Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on February 25, 2018
***This review contains spoilers***
'And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe,' Gwendolyn Kiste:
“Something Borrowed, Something Blue”
The first story in ‘And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe,’ Gwendolyn Kiste’s debut short fiction collection, is a haunting tale about a woman whose womb is the origin of twelve birds’ births, and whose life both unravels and, surprisingly, comes full circle because of this strange affliction. There is a disconcerting feel to the events of the story, an almost Hitchcockian disquiet in that the reader is uncertain of just what the birds are capable of. There is a macabre beauty, a feeling of divine otherness at work as well, that progresses in the story like cool water in a fast-flowing river thanks to the lyricism of Gwendolyn’s prose. The concept of “Something Borrowed, Something Blue” is dark and intriguing, and its execution is flawless. It’s written in the second person, and I’m beginning to think—after this piece, as well as the titular story, and Gwendolyn’s contribution to the Unnerving anthology, ‘Hardened Hearts,’ “40 Ways to Leave Your Monster Lover” (“The Lazarus Bride” is written in first person but incorporates a significant amount of narration in the second person as well)—that there’s really no one deploying the second person point of view to their advantage within horror and dark fantasy better than Gwendolyn at present. I can think of other works that utilize the second person skillfully, but none that combine page-turning plot, atmospheric setting, strong character development, and hypnotizing language the way “Something Borrowed, Something Blue” does.
“Ten Things to Know About the Ten Questions”
A chilling story with a unique structure, this one had me checking the bed beside me to make sure my husband had not up and joined the ranks of the missing. The questions that weren’t really questions, but “just a series of banal statements,” were a perfect mix of apocalyptic foreboding and, well, a banal standardized testing questionnaire. Tally is an endearing and relatable friend to our narrator, the kind of friend you always wished you’d had, but who now might very well be leading you toward a place from which you cannot return. Do you trust her guileless smile, and follow her when it’s your time? With the ‘real’ world as Gwendolyn paints it in ‘Ten Things to Know,’ do you have a choice? (Okay, Gwendolyn’s stylistic choices must be rubbing off on me, because I’m now writing my review in the second person!)
“The Clawfoot Requiem”
I’m always mesmerized by stories of female madness, because so many of them are truly about the illusion of madness overlaid upon a woman’s grief, or otherwise inappropriate emotional state, and “The Clawfoot Requiem” is another entry into this canon. Who is to say that Sabrina’s sister’s soul was not suspended in the bloodied bathwater, which is really to say, who is to dictate that there is only one right way to grieve? I found this story to be deliciously reminiscent of “The Yellow Wallpaper” in that the female protagonist is constantly being bullied into how she should feel by ill-advised, ‘well’-intentioned family members, where ‘well’-intentioned means ‘my’-intentions, for whichever character is presently forcing his or her beliefs onto the sufferer (related side note: Sabrina and Savannah’s aunt is a perfectly wretched villainess.) I felt that the ending, in which Sabrina has managed to salvage a portion of her sister’s soul into a Mason jar and triumphantly states, “But we fooled them all[...d]idn’t we darling?” also echoed the counterintuitively gleeful scene at the close of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic short story:
‘ “I’ve got out at last[...]in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him ever time!’
“The Clawfoot Requiem” ends with the line: “Giggling, Savannah smiled back at me.”
Female madness? Or the celebration of a hard-earned success after an acute period of grief (or post-partum depression)? Who is to say, really?
“All the Red Apples Have Withered to Grey”
A dark and daring fairy tale, in which the daughter of a heartless apple orchard owner sets her father’s world on fire, and in doing so, achieves her freedom. Notice I didn’t say ‘earns’ her freedom, because it was never her father’s right to hold her, or any of the other sleeping girls, hostage in the first place. I absolutely adore stories that upset traditional gender roles, and ‘All the Red Apples’ took the power from the princes, the counts, the barons, and the cruel and punitive fathers, and put it into the hands of the patient and long-suffering women. I relished the moment the protagonist sets fire to the apple trees, and only hoped the blaze would consume everything unworthy of persisting.
“The Man in the Ambry”
Ah, “The Man in the Ambry.” What a bold, remarkable story. I loved the epistolary structure (one sided, mind you, until the very last letter, from ‘A Distraught Mother’) and again, the element, and analysis-through story-telling, of female otherness disguised as female madness. The reader was privy to so much of Molly Jane Richards’ personality through both her letters, and the clever, humorous, and always-fitting sign-offs she included at each letter’s close. I longed for Molly’s ambry-dwelling pen pal to be disproved a figment of her imagination à la the Gerard Johnstone-directed New Zealand horror film, ‘Housebound,’ but alas, this was not how our trusted author saw things fit to be. As it was, I valued the ending I received over the ending I desired, and imagined Molly to finally be among her only two friends, Snappy and Andrew, along with all the dead mice they could laugh at.
“Find Me, Mommy”
This story, while eerie and horrific, has immense sadness weaved within its words, and in that sadness brings to mind “The Monkey’s Paw.” Yes, there are things worse than death, but would we mind facing them if it meant we got to see our lost loved ones again? A short but poignant story, and one anyone, not just a mother, can relate to, to the pain that moves in at the first clutch of the Grim Reaper’s skeletal fingers, and the lengths we’d go to see through the miasma of death.
“Audrey at Night”
I was shocked at how powerful this story was, with subject matter—a woman who ends up marrying her high school best friend’s boyfriend—that wouldn’t normally strike me as rife with hard-hitting emotion and exceptionally creepy scenes. The twist at the end made “Audrey at Night” one of my favorites in the collection; the surprise revelation made the protagonist’s situation no less monstrous, but took the identity of the monster and pinned it on another point of the star-crossed love triangle (although, once the twist was revealed, the actual monster made a lot more sense, both in the ‘real’ world, and in the world Gwendolyn has created within her two hundred and five page collection). Don’t get me wrong; regardless of Daniel’s actions and how both Kaylee and Audrey’s perceptions of them shed light on the story’s true monster, Audrey creeping across the floor with her claw-like fingernails? Nightmare fuel!
“The Five Day Sumer Camp”
Like “Ten Things to Know About the Ten Questions,” “The Five Day Summer Camp” has a secret that it’s not giving up, yet acknowledges that the kids at the center of the respective controversies know more about what’s going on than the adults give them credit for. Know more, and are not liking what that knowledge entails. The pair of sisters featured in this tale are impossible not to root for, and though I feared Arabella had been transformed by the brainwashing tactics of the five-day summer camp, I had faith in both the author and the influence of Arabella’s sister, Madeline, and was relieved when the “fun” and retribution were only being postponed until a Red Day in the (hopefully) very near future.
“Skin Like Honey and Lace”
I held the concept of this story in high veneration, published for the first time in this collection and on the cusp of the year of the two-hundredth anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The young women in “Skin Like Honey and Lace” are bound by a terrible habit (I won’t say bound by a terrible ‘need’ because by the story’s close, the M.C. makes the decision to go against what was assumed to be the group’s—lead by Emily—very nature); for a long while this habit sustains them; ultimately, it causes them to devolve into women connected only be “heinous ritual[s] catalogued and forgotten.” To piece oneself together with layers of other humans’ skin could be a metaphor for a thousand horrid fates we suffer every day, and that comes across here, but never at the expense of the story, or of Clare’s redemptive relationship with Nathalie, and the achingly beautiful final scene the two characters’ share.
“By Now, I’ll Probably Be Gone”
The only thing I want to say about this flash piece is that the space between the opening line: “By now, I’ll probably be gone” and the last: “Unless of course, I’m still here,” makes that final utterance so very, very terrifying.
“Through Earth and Sky”
Another shorter piece, structured around a twist on second person story-telling: “If they listened, they’d...” This story is full of loss, magic, suffering, loyalty, and witchcraft. Perhaps, if readers listened, they’d feel the full weight of this story on their consciences.
“The Tower Princesses”
It must be said that one of my favorite short stories of all time is Joe Hill’s “Pop Art.” The story is about an inflatable boy named Arthur, or, Art, and the best friend who loved and lost him, and it is presented, in that wonderful way that magical realism allows for, as if the concept of a walking, talking inflatable boy is as natural as red hair or different colored skin tones. Like red hair and different colored skin—the natural human traits of different individuals—being inflatable carried with it enough of that notion of “otherness” (an “otherness” projected by close-minded people onto those they are deeming, ‘other’) to result in Art, and in the case of “The Tower Princesses,” Linnea and the other girls locked in vertical coffin-like structures made of brass, mahogany, redwood, barbed wire, or rose thorns, being condemned to the status of ‘outsider.’ As outsiders, Art and Linnea attract sensitive, ‘other’-in-their-own-way, friends, and in the spaces between those respective friendships are the cruxes of these stories’ effectiveness. Emotionally, “The Tower Princesses” absolutely slayed me; lost innocence, the death of a relationship, of a life together that could have been, and Mary’s blind hopefulness that it might still be...what this meant for me was that perhaps of all the stories in Gwendolyn’s collection, “The Tower Princesses’ ” hypothetical ending is the most devastating one.
“And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe”
Of course, it must be said that “And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe” is a homerun of a story title, and an obvious eponymous story for the collection. Another second person point of view choice that works well with the story’s subject matter, and a relatable premise, for what purveyor of the cinematic arts has not become fixated on an actor or actress that truly seems larger than life?
“The Lazarus Bride”
At this point in my review, it’s obvious that to say I enjoyed Gwendolyn Kiste’s debut collection is a vast understatement of poisonous-apple guile. By the time I reached the final installment, I didn’t think it would be possible for a story to sweep me off my feet any more than “Audrey at Night,” “The Man in the Ambry,” or especially “The Tower Princesses” already had. And then I come to “The Lazarus Bride.” This wasn’t just my favorite story of the collection, it ended up being one of those short stories that, as Carmen Maria Machado likes to put it, “changed my very temperature.” That it’s about a newly-married (or, long-married?) woman who bursts into flames each night and has to be called back from the ashes by her well-meaning but regrettably inadequate husband only fuels that ‘raised temperature’ metaphor to perfection. This story spoke to my very soul, and I love how I could think of numerous symbolic explanations for the “you” of this story, the M.C.’s Lazarus bride (remember, this story is in first person, but the first person protagonist utilizes second person often in his narration of events), but that I could choose the explanation that best spoke to me as the reader, and subsequently underwent the most utterly rewarding of reading experiences. Talk about an amazing example of an idea starting in an author’s head and ending in the reader’s...this story is the epitome of how a great piece of fiction makes the reader do some of the work. I loved it to the point that I read it several more times after the initial devouring, and took something different away from it, something a little more resonant and heart-breaking, each time.
It is safe to say that this will be the case with Gwendolyn Kiste’s collection on the whole: I will absolutely reread ‘And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe’ whenever I want a full-bodied, intoxicating dose of horror/dark fantasy; whenever I want to be made proud of the work Gwendolyn is doing for women in the genre, and for the genre in general; whenever I want to be inspired by Gwendolyn’s ability to twist tropes, gender roles, and story structure; and whenever I want to have to work as a reader, to engage my senses and my intellect, as only the very best of authors are wont to have their readers do.