Pretty Marys All in a Row, Gwendolyn Kiste (Broken Eye Books 9781940372310, $9.99, 90pp, tp) November 2017.
Gwendolyn Kiste’s recent collection, And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, was one of the more impressive debuts of the past year, combining a graceful style with a striking and original vision. With her new novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, Kiste tries her hand at a longer form. The result is a fast-paced, entertaining narrative which recalls the work of Neil Gaiman and Cherie Priest without being overwhelmed by the comparison. The story is a ghost story told by a ghost, Resurrection Mary, who haunts a lonely stretch of highway for most of the night. She allows herself to be picked up by passing cars, to whose passengers she reveals her true nature, absorbing the fear the revelation produces. Towards the end of each night, she is whisked back to the house she shares with a quartet of other spirits, all of them named Mary as well. There is Mistress Mary, of the how-does-your-garden-grown rhyme; Mary Mack, who wears the silver buttons of her rhyme; Bloody Mary, who is confined to a mirror; and Mari Lwyd, who carries the horse skull of the traditional Welsh figure. Together, the women sit down to table to share what fear they have gathered while in the world of the living. Their meal concluded, they retreat to their portions of the house, there to await the next night.
Despite their routine, all is not settled among the ghosts. Only Resurrection Mary and Bloody Mary return with substantial nourishment anymore. In addition to her regular haunting, Resurrection Mary has struck up a relationship of sorts with a man who drives out to her stretch of road most nights to spend time with her; although he is alive and married, they engage in a kind of affaire de coeur. With the exception of a few, fragmented images, she remembers little of her previous life, which bothers her. Then a new complication arises: as she transits the darkness between the word of the living and the shadowy space she and the other Marys inhabit, an unfamiliar voice speaks to her. Masculine and sinister, it belongs to a figure who will threaten all the ghosts, who will seek to consume each whole. Ultimately, it will fall to Resurrection Mary to resist this enemy and arrive at a means of defeating him while rescuing her fellow Marys. Along the way, she will learn the truth about her previous identity, and about the identity she has occupied since her death. The result will leave her and the rest of the Marys permanently changed.
The novella is in the tradition of fantastic narratives in which figures from different myths, fables, and fairy tales are allowed to interact with one another in a contemporary setting. Kiste’s inspiration lies in part in her use of the common name to select her characters; it’s also in her decision to make Resurrection Mary’s history, when at last it is discovered, a comparatively mundane one. She is not another chosen one, destiny’s favorite. Her existence was ordinary, until, upon her death, she was given the role of Resurrection Mary. In the next life, no less than this one, women are assigned parts to play by men; the challenge for Resurrection Mary and her compatriots is to take control of the script, to write their own stories. She relates that struggle in a voice lyrical and humane.
Pretty Marys All in a Row caps what has been a banner year for Gwendolyn Kiste, one in which she has planted her standard for all to see. It flutters, heralding a new voice.
John Langan is the author of two novels, The Fisherman (2016) and House of Windows (Night Shade 2009), and two collections of stories, The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (2013) and Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (2008). With Paul Tremblay, he co-edited Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters (2011). One of the founders of the Shirley Jackson Awards, he served as a juror for its first three years. He lives in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley with his wife and younger son.
This review and more like it in the January 2018 issue of Locus.