It’s impossible for horror fiction to lay to rest the ghost of Shirley Jackson. In The Haunting of Hill House (1959) she erected a standard for haunted house tales involving psychic investigations. The venerable Richard Matheson notably built upon Jackson’s foundation in his far more sexual and graphically violent novel Hell House (1971.) Cassandra Khaw’s well-constructed novella Nothing But Blackened Teeth (2021) owes much to Matheson and Jackson with the addition of a 21st Century hipster vibe that metaphorically remodels the original floorplan.
Here’s the premise: fraying friendships unravel further when a cadre of five gathers at an abandoned manse where a wedding is about to be held. The edifice was built in Japan’s Heian era and is said to still house the spiteful spirit of a bride-to-be whose fiancé died before the ceremony. The present-day couple who chooses to exchange vows there are into things that go bump in the night, and the other three participants in the nuptials can relate. Travel to the Far East and the carefully chosen lodging are furnished by a wealthy golden boy who belongs to this select group of twenty-somethings. Such generosity can breed resentment as well as gratitude. This observation is made by the book’s narrator, who discusses a myriad of mounting toxic tensions for which the house has laid out a welcome mat: “The manor inhaled. It felt like church. Like the architecture had dulled its heartbeat so it could hear me better, the wood warping, curling around the room like it was a womb, and I was a new beginning.”
The narrative’s apparition requested to be buried alive in the mansion, where she would wait for her deceased intended. Craving company in her premature burial, the ghost relegated other women to the same fate: a simple sacrifice to appease her. And now with the arrival of the circle of five, she seizes the opportunity to be a member of the wedding. A most memorable member, indeed: “Black hair tendriled across contourless meat, no features to be seen. Only suggestions. Only smooth flesh and that grinning mouth, those red lips stretched as far as they’d go, black teeth, and the smell of ink.” Given that imagery, I feel compelled to say despite the adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” credit should be given to Samuel Araya for the book’s jacket art (and to Michael Graziolo for the jacket design.) Seldom has a book cover been so delightfully unnerving and in keeping with the author’s vision.
Throughout all the intensity, there’s a warped wittiness that borders on comic relief. The narrator reflects on imminent dangers and does a riff on the horror movie conundrum: “Everyone knows what’s coming next but actions have momentum, every decision an equal and justified reaction. Just because you know you should, doesn’t mean that you can, stop.”
The last line of that quote, sans snark, reflects the core of the narrative. Analogous to the tenacious revenant who refuses to let go, the group of five is in denial about its ability to maintain friendships that are on life support. The author has stated, “This is a story about relationships that should have ended but did not, friendships that have gone septic, and what happens when you hang on to things you should have long ago buried.” Cassandra Khaw cathartically wrote the novella while in the throes of anguish and loss. The personal purge yielded a haunting tale that many will find relatable. Tor’s new horror imprint Nightfire is the publisher and, based on this book, the line is off to a grand start.