And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe
by Gwendolyn Kiste
Review copy purchased electronically online
Description: A murdered movie star reaches out to an unlikely fan. An orchard is bewitched with poison apples and would-be princesses. A pair of outcasts fail a questionnaire that measures who in their neighborhood will vanish next. Two sisters keep a grotesque secret hidden in a Victorian bathtub. A dearly departed best friend carries a grudge from beyond the grave.
In her debut collection, Gwendolyn Kiste delves into the gathering darkness where beauty embraces the monstrous, and where even the most tranquil worlds are not to be trusted. From fairy tale kingdoms and desolate carnivals, to wedding ceremonies and summer camps that aren’t as joyful as they seem, these fourteen tales of horror and dark fantasy explore death, rebirth, and illusion all through the eyes of those on the outside—the forgotten, the forsaken, the Other, none of whom will stay in the dark any longer.
Review: My first instinct is to want to whack anyone who claims that women “can’t write” visceral or terrifying horror. Next time anyone dares to say something so stupid, I think I’ll use Gwendolyn Kiste’s masterful short story collection, And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, as my weapon of choice to hit them with. Through these stories, Kiste embodies herself as an heir to Shirley Jackson, providing a selection of phenomenal and memorable tales.
In the first of several of the short stories written in the second person point of view in this collection, we have “Something Borrowed, Something Blue,” which I was trying to think of how to convey, but let’s just say that disturbing doesn’t even begin to capture what this story is. I can’t do it justice, nor do I want to spoil it so all I’ll say is that it sets the tone for the rest of the collection with a tremendous force of impact.
“Ten Things to know About Ten Questions” starts with a rating survey format, which is an interesting narrative choice. People keep vanishing, and there are questions predict who will disappear next. Everyone has to take the test soon. You can imagine how the rest goes.
Morbid doesn’t begin to describe “The Clawfoot Requiem” about the relationship of two sisters and the impact of one’s death on the other with the theme of family secrets and the lies people tell each other. Other themes present in this story are loss, death, fear of abandonment, and the consequences of what happens when we can’t bring ourselves to let go.
She was a ghost even when she was alive.
“All the Red Applies Have Withered to Gray” could be a clever and twisted re-telling of Snow White, but it’s so much better while “The Man in the Ambry” is so creepy but that doesn’t begin to convey the impact of this story. It’s told in the form of an epistolary, through letters addressed to a man in the ambry, who sometimes gets a name. The protagonist defines the term ‘unreliable narrator’ here to a tee.
Continuing on the theme of girls drawn to darkness that doesn’t give them back (but with the notion that maybe they belonged to the darkness to begin with) is “Find Me, Mommy.” Meanwhile, one of my favourites, “Audrey at Night,” tells the story of a pregnant woman haunted by a ghost named Audrey, as the title implies. The twists and turns this story takes are like a roller coaster ride that ends in some ways inevitably but also with a huge bang.
Back to the theme of sisters, we get “The Five-Day Summer Camp,” about a summer camp that tries to force children to be obedient like robots. The grimness of this story spills from the pages. Continuing along the same lines is another of my favourites, “Skin Like Honey and Lace,” which presents women with a very unique supernatural affliction. This time, we also get the added theme of trying to fill the void of what we have lost with replacements we know won’t hold, but we have to try anyway until we realize that the void is a chasm that cannot really be filled. It is one of the most creative short stories I have read in a long time.
We hold on to the memories we don’t want, and we lose the ones we cherish.
In “By Now, I’ll Probably Be Gone,” the vicious energy of the protagonist leaps off the page and presents another hugely memorable tale.
The wound inside you never close…
The next two stories — “Through Earth and Sky” and “The Tower Princesses” get into the theme of girls who are expected to ‘stay in line’ and never transgress, lest they be punished. We then get the title story, “And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe,” — one of the most unique turns of phrase I have encountered, period — which goes back to the second-person point of view, and is definitely a story film buffs will enjoy.
You were the star, and I was the shadow.
Extending the theme of doomed couples, we get “The Lazarus Bride,” which is beautifully told, and overall, as I read through this collection in one sitting, it ended up being one of my favourites as well. This collection should have won every major award for horror short story collections in my humble opinion. I’ve never encountered a collection in which I have enjoyed every single story I read, and although I enjoyed some more than others, the quality of the writing here was simply staggering and mind-blowingly good. If you haven’t read Gwendolyn Kiste’s fiction yet, please rectify that immediately. She is a shining talent in the horror genre, and one I hope to read more from soon.