Today’s Deep Cuts is “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray” (via Shimmer) by Gwendolyn Kiste. Kiste is a prolific and highly esteemed author of all flavors of dark speculative fiction, and this story is a real treat.
Although “All the Red Apples” is tale of an enchanted orchard, but nothing is quite as it seems. Sleeping beauties, princes from far off lands, and a dark foreboding forest—all are more than they appear at first blush. Drawing from classical fairy tale traditions, Kiste deftly updates these tropes, peeling back the layers to examine what it means to be enchanted (or cursed?) by powers greater than any individual. Luxuriate in the lush prose and pay attention to the stylistic elements, but don’t be too lulled by this story’s charms—there are hard choices being made and weighty questions being grappled with just below the shiny red surface. In the end, it isn’t just the apples that have become gray, but other choices and ideals that may have once seemed black and white.
If you haven’t read “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray” yet, go do so now because **SPOILERS FOLLOW***
Hellnotes: This story has some clear fabulist elements, so let us begin “Once upon time . . .” What was the genesis of this story? Although you draw on fairly well-ingrained Western fable tropes, what in particular sparked you to take them on in a more “behind the scenes” style?
GWENDOLYN KISTE: One of the earliest seeds for this story came up a few years ago when my husband and I visited Tarrytown, New York, and were rereading what I often consider to be a uniquely American fairy tale: Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In our discussions, my husband commented on Ichabod Crane and how he only cared about Katrina Van Tassel for the finery she and her family could provide for him rather than for anything about her individual personality. This idea really stuck with me, so much that I then expanded it into a thesis for a literature course where I compared the foods of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to Ichabod’s views of Katrina: as having utilitarian, albeit short-lived, value. She only matters to him insofar that she can forward his goals of eating and living well, and that her appeal to him won’t last—like the freshness of fruits, her beauty will fade. It was a terrible notion but one that unfortunately plays out across cultures: youth and attractiveness are most certainly overvalued.
I was still musing over this idea on a chilly November morning when I came across a half-eaten apple that was discarded after the previous evening’s Halloween party. The question of “what happened to Snow White’s apple?” came instantly into my mind and tethered itself to my previous conversation with my husband about Ichabod and Katrina. From there, I decided that taking a proverbial peek behind the curtain of the Snow White legend might be something interesting to explore.
It’s funny, because while I have written a number of reworked fairy tales, I’ve always had a bit of love-hate relationship with fairy tales in general. I find them fascinating, in particular how certain stories have been repeated across time and cultures, but the ways in which the characters often have so little autonomy has always been irritating to me. Those frustrations definitely bubbled to the surface while crafting this story.
Finally, on an entirely prosaic level, I just really love apples. I’m a big fan of fall, and I even run an annual Halloween blog. As part of that web series, my husband and I have a yearly tradition of going apple picking at a local orchard. So I figured it would be a fun element to work into my fiction, especially since orchards aren’t necessarily the first setting that comes to mind when you think of dark fantasy.
HN: One of the interesting stylistic choices here was not to reveal the narrator’s name. In fact, none of the characters are given names, but rather referred to by their status—girls, boys, villagers, princes, paupers—or their relationship to the narrator—her mother, her father. Although there is a tradition of unnamed characters in fairy tales, this story has three specific instances where individual names are mentioned, although not revealed: First, where the narrator recites the sleeping girls’ names; second, when the narrator’s father sees the burning orchard and “he shrieks [her] name, the only name he remembers;” and, finally, when the narrator hears her mother whisper her name before the narrator enters the forest. Can you discuss your approach in making these choices?
GK: Nameless characters, in particular nameless protagonists, have always intrigued me. I could trace that interest back to when I first watched—and subsequently read—Rebecca. Omitting the second Mrs. de Winter’s name serves to isolate her from the other characters as well as from herself. At that time, I was no more than nine or ten years old, but I remember deciding then that I would one day play with the idea of nameless characters as a method of conveying inner life. Other than “All the Red Apples,” I’ve had a couple stories where I didn’t name the protagonists, including “Reasons I Hate My Big Sister,” which appeared in Nightscript 2. In my experience as both a reader and writer, not choosing to specify names can work either if the character feels as if he or she is lost or lacking in personal identity (as in Rebecca) or if the story is meant to convey the character or characters as having a sense of universality. For this story in particular, both of those parameters applied—first, that both the narrator and the girls sleeping in the orchard feel as if they have no individuality beyond their gender and the expectations laid at their feet; and secondly, that pervading sense of universality that so many fairy tales share. Also, in this case, I wanted to explore how unfortunately universal it is that we constrain individuals via meaningless societal expectations and define them solely through their roles in society.
Even so, I went back and forth on this point throughout the early drafts to be sure that the story wouldn’t work better if the characters were named. I picked out those very places that you mentioned and tried out names to see if it strengthened, weakened, or left the story more or less the same. However, after experimenting with both methods, I felt that leaving all the characters nameless underscored the issue of identity throughout the piece. Using their status in the village rather than who they are and how they view themselves emphasizes how lost these people have become, usually through no fault of their own but rather through the shortcomings of the society that has chosen to define them.
Overall, it is interesting to me because this is a point that multiple reviewers and readers have mentioned; some very much liked the characters not being named, and some weren’t as fond of it. Either way, though, it seems to have caught their attention and made them mull over the choice. Love it or hate, I still call it a win as a writer if readers are talking about it.
HN: Although the origin of the magical orchard is never fully explained, the narrator comes to believe that it is not the work of some external power, but a sort of groupthink manifestation. She says: “This magic was ours. We longed to escape the colorless land, and the girls bore the weight of that longing.” Throughout the story, then, the orchard’s enchantment seems to grow as the villagers, including some girls who long for a prince of their own, buy into that magic. But although the girls do bear that weight of everyone’s desire to escape, those who are married off are indeed the only ones who do escape the impoverished village, albeit while still under enchantment (as we learn when all the sleepers—including far off princesses—are woken at the end).
Indeed, the poor villagers are willing to spend their final gold coins for the chance that “their daughters might earn a fate . . . that doesn’t mean starvation” and a single day of celebration. Although the reader sympathizes with narrator and her view that the girls are victims, is there a clear right and wrong here? How can readers grapple with this seeming lack of choice created by the intersection of both poverty and gender roles?
GK: I very much felt that there was no clear right and wrong for most of the characters in the story. While my allegiances are inherently with the narrator and the sleeping girls, I also empathize profoundly with the families who see no other way out for their girls. Even writing those segments when the parents are desperately clutching their daughters broke my heart. These families have no good choices offered to them in the story, so of course, what they ultimately decide to do for their daughters is not ideal. Broadly, it can seem easier to blame people for their own unhappiness—and certainly, personal responsibility cannot be entirely discounted—but we owe it to humanity to do better by one another, and that to me is the heart of this story: finding a different path through a desperate situation and discovering a better way, no matter how hard or hopeless that prospect may first appear. That’s the narrator’s role in the story, but that doesn’t mean that those who did choose to send their daughters to the orchard were doing anything except what they truly thought was best for their family.
All that being said, this is probably no surprise for anyone who has read the story, but the only character that I personally disliked was the narrator’s father; he’s the embodiment of those who eagerly profit off the suffering of others. If there is a single antagonist in the story, then it would be him. But at the same time, I don’t necessarily see one clear antagonistic force in this story; it is a terrible situation overall, and there will unfortunately always be those who profit off that. Not everyone will be on board for making the world a better place, and if someone like the narrator’s father doesn’t want to join others on a better path into the future, then he’ll be left behind with the ash of the life he thought he was entitled to. This story is ultimately one about choice: discovering the path to being able to make your own choice and then embracing that choice with all its consequences. The girls pay dearly for others’ choices throughout most of the story, but in the end, it’s the narrator’s father who is truly left with nothing—no daughter, no orchard, no future. That was his choice, and now he’ll have to live with it.
HN: The apple-magic here is ambiguous, or perhaps value-neutral, in that some villagers seem to see it as a blessing while the narrator sees it as a curse. The girls themselves who must undergo the eat-sleep-marry ritual are themselves divided—some see it as “all so romantic,” while others are fearful. Regardless of the value the readers or participants assign, it is revealed that the spell is broken by true love and, indeed, we find that the true “waking” of even the far-off princess brides occurs only when the narrator expresses her “true love” for all of her sisters.
However, besides the true love of another, there is a different way out of this cycle—the choice to abandon societal expectations and to flee into the woods. The narrator’s mother made this choice after suffering abuse and one (but only one) of the village girls chose the forest instead of the apple. Could you discuss your approach to presenting these two different approaches to freedom—true love from another vs. absolute rejection of others’ expectations? Are they as contradictory as they might seem, or is there a unifying aspect?
GK: The two are absolutely intertwined. I’ve always considered that true love is the rejection of others’ expectations. If someone loves you, they’ll accept you as you are, not as an idealized version of yourself. Because love is rarely ideal. It’s difficult and messy but it’s freeing as well. It’s knowing that when you take a chance and maybe make a mistake, there will be someone there at the end of the day who will support you and love you no matter how you might fail.
Specifically, in this story, the narrator’s love for her fellow “sisters” is the freedom for them to choose what is best for themselves. Some of the girls might very well return to their families in the village, some might still want to find proverbial princes, and some might follow the narrator into the forest. However, no matter what choices they make, the narrator will love and embrace the girls, come what may. She is awakening them and breaking the spell so that they can seize their power and make their own choice, just as her own mother loved her when she remained in the orchard and will love her now as she embraces the forest.
HN: In the end, our narrator embraces radical freedom not only by entering the forest, but by literally burning down the established order. As the orchard goes up in flames, however, it’s not a guaranteed happy ending by any means. Rejecting society’s path, the narrator is swallowed up by the dark forest, of which the readers know only that the father says “decay lives there” and that two women—the narrator’s mother and the one girl who rejects the apple-magic destiny—have disappeared within it. While readers can see this as the narrator perhaps breaking a curse, she has also unilaterally imposed her own preference on everyone in the village, many of whom would prefer the established order. What might the readers considering in weighing her actions?
GK: This is something that I think about a lot as I’m working on my stories: this idea that one person rises up and chooses a path that affects others. Obviously, trading one absolute for another isn’t freedom and isn’t fair, so that is something I consider as I’m writing, because simply forcing the tides to go your way isn’t necessarily the right thing to do.
That being said, when the established order strips others of their choice, then it can’t be accepted, even if it’s comfortable, even if it’s safe. To me, there is nothing in this world more important than freedom: the freedom to love, live, and pursue your own personal happiness. If something is standing in the way of others being able to pursue that freedom, then no one should be satisfied. Instead, we all need to come together and figure out how to rework the elements of society that keep others from being free. And that isn’t always the easiest of processes. Change can be painful. It can be devastating. But no one should be okay with the status quo if it holds others back.
Also—and this is something I’ve thought about at length in relation to this story—but some of the characters’ lives won’t necessarily be as uprooted as the narrator’s. With the orchard gone, no one else can choose to consume an apple to find her “prince,” but as for the girls who already left the village, just because they have awoken from the curse doesn’t mean they have to abandon their respective kingdoms. Another point that is never explicitly stated in the story, but at least a few readers have told me they picked up on is that the men are enchanted too; after all, nobody would just randomly wander into a poisoned orchard unless they were part of the magic as well. That means once the spell is broken, both the women and the men have to make choices for the first time. Some of the couples might discover they despise each other and will go their separate ways. But others might discover a new life together, a new way of guiding the people who are looking to them in the kingdoms across this particular land. The important thing is that they get to make the choice on what is best for themselves and help others make the best choices for themselves rather than having someone else’s will or someone else’s magic thrust on them. Consequently, the change is really up to the individuals in terms of how much and how quickly they want their lives to be different. The narrator only gave them the ability to choose when she burned down the orchard; she can’t force them down a specific path any more than they can stop her from walking into the forest to her mother.
HN: Finally, for readers who are new to your work, which other story or stories of yours should they look for if they want to read something similar?What about if they want something completely different?
GK: “All the Mermaid Wives” is another fairy tale retelling, featuring—you guessed it!—mermaids; that story is available to read at 87 Bedford. For a shorter tale that features fairy tale and folklore, I would recommend “The Twelve Rules of Etiquette at Miss Firebird’s School for Girls” at Mithila Review; it plays with the legend of Baba Yaga in a way that is darkly comedic as well as just plain dark. And again, it’s super short and available for free, so why not?
As for something different, I would direct readers to “Ten Things to Know About the Ten Questions,” which is available at Nightmare Magazine and also in my debut fiction collection, And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe. Also, in that collection, I would recommend the title story as well as “The Lazarus Bride” and “Skin like Honey and Lace.” Those stories all deal with similar themes of outsiders facing the proverbial darkness, but each one is more rooted here in the so-called real world as opposed to fairy tale kingdoms. Plus, the stories also feature some intense horror themes (immolation! body horror! cannibalism!), which might be more up the alley of readers who like their fiction a little bit more macabre. Horror and dark fantasy are such wonderfully broad genres, and it’s an honor and joy to be writing in the field today; there are so many incredible authors in the publishing world crafting stories that push at the boundaries, and it’s breathtaking just trying to keep up with their output, as both a reader and a writer.
Gwendolyn Kiste is a speculative fiction author based in Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in Nightmare, Shimmer, Interzone, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, and LampLight, as well as Flame Tree Publishing’s Chilling Horror Short Stories, among others. Her debut collection, And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, is due out from JournalStone in April 2017. A native of Ohio, she currently dwells on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts.