives a modern spin to the fairy tale trope of the princess in the tower. Young women become ‘The Tower Princesses’, growing shell like layers that will protect them from unwelcome attention. Mary falls in love with one of the princesses, a young woman named Linnea, but their love falls apart in the face of societal and family hostility, leaving her pining for what could have been. It’s a fascinating piece, incorporating themes of misogyny and victim blaming, but beneath all that a heart-warming sensitivity and acute awareness of who these people really are, making it one of the most moving stories in the collection, with the fantastic elements playing counterpoint to a story of love and loss. The protagonist of title story ‘And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe’ is obsessed with a murdered film star, collecting the few films she appeared in and falling in love with her. With echoes of Sharon Tate’s sad end in the text, touching on cinema lore and the allure of criminality, the tale moves inexorably to its moment of transformation/transcendence, where film and reality merge into one, the words on the page conveying their message of love and madness, pushing the envelope past the point where distinctions between the two are at all possible as final credits roll and our world is consumed by the blazing light.
Finally we have ‘The Lazarus Bride’, which is a variation on Groundhog Day giving us a wedding night which repeats endlessly, with the wife burning to death at midnight. Intercut with this is the back story to their relationship, a bittersweet tale of love and loneliness, of the folly of attempting to turn somebody into something that they’re not, and the equal folly of agreeing to be turned. Terrence and Gillian are two people who should be happy together, but they are undone by the intensity of their need. Emotionally charged and keenly felt, the story offers a superb end to this collection, one that merges Kiste’s use of the supernatural with the very real feelings that permeate her work and give it a weight that the merely weird would not achieve.
I loved this collection. It announces the emergence of a new writer with a strong and distinctive voice, one who is unafraid to take risks, and I can’t wait to see where Gwendolyn Kiste’s wayward talent takes her next.