A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth, a gorgeously creepy haunted house tale steeped in Japanese folklore—publishing October 19th with Tor Nightfire. Read the second chapter below, or head back to the beginning!
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 venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends, brought back together to celebrate a wedding.
A night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare as secrets get dragged out and relationships are tested.
But the house has secrets too. 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.
Effortlessly turning the classic haunted house story on its head, Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a sharp and devastating exploration of grief, the parasitic nature of relationships, and the consequences of our actions.
The mansion was colossal. Bigger than it should have been. Taller. In the dregs of my mind, a voice frothed with questions: is it meant to be so big? Had I misremembered? Were all Heian houses two storeys or more?
It didn’t make sense.
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 two-tailed nekomata; kitsune cowled like housewives, bartering with egrets for fresh fish. Domesticity as interpreted through the lens of the demonic.
We poured across its spaces, alone and together, sifting through the ruins. In one room sat terracotta monks, heads weighted with an ancient regret. In another, dolls with mouths lacquered black. In another, books, or at least the corpses of books. The volumes were mulch, eaten by insects, infested; edifices, turgid with egg chambers, writhed from the rot. Despite the horror of the visuals, they did not smell of anything but a green dark wetness.
The night stretched, chandeliered with fireflies and stars and the last cicada songs of the year, the world coloring indigo-dark. Music wafted from the next room: Taylor Swift and Coldplay and Carly Rae Jepsen. We’d chosen one of the ground-floor dining halls as a loci for our celebrations. There were shoji screens here—these held imagery of tengu at repose—to allow us to box-cut the space into rooms. A little privacy, we joked, for the spouses-to-be.
Backlit by torch-glow, two shadows—Phillip and Talia, I’d recognize their silhouettes anywhere—rose and entwined behind the shoji screen to our right, and Faiz, elbows-deep before in our party supplies, halted to stare. Talia’s laughter flickered, girlish and eager, a darting breath of sound. I wondered then as I studied Faiz’s face, the uncertainty and his pinch-mouthed worry, if he knew that Phillip and Talia had been in lust once and found myself worrying how much that answer mattered.
“You okay?” I came to his side of the room.
“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I be?”
Faiz swung looks between me and the shadows on the shoji screen.
“No reason,” I said. “You just seemed tense, that’s all.”
His head kept metronoming.
“It isn’t too late to head back to Kyoto or something, you know—”
“Talia has wanted to get married in a haunted house since she was a kid. I’m not going to take that away from her.” He swallowed hard between each sentence, face calcified. “Not after what it took to get us here.”
“I don’t want to diminish Talia’s wants and dreams here but someone has to say it.” I tried for a smile. “Which freaking kid grows up wanting to get married in a haunted house? I mean, come on.”
The shadows on the other side of the shoji screen receded into tongues of slow-swaying ink, and Faiz couldn’t look away.
“Cat—” Finally, Faiz tented fingers and pressed them to his nose bridge, dropped his chin. “Whatever is going on with you, you have to stop. You can’t let Talia hear any of this. Do you know how much it took to convince her to let you come?”
“I know.” Like rote now, my answer and the arrangement of my fingers, hands bunched and pressed to my belly, held there under the roof of my ribs. It hurt to be made to shrink like this.
“I know. You’ve told me. I don’t know. I just.”
“You just what, Cat?”
I thought of the rooms and the ossuaries they’d become: the books suppurating flat-bodied beetles, hollowed, hallowed in their decay. “I think this is all a mistake. Us coming here. Us being here. I think we’re going to regret it. That’s all.”
I walked away before Faiz could answer, could tell me again I’d been disappointing, and staggered out of the room. The air was warm, summer-wet in the plunge of the corridor. Someone’d lit a lantern at the very end, and its light bounced against a bronze mirror, my image blurred in the surface. I tensed, expecting another figure to manifest in the metal, a broken-backed body dropped over the second floor, something tall and pale and faceless.
Suenomatsuyama nami mo koenamu.
No, that wasn’t right.
An image bled into place. If Phillip’s ghost was real, she would be enamel and ink and a birdcage body, its bones like filigree or fish spines, barely enough to cup its impatient heart. A girl in her bridal whites, jaw sharp as a promise. Her kisses close-lipped, without tongue or heat. Like a benediction or a prayer or an ending.
And her mouth, of course, from its teeth through to the tunnel of its throat: black.
A car screamed into the dark, wheels goring the soft earth outside the house, unmooring me from that reverie. I heard the sound of mud splattering thin walls. Music pulsed through the bones of the building: not quite dubstep, frenzied, cheerfully experimental. Too excited to have ever molded the Ecstasy-glutted into shambolic choreography, but that had always been a plus point for its most strident advocate. He never liked fitting in.
Lin, I thought. He was finally here.
I couldn’t let Lin see me in my previous state so I detoured to wash up, wipe the hauntings from the shadows of my eyes. Then, I went back to the appointed communal space—a room occupied by low tables and paper cranes, polka-dotted cushions we’d purchased from a yen store—to find not only Lin, but an icebox sweating on the tatami, its insides crammed with silver Asahi cans and bottles of carbonated yuzu. A massive cast-iron pot, black and sensible, ready to be engorged with protein and vegetables.
Open Tupperware littered the rotting tables, stuffed with even more ingredients: meatballs, pork tenderloin; glistening slabs of white chicken breast; tofu, cubed and marinated; whole fish preserved in cradles of frost, eyes glimmering and silver; sirloin, short ribs, ribbons of thinly sliced beef, even cuts of marbled wagyu; daikon, bushels of spinach, napa cabbage, as many varieties of mushrooms as I could name. In the corner, separated from the main selection, were livers and fresh hearts and tripe, offal so fresh they seemed on the verge of animating.
If you’re going to debauch history, go big.
“Everything’s better with cheese. Come on. Let’s just dump all the meat into the cheese. Make a fondue. I brought six types. Artisanal stuff. You guys appreciate the value of overpriced rotten milk, right?” Lin shook a plastic bag, bulging with trapezoid shapes, Phillip sitting cross-legged opposite.
“Cat!” He bounced onto his heels, liquid and limber. Parkour, he told me over dizzily excited emails, was becoming his new religion. It made sense, Lin confided. Martial arts shaped his past. Freerunning would direct his future. And if he was the only one who could divine the connection, well, that was hardly his error. Lin was ahead of his time, ahead of the curve, ahead of us with a Wall Street job, a Wall Street wife, a brownstone mortgage with a hydroponic herb garden on a baroque little balcony.
But he was still my Lin, and when he crushed me to his sternum, I realized, without surprise, that I was still his Cat as well. I pressed our old name for him into his shoulder, hugging him back, breathing him in. Lin smelled of intercontinental travel: sourness under a caking of deodorant, a splash of cologne.
He pulled away, reaching an arm over my shoulder. Shadows deepened the hollows of his eyes with plum, the only outward sign of exhaustion.
“Is Faiz still in the other room?” said Talia.
We turned, six years of complicated history rolled back up and re-holstered, all for the sake of the blushing bride. Talia stood taller than all of us, mouth pinned in a line like police tape, lipstick moody against brown skin. She’d changed out of her travelling clothes into a yukata, painstakingly tailored for her frame, white moths burning to cinders on a sprawl of navy cloth. Her expression fell as they crossed my face, collapsed entirely at the sight of Lin.
“Who?” said Lin.
“He was one of your groomsmen.”
“I had like sixteen groomsmen. You can’t expect me to remember them all. It was an event, after all.”
“You made him fly to Iceland.” Talia thinned her mouth.
Lin draped an arm around me. “I made everyone fly to Iceland.”
“He’s the reason you’re here. We’re getting married! That’s the whole point you came here!”
“Oh. That.” Lin glanced at me, smirking. “I thought I was just here to see Cat.”
I froze. Long enough for Talia to see and for her mouth to weigh with condolence. Lin, though, with his thoroughbred wife and his immaculate life, still blind from those late-night Manhattan lights, took no notice at all.
“He was supposed to get our surprise from the car.” Talia flicked her attention to Phillip, hopeful. “We wanted to do something for you guys. Like, it’s crazy that you got us a full holiday to Japan. First class too?”
I interrupted. “Technically, it was Phillip—”
“Yes, yes. Trust-fund baby paid for the bulk of it. But you all helped, you all did the very best you could. And it matters to me. To us. You have no idea.” Her expression went soft, a perfect act. She flattened a palm over her heart. “So, we wanted to do something for you guys. Except that Faiz is missing his cue.”
Enclosed in Talia’s ribs was an entire vocabulary of sighs, each one layered with delicate subtleties, every laboured exhalation unique in its etymology. She raked a hand through her hair, sighed for the third, fourth time. I’d lost track at this point. Her gaze skated to mine, chagrin expressed with an arching of penciled brows. Your fault, declared that grim expression, no reprieve in stock.
“I’m here! Sorry!” Faiz’s voice came from behind a shoji screen, quickly overshadowed by a shrill of splintering timber, worm-wounded fibres coming apart. The panel to our right shuddered before it fell over. No fanfare. No collateral damage to the adjunct architecture. Not even a pluming of grey dust. Only an audible smack as it hit the floor, a sound like a palm colliding with a cheek.
We froze like hares. “Shit,” said Faiz.
Lin was the one to break the spell. He laughed, jackal-throated and giddy. It was somehow enough. We sagged into ourselves, small talk dispensed like so much recreational Valium. Faiz stood smiling at us from behind the devastation, six-feet-but-not-quite of shame and self-loathing. He cradled a stack of slim rectangular boxes, each package wrapped in gilt, bows on every one. “Sorry.”
We laughed as a group this time, and we all sounded drunk on being alive. Phillip got up and walked over to Faiz, punched the other man square in the shoulder, hard enough to dislodge his cargo. The gifts tumbled free, gloss and gold-trimmed ribbons. Phillip caught them all, naturally—one-armed and effortless—golden boy to Faiz’s dross.
“This,” Lin muttered with too much glee, “is how supervillains are born.”
Excerpted from Nothing But Blackened Teeth, copyright © 2021 by Cassandra Khaw.