Horror with Humanity: A Song for Quiet by Cassandra Khaw

A Song for Quiet is Cassandra Khaw’s second Lovecraftian novella to be published by Tor.com Publishing, after last year’s Hammers on Bone. The series is called Persons Non Grata, a pun on the name of recurring character John Persons—a not-exactly-human man and private investigator whom no one seems to like, not even Lovecraftian monsters.

A Song for Quiet doesn’t feature John Persons in a starring role, although he does appear. Instead, its main character is Deacon James, a musician from Georgia. Deacon is black and a bluesman, and he’s just buried his father. The narrative of A Song for Quiet suggests this story can be set in America somewhere in the first three-fifths of the 20th century, before desegregation, when people still hopped into cargo carriages of trains to ride routes without a passenger ticket. The general feel is very much 1920s/1930s with a noir cast.

But back to Deacon. Deacon has a problem. There’s a piece of music in his head—a piece of something, anyway, something that’s trying to get him to let it loose—but Deacon has no idea what’s going on, or why he is suddenly seeing mind-bending horrors from outside the natural universe, gaping mouths, cilia and grasping tendrils. He encounters racist violence, but that’s something he understands—but then a stranger (who turns out to be John Persons) accosts him to tell him that he’s carrying a seed or egg in his head, something that could destroy or unmake the world if it… well, hatches.

Deacon doesn’t exactly believe the crazy white guy. At least not at once.

There’s another significant character in this narrative. Ana is a teenaged girl, black, and as Deacon observes, has been seriously abused during her life. Ana tells Deacon that her mother was raped and that she herself was sold to a god. What’s in Deacon is in Ana too, and in her it is older, and larger, and closer to hatching. And Ana, out of apparent hurt and despair, is willing to destroy the world too. (It’s hard to blame her.)

Deacon, though, isn’t. Deacon can’t fight Ana. But Deacon can persuade her. Can change the music that she’s using to unmake the world, and can sacrifice himself to allow her to remake it, if she wishes.

A Song for Quiet is a short piece of work. So short that when I set out to review it, I wondered how much I would have to say. But Khaw has a real gift for writing truly disturbing horror with a solid core of human empathy and… I won’t say hope, exactly, but a sense that in the face of horror, persistence and humanity still matter. Khaw’s prose breaks open unsettling visions of twistedness, of things wrong and inimical to human life and sanity. (Really, it left me quite perturbed and in need of a comforting hug and a warm drink.)

Tor.com Publishing has established quite a track record for publishing interesting (refreshingly subversive and not thoughtlessly racist) novellas and novels that engage with Lovecraftian horrors and the Lovecraftian mythos. A Song for Quiet is a worthy and compelling addition.

If you liked Hammers on Bone, you’ll like this. Me, I’m never going to be a big horror reader—but for Khaw, I might make an exception.

A Song for Quiet is available now from Tor.com Publishing.
Read an excerpt from the novella here.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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