Reading the Weird

Feeding the Drama-Eaters: P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout (Part 4)

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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 7-8. Spoilers ahead!

“You ever hear the story of Truth and Lies?” I ask. “Well, I’ll get to the good part. You the Lie.”

According to the Night Doctor story in Maryse’s book, she must seek the dead Angel Oak tree. Nana Jean directs her into previously nonexistent woods, where in lieu of leaves the trees sport blue bottles twinkling with trapped haints. Desire and anger lead her to an immense white tree with bones for leaves. She plunges her knife into its bark, which oozes blood; when she’s pried a deep enough gash into the raw muscle within, the tree sucks Maryse into a world of endless white corridors patrolled by a colossal white “centipede” and–a colored man dressed all in white, down to his white blindfold.

Maryse has read about him in the story. He’s Antoine Bisset, a physician who sought the Night Doctors in 1937. Maryse has entered their lair in 1922. Time doesn’t matter here. Bissett came to learn the source of hate, having hunted for it, a fifth undiscovered bodily humor, in human entrails; through Bisset’s “samples,” the Doctors developed a taste for hatred as well as the suffering they once gleaned from stolen slaves. Fine, Maryse says, because she can offer the Doctors creatures that “carry hate pure in their blood,” that is, the Ku Kluxes and their masters.

In return for an alliance, Bisset warns, the Doctors will require a personal price. Before Maryse can respond, giant white-robed humanoids with six-fingered hands and wrinkled featureless faces seize her. Their sliding-blade whispers paralyze her atop a stone block, and they remove her liver and other organs for the form of divination they once taught the Babylonians. In her agony, Maryse sings the Doctors all the misery she’s seen. After blacking out, she finds herself in her old house, whole. Bisset has come along. He opens the floor-hatch to reveal the cowering girl and dispels her illusion of childhood, revealing the eighteen-year-old Maryse who survived a Ku Klux attack on her family. This Maryse “betrays” them both by telling the story of that night. Bissett then marches present-day Maryse to the barn. The Doctors required him to show the misery he’d witnessed through his own flesh; he removes his blindfold to show empty eye sockets. She’s lucky they only require her to face her ultimate horror: father, mother and brother hanged from the barn rafters.

Maryse relives her sorrow, guilt and the two years she roamed slaughtering Ku Kluxes. When Bisset tells her the Doctors find her misery “delectable,” the idea of yet more monsters devouring her inspires Maryse to righteous anger. She extends the broken sword-hilt girl-Maryse gave her and, swept by the “beautiful, vengeful song” of her wronged people, she resummons its blade and overwhelms the Doctors with the collective emotion it radiates.

Returned to the dissection table, she is whole again. Incensed at her attack on his masters, Bisset snarls that far from demanding an alliance with the Doctors, she should be glad she’s still alive! With that, he propels her back into her own world.

The night of the Ku Klux gathering at Stone Mountain arrives. Nana Jean’s people, including Nana Jean and Uncle Will and his Shouters, ascend slopes made treacherous by flooding rain. Other bands join them, bringing their active fighters to thirty. Maryse and Chef scout ahead to the summit. A disheartening sight greets them: hundreds of Klans, staring at a screen on which The Birth of a Nation plays; Ku Kluxers bearing uncannily unquenchable torches; Butcher Clyde standing beside a flaming timber cross, his rant replacing the film’s orchestral accompaniment. On a platform under the screen stand six bound people, sacks over their heads. One must be Michael George.

Rather than sacrifice their fighters in an unwinnable battle, Maryse and Chef confront Clyde about his “offer.” He welcomes Maryse by whisking the sack from an entranced Michael George’s head. He’ll be released if Maryse goes along with the Ku Kluxers’ “grand plan.” See, the hate they harvest from white people isn’t very potent. The whites already have power, so their hate arises from insecurity, inadequacy. Whereas the hate of black people would be pure, righteous, strong! Therefore the Ku Kluxers have groomed the Aunties’ champion for their own purposes, meaning for Maryse not to switch sides but to lead them. No, they can’t bring back Maryse’s family–she misunderstood when Clyde spoke of power over life and death. The power they offer is power for her people, in exchange for their justified and hence luscious hate.

Maryse declares she’s come to prevent the Grand Cyclops’s advent. Clyde laughs that the Cyclops is already here. At a sweep of his arm, the blank-faced Klans collapse into shapeless raw flesh, each blob slithering onto the burning cross to form one enormous body like a coiling snake, only with branching tentacles and the shrieking mouths of its constituent bodies. Constituent eyes pool in the Cyclops’s stump of a head to form a single eye focused on Maryse; tentacles sample and approve her untapped anger. Let us show you how to wield it, the Cyclops croons.

Maryse is sorely tempted–Auntie Ondine rightly feared that a sword that poured into Maryse centuries of her peoples’ rage might mold her for their enemies’ use! Then Maryse hears her brother’s voice, warning Bruh Rabbit not to get tricked, and her other-self’s admonition that the monsters use the places where we hurt against us. Use them to pervert righteous anger from a cry for justice to hatred, their food.

Ultimately Maryse passes her test. She defies Clyde, summons a sword more powerful than ever, and plunges it into the Cyclops’s eye. Chef tosses an explosive-and-Mama’s-Water brew into the Cyclops, further injuring her. But more Klans assimilate into and heal her. A tentacle flings Chef aside, more bury Maryse in the wreck of the movie screen. She struggles free to meet the deadly-furious glare of the Cyclops.

Something distracts the monster: A figure “stepping sideways out of nothing.” Dr. Bisset.

“You’re late,” Maryse observes.

This Week’s Metrics

What’s Cyclopean: The Angel Oak is “bone white, glowing against the black night,” with branches “like the twisted legs of a spider” and bones for leaves. It’s a gorgeous, disturbing image, not made less disturbing by its role as the world’s most visceral passage to Bad Narnia.

Weirdbuilding: The Grand Cyclops seems like a deliberately warped version of a many-eyed shoggoth, made of masters instead of slaves.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Our fictive universe hosts multitudes of drama-dependents, doesn’t it? I first (consciously) noticed this during the original run of Star Trek. The Final Frontier was lousy with New Life and New Civilizations that set up elaborate simulations to force emotion out of our Bold crewmates, either so the aliens could vicariously loll in it or so they could literally chow down on All-The-Feels. The episode “Day of the Dove” is a good example. It featured one of those pesky Floating Energy Balls (FEBs) that manipulated the Enterprisers and Klingons into having at each other with swords, phasers not being bloody enough to get the old adrenaline flowing, don’t you know. Spoiler alert: The adversaries united in the end and got rid of the FEB by laughing at it. Kind of the opposite of Monsters Inc, in which laughter proved a more powerful monster energy source than fear. Wait a minute: So the Pixar monsters were drama-dependents, too! [RE: dramavores?]

You’d think something as ephemeral as a feeling wouldn’t have a lot of nutritional value. Zero calories, even. By definition, though, a calorie is a unit of energy, specifically the amount of energy needed to raise one gram of water through 1 degree C. So if emotion is a form of energy, it could be measured in calories, which would make it a legit source of nutrition, is my logic not impeccable?

It’s ergo time: If emotional energy is monster fodder, then the human world must be their cornucopia and 24-hour supermarket. Because what are humans but All-The-Feels wrapped up in an also edible covering, um, kind of like mochi. Some monsters will be all about the inner ice cream, while others will also eat the gummy rice paste exterior, what the hell.

And while I’m jumping like a springtail from one pop reference to another, it’s eerie how Butcher Clyde might further explicate the “grand plan” to Maryse by breaking into this song from the musical Hair:

Black boys are delicious…

Black boys are nutritious,

Black boys fill me up!

Black boys are so damn yummy,

They satisfy my tummy!

Whereas per the same song, white boys may be “lean…sexy…sweet…pretty…juicy,” but they just don’t seem to be the nutritional powerhouses black boys are. White boys are kind of bland, watered down, emptier calories. That’s because they’ve grown in over-rich soil. They haven’t marinated in the oppression of enslavement and its aftermath. Their hatred lacks the spice of righteousness and justification, the very thought of which makes Clyde shudder like he’s “imagining the sweetest wine.” Clyde may look like a crude glutton, but he’s a connoisseur at whatever passes as his heart.

In the slice of the universe (interdimensional, extraterrestrial) that Clark shows us, the monsters occupy separate “ecological niches” based on “food” preferences. The Ku Kluxes are hatred specialists. The Night Doctors naturally (or supernaturally) gravitate toward pain, suffering, misery. Big question: Do the Aunties also subsist on emotional energy, and if so, on what kind exactly? What, in other words, might Maryse be feeling-feeding them? For some reason, the Aunties strike me as omnivores.

As in nature, when the occupants of one “ecological niche” encroach on a neighboring one, conflict arises. Having “tasted” hatred through Elliot’s “samples,” the Night Doctors may have gotten enough of an appetite for it to muscle in on Ku Klux territory. To set monster against monster seems to be the Aunties’ best hope for Maryse’s world, and in some cryptic way for their foxy selves.

Dr. Bisset introduces another framework for thinking about emotion. For the Ku Kluxes and Doctors, it’s a force, a power, an energy, a consumable. Bisset explores the ancient practice and philosophy of humorism, which proposes that emotions—principles–are governed by bodily fluids. Life (joy?), aggression (anger), melancholy and even apathy have their humors in blood, yellow and black bile, and phlegm respectively. But what about hatred, his experience of racism has driven him to ask. From what physical substance could it arise? What matter converts into hate-energy? How can hatred be controlled, contained, conquered?

Trying to answer this question through the Doctors is Bisset’s downfall, tying him to new “masters.” He also has to live with an enormous bleached centipede as his janitor. No, just no. Nope, nope, nope.

Above I’ve written about drama-dependence and emotion-eating in our fictive universe. They can exist in Make-Believe only because they also exist in Real Life. Without our vigorous appetites for vicarious emotion, could everything from high art to pulp fiction and reality TV exist? What about schadenfreude, that wonderful borrowing from the German that describes taking pleasure from the troubles of others? To take pleasure from someone else’s pain is to eat their pain and digest it into another emotion to experience/assimilate ourselves: pleasure, a positive or at least positive-feeling emotion.

Are we the monsters? Are the monsters us? Could it be any other way?

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

If you walk around the blocks near my house, you’ll find quite a few bottle trees—the traditional kind festooned with blue glass alongside cheerful multicolored ones, but none where the bottles actually grow out of the trees. Nor any where you can see the captured spirits twinkling within, unless maybe I’ve mistaken a haint or two for nice LED holiday lights. Just as well. I don’t think I’d like to find a dead Angel Oak behind the post office.

I do like watching Maryse deal with her Oak, though. Over the last couple of sections we’ve seen her beaten down, her sword broken and her comrade killed and her lover stolen. Now she gets to show off—not her power, because that’s been stripped away, but her strength. Her refusal to do things on the terms demanded by those with power, even when it seems like the master’s tools are the only tools on offer. Even when she’s been tempted close enough to hear that offer in the first place.

She shows off that strength twice this week. First, with the Night Doctors, who she actively sought out but whose price she realizes she can’t stomach. (Sorry not sorry.) And they underestimate her, seeing her pain only as something that makes her vulnerable. Yet when they dig down into the core of it, forcing her to confront that vulnerability… well, it turns out that sometimes facing your fears gets you what you actually need. In Maryse’s case, confronting her original failure to use the sword knits her up whole again, and the sword along with her. And the pain that powers the sword turns out to be more than the Doctors can handle.

As an aside, the Doctors are creepy as hell, and work very well as a supernatural incarnation of all the unethical experimentation ever carried out on Black bodies. I used to start out the Ethics section of Intro Psych talking about the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, and appreciate the idea of Maryse’s collectively-powered sword as a sort of long-deserved cosmic IRB review.

Sans any promise of aid from the sword-addled Doctors, Maryse next takes her newly-reforged sword up Stone Mountain along with her remaining comrades. There, she and Butcher Clyde manage to underestimate each other. She thinks she knows what temptation to brace for—and he and the Grand Cyclops think they know what temptation she’ll fall to. Why wouldn’t she? Hatred is so sweet, so powerful. It’s what tempts them; how could anyone reject it?

This is the point where any Jedi knight would get completely tripped up. I love Star Wars, but the mythos of emotion versus calm logic is an exasperating dichotomy, thoroughly shredded here by Clark. Not all emotions are alike, and that matters. Not all negative emotions are alike, and that matters. And righteous anger, as Maryse realizes, is not the same as hatred, and that really matters. You can, must, fight your enemies with emotions that preserve your selfhood, that draw on the strength of memory—not ones that dissolve you into amorphous conformity for the sake of power. The Cyclops can offer power and hatred, but not strength and anger.

That doesn’t, alas, make said Cyclops easy to defeat. After all, she still has all those white supremacists willing to dissolve themselves into her like so many bigoted bandaids. Fortunately, the world’s most unpleasant cavalry has just arrived.

 

Next week, we celebrate a rare advent: join us for Christopher Caldwell’s “The Calcified Heart of Saint Ignace Battiste.”

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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