Saturday 13 July 2019

Gwendolyn Kiste: Confronting Ghosts

Not pictured: awesome book. Pictured: awesome hat.
Gwendolyn Kiste is a rapidly rising star in the realm of literary horror. Her 2017 short fiction collection And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe was nominated for a 2017 Bram Stoker Award. I was lucky enough to meet Gwendolyn at this year’s StokerCon, where her book The Rust Maidens won the 2018 Stoker Award, in the First Novel category, which is the one category where you only ever get the one shot. Gwendolyn is a really great person, and she was a source of a great deal of energy and light at StokerCon. When her name got called at the awards dinner, I cheered harder for her than I did for anyone.

Gwendolyn is rapidly moving towards the category of "prolific" and already has a new, limited edition chapbook out, The Invention of Ghosts, but I really wanted to talk with Gwendolyn about The Rust Maidens.

The Rust Maidens is an exceptional work of fiction, and it ties into pretty much every one of my favourite horror subgenres and themes. In the book, we follow the story of Phoebe, a teenager in the 1980s and a middle-aged woman in the present day, as she tries to unravel and come to terms with the mystery of the Rust Maidens, a group of teenage girls living in depressed city of Cleveland, Ohio whose bodies begin to turn into industrial decay from the inside out.

If you haven’t read The Rust Maidens and want to, here’s the inevitable spoiler warning. Anyway, this is Gwendolyn and me, talking about the beauty of body horror, the monstering of teenage girls, healing in exile, and the spiritual consequences of Bad Reputations.

I got mine signed. Pleased about that.
hdi: I think The Rust Maidens is the first new novel I've been really excited about for a long time. I think that's partly because you caught a historical moment with it, a wider preoccupation in horror and fantasy with the way that our environment changes and destroys us, so that in the book the girls become infused with the urban decay that surrounds them, physically and spiritually. I'd love to hear your thoughts about why this is a Thing right now, and what it means to you.

GK: Growing up in the Rust Belt in America, urban decay is everywhere, so that makes these landscapes of rot and rust very personal to me. I used to say as a writer that I didn’t want to “go home,” as it were. I had this idea that I should travel to other places as a storyteller. But once I decided to write about my home state, it became incredibly cathartic.

As to whether or not this kind of horror is having a moment right now, I certainly hope so. I like the idea that we’re looking to the urban decay we’ve created, because maybe then we can start trying to understand how things ended up like this, and in doing so, maybe we can stop it or reverse it or even learn a better way to live with it. That’s certainly there in The Rust Maidens, in particular with the ending: learning how to deal with what we’ve done and how we can live with and alongside the past without being destroyed by it.

hdi: And that's especially interesting because your solution to that problem revolves around the character of Phoebe. And Phoebe really interests me, because she herself has been monstered by her community before the book begins, and we never get a specific shape of that, just that nebulous capital-B-capital-R Bad Reputation that girls are prone to get stuck to them without them ever having done anything all that bad. But it seems to me that it's because she's an outcast, exiled from the spirit of the community, that she escapes the fate of the other girls. Because she isn't allowed to be one of the transformed girls. Is it precisely that which makes her able to come back and settle affairs? Is healing the preserve of the exile?

GK: Wow, I absolutely love that idea of healing and exile being tied together. That’s at once a beautiful and sad sentiment, and there’s a lot of truth to it. On some level, we all want some semblance of acceptance, be it from friends or family or a community itself. For Phoebe, her journey back to Cleveland once she’s an adult is a catharsis in virtually every sense. She needs to find that path back not just to the place she’s from, but also to herself, so that she can heal and ultimately forgive herself for what happened and for how she couldn’t change the past.

Her bad reputation is a huge part of what exiled her in the first place, and I like that you point out how nebulous it is, because that’s what bad reputations usually are, right? They’re completely without form and almost always without reason. Phoebe is outspoken and seemingly “difficult,” but she doesn’t do anything to “deserve” that kind of exile. But that’s why things are so hard on Denton Street for everyone, especially the girls—it’s all because of these expectations that we force onto people without any real reason.

I very much see that the way Phoebe has been othered prior to the start of the novel as being part of the reason she doesn’t change. She already lives in this sort of liminal space of not belonging in the only neighborhood that she has ever called home, so she doesn’t feel as rooted there as the other girls do. Phoebe doesn’t belong, so she couldn’t become part of that landscape. It has rejected her in that way, and she’s also rejected it, by making plans for getting out after graduation. However, the girls that feel so trapped and entrenched in the community are the ones that see no escape; hence, their transformation into the rust and rot of Cleveland.

(Also, for the record, if another reader did not deduce this as the reason for the girls’ transformation, that’s completely fine by me; I actually don’t feel like the author is the ultimate expert on their own work anyhow. I love the phrase “mileage may vary” for literature, because everyone can bring their own interpretation to a work.)

hdi: Let's talk a bit about that transformation. It's framed in a way that's very earthy, very fleshly, almost. I found myself imagining the smell of the murky, industrially contaminated water that floods out of those open wounds when the bandages come off, wincing at the intersection of shards of glass and rusted metal with pasty, bloodless skin. But there's also an aesthetic sense there – and I know this is deliberate, from the panel I saw you give at StokerCon this year – a sense that there's a perverse sort of beauty in it. I'm really interested in the intersections here, the way that the loss of identity and self (in favour of a wider spiritual influence) is tied up with body horror, and in the way that this sort of identity horror, which is what I'm stubbornly set on calling it, is actually sort of attractive in some ways. Where do you stand on that? Why did you take this course?

GK: For me, treating the girls’ transformations as not being disgusting or grotesque is opening up possibilities that there doesn’t have to be “one right way” to be. While I very much love body horror, I do think it can be a dangerous and even cruel subgenre if it isn’t treated with a certain amount of care. In modern society, we have these quests for so-called “perfect” bodies, which is of course a completely unattainable goal. When body horror makes the suggestion that there is an “ideal” body, it can be highly damaging, even in its own subtle way.

I’ve also never considered otherness to be hideous or “wrong,” so it was important to write about the Rust Maidens’ metamorphosis from that perspective. As the transformations continue, the girls come to accept and love themselves as they are. It isn’t their conscious choice to undergo these changes, but they recognize that their differences are not something that should be treated as repulsive.

I’ve always considered horror a window into who we are as human beings, and by approaching the girls’ transformations as something strange yet beautiful, what I was trying to do—and it’s a vast goal for sure—is to create a space or opportunity for us to see all bodies, however “different” they might be, not as objects of fear or ridicule or shame. Like so many of us, I’ve had my own share of body image issues over the years, so even giving myself this space for self-acceptance is very cathartic. To say that the Rust Maidens are beautiful in their own way no matter what, even if they’re transforming into rot and rust and gray water, opens up the possibility for us to be more accepting—of both ourselves and each other. But then I’m a totally ridiculous optimist sometimes, so maybe this is all too idealistic of me!

hdi: Can you be too idealistic though? Anyway, it struck me reading The Rust Maidens that you have all these crossovers between the different everyday ways that people suffer at the hands of history and each other. We're haunted by that, and I felt The Rust Maidens to be a very industrial haunting. I have this Big Idea, not a terribly original one, that hauntings come into our consciousness when we have a sense that history is unresolved. Or to put it another way, we get into ghosts when the real world feels especially crappy. Hauntings bring anxieties which bring hauntings. And anxiety is, as anyone who's suffered from it will tell you, a thing with profound physical effects. As the body and the mind eat each other from the inside out, our identities change.

In your depressed industrial Cleveland – and I loved that the grim Cleveland of the 80s felt like a golden age compared to its deserted wasteland present day version – I felt you could see that in the shape of the Rust Maidens. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the place of the ghostly in a person's sense of self. Do you feel that working class people, and specifically working class women are the most powerfully affected by this?

GK: Ghosts are absolutely a part of all of us. We need them, and in a way, they need us. It’s this strange symbiosis where hauntings do become the outlet and ultimately the cause of our anxieties, as you say. The past lingers at the edge of our lives all the time anyhow; then when life becomes really hard, these things from before seem to seep in more than ever, reminding us of what we’d rather leave forgotten.

I’ve written numerous stories that feature hauntings, in large part for the reason that you bring up: that it’s so much about the past and what we’ve left unresolved. There’s such a psychological angle to ghosts, which absolutely fascinates me. Because really, who would we be without our ghosts, without these things that we regret or that weren’t done right the first time or that we haven’t even had a chance to do yet? These aspects of our selves are vital because without them, we can’t move forward. We need to see these things, to confront them—that’s the only chance we have of ever moving forward in a meaningful way. Of course, moving forward is a big question to begin with. Can we move on? If the outcome is a tragic one, then we ultimately become the ghosts ourselves, never having left the past and instead becoming mired and static in it. To me, that’s the great tragedy of ghosts or hauntings in the first place: the stasis of it all.

I do feel like this intersection between hauntings and sense of self is something that working class women understand well. I would also say that any oppressed group is constantly reminded of the past, mostly because that past is omnipresent for them. It’s hard to forget what came before if those in power are still using that past to perpetuate oppression. In that way, some of us have unfortunately become more haunted than others. It’s up to us as a society to figure out how to stop this cycle from perpetuating itself over and over. That’s definitely an idea that permeates The Rust Maidens: how much are we each responsible for this, and what can we do to keep it from happening again? By the end of the book, Phoebe comes up with her answer to those questions. I’m still trying each and every day to figure out my own best response. One way or another, hopefully we’re all trying to figure that out right now. We’ve got a long way to go, but as I said, I’m an idealist. I still think we can live in a less haunted world.