Nothing But Blackened Teeth
by Cassandra Khaw
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted October 5, 2021
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Cassandra Khaw returns to horror in their new novella, Nothing But Blackened Teeth, which will be published in two weeks, October 19. Thanks to Net Galley for the e-ARC in exchange for an honest review. It's a haunted house story with multiple Japanese cultural references, even though the author is Malaysian. The characters include one white male, several Chinese, and I assume the first-person narrator, Cat, is Malaysian. They've known each other for almost a decade, having attended the same school. Phillip is the white guy, very rich, very privileged, a star athelete, forever aware that all eyes are on him. He arranges a meeting at an ancient, Heian-style mansion, which legend says was built over the grave of a would-be bride after her intended husband died before their marriage could be consumated. If the stories are true, several other maidens had been buried alive over the years in order to keep her company.
The occasion is the impending marriage of Nadia and Faiz. For some weird reason, Nadia had always dreamed of a wedding in a haunted house. The destination was supposedly a secret until they arrived, yet later information seems to indicate Phillip had told Nadia. It's a wonder that several showed up, since they had harbored resentments against one or more of the others, most likely because they had all participated in a game of musical beds throughout their school years. Cat had a relationship with Faiz for a short time, the same with Lin, and while I'm not positive, the implication is she and Nadia had also been involved. It's a sure bet Phillip had relations with almost every girl at school. It is possible that if not for that history they may have only spent a couple of boring days and nights in a creepy house, without the violence that manifested. The ohaguru-bettari had other ideas.
If what happens is not just figments of everone's imaginations, the house is haunted by several yokai (ghosts or spirits), kitsune (supernatural animals that can take human form), and tengu (considered the reincarnated spirit of one who was proud and arrogant in life). The ohaguru-bettari is a female yokai with a gaping mouth of blackened teeth, ink-stained teeth once a sign of married status. Cat seems to be the only one who can hear the spirit's continuous moan, "Suenomatsuyama nami mo koenamu," a search for which led me to a Heian era poem about Mount Sue no Matsu, near the east coast of Japan but high enough that sea waters have never reached it (including the most recent tsunami). The poem was a lament from a lover, "If I were to love someone who was not you, the sea waves would rise and sweep over Sue no Matsuyama." Why is Cat the only one who can hear it? Why is she the first to see the spirit? Does it have anything to do with her history with one of her friends?
The mood is oppressive, constricting, overwhelming, causing each of them to lose their temper at various times, striking out against another. Yet each time that happens the attacker apologizes, saying, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that." It's clear to everyone else they're lying. It was exactly what they meant to do or say, the years long resentments boiling over, all control lost. It's as much a character study as it is a horror story, with my only complaint being it is too short. Not only did I want to know more about these people and their previous relationships, the ending is too abrupt, too neat. A follow-up showing how each processed their trauma would be welcome. Otherwise a perfect October read. Recommended.
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