I’m back from the dead, fiends! And my timing is as impeccable as ever: I have a Women in Horror Month treat for you on this, the very last day of the month. This book is worth the wait, though. Let’s get to it.
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.
- Title: The Rust Maidens
- Author: Gwendolyn Kiste
- Cover Artists: Daniele Serra, art; Jess Landry, design
- Publisher: Trepidatio Publishing
- ISBN: 1947654446
- Publication Date: November 16, 2018
The Rust Maidens is a haunting, lyrical work of literary alchemy. Gwendolyn Kiste transmutes pollution and decay into poetry in this debut novel, turning body horror on its head with monsters that discover new forms of beauty and strength. It’s a story of horror, loss, and redemption. Above all, though, it’s a love letter to girls trapped in cages forged by misogyny, hypocrisy, economic hardship, and repression.
Phoebe is a new high school graduate plotting her escape from her working class neighborhood. According to Phoebe, no one there has any hope of a future, especially not the girls; the (exclusively male) steel mill workers are constantly under threat of being laid off, and the houses that haven’t already been foreclosed on are simply waiting their turn. In the middle of a mill strike, five girls in her graduating class begin showing symptoms of a strange new illness: their bones are turning into rusted metal and their fingernails are turning into broken glass. Dubbed the Rust Maidens, the girls are shunned and vilified, turned into sideshows and pariahs and robbed of what little agency they had before they began their transformations. Phoebe alone wants to help them, but she has no idea what to do or how to reach the girls, who slip further out of her reach as their metamorphoses grow more extreme.
Phoebe’s favorite song is “American Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers; it recurs throughout the story, and it couldn’t be a more perfect song for her or for the book. The restless, propulsive opening echoes her desire to get the hell out of her dead-end Cleveland neighborhood as fast as she can, but Petty’s plaintive voice and wistful lyrics tell us what Phoebe already knows: even if she makes it out of town, she won’t ever truly escape. Like the Rust Maidens who are slipping away from the influence and comprehension of the town that seeks to control them, the jangly Rickenbacker outro never really ends…it just dissipates into the night, becoming one with the other metallic sounds of the city.
I mention the song because this is a book that engages all your senses. Kiste’s use of Petty’s voice and that guitar solo as metaphors is just incredible, and you can hear those sounds as you read the book. Her prose envelops you and seeps into your pores…this is a novel that you can feel. Waves of grey and brown melancholy lap at your senses as you read, and the world Kiste creates is so beautiful that the intrusion of any other color would feel like a slap in the face. But rest assured, horror fans — where there is beauty in The Rust Maidens, there is also terror. The physical changes that the title characters undergo and the subsequent reactions to them (both from the Rust Maidens themselves and from the rest of the town) are deeply unsettling. There’s plenty here to satisfy those of you who are looking for a truly frightening read.
The Rust Maidens is a horror story about living in a world of decay and neglect where the few choices that exist are taken away from you. It is an atmospheric exploration of Rust Belt uncertainty and a heartbreakingly familiar tale of teenage girls’ futile searches for freedom. And yet, despite all this, Gwendolyn Kiste finds some hope. Like her Rust Maidens, she discovers new forms of beauty and strength. Her story will stay with you long after you’ve finished the book, because in Kiste’s horror she finds what is monstrous in humanity and holds it up to the light, and she shows us how truly wonderful “monsters” can be.
I can’t shake this book, and I don’t want to. I give it 5 out of 5 coffins.