Cassandra Khaw's novella Nothing But Blackened Teeth follows a group of five young adults to Japan for a private wedding ceremony in an abandoned, Heian-era mansion with a terrifying history. But what evil really lurks behind the walls and in the foundations? How will our characters make it out with only one-hundred twenty-four pages to tell the tale? (Spoilers ahead.)
I chose this book for my first review, frankly, because it's the one that's freshest in my mind this week, and I had a lot to say. I was drawn to this premise from the beginning. As a fan of horror animes and someone who has an interest in Asian occultism, the notion of discovering an ancient spirit in a dilapidated old Japanese manor struck a chord with me. There were many things I really liked about the book, and several more that gave me pause. One thing I can't fault, first of all, is that cover art. Is that or is that not nightmare-inducing? I'm sorry in advance for the thumbnail.
The Writing Style
One thing I really enjoyed was the fact that Khaw did an excellent job of infusing Japanese culture into the book in a realistic way. While written from the perspective of a Malaysian woman, Cat (the narrator) studied Japanese literature in college, so she knew quite a bit about what was in front of her, and Khaw used this as a device to feed my American ass all the explanations it needed about the various concepts. Concepts like Hitobashira, the ritual sacrifice of burying someone in the foundations of important buildings. Khaw did so without infantilizing the reader by overexplaining, largely because she probably assumed we had Google handy if we had any questions beyond what she'd already done. There was one point, however, near the beginning, where Cat begins to hear an intrusive voice speaking into her mind. It says
"Suenomatsuyama nami mo koenamu."
She doesn't explain what this means for at least a chapter from the first time she hears it, long enough that I texted my best friend from college (who lives in Turkey, but lived in Nagoya for a number of years) to translate. The answer: she wasn't entirely sure, because she only had the romanization in front of her. It is disclosed later on to actually be lines from a poem, which my friend found incredibly amusing: the idea of some sort of dead spirit attempting to quote Emily Dickenson to anything with a pulse that came through, and the poor humans being too freaked out to properly understand that the ghost was just trying to share its love of literature. (Spoiler alert: this is not what happens.) If you're not that familiar with Japanese culture, there might be some things you do have to look up, but it's really not terribly troublesome, and I found that I enjoyed immersing myself in it.
Beyond the inclusion of culture, though, my impression of Khaw's writing style, as a reader, was someone experimenting with her voice. Her prose was ornamented, her metaphors a little involved. And none of this is a bad thing! Sometimes, though, as an ADHD reader, I have trouble processing if I catch myself reading too fast. With some authors, I can retain quickly, without having to read lines and paragraphs multiple times. With this book, I found myself having to go over lines slowly, mouthing words to myself to make doubly sure that I hadn't just missed something through the ornate descriptions.
The thing that struck me first in this novella is the fact that these five: Cat, Talia, Faiz, Phillip, and Lin, are all apparently BFFs as they travel (on trust-fund-baby Phillip's dime) to Japan to this desolate, abandoned mansion because Talia always wanted to get married in a haunted house. Right. Cool. But it's really not that simple. You see, for close friends, these people really don't like one another very much. This makes for delightful drama, and it justifies some of their actions later on in the story, but it doesn't make for a convincing premise since they were the only ones attending this wedding overseas: the bride, the groom, the officiant, and two witnesses. Who wants to get married surrounded by people you can't stand? I'd rather get married with the ghosts looking on.
I've been debating how many spoilers to put in -- should I write this for people who may read the book? Or for people who want to experience it and want to know how it ends? (Leave a message in the comments.) In any case, the five hear the story from Phillip, who booked the mansion, that apparently this was once the scene of a great wedding. Or it would have been, if the groom had ever arrived. The bride, in despair, ordered herself to be buried alive in the foundations of the house in an act of Hitobashira, so that she could keep the house standing until her husband finally arrived. After that, they supposedly buried a girl in the walls of the mansion every year to keep her company.
It isn't long before they discover that whether the story itself is true or not, the house is now haunted by a host of yokai spirits, led by one ohaguro-bettari, a type of yokai that is a Japanese bride with long, black hair and no face -- just a gaping maw of blackened teeth. (Teeth blackening was a sign of aristocracy in the Heian era and was seen as a sign of beauty.) Even the name, "ohaguro-bettari" means, "nothing but blackened teeth" according to the book. Clever, right?
But that's where the cleverness falls apart a bit, for me. Now please, don't get me wrong. I enjoyed this book very much, especially for such a quick read. But the plot didn't unravel anything like I was expecting. This could often be a good thing; I love the unexpected. But the moral of the story (perhaps purposely) is that the ancient, unknowable evil, in the end, is really nothing compared to the bad decisions made by complex, messy people when they're under pressure. The yokai themselves do very little to the protagonists, and a rough ninety percent of the events that follow are because of rash, emotional judgments on the parts of the characters while the yokai look on. And when they solve the problem, the yokai just let them go. They seem to enjoy the chaos, of course. But their motivations are largely obscured as to why they let the characters go about the business of defeating them largely unchecked. I was certainly excited to see what came next, but I left feeling that, while plain old humans usually are the cause of most of our problems, the yokai themselves fell a bit flat.
Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a hugely entertaining novella. It has relatable characters, though they aren't always that likable. Their meta moments where the protagonists said what we were all thinking, e.g. "holy shit, we're in a horror movie, why are we splitting up," were savage and relatable. I think if it had gone on for too much longer, the constant fighting between the five would have become a barrier to my enjoyment. But as it stands, it's a good read, with a hell of a premise, where the chaos of the situation is the gift that keeps on giving. Still, there were aspects that could be construed as wasted opportunities, plot-wise. If you're still on the fence, give it a read. You can bang it out in a few hours and decide for yourself!
Recommended accessories: an overcast day, a mug of tea, a thick blanket with lots of cat hair, and an accompanying cat.
(Maybe turn over the cover so she doesn't gape at you from your nightstand.)
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