And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe by Gwendolyn Kiste
JournalStone (April 2017)
210 pages; $15.95 paperback; $3.95 e-book
Reviewed by Dave Simms
Remember this name. Gwendolyn Kiste will one day rule the world of dark short fiction if there’s any justice. Every once in a while, a new voice emerges and takes the genre by storm. Several have broken the surface lately and shown tinges of greatness to be, but rarely is one “born” with a style and substance this mind-boggling.
The fourteen stories of And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe hit as hard as a sledgehammer packed with ambrosia and hallucinogens. Her style is both brutally dark and beautiful at the same time. The prose is beyond rich, yet not overwhelming. Think Peter Straub crossed with Shirley Jackson and you just might have an idea of how intoxicating her stories can be.
The stories themselves captivate. Each sucks the reader in, letting go only when the last word flows by, and, even then, something lingers—something good. The first one speaks of a woman who gives birth to birds (yes, seriously) and is incredibly dark and endearing. The emotions rendered by the resolution are palpable. Another describes a test for citizens that, if passed, allows them to remain in society. A failure damns them to leaving, but for what reason and how? The test itself is a conundrum. Is it regarding morals or conformity?
This collection recalls the bleakness of Sarah Pinborough’s The Death House, but it’s mental instead of physical disease. Plenty has been written about the final tale, “The Lazurus Bride,” and rightly so. While it’s not the best story in the bunch (it’s still wonderful), it’s second person point-of-view works where most others fail. Kiste writes to her lover, who may or may not be dead, in a head-twister that displays the pain of loving someone and how, sometimes, that love may not be enough.
These stories, reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s best retellings of classic tales and mythologies, spin tired tropes into something splendid. The praise for new writers is often exaggerated. Kiste seems as fresh as Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, Gary Braunbeck, or Pinborough. Pick this up and be ready for your mind to be turned inside out. Highly recommended.