Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches.
This week, we start on P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, first published in 2020, with Chapters 1-2. Spoilers ahead!
“In the Shout, you got to move the way the spirit tell you and can’t stop until it let you go.”
Macon, Georgia. July 4, 1922. The parade of white Klan robes isn’t as many as you’d see in Atlanta, but plenty enough; unlike the originals they don’t bother hiding, but show their faces under their pointed hoods. A brass band, clapping spectators and fireworks raise a racket. Flags wave, marchers cavort. You might forget they were monsters if you weren’t Maryse Boudreaux. But Maryse hunts monsters, and she knows them when she sees them.
Maryse perches on the sun-scorched roof of a cotton warehouse. Beside her crouches Sadie Watkins, peering through the sights of her Winchester rifle “Winnie.” She sasses Maryse like the “irate yella gal sharecropper” she resembles, but she can shoot the wings off a fly. Alongside them is Cordelia Lawrence, who earned the nickname “Chef” cooking up explosives in the Army whose uniform she still wears. In the trenches, Chef learned that to catch rats, you needed the right bait and trap.
The trio have set their trap in the alley behind the warehouse. Their bait’s a charred and mangled dog carcass. It stinks to high heaven, or at least to the warehouse roof, nauseating Maryse.
Three Ku Kluxes enter the alley, sniffing after dog. Anyone paying attention could see they walk too jerky and stiff, breathe too fast, but only people like the trio can see how their faces wobble and twist like reflections in carnival mirrors. The Ku Kluxes drop to all fours and start tearing chunks out of the dog. Sadie shoots into the carcass, setting off Chef’s bomb. It fills the Ku Kluxes with silver pellets and iron slags, laying the haints flat.
Maryse descends toward the carnage on a rope. She’s halfway down when the Ku Kluxes revive. Revealed, the tallest is nine feet of broad torso and bestial hindquarters, long curved head ending in a bony point. Its hide is pale white, its claws curved ivory blades. It would have six black-and-red eyes if the bomb hadn’t torn away half its face.
Sadie pumps bullets into the monster, slowing it enough for Maryse to swing inside a broken window. Luckily, she falls on cotton bales. Unluckily, her pursuer’s fellow monsters burst in the warehouse door. The end? No, because Maryse is a monster hunter, and she has a sword that sings. With a half-whispered prayer, she conjures it from nothingness, silver hilt and leaf-shaped blade of dark iron. Long-dead spirits are drawn to the sword, chanting. They compel the kings and chiefs who sold them into slavery to call up old African gods who give Maryse the power to slay the Ku Kluxes.
Meanwhile Sadie and Chef have dispatched the first monster, noise covered by the parade racket. As Maryse dissects monster corpses, Sadie discovers prohibited Tennessee whiskey hidden in the cotton bales. The women will appropriate some—monster hunting is expensive business.
The trio drive off in a beat-up-looking but smooth-running Packard truck. Leaving Macon, they pass a huge poster advertising the rerelease of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Sadie hurls curses at it, for which Maryse can’t blame her.
You see, the Confederacy’s leaders were into dark sorcery, just like the original Klans. When freed Negroes described Klans as horned beasts, they weren’t exaggerating—some could see what the soul-sold Klans had become! Freed people helped end this first Klan, but its evil lived on in Jim Crow. For some, like Griffith and Thomas Dixon (on whose novels Birth was based), such oppression wasn’t enough. Their film and books were more than paper and celluloid—they were conjurings “meant to deliver the souls of readers to the evil powers,” and they birthed the second Klan. November 25, 1915, William Joseph Simmons and fifteen other witches met at Stone Mountain, Georgia, and called up the monsters Maryse calls Ku Kluxes.
On a bumpy road outside Macon is the monster hunters’ home base, Nana Jean’s farm. They’re greeted by Molly Hogan, the group’s scientist, gadgeteer, and distiller. Molly and four assistants take the collected Ku Klux body parts to the barn for experimentation. Underway inside the farmhouse is a Shout, a complex interweaving of dance, song, clapping and call-and-response performed by the Leader Uncle Will and a visiting congregation. Historically the Shout is a powerful prayer for freedom and the end of wickedness. This one wakens Maryse’s spirit-sword in passing, but the magic mostly flows to Nana Jean. She passes it on to bottles of Mama’s Water, an elixir intended to provide protection against Klans, mobs and Ku Kluxes—and lucrative, too. Monster-hunting don’t pay for itself.
Nana Jean is the old Gullah woman who psychically called Maryse, Sadie and Chef to their current monster-hunting work. Also at the gathering is Emma Krauss, a German Jew and socialist who assists in the farm’s bootlegging business. A musician, she’s fascinated by the Shout. Over Nana Jean’s bountiful dinner, the crew cozily argues about whether Marxism can bring about social equity; meanwhile, Maryse buries herself in the battered copy of Negro Folktales that belonged to her brother.
Later, Molly shares evidence that the Ku Kluxes, crossed over from another world, are rapidly adapting to ours. She believes there’s a Ku Klux infection or parasite that feeds on hate and turns humans into monsters—and that some overarching intelligence controls them. She worries the rerelease of Griffith’s Birth may precipitate a crisis.
Nana Jean, too, sees ill omens: Bad wedduh, bad wedduh, bad wedduh, gwine come….
This Week’s Metrics
What’s Cyclopean: The Klu Kluxes are “pale bone white” with “a nest of teeth like spiky icicles.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Sadie gives a firm rundown on the N-word, the inherent difference in capitalization between respectful and insulting usage, and who can say it respectfully “with a big N” (not white people). “And if they try to say it with the big N, you should put they front teeth in the back of they mouth.”
Libronomicon: On the side of good, Maryse’s book of Bruh Rabbit stories from her brother, which she reads over and over like a scripture. On the evil side, The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots, created as dark sorcery and magnified to horrific-on-all-levels effect in Birth of a Nation.
On my first read-through of Ring Shout, I got so excited about the idea of covering it as a longread that I forgot that (1) that would involve stopping reading every couple of chapters, and (2) that would involve talking coherently about how good it is. So slightly incoherently, here we go.
I’m a complete sucker for voice, and have forgiven many a lesser story solely on the basis of the narrator’s company. Maryse Boudreaux is fabulous company, wry and blunt and opinionated and poetically-precise in her observations. Her companions are delightful too, and Clark gives each of them pitch-perfect mannerisms and dialect—and in Nana Jean’s case, pitch-perfect Gullah with enough context to interpret—appropriate to their background and personality. Chef’s war stories (and appreciation of a nice set of hips), Sadie’s cheerful vulgarity, Emma’s intellectual idealism twisted with bitter cynicism, Nana Jean’s tough wisdom that’s doubtless much needed by all these kids in their 20s…
The mix of characters facilitates some wonderful conversations about the conflicting beliefs and perspectives that different people can bring to the same fight for justice. I particularly like the arguments with Emma about whether socialism can overcome racial boundaries and turn every war into the class war—and the way she acknowledges, in admitting the contortions through which anti-Semitism maintains itself, that she gets Chef’s point. I like Emma being there, dealing with the intersections and differences between the bigotries that she and her companions face.
Then there’s the story itself. In media res openings are both popular and easy to screw up; Chapter 1 of Ring Shout introduces both characters and conflict seamlessly, showing us straight off what our monsters can do what our characters can do, and where they’re doing it. Then Chapter 2 brings us to home base, gives us a bigger community, and sets a foundation for what’s coming next. Bad wedduh, is what, and with Macon’s summer heat and supernaturally-backed Klan marches as a baseline, that doesn’t bode well.
But maybe my favorite thing about this book is the energy. Five years of fascism, pandemic, and multiple existential fights sequential and simultaneous have left a lot of real-world monster hunters exhausted. The ring shout as we see it in Chapter 2 is defiance not only against oppression and slavery, but against fatigue—it pulls you up, it makes you dance, makes you sing and shout, and gives you power in the face of powerlessness. The whole book feels like that. Maryse and company are fighting extradimensional horrors cloaked in and powered by all-too-mundane hatred, but they do it with strength and determination and energy and magic, with love and dancing and righteous anger as important to the fight as magic swords.
That is a truly wonderful magic sword, by the way, even if Nana Jean’s suspicious. Silver and smoke and iron, with ancestral songs and fallen kings and ancient gods guiding Maryse’s blows. I’m entertained by the contrast between this sword steeped in myth and history, and Winnie the Not-So-Magical Rifle. Both are dear to their wielders and both are effective against geigeresque Klu Kluxes. I’m similarly delighted by Molly’s steampunk workarounds for her lack of any natural ability to spot the uncanny. Scientific instruments are for seeing what’s invisible to human senses, aren’t they? All this while running illegal magic-infused hooch, too. No one is fussing here about which tools fit with which genres—as long as you can use them to undermine hate-driven extradimensional incursions, we’re good.
In Dean Koontz’s 1987 novel Twilight Eyes, an ancient civilization genetically engineered creatures that could shape-shift to mimic humans, their intended prey. Why the ancients thought goblins were a good idea, I don’t remember—super-soldiers, maybe? Anyhow, the goblins have survived to the present, a hidden menace still intent on genocide. Some psychically gifted people can see the goblins through their human camouflage, and they’ve come together to thwart the monsters.
Djeli Clark’s Ring Shout has a similar premise. Magic, not technology, has stocked its superbly reimagined Jim Crow South with human-mimicking demons. A few psychically gifted people perceive their true nature and band together to oppose them. Maryse Boudreaux and friends call the monsters “Ku Kluxes,” whereas their human “masters” are simply “Klans.” Clark’s conceit is that leading Confederates were “in league with worse than the devil.” After the war, Nathan Bedford Forrest, another “wicked conjurer,” started the first Klan. Ku Klux (or Kuklux) was a neologism possibly derived from the Greek kuklos or kyklos, which means circle or cycle. Do the monsters represent a cycle, as in regularly recurring incursions of the beasts? Or do they represent a circle of “drones” under the control of a singular intelligence, as Molly Hogan speculates?
Here’s the truly terrifying idea, and it’s the truly terrifying idea in all the best weird literature: Humans are as bad or worse than any monster for which the writer can get readers to suspend their incredulity. Clark’s “Klans” and their supporters are metaphorical monsters to begin with, for their hatred drives them to commit atrocities in pursuit of white supremacy. The Klans summon actual (within the fiction) monsters to assist them. The Klans can even become actual monsters through some process of infection-by-association. Vampires create vampires. Werewolves create werewolves. Racists create racists. Hatred, the sustenance of the demonic Ku Kluxes, is highly contagious among humans. Unchecked, it allies humans with “the evil powers” and mutates them.
Into monsters. Monsters as metaphor for what’s dark and destructive in us. Monsters in reality, in effect.
Merriam-Webster defines a monster as “an animal or plant of abnormal form or structure” or “one who deviates from normal or acceptable behavior or character.” Such an animal, plant or human is the exception rather than the norm, an outlier. But as Godzilla teaches us, it only takes one monster to royally screw things up. To unscrew things takes that significant minority among us who neither run from the monsters nor abet them. Who resist. The good guys.
In the great tradition of resistance heroes, Clark’s good guys are a motley band mostly (so far) of sisters. Underdogs with skin in the game, because the monsters have not played nicely with them or theirs. Chapter One introduces a quirky-appealing trio of Away-Teamers who mesh with and spark off each other in just the right proportion to engender sharply amusing and character-revealing dialogue. Maryse is the first-person narrator, an excellent choice for the job. She spikes her prose with enough dialectic flavor to draw us into the particular sphere of the story without sacrificing speed of comprehension. Imagine Nana Jean as a first-person narrator—Gullah makes her speeches a challenge to decipher for the uninitiated, which would include most readers I expect. I like to wrestle with unfamiliar vocabulary and syntax, but Nana Jean pushed me to the edge of overpuzzlement. I’d have hurtled over that edge if the entire text had been in her lingo.
Maryse strikes me as someone who’s read far and wide beyond her treasured book of folklore. She’s as nice about language and manners as she’s bad-ass with a mystical sword. That makes the down-to-earth and unabashedly vulgar Sadie a great conversational sparring partner for her. Cordy “Chef” Lawrence provides a rock-steady balance between the two. Her self-awareness and determination are formidable—apparently a gender-fluid lesbian, she passed as male well enough to serve in WWI with the Harlem Hellfighters (aka Black Rattlers), an African-American regiment renowned for the longest frontline service of any American unit, and the highest casualties. It’s hard to choose among these three characters, but Chef squeaks in as my favorite right now.
Chapter Two expands the diversity of the cast with Choctaw scientist and all-around tech wizard Molly Hogan, who commands an R&D team of at least four and still has time to run the farm’s distillery. Emma Krauss, a Jewish socialist, brings two more of the Klan’s target groups into the fight. Nana Jean, Gullah to the bone though exiled from her Carolina islands to Macon for most of her life, is the general of this small army, and its magical heart. In addition to collecting and channeling spiritual energy, she can sense other “specials” at a distance and call them to her. In addition to seeing Ku Kluxes for what they are, she’s an omen-reader. Scientist Molly has amassed enough data to predict an impending crisis. No one thinks a rerelease of the racist-rousing Birth of a Nation bodes well. And Nana Jean has heard roosters singing at the moon. She’s seen a rat swallow a snake as big as itself. She’s dreamt of a “blood redhead buckrah man.” Maryse, Sadie and Cordy better watch out for each other.
An evil time is at hand. Bad weather’s going to come, for sure. Read on at our own risks.
Next week, Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas offers an imagined review of some truly strange imaginary art in “Still Life With Vial of Blood.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s A Half-Built Garden comes out in July 2022. She is also the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, weird and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.