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Black Static

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The Late Review: Pretty Marys All in a Row

26th Jan, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Published by Broken Eye Books in 2017, Pretty Marys All in a Row is the first and so far only novella I have read by Gwendolyn Kiste.

Resurrection Mary (Rhee to her friends) haunts a stretch of road, scaring drivers or sometimes riding with her friend David. As daybreak approaches she must return to the cemetery and from there to the house she shares with four other Mary ghosts - Mistress, Lew, Mack, and Red. But lately things have been changing, with the others growing insubstantial, while Rhee has heard a voice speaking to her, an entity she refers to as the darkness, which she believes is the source of the Marys' problems. To save herself and her friends, Rhee must delve into their pasts, solve the mystery of the house and the identity of the darkness.

This is fun house Gothic (new subgenre - you heard it here first), with settings infused with both a Gothic sensibility and a certain macabre beauty - haunted highways at night, the tombstone lined avenues of ancient graveyards, and an old house filled with dust and cobwebs that wouldn't look out of place in Mockingbird Heights or on Cemetery Ridge. The ghosts may scare people, but because they need to rather than out of malice, and the people they scare aren't harmed beyond the passing shock while some like the sensation, keep coming back for more, like roller-coaster aficionados with a season pass. The narrative dynamic of the book is not down to any threat the ghosts pose, but to the nameless menace they face.

Central to what makes Pretty Marys All in a Row special is characterisation. The five ghosts are brilliantly done - Rhee, with her love of dancing and attraction to the past; Mack who is continually building her own coffin and carries it on her back, the naïve one; Lew, complete with horse skull and alcohol problem, the argumentative one; Mistress, with her coterie of vines and killer plants, the bossy one; Red, who only appears in a mirror, the peacemaker and wise one. And then there are their human counterparts, the people who haunt the ghosts - Gladys from Minneapolis, who wants to teach Lew how to cook; the twins who are fascinated with Red and invoke her nearly every night; David who leaves his wife to cruise the highway in search of Rhee, compelled by a woman he can never touch; and Abby, David's four year old daughter, who can see and talk with ghosts, and is totally blasé about the whole experience. While he might be the 'big bad' of the story, the darkness is perhaps the least fully drawn, the one who doesn't really exist outside of his appetite and unthinking adherence to tradition, and yet in a way this makes him all the more menacing.

And yes, I should mention the writing, luminous prose which captures this beauty and character, effortlessly conveying both the strangeness and the rightness of it all. Kiste has a gift for the right words, for saying things in a way that strikes the reader both for their uniqueness, the slant they bestow on events, and also how appropriate they are, though often this is seen only in hindsight. She is a poet of the darkness.

Finally what makes Pretty Marys All in a Row so exceptional is the over arching concept, the idea that ghosts depend on our belief and that they are archetypal figures, roles to be filled by those who have been chosen to grow into them from childhood. Destiny is the word I am looking for, and Kiste's novella shows that we don't have to accept our fate, that we can throw off the chains of the past and forge a new path of our own. Marvellous stuff.





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