REVIEW: Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

Stories about haunted houses tend to fall into two broad approaches:

Firstly, there are the stories that are all about the haunting and which use their characters as viewpoints through which to explore the haunting and victims through whom the haunting’s destructive power can be felt. This style of story is quite popular in horror films but it also forms the backbone of the occult detective and paranormal investigation sub-genres where the tendency is always to show the audience something frightening and then let that horror blossom through a process of rational contextualisation whereby the spooky thing in the old house becomes a horrific truth about the world.

Secondly, there are stories where the focus is on the human characters rather than the haunting itself. In this style of story, the haunting is not required to make sense as the point of the exercise is to show you a human mind imploding under unimaginable pressure. In some ways, having a haunting not make sense only adds to its power because the characters’ inability to see the edges of the haunting only serves to make it harder to endure.

I refer to these groups as approaches because a lot of great works move between the two. For example, Ghostwatch shuffles back and forth between the approaches, hinting at hidden lore before focusing on the little girl and then moving back to the lore as the true nature of the horror is revealed. Similarly, The Exorcist presents itself as a lore-filled possession story but in reality the power of the film owes less to Catholic myth than it does to the film’s interest in the experience of the little girl and the relationship she has with her mother. Naturally, there are great examples from either form and many of the best works do employ elements of both approaches but the hauntings that stay with me tend to be of the more psychological variety. For me, the greatest ghost story of all time remains The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, a novel in which the exact shape and source of the horror are a lot more vague than the beautifully-drawn portrait of a vulnerable woman descending into outright madness.

While any comparison to Hill House is going to be unflattering, Cassandra Khaw’s novella Nothing but Blackened Teeth is clearly a story that is more interested in the haunted than the haunting. More’s the pity then that the story’s human elements never quite snap into focus.

The story is set in modern-day Japan where a group of non-Japanese friends have gathered to fulfil one member of the group’s dream to get married in a haunted house.  The house is a long-abandoned mansion where, it is said, a young woman killed herself and invited people to bury her alive.

The relationships that bind the group together are somewhat unclear… Khaw presents them as a group of friends only to litter nearly every conversation with accusations that escalate almost to the point of physical violence. It’s not just that these people are tetchy or don’t like each other… they absolutely despise each other in a way that speaks of betrayal and resentment that has brewed and festered for years and years and years. Despite the group’s relationships being part of the novella’s focal point, Khaw is frustratingly vague about the sources of the raw emotion that flow through every confrontation. The woman who wanted to get married in the haunted house loathes the viewpoint character because she used to date her fiancé. The viewpoint character both loves and resents another friend because they fell out and stopped talking when the viewpoint character was going through a tough time. There’s also a suggestion that the groom might be unhappy if he learned that one of the guys once slept with the woman who would later become his fiancé. This web of unhappiness contains a lot of potential for interesting dynamics and psychological tension but none of these feelings are unpacked, examined, or pinned to any particular set of events.

It’s not that the viewpoint character lured the groom away from his wife, fucked him, dumped him, and then pretended nothing happened. Nor is it the case that the rich guy who is funding the entire wedding slept with the bride and is now using his largesse to try and seduce the bride and ruin her relationship with the groom. These kinds of details might very well form the basis for the hostility we see on the page but Khaw never grounds the tension in anything real and so the tension and animosity remain abstract and devoid of dramatic weight. As readers, we can see that there is tension but we do not feel it and so the tension adds little to the story. In fact, were I to take my misgivings about this novella and reduce them down to a single word, that word would be “abstraction”.

I’ll unpack this observation by quoting from the text:

But here the house stood. Though only two storeys, each floor spanned at least twelve rooms and several self-contained courtyards, its symmetries united by ascetically decorated corridors. Every wall in the building was lavish with corroding artwork of the yokai: kappa and the two-tailed nekomata; kitsune cowled like housewives, bartering with egrets for fish. Domesticity as interpreted through the lens of the demonic.

On a sentence-by-sentence basis, this is beautifully written passage whose style is replicated again and again throughout the novella; short sentences, rat-a-tat-tat cadences, simple images layered on top of each other and augmented by similies and juxtapositions that estrange and enchant. However, step back from the sentence-by-sentence level and everything slides out of focus.

At the start of this review, I described the setting as a “long-abandoned” mansion because I struggled to get much more of a handle on what the house actually looked like. In some scenes, it’s a magnificently opulent place full of dark-wood carvings and elaborate murals. In other scenes, it’s a virtual derelict in which the visitors are required to camp. Obviously, it is possible for a house to be a virtual derelict full of dark-wood carvings and elaborate murals but I really struggled to extract an image of the house from the text. I mean… if you remove the word ‘corroded’ from the above passage, the house could be in pristine condition and ‘corrosion’ is something that applies as much to rot as it does to aged patinas and the elegant rust stains of salvaged furniture.

A similar problem afflicts the descriptions of the haunting itself. Wisely, given the focus of the story, Khaw doesn’t go into that much detail on the origins of the haunting or what exactly it is that is driving its current manifestation. Instead, you just get more and more arguments until monsters start pouring out of the walls:

The ceiling ripened with bodies, yokai bleeding from other rooms to come gawk; first oozing through the cracks in the architecture, slithering rills of wet ink, before regaining three-dimensionality. They leered at us from the wood and the paper, faces and palms pressed against what now felt like a sheeting of glass. It was as though we stood in a vivarium, had always stood in display, surrounded by children but unconscious of that truth until now.

While I love the idea that the dead and the demonic are forever pressed against the veil of reality like children straining to see meerkats at the zoo, the rest of the passage just sounds like the kind of CGI sludge that featured in the late 90s film adaptation of the Haunting of Hill House. These ghosts then chase the group from room to room like something out of Scooby Doo until someone decides to try and sacrifice themselves. You don’t need to go deep on the world-building to produce a decent haunting but you do need a bit of visual imagination and Khaw really seems to struggle with imagery. It’s one thing to be a bit vague about the house in a haunted house story but when you’re vague about the house, the ghosts, the source of the haunting, and the psychology of the people seeing the ghosts then one can reasonably say that your story might be in trouble.

The reason my mind came to rest on the term “abstraction” is that Khaw has a tendency to write like a hard-boiled crime novelist: Short punchy sentences delivered in quick succession with no connective tissue. When Khaw wants to describe something, they crawl around the edges producing snapshots of very different things that are then fired into the reader’s face in the hope that a steady rat-tat-tat of sense data will somehow cohere into comprehensible imagery. Before moving on, I would like to say that I think that Khaw is a really interesting writer on a sentence-by-sentence basis and Nothing But Blackened Teeth made me go out and buy their earlier urban fantasy stories, however… that particular literary technique does not work with this type of story.

This style of writing is often associated with hard-boiled crime fiction including the work of James Ellroy. Short kinetic sentences delivering impressionistic fragmentary images work well with that type of fiction because they convey both the directness of desperate people and the sense of emotional repression that came from living through World War II and then refusing to address any of the associated trauma. This style of writing is pure sense-data, no room for introspection, and no room for feelings. When deployed correctly, this style of writing is a bit like abstract photography: You zoom in so close that all context disappears and you trust the consumer to piece the images back together. James Ellroy is an absolute master of this style because a) his novels are about 800 pages long and that gives him the space to build his characters up using hundreds and hundreds of sense-fragments and b) his novels are set in the real world and are populated with celebrities and genre stereotypes. The fact that we are familiar with the setting, the people, and the broad types of character he is describing means that piecing the characters together from sentence fragments is comparatively easy as cultural memory provides some guard rails.

The problem with Nothing but Blackened Teeth is that rather than using the hard-boiled writing style to assemble variations on stock characters over the course of hundreds of pages, Khaw uses the method to try and describe complex characters, weird settings, and paranormal weirdness all at the same time and all in the space of about a hundred pages.  Everything about this novel feels thin, botched, and incomplete because nothing is adequately described. We get pages and pages of elegantly-penned sentence fragments but there isn’t the space or the time for sentence-fragments to cohere into anything tangible. As I said, I think that the writing here is really strong on a sentence-by-sentence basis but leaning into that style of writing when it doesn’t fit with the goals you appear to be setting yourself smacks of an artist who has mastered the use of one tool and insists upon using it in every instance. There are ideas here, there is even the potential for quite an interesting story, but Nothing but Blackened Teeth just did not work for me at all and I am surprised that editors and publishers allowed it out the door as this novella desperately needs at least a couple of re-writes if not a full re-think.

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