Book Review: Nothing But Blackened Teeth
Author: Cassandra Khaw
Expected Publish Date: October 19, 2021
Publisher: Tor Nightfire
Genres: Horror fiction, Dark fantasy
The bloody dead of the past refuse to stay buried in Khaw's sublimely unsettling novella set in a decaying Japanese mansion literally scaffolded in bones and flesh. Brought together for a creepy "destination wedding," six people (it's impossible to refer to most of them as "friends," even in relation to the bride and groom) unearth their own complicated histories as the long and horrific history of the house they've been invited to begins to awaken and unravel in their presence.
A night of pre-wedding revelry stuffed with too much alcohol and lusciously-described food dissolves into chaos as the party game of 100 ghost stories is crashed by the subjects themselves. The walls crawl with yaori (demons) from the darkest corners of primordial imagination, and the house itself seems set to devour its inhabitants to feed its carnivorous desires.
To say too much more about this story may undo the gruesome magic of it. Khaw’s prose moves like a kakemono scroll painting, uncurling across the dark past of both the mansion and the characters' lives in a series of sweeping strokes that will leave the reader devouring the story like the demons who will inevitably tear the narrative apart.
If you're unfamiliar with the context for the demons and imagery invoked throughout the text, taking yourself down a Google black hole of the art, architecture, and demonology alluded to in the story is highly recommended—plunging into that darkness will only heighten your enjoyment and may even drive you into the pursuit of more histories and stories like this.
Khaw is not remotely the first to dive into these dark waters, as any horror fan (of both film and literature) could attest, but her twisty and gut-churning contribution is certainly a credit to the genre.
The pacing of the story may seem slow at first, but it soon becomes evident that Khaw is laying a groundwork, building a sandcastle to tear it down mercilessly in the last pages. This isn't a book of jump scares, it's teeth-grindingly obvious that the tension is building toward something monumental.
While horror has recently been populated primarily with slow burn bricks, this current tendency back toward the short form that hits mercilessly fast and hard has drawn the genre back toward its roots, giving readers the opportunity to wade into a story that will pull you under in a stormy afternoon with just enough time for your tea to get cold. But don't make the mistake of believing that these breakneck tales will leave you any less shaken, or that the stories will be any less memorable for their brevity. This Heian-era mansion has the potential to leave you just as breathless as Usher's house as Khaw's narrative draws the cords tighter around her characters.