Subject: Cassandra Khaw. Nothing But Blackened Teeth [Nightfire, 2021]
Executive Summary: A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company.
It’s the perfect wedding venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends.
But a night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare. For lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart.
And she gets lonely down there in the dirt. (From Goodreads)
Assessment: Ennui is characterized by listlessness yet is never made more animated and compelling than in Nothing But Blackened Teeth. Sometimes ennui can be seemingly mundane--a lack of satisfying direction in your life. Other times, it can be a bride buried alive under her wedding venue, waiting for her runaway groom to arrive. While huge contrasts in severity, those who've experienced the former know that it can still be quite horrifying, and this novella is able to drudge up human nature and make it just as unnerving as the spiritual evil it unearths. That's not the only contrast between realism and fantasy. Nothing But Blackened Teeth has an array of realistically flawed characters, infused with Japanese folklore and sweeping, metaphorical language to elevate its tone into something uniquely satisfying.
Cassandra Khaw knows how to make every object seem interesting with inventive descriptions, but their dialogue is just as cutting. Whether its protagonist Cat's half-remove from the horrific proceedings in which things are still bubbling within her but she tries to stifle, or her friend Faiz' jovial attitude that begins to unmask, the characterization is always compelling and authentic. One thing that should be mentioned is that Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a story that leans more heavily into characterization than horror - especially in its first half - but to me, it's that grounding in humanity that make the latter proceedings cut deeper.
Khaw's writing has always worked for me, but I think this is my favorite of their works. The prose is just as lyrical and original as their best, and it's married to themes and characters that develop a lot of growth and complexity. It moves at a steady pace and growing tension, rewarding its readers with something incredibly moving and illuminating. Nothing But Blackened Teeth will make its readers think they've been plummeted into the action with lasting effects that should temper their ennui for quite a while.
POSTED BY: Sean Dowie - Screenwriter, editor, lover of all books that make him nod his head and say, "Neat!”