Reading the Weird

Bait for Chosen Ones: P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout (Part 3)

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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 continue P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, first published in 2020, with Chapters 5-6. Spoilers ahead!

“Why, Maryse, we don’t think we’ve seen you so mad.”

Maryse, Sadie and Chef race to Frenchy’s, leaving Molly’s people and Emma to guard Nana Jean’s farm. The inn is on fire. People in their Saturday night finery swarm the road, fleeing the disaster. Klans have stormed the place, they say, and one man raves about monsters. Abandoning their Packard, the trio shove through the crowd. In front of Frenchy’s already blackened porch is a mob of robed and hooded Klans and Ku Kluxes who whip the people escaping the flames; at their head, waving a Bible and shouting about stamping out vice, is Butcher Clyde.

The trio run around to break open the barricaded back door. After those trapped have spilled out, they brave the inferno to battle Ku Kluxes in their native hellfire. Maryse summons her sword. Sadie’s Winchester drops monsters with awe-inspiring precision, while Chef shepherds terrified stragglers to safety. Screams from the second floor impel Maryse upstairs. She’s yet to spot Michael George in the chaos, but finds only a half-dressed couple cornered in their room. Sadie charges up into the fray looking like “a yella angel in overalls.” She shoots a way clear for Maryse to get the couple out. Chef and Lester meet Maryse outside, with news that the Klans have abducted several people, including Michael George.

Maryse realizes Sadie hasn’t followed her. She plunges back into the burning inn, to find the second floor hall littered with monster corpses, and Sadie among them, bleeding out from multiple wounds. She regales Maryse with a description of the church funeral she wants, then dies in her arms.

Rage launches Maryse back into the night and into combat with the assembled Klans, human and monster. She engages Clyde, her spirit-sword against his two cleavers. He taunts her with Sadie’s death and by revealing that he led the attack on her cabin outside Memphis, where she cowered under the floor–and where they left her a “little present” in the barn. Maryse fights with inhuman fury, but when Clyde opens his many mouths, the agonizing disharmony of their song staggers her to her knees and so warps her sword that the blade shatters under his cleavers.

Clyde doesn’t finish her off. Instead he again disparages her “Aunties” and offers her “what you want more than anything–power over life and death.” When she won’t deal, he tries to force “unnatural” meat down her throat. Chef comes to the rescue with the threat of silver-laced dynamite. Clyde releases Maryse, but as she runs for it, he calls out for her to come see “us,” she knows where. They have what she wants, more than anything.

Back at the farm, everyone seems stunned to inaction while Maryse bursts to do something. Emma believes the Klans took prisoners for use in the ritual they’ll perform at Stone Mountain, but how to rescue them when so thoroughly outnumbered? In the heat of loss and guilt, Maryse suggests Chef rig bombs to blow up the whole gathering, humans as well as monsters. Nana Jean tells her she better cool down before she burns up, and Maryse takes her anger into the open air. She shouts for the Aunties to help her and falls into–somewhere else.

This time the sunless sky’s an orange troubled by lightning, and the oak is leafless. Black sheets hang from its branches; the table supports only a bundle of black cloth; the Aunties wear black dresses and hats. Auntie Jadine embraces Maryse and sings the same dirge the Shouters were singing at the farm. Her suppressed emotions undammed, Maryse sobs and tells the Aunties she needed them, and they weren’t there. The veil has grown, Ondine says. The enemy’s cutting them off from Maryse’s world, Margaret grumbles. In the black bundle are the shards of the sword, which they can’t fix. Only Maryse can do that.

Maryse tells the Aunties about Clyde and the Grand Cyclops. The Cyclops, they explain, is an incarnation of the enemy and means the end of Maryse’s world. As for why the Aunties chose Maryse as their champion, it was to stop her from becoming the enemy’s. Sadly, they may have played into the enemy’s hand by giving her a sword of vengeance, a weapon powered by her own suffering and rage. They hoped that would heal Maryse, but instead it has only fed her vulnerability. The many tomorrows Jadine can see depend on Maryse’s choice. If she accepts the enemy’s offer, all will be darkness. If she doesn’t, hope will remain.

As for who will help Maryse’s people against monsters, Margaret suggests they ally with other monsters. Ondine shows sharp fox teeth in her chagrin: The ones Margaret thinks of are “leeches! Dead things…seeking sustenance in misery…amoral, chaotic!” But, Margaret muses, they might find the enemy to their taste.

Ondine concedes these “others” might assist humans, for a price. Their true names are lost, but Maryse will find them in her brother’s book. And, paging through the folk stories she always carries, Maryse discovers a new one, about the Night Doctors.

Chef, it turns out, has heard of the Night Doctors, haints that stole slaves to experiment on them. She thinks they were a story made up by masters who sold dead slaves to medical schools. Nana Jean, however, says the Night Doctors are real; she asks Maryse if she means to go to “de ebil place” to treat with them. Maryse does. Her book tells how to get there, and they need all the help they can get.

Nana Jean’s nod grants understanding, not permission. She warns that whenever people go to the evil place, they give up something, leave something behind. So is Maryse going to come back whole?

As whole as she can, Maryse says, but as always she doesn’t make promises.

This Week’s Metrics

The Degenerate Dutch: Butcher Clyde takes advantage of the general KKK desire to tear down Black businesses to go after Frenchy’s.

Libronomicon: The Aunties add a chapter on the Night Doctors to Maryse’s book, and Chef offers supplementary detail. None of it is reassuring.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Tap. Tap. Is this thing still on? Right. So when we last left our intrepid monster hunters, they had just discovered they were guarding the wrong target. My wife was just last night quoting Cooper’s The Dark is Rising: “Tonight will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond all imagining.” That feels apt for this week’s reading, where things go completely to shit.

We started Ring Shout with an introduction to our team and their capabilities, as well as the Klu Kluxes that they could cut down with panache and bring home in a jar. Then we upped the ante with increasingly dangerous monsters and the threat of worse to be summoned. Now the team itself is losing capabilities, and members. Maryse’s magical sword is broken, her boyfriend is kidnapped, and friend and companion Sadie is dead on the battlefield. And Cosmic Horror Clyde wants to stuff her mouth with eldritch meat samples and offer her “power over life and death.” Nor is Sadie the only loved one for whom she might be tempted to use that power.

I do feel that said power might be a touch less useful in a world that’s “over” following the coming of the Grand Cyclops. But per Auntie Jadine, that distinct tradeoff isn’t necessarily enough to keep Maryse from falling to temptation. People have been known to make dumb decisions with much less basis.

I also agree with Maryse that it “don’t seem fair” that if she screws up, all is darkness, and if she manages to keep her head, there’s the chance to continue the struggle. But that may be the most realistic thing in a book full of discomfiting realism.

Along with setting a low point from which Maryse now has to recover (unless things get worse, always a possibility), these chapters feel central in other ways. In a book based around a musical form, everything this week is singing. There’s the actual ring shout for Sadie’s funeral. There are teaching songs to warn about monsters. There’s the singing in Maryse’s sword before it breaks: a war song, a song of healing comfort, a lullaby while running towards freedom. (All of which is happening in the scene around her: people fighting, tending the wounded, and fleeing danger.) Then there’s Butcher Clyde’s many-mouthed anti-harmony. Songs explain, songs summon, songs bring people together to fight or mourn. So it makes sense for music, mis-used, to break other kinds of patterns. Clark isn’t the only writer to suggest such power.

Anyway, as an alternative to the hideously terrible option of giving in to Butcher Clyde, Jadine suggests the merely bad option of offering alliance to the eldritch personifications of racist medical experimentation. Much like the Klu Kluxes, the Night Doctors sound like they’re more interested in who’s vulnerable to their methods than in any actual distinction between humans. Hate feeds Clyde’s goals, therefore he draws followers from the hateful. Pain feeds Night Doctors, therefore they look for those made most vulnerable to pain. But they might be open to other offers. If you’re willing to leave something behind.

 

Anne’s Commentary

I went into Chapter Five with the foreboding, no, the near certainty, that Someone Important wasn’t going to make it into Chapter Six–deathspians wouldn’t do at this stage of the game. Still, I clung to the hope that the sacrifice wouldn’t be one of our monster-hunting trio. I could steel myself to let Michael George or Lester or Bessie (the love interests) go, but no. Clark had to go and honor dramatic necessity by offing one of the Three. As narrator, Maryse had high odds of survival. Which left Sadie or Chef, neither of whom Maryse and I could spare.

Yeah, go ahead, Mr. Clark. Stick me with your pen knife and twist it. If I’d had to bet on who was going to buy the farm, I’d have bet on Sadie as the more reckless of the candidates, with a side bet that she and Winnie would go out in style. I wasn’t disappointed there. Her death-oration strained my credulity a bit by its length and coherence, but its substance was heartbreakingly Sadie, describing the church funeral she must know she’s not going to get and drifting off on Lester’s tales of African queens and her grandpappy’s promise of the postmortem restoration of one’s stolen wings.

Wings are freedom. Sadie, I imagine you the pinions of a desert falcon, sharp and swift and deft.

Onward. Clark’s living characters have little time to indulge their grief. They have big problems on a fast-ticking time clock, made exponentially more urgent by the abduction of some patrons of Frenchy’s Inn–including, for Maryse’s particular torment, Frenchy himself! Butcher Clyde didn’t grab Michael George by chance, did he? Nope. He has come to know too well the places where Maryse hurts; as he enjoys telling her during their combat, he’s been exploiting her vulnerabilities at least as far back as the seven-years-prior attack on her cabin. He actually being them, a vast monster-collective, let’s not forget.

The collective wants her alliance (more likely, enslavement) very badly. As we learn in Chapter Six, she was their Chosen One before she was the Aunties’–they swooped in on her to pre-empt the Enemy’s coup. Does this mean Maryse stands poised precisely between the cosmic opponents, her choice of sides to determine which of Jadine’s potential futures comes to pass? I would have been confident she’d stick with Team Good, but here’s Team Evil offering the most seductive signing bonus possible: power over life and death.

Uh oh, that’s the bait Chosen Ones constantly fall for, like Anakin Skywalker. It preys on love and the fear of loss. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering, which happens to be the very sustenance of the Enemy. That whole Dark Side drill.

What can the Aunties offer Maryse? Their spirit-sword looked sweet and did a superlative job on the Ku Kluxes. Too bad it turned out to be the wrong choice from the start, powered as it was on vengeful rage; wielding such a weapon hardened Maryse to killing and fostered in her emotions the Enemy could exploit for its own purposes. With lesser opponents, the brute force of Maryse’s anger pulls her through. With a higher level monster and master manipulator like Clyde, negative emotion becomes a liability for her and an asset for him. Actually fed by it, Clyde shatters the spirit-sword. Nor can the Aunties reforge the blade. That’s on Maryse.

They can’t personally fight beside her, either. For reasons unstated, the Aunties have bound themselves to their own pocket reality, outside of which their powers are forfeit. The clever fox knows when to retreat into its earth, constricting itself, yes, but also excluding the hounds. Excluding them, at least, until something bigger and smarter, like maybe a Grand Cyclops, comes along.

It takes Margaret, the cynical Auntie, to suggest that Maryse fight monsters with monsters. Spacey-Neutral Jadine (who can’t blame a monster for doing what it does) doesn’t oppose the idea. Upright Ondine is at first horrified that loveless and amoral and chaotic dead leeches should even be considered as allies! Nevertheless, after warning Maryse that the “Night Doctors” will exact a price for their help, Ondine provides her with the means of contacting them.

It’s fitting that Ondine air-writes the information into Maryse’s book of African-American folklore. That’s one possession, one “Bible,” Maryse is never without, that has stuck with her even through a pitched battle in a burning building; that repository alone, with all its associations, should predispose Maryse to the scheme.

That and, of course, the growing desperation of the situation for Maryse and those she loves – especially the love currently in the claws of the Enemy and facing an unthinkable role in unnameable rituals!

 

Next week, we sample from Ellen Datlow’s new Shirley Jackson inspired anthology, When Things Get Dark. Join us for Cassandra Khaw’s “Quiet Dead Things.”

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.

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