For those out there who are unfamiliar with Gwendolyn Kiste’s gorgeous prose, The Rust Maidens would be a great place to start. After last year’s stellar collection, And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe, Kiste steps out with her debut novel, which rattles the soul in a disturbing, yet beautiful read.
The setting of Cleveland in 1980 renders this tale in a muted, depressive state that feels utterly claustrophobic, brought to life by exquisite yet unobtrusive prose. Several girls in the anemic neighborhood have contracted an illness that defies logic and science. What begins as something relatively innocuous — dripping water from their bodies — becomes much more dangerous and frightening: skin breaking open, revealing glass-like shards and rusted metal where bones should be.
The horror is quiet here, like the best of Shirley Jackson and Charlie Grant, as Kiste dissects the rotting body of the area which mirrors the internal strife of the people who live within the crumbling town.
Phoebe’s dual narrative, past and present, is a haunting one, as she returns home to revisit the bones of what she escaped long ago. The mystery of what happened to her best friend and cousin Jacqueline looms large over both timelines. The true antagonists of this novel are vague: the women who strive to hold power over the lives on Denton Street; the government agents who appear to investigate; the Rust Maidens themselves; or the self-destruction of the town.
To give away more would strip away the power of this beautifully told novel by one of the best new writers out there today. Kiste wraps her tale in a veneer that feels like a mix of the titular substance and the dust that settled over the dying town, resulting in a tale that is both unsettling and gut-wrenching. The emotion heft between the covers weighs down on the reader like the crush of a rust-riddled steel beam, suffocating in mood but resulting in a story that begs to be read and savored. Kiste is a star and if she keeps this up, might just match the mastery of the aforementioned authors.
A slam dunk as a finalist for this year’s Stoker Award.
Highly recommended for lovers of any genre.