|Cover Art by gawki, Design by Jeremy Zerfoss|
Pretty Marys All in a Row by Gwendolyn Kiste (novella)
Centering on five ghosts, five Marys, all living in the strange house, sharing the same strange afterlife, the story explores death and hunger, vulnerability and bodies. Rhee is Resurrection Mary, a ghost of a lonely stretch of highway, and her life is a mix of nights spent hunting, haunting the road for fear to feed off of, and time spent in the otherworldly home of her and her sisters, where she waits for dawn and where she wakes, though she doesn’t always know how much time passes between visits to the real world, at least not until she asks David, an old friend who always tries to meet her. The piece reveals the yearning situation these ghosts are in, trying to hold onto a world that seems to be always slipping away. And trying to slip onto the people who matter against the weight of time and expectation and cycles of loss. Rhee becomes the focus of the story because of her ability to reach out and connect with people, something that makes her powerful in many ways, and a target in others.
The cast of the story is great. Aside from Rhee, there’s Red (Bloody Mary), who is confined to her mirror; Mistress (Mistress Mary, quite contrary), who is made of plant matter, Mack (all dressed in black), and Lew. The five of them exist in the same house, share meals of fear they take from their nightly haunts, and have become something of a family. Not the most harmonious of families, but sisters still, bristling at each other and their confinement but also, ultimately, fiercely loyal and protective of each other, willing to do anything to stay together, and to help each other. The extended cast includes those people who the ghosts have formed connections with in the “real” world, mortals who act as their lifelines to living, to remembering what it was like to be alive, even as the ghost can’t really remember anything of their lives before the house, before being dead. Most prominently of the extended cast is David, Rhee’s connection and a man who seems always to be waiting for her, who has remained loyal to her throughout her afterlife. Their relationship is tender and tragic, unable to touch physically and yet stuck orbiting each other, drawn back time and again. Like Rhee’s relationship with her sisters, it’s something that she’s not always happy about, but it’s something that remains beautiful and redeeming even as the darkness swirling without and within threatens to tear apart everything that Rhee cares about.
The story is a ghost story, which means it’s a mystery, the action mostly involving the question of who Rhee and the others “really are” and what has put them into this situation. Slowly Rhee begins to uncover the truth, but even as she does the darkness at the heart of the mystery grows stronger and stronger, forcing Rhee and the others to act, to choose between accepting their own diminishing role in the world, their own gradual erasure, or taking a stand together, breaking the rules and choosing their own fates. For me, there’s a strong focus on not just consent, but active and informed consent. Time and again the emphasis is put on the importance not of being chosen or falling victim to a world that can often be cruel and arbitrary, but on the choices that the characters make in defiance to a world that expects them to mirror and amplify that cruelty. Instead, Rhee and her sisters choose to affirm each other, choose to value their own found family, refusing to turn on each other or give up on each other. The situation pushes them in directions they’re not comfortable with and that are harmful to them and so they fight back. The action of the piece is gripping and dark, the immense pressure and weight of the hurt and loss seeming too much to bear at times. And yet.
Ultimately the story works for me on the strength of the connections the characters make with each other. Even when things are at their bleakest, there’s still this hope because the characters still want to be there, to live in whatever way they can. Though the world grinds them down until they are faded and paper-thin, they are able to still reach each other and inspire each other to keep going. To find ways to find revel in the dark and find meaning even when it’s supposed to be impossible. There’s a hope to the writing and to the world that lives in the characters, that it’s not too late to make your own future, to forge your own bonds, to take a kind of control back and own your own decisions. It’s difficult at times and it’s not the cleanest, not the happiest of endings. But it feels real, and powerful, and beautiful, and it makes for a fantastic read.