Broken Eye Books, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-940372-31-0
I have no idea what to expect in Gwendolyn Kiste’s Pretty Marys in a Row, as the cover is the sole reason I picked it up in the first place. It’s a novella published by an independent publisher, which means I have to get the trade paperback format while some of you lucky people can get the far cheaper digital version via the Kindle store. Not that I am complaining, because I’m glad I get to read this one. Even if I have to pay $9.99 for it. Anyway.
Five of the Marys in popular culture live in an old deserted house in the middle of nowhere, ghosts that have to haunt their respective turfs every day. They scare people, and then come home to regurgitate their collected fears to feed all five of themselves. Actually, when the story opens, our protagonist Resurrection Mary (Rhee) and Bloody Mary (Red) are the ones who seem to be able to collect these fears from their victims. The remaining three – Mistress Mary (from the nursery rhyme about the garden), Mary Mack (Mack – the one from the kiddy rhyme), and Mari Lwyd (Lew) – come home empty handed these days and rely on Rhee and Red to feed them.
Rhee haunts the highways and, over the years, have formed a kinship to David, who drives the same road every night for every day in hopes of seeing her. It will be either the sweetest or saddest thing you can think of, that for him, one night in Rhee’s time can mean months, even years in the real world. Hence, David has known and even dreamed of having something better with Rhee for decades. Meanwhile, Red has “regulars” too – two twin sisters who keep summoning Bloody Mary to ask things and just talk.
In this story, Rhee starts out as a rather typical heroine of modern day fantasy stories. She’s chaffing at her lot, can be sassy and unnecessarily antagonistic at times, but as I turn the pages, I realize alongside Rhee that changes are coming. It seems like even ghosts are haunted… by something far more sinister and unfathomable to Rhee and her sisters. And if she wants to save herself and her sisters, she better get to the bottom of what is happening to Mistress, Lew, and Mack ASAP. Or else, there will be five less Marys for humans to worry about when night falls.
Pretty Marys in a Row is a delight because it is one of those stories that is full of surprises. Deftly paced and evocative especially for a novella, this story presents a story that may have a contemporary, upbeat tempo to the narrative but the atmosphere is beautifully Gothic and eerie. Rhee’s relationship with David is a bittersweet one, and it is a nice foil to her love-hate relationship with her sisters. Ultimately, this is a story that works for me at every level. It’s something I won’t forget in a while!