Reading the Weird

Read ’em: P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout (Part 5)

and

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 wrap up P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, first published in 2020, with Chapter 9 and the Epilogue. Spoilers ahead!

“Don’t you go ruining my grand death with your moping!”

Just as the Grand Cyclops is about to wipe Maryse from this world, Dr. Bisset and six Night Doctors join the fray atop Stone Mountain. The Doctors hook the Cyclops with bone-white chains; she counters by crushing them under her tentacles. To Maryse’s relief, the Doctors are not killed dead, but simply stand back up unharmed. They toss and land more hooks, and down the chains shimmer the Cyclops’s hate and that of all her constituent Klans. The Cyclops screams in pain and fear, more food for the Doctors. They drag her toward their Angel Oak portal, swatting aside her Ku Klux defenders. Her violent struggles avail her nothing. The Oak opens a giant mouth and swallows her down into the Night Doctors’ world of sterile corridors and dissecting rooms. Maryse whispers a bit of Chef’s ditty:

Night Doctors, Night Doctors,

You can cry and carry on.

But when they done dissection’

Every bit of you is gone.

“A bargain kept,” Bisset says, then warns Maryse “On your left.” Maryse blocks Butcher Clyde’s blow, and the two do mortal battle. As in Maryse’s dream, Clyde tries to swallow her in his belly-maw, all his mouths spewing their “hateful noise.” Her sword sings back, a “beautiful music inspired by struggle and fierce love.” She hacks Clyde into pieces that crawl off like “a broken hive of insects seeking escape.” Bisset scoops the bits up into his medical bag, chides Maryse for reducing the head to unexaminable ash. Before slipping away through the Oak portal, he tells her the Doctors, intrigued, will be keeping watch on her.

Maryse digs Chef and Michael George out of the ruins of the movie screen. Both are alive, Chef knocked unconscious, Michael George still white-eyed in trance. The fight’s not over – a hundred surviving Ku Kluxes, monstrous forms revealed, surge towards her!

Luckily more cavalries arrive: Emma and her comrades, Molly’s apprentices, the mustered veterans. The Klans finally break from their trance but can only stumble around uselessly. Defending Chef and Michael George, Maryse wields her sword against a “pale-white tide of senseless hate.” Defeat seems certain. Then the world goes quiet, even the raindrops stilling in mid-air. Sadie appears visible as life, her skin glowing softly. She and other spirits have heard Nana Jean’s call but couldn’t “cross over” until Maryse turned down the Cyclops’s offer.

Maryse watches other ghosts appear, the spirits of those killed by the hate of the Ku Kluxes and their followers. Among them is her brother, Martin, who responds to her contrition over not saving him and her parents by assuring her they’re proud of what she’s done. It’s time for her to lay her burdens down and live her life.

Nana Jean, Uncle Will, and the Shouters appear. The spirits surround them, except for Sadie who sits next to Maryse to watch what happens when Time rushes back. Nana Jean cries out a Shout about the end times with a voice “like thunder, a sound to shake your soul, moving to the beating heart of the world.” The spirits from Maryse’s sword join the circle around the Shouters, which spins into the blinding light against which no Lie can stand. Infuriated Ku Kluxes lunge into the ring, to burn at once to ash. Any who try to run are engulfed by cyclones of light.

The spirits depart, Sadie taking leave of Maryse. Chef and Michael George revive as the night sky clears. Of the enemy, only helpless Klans remain, many “retching their guts out.” Maryse sees a woman and little boy who must not have eaten Clyde’s meat, for the woman is lucid, stammering that “They was monsters! I seen them!”

“Bout damn time,” say Maryse and Chef. They follow their own people down the mountain, the Shouters singing “Adam in the Garden.”

Epilogue: Maryse sits with her Aunties under their giant red oak, sipping a mint julep. Auntie Margaret complains about how humans always frame foxes as villains in their tales. Ondine interrupts to ask Maryse about what’s been happening in her world after the big battle. According to the Georgia papers, a fire at the Stone Mountain rally killed many attendees. The US Army has cordoned off the mountain. Scientists are sweeping the area, supervised by government men in dark suits. Conspiracy theories abound. In Macon, more government men have raided Clyde’s shop and carried off his meat. Michael George is recovering. He doesn’t call Maryse’s story crazy: His great-auntie was an Obeah woman, so he’s not afraid of magic. He still wants to sail off with Maryse one day.

Maryse, though aware that haint gifts carry prices, agrees to remain the Aunties’ champion and wield their sword. There are still Klans and Ku Kluxes, still some vengeance in her that needs working out. The Aunties are pleased. Ondine tells Maryse that a new threat arises in Providence, Rhode Island, where the enemy have found someone who might help open doors to worse than the Grand Cyclops. A willing vessel for their vileness: their “Dark Prince.”

Before tackling this “Prince,” Maryse must attend Sadie’s funeral. Afterwards, in memory of their fallen comrade, she and Chef plan to first smoke-bomb clear and then blow up a theater showing Birth of a Nation. She shoulders her sword and heads home, whistling a song about “hunting Ku Kluxes in the end times.”

This Week’s Metrics

The Degenerate Dutch: We catch a glimpse or two of ordinary humans atop Stone Mountain whose monstrosity remains purely metaphorical. Anticipating every modern discussion about face-eating leopards, one of those unlucky movie-goers turns out to have enough sight to profess her shock at spotting her fellows’ monster-hood. Bout damn time indeed.

Weirdbuilding: The Aunties want Maryse to go after the “Dark Prince of Providence” and keep him from doing the bidding of powers even worse than the Grand Cyclops. Maryse delegates the initial intelligence gathering to Emma’s local contacts. Presumably she herself will find “intimidate H.P. Lovecraft” a relatively easy lift.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

For some reason, it took me this long to look up the actual ring shouts that have been marking the boundaries between chapters, and stamping and calling on Nana Jean’s land. They do indeed make an appropriate soundtrack for the book, all joy and anger and rhythm like the swinging of a sword. Here’s “Rock Daniel” for a sample, and here’s “Read ‘em, John,” the song of stolen skill and welcome news that heralds our final chapter.

And a satisfying chapter it is, with not one but two last-minute cavalry arrivals, and two chances for closure with beloved dead to top it off. The Night Doctors certainly come in handy, harpooning and dragging off the Grand Cyclops. If Maryse has caught their interest, well, that’s at least a problem for another day. (A day on which she’ll doubtless be glad to have held onto her sword.)

And then Nana Jean and Emma show up with a more wholeheartedly welcome cavalry. I’m a complete sucker for climactic musical rituals, and love the image of the Kluxes being drawn into a whirlwind of song, along with the dry comparison with Butcher Clyde’s soulless disharmonies. I don’t often share the common tendency to want every story I love adapted for screen, but this one is full of such vivid images and cinematic confrontations. Plus then we would get the soundtrack!

After all the theatrics, Maryse gets to sip a mint julep with the Aunties, and face the question of what to do now that she’s had all that satisfying closure. Give up the sword and settle down to a more peaceful life, or keep being the Auntie’s champion with all the risk that entails? I highly approve her answer of “Keep the sword, but now with boundaries.” No, she’s not going to go haring off to the, er, Province of Rhodes, and skip Sadie’s funeral. Emma’s contacts can get started while she pays her friend proper memorial homage.

Okay, I just checked, and apparently “Dark Prince of Providence” is a regularly-used epithet for Lovecraft. Somehow I had missed that, despite years of reading and riffing on his stuff and two Necronomicons. (The convention, not the book; I’m sure it comes up all the time in Al-Hazred.) Either that or I ignored and then forgot about it, because for all the good and ill you can say about the guy, “Dark Prince” suggests considerably better fashion sense than anything on record. This is very reasonably not the Auntie’s concern. I wonder if his stories are meant to be the method by which he “opens doors to worse than the Grand Cyclops,” or the manner in which he deals with his brush with horror after Maryse et al. have their way with him.

Also on the front of improving sword/life balance, Maryse finally tells Michael George what she does for a not-paying-for-itself living. He proves himself worthy by handling it pretty damn well. Turns out that even if he doesn’t have the sight, he has enough family background—and enough common sense—to accept a clue when it’s offered. I hope she does go sailing with him sometime soon. And that nothing obnoxious comes up from the deep to make Maryse demonstrate her swashbuckling skills yet again.

Anyway, Sadie’s funeral sounds like a hell of a party, just like she’d want. As does her team’s plan for a quick trip to the movies. I hope this shout comes up at one or the other: raising a ruckus in Sadie’s memory seems just about right.

 

Anne’s Commentary

For me, Ring Shout was an unusual read in that it was too short. Well, no, my finding it too short wasn’t unusual—my preference is for tomes thick enough to choke Butcher Clyde’s belly-mouth, which tomes (for the sake of my aching wrists) I prefer to read on my Kindle. Here’s the weird thing: like a superb meal, Ring Shout felt at the same time over too soon and satisfying. It gave me enough to eat, yet I wanted more for the sheer taste and texture of the dishes, the underlying richness of ingredients that tantalized with the promise of how much more they could do and be.

I’m hoping from what the Aunties had to say about a “Dark Prince” of Providence that Clark means to offer us another feast featuring Maryse and friends. Or does hinting they’d constitute a sumptuous main course make me sound too much like one of Clark’s dramivorous monsters?

No way. I hate drama. In fact, I’m drama-intolerant. No drama for me, please.

[Stifles belch.]

About those dramavores. The enemy hopes their Dark Prince can help open doors to something worse than the Grand Cyclops. We know from Clyde that his branch of extramundane monstrosity recognizes an operational hierarchy; Ku Kluxers rank lower than Clyde’s “middle management,” the Cyclops above the Clydes. Who or what ranks above the Cyclops? Do we really want an answer to that question? Remember what Simon Orne wrote to Joseph Curwen: “Doe not call up Any that you can not put downe…Ask of the Lesser, lest the Greater shall not wish to Answer, and shall commande more than you.”

There being room in an infinity of cosmoses for any number of sentient species beyond our own, authors don’t need to populate their works with the particular species “discovered” by their predecessors. Up to its Epilogue, we could (but need not) consider Ring Shout “Lovecraftian” in a broad sense of the subgenre—we humans exist on a mere mote in the vastness of Space and Time, subject to the interest or indifference of Others whose greater command of magic or superscience may allow Them to visit, or invade, our world. More specific “Mythosian” markers are missing, however. No Deep Ones flounder or shoggoths ooze through the streets of Macon. No bookshelves groan under the weight of the Necronomicon and other usual-suspect grimoires. None of Nana Jean’s team seems to have studied at Miskatonic University. Instead Clark has his own “haint” bestiary: Ku Kluxers and Clyde and a Grand Cyclops, Night Doctors, the Aunties. The books of power are Maryse’s battered folktale collection and Emma’s transliterated interviews with Gullah storytellers. Nana Jean has her own research laboratory, headed by Molly.

Then, in nearly the last page of the Epilogue, Lovecraft himself makes an appearance. At least I’m assuming the Dark Prince is the Gentleman from Providence. Who could better help the enemy to “infiltrate [our] world” via his “fiction”? Who “within the Province of Rhodes” could be an apter true-historical character in a second Maryse adventure, as D. W. Griffith is in Ring Shout? Howard might not be too keen about opening doors, though, unless the enemy could convince him that humanity should venture from its “placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity” instead of retreating into “the peace and safety of a new dark age.” And Howard, a notoriously picky eater, might turn up his nose at Butcher Clyde’s choice cuts.

Still, which would even out the playing field, he was also a teetotaler, and would be unlikely to buy a demon-countering bottle of Mama’s Water from bootlegger Maryse.

Maybe Nana Jean could instill her signature magic into a pint of coffee ice cream, Howard’s favorite?

I myself would blend several jiggers of Mama’s Water with the ice cream for a potion of double the restorative goodness. Who couldn’t use a deep pull from that mug these days? Send me the recipe, please, Mr. Clark!

 

Actually, we’re not quite done with the world of Ring Shout. Join us next week for “Night Doctors”! Then on to our next longread, with a slightly different flavor: Victorian gothic guilt and all the maidenly homoeroticism you can shake a stake at. Join us in two weeks for Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla!

Ruthanna EmrysA 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.

citation

Back to the top of the page

3 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.