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 food was everything its aroma had vowed: decadently complex, delicious to the last sip of broth, the savoury decoction of marrow, meat, and greens almost too umami to finish. But we did. We ate until our stomachs bulged and the alcohol lost some of its effect. In between, Lin convinced us to sample his cheese, carving slivers of Danablu and jalapeño-infused Camembert for anyone who’d look at him twice. The leftovers he used to make a Hong Kong–style baked rice, melting mascarpone over pork and sweet-salty shiitake.
We devoured that too. The room laid strewn with wrapping paper. Faiz and Talia had bought us gifts: statuettes of deepest jade, the green of an ancient lake. They were each of them shaped like a woman, her head bowed as though sacralized by grief. Her legs faded into a half-finished column: she is being buried alive, buried by a lord’s hope, buried to hold steady the weight of her master’s manor.
I stroked a restless thumb over my effigy’s cheek. There were neither eyes nor mouth on her, no way for her to scream or see. How’d they known to gather these? I wondered. The trip was billed as a surprise. Had Talia known? Had Phillip, our golden boy, god-king of small towns, perfect Phillip who no woman would reject, coyly spoken to Talia beforehand?
“We should play a game,” Talia purred, eyes lidded and drowsy with mischief, crooking her fingers at Faiz. He stood up and went from lantern to lantern, extinguishing their flames. Our shadows arched to the ceiling. “It’s called Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.”
“Excuse me?” said Lin.
“Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai,” Talia repeated, pronunciation paced for intelligibility. She looked at me then, really looked, harpooning my attention with the steadiness of her regard. “A Gathering of One Hundred Ghost Stories. I think?”
“Or weird stories,” said Faiz.
“Ancient samurai started this game as a kind of parlour game to see who the bravest of them were. They’d light one hundred candles in the room. Each samurai would tell a ghost story, extinguishing a candle at the end, and the winner would be whoever survived the ordeal without flinching.”
“Or going to the bathroom?” said Lin.
“Uh. Sure,” said Faiz.
“So, what’s the point of the whole ritual anyway?” said Lin.
Talia was on her feet now too, walking a reverse circuit from her fiancé, her shadow growing longer as she extinguished the lanterns limning the parabola of her route.
Until at last there was one lantern remaining, its flame twitching, throwing shapes over the walls. From up the stairs, candlelight fell unevenly.
“What do you think?” Talia’s smile was sly. “To make a place where spirits would be welcome. Now, come on.”
We went up. Someone had lit one hundred red candles in a room that must have belonged to a second wife, a concubine who had lost her lustre, a room too small and too spare to have homed someone who mattered, a chapel sacred to the incidental. If the owner was ever beloved, it was grudgingly, resentfully: an act of reluctant duty. The room’s only grace was an oval mirror, taller than plausible, its frame made of black ceramic, seamed with gold arteries.
“This isn’t creepy at all,” said Phillip.
“You talking about the room, the ceremony, or the fact that Talia packed a hundred candles in her bag without any of us noticing?” said Lin after a quick glance around him, Talia nowhere in immediate sight.
“All of it?” Phillip’s reflection had no face, just a thumbprint on the bronze mirror. It could have belonged to anyone, anything else. “Like, this feels unholy.”
“And the fact you could purchase access to a historical site without having to fill out any kind of paperwork didn’t?” Lin drawled, shoulder laid against a pillar, no color to the latter any longer, not unless ancient was a hue. “If there’s anything unholy, it’s the heights that rich white men—”
“I knew I shouldn’t have taken time to fill you in. And come on, it’s not like I’m doing it for myself.”
“You’re doing it for Talia, I know,” said Lin.
A beat that went too long. “And Faiz too.”
“You’re still sweet on her, aren’t you?” said Lin, face cracked into a grin. He pushed from the wall.
“Jesus hell, Lin,” I said.
“What?” He threw a shrug, hands tossed up so quickly that his fingers, if they had been birds, would have broken in the violence. “We’re all thinking it. The stupid little figurines that Talia gave us. This was supposed to be a surprise elopement. How did she know, dude? Come on. Tell me.”
Phillip moved fast. Faster than I think any of us could have gambled he’d go even with his quarterback history. With that much muscle, you expected to see the machinery move: his physique bunching for motion, creating momentum. But Phillip poured across the room: six gliding steps and Lin suddenly was pincered between him and a wall, head ricocheting from the impact.
“The fuck are you doing?” I shouted, lunging for Phillip’s arm.
He glared at me then. And his eyes were cold, so cold your heart would freeze in that blue.
“You’re right,” he said. Phillip, we all knew, had his universal script. “I’m above that.”
“But not above sleeping with someone else’s wife.” Lin collared his own neck with a hand and rubbed his Adam’s apple after Phillip had let him go, smile enduring as a bad habit.
“I didn’t sleep with Talia.”
“Sure,” said Lin, strolling out then—finally—and the house devoured his footsteps. Silence leaned into us, a conspiring friend. I looked up at Phillip. He stood stooped with two fists balled-up at his sides, teeth gritted, breath bleeding in trails.
A sidelong look but no sound yet otherwise. “Hey,” I said again. “The fuck was that?”
His rage began to slough as he spoke. “I don’t know. I lost my temper. That asshole does it to me all the time. I think I can keep my shit together but something about Lin just makes me want to punch a wall.”
Phillip wiped his tongue along the edge of a tooth, hands raised for me to see, the palms cut with half-moons from his nails.
“You know that’s what he’s like, though.”
“I don’t know how you put up with him.” Phillip kept going, his internal monologue, as always, so loud it couldn’t ever make space for collaboration. “He’s a piece of shit.”
“Is he right, though?”
“Is he right?” I said, and the house breathed in, swallowing half the candles, making a mess of the dark. “About you and Talia.”
“You sound like you want it to be,” came the reply, too slow for it to be innocent of Lin’s insinuations, air filtered through Phillip’s teeth in a languid hiss. At least there was no more anger, that part of him thankfully exhumed. His countenance, badly lit, was grave but harmless.
“I don’t have an opinion on this.”
“Why’d you ask?”
“Because you nearly beat someone to death over it.”
“It didn’t have anything to do with that. Like I said, it’s just Lin gets under my skin.” He exhaled, tectonic in its release. “I should go apologize to him, though. You’re right. I don’t fucking know what came over me.” I said nothing until Phillip’s footsteps died away, and then turned, and I—
Suenomatsuyama nami mo koenamu.
A female voice, solicitous and sweet. Distantly, the brain stem screeched, stress hormones wailing at my motor system, demanding I run, run now, escape into the sanctuary of multiplicity, disappear into the waiting herd, do anything so long as I remove myself from probable harm, anything just go, go now.
But my limbs would not concede to their urging.
Suenomatsuyama nami mo koenamu.
She—I pictured a girl, smaller than me, younger, black hair pouring from a widow’s peak—repeated, this time with more insistence. I felt molars close over my earlobe, felt a tongue trace its circumference. Her breath was damp, warm.
Suenomatsuyama nami mo koenamu.
What. The word pebbled in my throat, cold and dead. Haltingly, head full of static, I lurched stiff-legged towards the mirror. This was a dream. This was not a dream. This was a haunting, a possession, and any second now, I’d cut my throat, the first casualty of the night.
After all, isn’t that the foremost commandment in the scripture of horror? They who are queer, deviant, tattooed, tongue-pierced Other must always die first. The slurred remnants of my consciousness chewed on the thought as my eyes slid across the mirror, my stomach clenched.
So many thoughts. None of them anything but a knee-jerk distraction.
I stared into the brass and there she was, Jesus fuck. Standing behind me, chin braced against my shoulder, arms laced around my waist. Fingers snarled in my shirt, their grip possessive. She was so close, yet somehow, I couldn’t make out her face.
That wasn’t right.
My vision was just fine. It was my brain. My brain wouldn’t inventory its observations, would not process and sustain any memory of her face, retain anything but the red of her rosebud mouth, the lacquered black of her hair. Her hands moved. Her fingers sunk into the grooves between my ribs, squeezed. I gasped at the pressure and, in answer, she made animal noises, soothing and sweet. The light plunged through the gap between her lips, and there was only ink and the smell of vinegar, only black teeth.
I jolted. I was back where I’d originally been standing, diagonal to the mirror, no dead woman holding me to her breast. Not even a sheen of sweat on my skin to tell you I’d been scared out of my mind. Just silence and the mildewed heat, the taste of the room sitting heavy as altar bread, ashen and stale and oversweet.
“You okay?” Talia leaned her weight against the doorway, arms crossed, a hundred sentences suspended between each syllable, most saliently this: what the fuck are you doing? No real animosity, however. Talia’s too cultured for that. But that perennial caginess because you can dress a pig in diamonds but it’ll still drown itself in slop first chance it gets. No matter how often Talia smiled at me, she did not want me here.
“You were staring at the wall.”
That slimming of her mouth again and when she spoke, it wasn’t with her satin polish, bitterness coarsening up her tone. “You know, we don’t have to like each other but you don’t have to be a bitch.”
Bitch is the kind of word that reads like a gunshot, rings like a punch. I snapped straight at the sound, the world clarified again: distant warm candle-glow and Talia’s glacial stare. “What is your problem with me? And I mean besides the one I already know.”
“My problem is that you can’t even answer a question without trying to be a smartass.”
“Hate to break it to you but I’m not trying to be smart, I am—”
“See? That’s what I mean. I asked you if you were okay. That was all. And you couldn’t even answer that without some kind of goddamned wisecrack.”
“Did you actually mean it?”
“Did you actually mean it?”
“The fuck are you talking about?” Talia gawked at me. “What are you even talking about now?”
I could see why Lin defaulted to wit where he could. Easier to run your mouth, run from the Sisyphean work that was being emotionally open. Easier not to think about her and what my brain mutinied from remembering about the girl in the mirror. I trailed fingers along the roof of my head, patted down my hair, and smiled. “Your concern about whether I’m okay. Did you mean that?”
“Fuck me.” Shoot and score. “That’s what I get for trying to be nice to you.”
“That’s what you get for being fake.”
“What do you want from me?” Her voice brittled. “I’m trying for Faiz. I don’t like you and I don’t think that I’m an asshole for it. You tried to break us up. But you know what? I’m working on that. I would trade a lot of money for you to not be here but this is where we are. Fucking meet me halfway.”
“If it helps, I wish you weren’t here either.”
“I hope the house eats you.” Talia, her charity only good for so much.
“I hope the same about you.”
Excerpted from Nothing But Blackened Teeth, copyright © 2021 by Cassandra Khaw.