Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns with Ring Shout, a dark fantasy historical novella that gives a supernatural twist to the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror.
D. W. Griffith is a sorcerer, and The Birth of a Nation is a spell that drew upon the darkest thoughts and wishes from the heart of America. Now, rising in power and prominence, the Klan has a plot to unleash Hell on Earth.
Luckily, Maryse Boudreaux has a magic sword and a head full of tales. When she’s not running bootleg whiskey through Prohibition Georgia, she’s fighting monsters she calls “Ku Kluxes.” She’s damn good at it, too. But to confront this ongoing evil, she must journey between worlds to face nightmares made flesh–and her own demons. Together with a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and a Harlem Hellfighter, Maryse sets out to save a world from the hate that would consume it.
Trigger Warnings: white supremacy, blood, murder, violence, racism and violence targeted towards African Americans, discussion of racism other marginalized groups such as Indigenous people experienced, slurs, generational trauma.
TorDotCom sent me an advanced readers copy via Netgalley. This does not change my opinion of the book. All quotes used have been matched against a published copy.
This book messed me up. Ring Shout makes every sharp ring of Mayse’s sword sound as loud as a shout in your ear.
Maryse is a monster hunter. In her is the anger of what white people and the Ku Klux Klan have done to her people. It consumes her, that centuries built up anger that she has experienced herself but also the rage she’s inherited from her ancestors.
“Y’all got a good reason to hate. All the wrongs been done to you and yours? A people been whipped and beaten, hunted and hounded, suffered so grievously at their hands. You have every reason to despise them. To loathe them for centuries of depravations. That hate would be so pure, so sure and righteous-so strong!”
The Shout is about a movement, about surviving slavery and praying for freedom.
A witch and his group of believers read from a conjuring book, bringing forth the monsters they call Ku Kluxes. All stem from a movie. The re-release of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation. It is about to be shown once again and Maryse worries it would cause another influx of monsters. Surrounding an imagined world where D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation conjured not just a surge of the Ku Klux Klan but created monsters they call the Ku Kluxes, monstrous beings with mouths that feast on flesh, claws for ripping, and the likeness of Ku Klux Klan robes.
In Clark’s world, the people that inflicted centuries of slavery and white supremacy on Maryse’s people conjured yet more monsters. They are the personification of rage and hate. Rage consumes itself and multiplies. What Clark did is create a supernatural world in which the rage and hatred of our world is understood through the supernatural. Real history can often be supernatural horror.
Clark also includes discussion on what white supremacy forced on Indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups.
Ring Shout almost reminds me of a more fantastical take on Charles Chesnutt’s writing. It has that tone and pacing of early 20th century novels mixed with the eerie tales of Southern African American culture. It is a novel that feels like those dark moments in horror films where the sound is off, there’s an eerie silence just waiting from a deathly outcome. Every feeling is raw and explored.
The build up in the story reminds me of The Marrow of Tradition, a bloodthirsty tale of white people’s call for a race riot on African Americans. Clark’s characters speak AAVE, and some speak Gullah, both of which are built into Clark’s writing style. Ring Shout calls forth The Conjure Tales, supernatural tales inspired by African American folklore. Maryse carrying around a book of African American folklore places that magic and supernatrual horror of African American stories. The beings that white people summon into their world in addition to the beings of African American folklore all create a speculative novel that I never could have imagined existed but I am so happy to have read.
It was all consuming and intense on a level that left me sitting and wondering how much time had passed. Everything is historically placed. The land, its trees and its roots, is full of magic. Just like Clark’s writing,
Clark doesn’t give easy answers. This is not ‘the rage the protagonist feels is wrong’ type of book. This book doesn’t give a tale of morality which feeds you all the answers. It’s more accurate that Clark shows how ridiculous it is to expect people not to feel justifiable in their rage.
I don’t read enough SFF centering African American folklore and this book certainly shines as an example of what the genre could look like in the future. I hope so.