Author: Cassandra Khaw
Publication date: October 19, 2021
My rating: 3/5 stars
Hello, friends! It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, but I’m on a mission now to post more regularly again this year. My first order of business is catching up on some reviews from old NetGalley titles over the past year or two; my second will be more regularly sharing my reviews of this year’s reads. To that end, some of these reviews may be abbreviated, in part because I read the books a while ago, but also because I’m trying to get better at just posting rather than insisting on perfect, lengthy opinions. Kicking things off, this is a title I got a while ago but only just got around to reading this past fall: a horror novella set in a crumbling Japanese manor populated by ghosts, following an incredibly tense wedding party.
A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company.
It’s the perfect venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends, brought back together to celebrate a wedding.
A night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare as secrets get dragged out and relationships are tested.
But the house has secrets too. Lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart.
And she gets lonely down there in the dirt.
Effortlessly turning the classic haunted house story on its head, Nothing but Blackened Teeth is a sharp and devastating exploration of grief, the parasitic nature of relationships, and the consequences of our actions.
I must confess, I was a little disappointed by this one. It was a wonderful premise–a twist on the traditional haunted house story, bringing in Japanese mythology alongside very real contemporary problems of mental illness and smaller interpersonal relationship drama, all in the context of a deeply uncomfortable wedding party. There was so much potential…and yet, the overall result fell flat. I wanted to love it. But the end result was less “horrifying experience” and more “this author had too much fun coming up with weird descriptions and getting vicarious revenge on a horrid football player.”
To clarify: the descriptions weren’t weird in an unsettling way; they were weird in a way that didn’t make sense, adding strange metaphors that unduly obscured the meaning of the sentence, requiring multiple rereads to figure out what was happening, or otherwise detracted from what could have been spectacular imagery. Don’t get me wrong, I love literary fiction, but the mix with horror here didn’t quite work–it felt like the author was trying too hard and/or had fallen in love with a thesaurus. Now, when you got past the odd phrasing, the atmosphere of the book was spectacularly haunting, with a decrepit house, angry spirits, disturbing rituals to quiet them, and a group of ex-friends slowly losing it as yokai, alcohol, and fear escalate their situation from uncomfortable to creepy to life-threatening. The slow unravelling of the relationships alongside the characters’ sanity was, at its heart, solidly done.
Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with a sort of revenge fantasy (especially on a jock who, deliberately or not, was kind of a dick at times), but that approach here seemed to come at the expense of genuine character development. While the narrator had a good deal of complexity (and, indeed, was some strong depression representation that I found highly relatable–and loved that it included discussion of hospitalization), the other characters felt one-dimensional. I know that in a novella it can be difficult to develop characters thoroughly, but clearly Khaw is capable of it, given how well she developed her narrator. Some of the problems with this development may be a result of the lack of background given; while the origins of the tensions between the characters were gradually teased out over the course of the book, I spent much of my time confused as to what exactly had happened, what each person’s relationship was to the others and still left the book with questions. Again: the potential was there, but the reality fell flat.
I’m not saying this was a bad short story–the bones were good (no pun intended). But the execution did it a disservice, leaning too much into literary pretention when a bit more character development would have helped drive home what is, at its heart, a psychological horror story set in a house full of ghosts.
Thank you to Tor Nightfire for providing me with an eARC of this book via NetGalley! All opinions are my own.