Summary: Somethings 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 girlsbodies 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 whyexcept 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 Maidensand her own unwitting role in the transformationsbefore she loses everything shes held dear: her home, her best friend, and even perhaps her own body.
Content Warnings: Teenage Pregnancy, Child Abuse, Body Horror
Review: Many reviewers have already written pages of praise and adulation for Gwendolyn Kiste’s full-length novel so let me cut right to the chase: this is a wonderful coming-of-age story for the horror fan, period.
Kiste writes beautifully here, crafting this dilapidated Cleveland neighborhood like any other Gothic novel’s beautiful ruined castles. It’s the most believable American neighborhood imaginable, and it’s made all the more frightening because of its “American values” as its girls transform into visions of decay and ruin.
Because the monster here definitely is not any of the Rust Maidens. The closest thing to a one-dimensional monster in the novel is the owner of the mill, but the real fear and dread come extensively from the adult members of Phoebe’s neighborhood. As Phoebe’s narrative makes clear again and again, the mistakes and terrible decisions thrust on the Rust Maidens are only an extension of how her neighbors generally ruin girls’ lives through their judgmental attitudes, gossiping, and refusal to give them agency that they’re happy to celebrate in their husbands. Even if the perceived agency is again circumvented by the mechanics of capitalism (as seen through the constant image of the mill strike).
Thankfully, the book isn’t all doom and gloom. For all the terrible things that happen throughout the book and the apathy of so many people, Phoebe’s story is also about renewal, redemption, and the unconditional love in a true friendship. Her relationship with Jacqueline, her utter refusal to forget the Rust Maidens as the rest of the town continues to ignore their choices, all of these factors make it a beautiful read.
If I had a complaint, I’d say that this suburb seems particularly white-washed even for Cleveland. There aren’t any characters of color, not even amongst agents from the government or tourists that visit the town from all over. In a narrative about how women are treated like so much trash, the specific trials of a woman of color would make a hell of a lot of sense.
Nonetheless, you can’t go wrong with The Rust Maidens if you’re looking for a bittersweet, Gothic read this Halloween.
Rating: ★★★★ of 5 stars!