Author Spotlight: Gwendolyn Kiste

Bio

Gwendolyn Kiste is the author of the Bram Stoker Award-nominated fiction collection, And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, from JournalStone; the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, from Broken Eye Books; and her debut novel, The Rust Maidens, from Trepidatio Publishing. Her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Shimmer, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Interzone, LampLight, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye as well as Flame Tree Publishing’s Chilling Horror Short Stories anthology, among others.

A native of Ohio, she currently resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can also find her online at Facebook and Twitter.

Interview

Hi Gwendolyn!! Thanks for taking the time to let me ask you a few questions. So first I want to get a bit of fan girling out of the way. You have quickly become one of my favorite authors. The stories in Her Smile really resonated with me and it is a book that I wish had been written when I was a teenager. The stories are powerful and beautiful.

Wow, thank you so much for saying that. I can’t imagine a higher compliment. When I’m writing, I often try to think of what would have helped me most when I was younger or when I’ve been at my lowest moments, and then I do my best to write stories that I would have wanted to read. So, your saying that really means so much to me. Thank you!

LOHF: Pretty Mary’s all in a Row was amazing. I love the way you took urban legends and folklore and made them human. I noticed in reading some of your other work you seem to pull a lot from fairy tales and folklore. What is your favorite fairytale or folklore and why?

Baba Yaga is probably my main go-to folklore legend. I adore her so much: her creep factor, her capricious nature, her wit and intelligence. Plus, she gets to ride around in a mortar and pestle, and her house is on chicken feet, so that’s pretty amazing too. More than anything, though, I like that she never conforms to traditional values. She’s not a meek female character, waiting around for some prince to save her. In fact, she’s as likely to help out the prince as she is to thwart him in his quest, and I love her for that, the ways she subverts the status quo. A fearsome lady after my own heart!  

 That being said, I’m sure it’s no surprise that I love all the Marys of folklore. They’re obviously so wonderful too. As a kid, I was always particularly afraid of Bloody Mary, and while I’m still not one to say her name three times in a mirror, I definitely feel a greater kinship to her since writing about her in Pretty Marys. I’ve come to believe she’s misunderstood rather than malevolent like we were so often told as children.

 LOHF: Perhaps I’m completely off-base but “Something Borrowed, Something Blue” in Her Smile reads as a very personal story. A very multi-layered one. It really spoke to me as a woman, and I felt ‘free’ at the end. Was that the intention?

 Absolutely, and it makes me so happy to hear that that’s how you felt at the end of the story. It’s very much about the expectations society puts on women and how we lose parts of ourselves in the process of trying to live up to other peoples’ rules. So much of my fiction deals with my own attempts to find my place in a world that often wants to crush individuality. In that vein, the protagonist in “Something Borrowed, Something Blue” is desperate to cobble herself back together after losing her way because of what her family and friends and community expected of her. It was important to me that she does indeed find her way, even if she takes a very strange and horrifying path to get there.

 LOHF: I really love the premise of The Rust Maidens and I can’t wait to read it. When I read the synopsis the first thing that came to mind was the factories in the mid-west that are going to rust. Where did the inspiration for The Rust Maidens come from?

I grew up in Ohio, and over the years, several of my family members worked in factories, in particular the steel mills, so those landscapes, which are now so desolate, have always been part of my life. When I started drafting ideas for a novel, I knew I wanted it to be something very personal set in a place that felt both strange and familiar. I’ve always been fond of books in which the setting is very much its own character, and my Rust Belt roots seemed like they were just rife for exploring in a way that drew out those desolate elements. Once I fleshed out the basic premise, which combined 1980s Ohio with body horror and coming of age, I was sure it was the right direction for my first novel.

LOHF: It feels like there’s a trend lately in horror where authors and readers put down others for not liking the same types of horror that they do. But everyone likes different things. What type of horror scares you?

That always disappoints me so much to hear that people are putting others down for not liking the same thing as they do. It’s fine to say that you don’t prefer something yourself, but there’s no reason to be mean-spirited about it.

As for me, I’m a big fan of “quieter” horror. I talk about Shirley Jackson in almost every interview I do, because her work explores exactly what scares me the most: the horrors of other human beings. Their apathy, their cruelty, their casual bloodlust, and all those other things that can make life so hard, especially for anyone who’s different. Shirley Jackson understood what makes people tick, and she unfortunately saw firsthand some of the nastier ways people can act toward one another. Consequently, her work explores the places in the horror genre that unsettle me most and get under my skin. Also, strange as this might sound, I love her sense of humor too. She’s able to unnerve me and make me laugh aloud, sometimes with the same paragraph, which only endears me to her writing even more.   

 LOHF: I read in another interview that you enjoy podcasts. Are there any that you would recommend?

 The Wicked Library is a great one. So many of today’s horror luminaries have passed through those creepy, hallowed halls with their short fiction at one point or another, so it’s a great place to look for good stories and up-and-coming horror authors. The podcast from This Is Horror is a good one for listening to authors talk about their process and give other insight into their work, which is always fun. I also absolutely love the Unnerving podcast, on which I’ve been a guest numerous times. Eddie Generous is a fantastic host and always asks really compelling questions in a format that feels very natural and conversational.

And of course, I’m looking so forward to what you have in store for The Ladies of Horror Fiction podcast! It’s definitely a welcome addition to the audio horror family!

 LOHF: What are your top five horror movies that you can watch over and over again? What Horror movie would you like to see be remade?

 Oh, the ever-changing top horror movie list! That’s always so hard to choose! Right now, I’ve got John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness on my mind, mainly because of its haunting ending (I’ll never view mirrors the same way again). The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has been a perennial favorite since I saw it for the first time as a teenager. Going back a little further, I adore the 1944 film, The Uninvited. In many ways, it’s such a simple ghost story, but it’s also a beautifully shot film, and I love Ray Milland and Gail Russell so much in it. Their performances are worth the price of admission alone.

 As for more obscure titles, The Sentinel is criminally underseen, and really, any film that has a deranged birthday party for a cat in a hat named Jezebel is a movie that every horror fan should see. Another very new favorite of mine is George Romero’s highly overlooked 1973 film, Season of the Witch. It’s incredibly surreal and maybe not a horror film in the strictest sense, but it’s got magic and strangeness in spades, so it’s definitely worth a watch for anyone who hasn’t seen it.

 In terms of remakes, I’ve always said that I would love to see The Monster Club get a modern treatment, if only to inspire more people to see the original. Not that you’ll ever be able to recapture the magic of the original cast, which included Vincent Price, John Carradine, Britt Ekland, and Donald Pleasance, but it would be fun to see what a new director could do with it, especially with some of the grander scenes like the very fabulous ghoul graveyard and the ballroom sequence. 

 LOHF: The Ladies of Horror Fiction is comprised of book reviewers, so we are always interested in what other people are reading. What is currently on your TBR?

 I’m almost afraid to look at my pile of books waiting to be read. It’s a constantly growing list that only ever seems to get longer! Right now, I’ve got Tragedy Queens: Stories Inspired by Lana Del Rey and Sylvia Plath and Madeleine Swann’s Fortune Box up next. I’m also always researching a lot of various nonfiction topics. I love music biographies, and I’m slowly working my way through Girls Like Us, which is about Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King, three female artists I admire greatly. Also in the nonfiction category, I currently have a well-loved copy of an herbal encyclopedia on my nightstand and a pile of Frank Lloyd Wright books on the kitchen table. Never a dull moment around here, that’s for sure!

 LOHF: Is there anything that you are working on at the moment that you could give us a sneak peak of? Please?

 I’m a little superstitious about sharing too much about works in progress, only because of how fickle creativity can be. I always worry that they’ll stall as soon as I talk about them. But I will say that I’m working on three short stories at the moment: a Final Girl reimagining, a Hammer Horror-inspired tale based in the Swinging Sixties, and a Dracula retelling from Lucy’s perspective, only with a rage-filled feminist twist. Suffice it to say, I’m in a real mood to look back at my cinematic influences and retool them in new and hopefully exciting ways. So stay tuned to see how those turn out, I suppose!

 LOHF: Are there any Ladies of Horror that we should keep our eyes out for?

 Too many to count, but I’ll give it a try! Christa Carmen, Christina Sng, Claire C. Holland, Lori Titus, Stephanie M. Wytovich, Julia Benally, Brooke Warra, Doungjai Gam, Denise Tapscott, Nadia Bulkin, S.P. Miskowski, Emily B. Cataneo, and Eden Royce are a few of my personal favorite female horror authors writing today. Also add Scarlett R. Algee, Sarah Read, Kristi DeMeester, Rebecca J. Allred, Saba Razvi, and Anya Martin to that list too. There are truly so many talented women writing today, and more are joining the fold all the time. Needless to say, it’s a thrilling moment to be a female horror author, and by extension, a horror fan.

LOHF: I asked around the Ladies of Horror Fiction and Emily from Book Happy wanted to know if you would lead our cult LOL?

 Absolutely! I’d be honored to! Only as my first order of business as leader, let’s just call it a club instead. We can still do just as many evil dealings, but I think ‘club’ is a nicer word than ‘cult.’ Seems friendlier for the new recruits! Plus, it will be easier for us to hide those aforementioned evildoings if we don’t give away our sinister intentions to others too early. 😊

 Synopses

The Rust Maidens

rustmaidensSomething’s happening to the girls on Denton Street.

It’s the summer of 1980 in Cleveland, Ohio, and Phoebe Shaw and her best friend Jacqueline have just graduated high school, only to confront an ugly, uncertain future. Across the city, abandoned factories populate the skyline; meanwhile at the shore, one strong spark, and the Cuyahoga River might catch fire. But none of that compares to what’s happening in their own west side neighborhood. The girls Phoebe and Jacqueline have grown up with are changing. It starts with footprints of dark water on the sidewalk. Then, one by one, the girls’ bodies wither away, their fingernails turning to broken glass, and their bones exposed like corroded metal beneath their flesh.

As rumors spread about the grotesque transformations, soon everyone from nosy tourists to clinic doctors and government men start arriving on Denton Street, eager to catch sight of “the Rust Maidens” in metamorphosis. But even with all the onlookers, nobody can explain what’s happening or why–except perhaps the Rust Maidens themselves. Whispering in secret, they know more than they’re telling, and Phoebe realizes her former friends are quietly preparing for something that will tear their neighborhood apart.

Alternating between past and present, Phoebe struggles to unravel the mystery of the Rust Maidens–and her own unwitting role in the transformations–before she loses everything she’s held dear: her home, her best friend, and even perhaps her own body.

Pretty Marys all in a Row

Pretty MarysYou’ll find her on a lonely highway, hitchhiking at midnight. She calls herself Rhee, but everyone else knows her by another name: Resurrection Mary. And when she’s transported home each night to a decrepit mansion on a lane to nowhere, she’s not alone.

In the antique mirror, call her name three times, and Bloody Mary will appear. Outside, wandering through a garden of poisonous flowers is Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary, a nursery rhyme come to gruesome life. Downstairs is another jump-rope rhyme–Mary Mack, forever conscripted to build her own coffin. And brooding in the corner with her horse skull is the restless Mari Lwyd.

They are the Marys, the embodiment of urban legend and what goes bump in the night. Every evening, they gather around the table and share nightmares like fine wine, savoring the flavors of those they’ve terrified.

But other than these brief moments together, the Marys are alone, haunting a solitary gloom that knows them better than they know themselves. That’s because they don’t remember who they were before–or even if there was a before. And worst of all, they don’t know how to escape this fate.

That is, until a moment of rage inspires Rhee to leap from the highway–and into the mirror with Bloody Mary. Suddenly, the Marys are learning how to move between their worlds, all while realizing how much stronger they are together.

But just when freedom is within their reach, something in the gloom fights back–something that isn’t ready to let them go. Now with her sisters in danger of slipping into the darkness, Rhee must unravel the mystery of who the Marys were before they were every child’s nightmare. And she’ll have to do it before what’s in the shadows comes to claim her for its own.

 And Her Smile will Untether the Universe

Her SmileA 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.

The Rust Maidens is still available for pre-order if you click on the cover you will go to  If you would like to purchase the books listed above click on the photos to be taken to either Better World Books or the publishers site.

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