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Review of "Pretty Marys All in a Row" by Gwendolyn Kiste

Part of the reason American Gods works is that it offers a kind of reward to folk lore mavens and religious study majors. Do you have a working familiarity with obscure Northern European mythologies? Are you able to describe what Neil Gaiman got right and what he fudged a bit in terms of the Egyptian religion? Then the guessing games of that novel - just which Middle Eastern Goddess is this? - magnify its other charms. 
Cover for Novella
"Pretty Marys All in a Row" by Gwendolyn Kiste (released by Broken Eye Books), is a novella for people, like me, who are waiting impatiently for the next season of Bryan Fuller's show. It's not set in that universe, certainly, but approaches the question of folklore from a similar perspective. Namely, that myths have a definite, physical explanation and your knowledge of such things will expand your enjoyment of the work. In the case of Pretty Marys, the stories are urban legends and nursery rhymes about young women. The main character, Rhee, is named after Resurrection Mary, a famous 'vanishing hitchhiker' ghost from the Midwest and her 'sisters,' Mistress, Red, Mack and Lew, all come from similar sources.

Having read many of Kiste's stories and counting myself an ardent fan, I can happily report that Kiste's craft and artistic ambitions are all very much in top form here. This is the first long-form fiction of hers I've read but it will not be the last. Her wit and polished style scale up nicely and added up to a read that ended much too soon. 

"Fallen Stones" by Morgan Crooks (2012)
The mechanics of the Mary's afterlife have a pleasing ambiguity to them. I'm reminded of "Archivist Wasp," by Nicole Kornher-Stace, a post-apocalyptic ghost tale from a couple of years back. Like Kornher-Stace, Kiste adopts certain tropes of ghost tales only to subvert them later. Rhee is certainly dead and insubstantial, and her habit of terrifying those unlucky enough to encounter her fit the bill for a phantom. However, in ways both small and large, a reader sees Rhee's fate is not a 'natural' state but rather the product of a sinister trap. Even though she is dead, she still needs to eat. Terrorizing random drivers gives her sustenance that must be shared with her 'family.' Not all of the Marys have the same ability to wrench psychic pain from mortals and the ability of the Marys to scare people is clearly waning. As much as Rhee might like to escape her home, a shadowy mansion located outside of the physical world, she feels obligated to help and care for her sisters.

A chance encounter with a person from Mary's her life pre-resurrection awakens her to an understanding that although she is dead, her half-life as a shade is drawing to a close. Already, a new generation of Marys are being groomed to take their place in the Mansion.

What fascinated me about the story is the relationship between Rhee and the legend to which she becomes bound. Rhee is not simply Resurrection Mary. The same myth that sustains the Marys' twilight existence also chains them to hungers of a much more powerful and frightening force. A very clear line is drawn between how the roles the characters inhabit in the afterlife - maiden, mother, matron, mourner, and monster - seduce and enlist the next group of Marys. The stories they are unwitting participants in produce more storytellers eager to tell them. As Rhee's struggles to free herself and her sisters, she struggles to rewrite our culture's most pernicious fables, the ones so sweet and ubiquitous, we don't even realize why they were written. 

Reviewer's Note: I received a PDF version of the novella for the purpose of reviewing the work.

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