Cassandra Khaw’s new horror novella, “Nothing But Blackened Teeth,” is a quick read that will leave you captivated and gripping your book or e-reader. With the weather in the Pacific Northwest turning chilly and dreary, this is the perfect tale for those who embrace the season and Halloween in particular.
Khaw never wastes a word or a sentence. She masterfully constructs a breakneck story in 160 pages. Because most readers are familiar with the horror genre as a whole, Khaw doesn’t need to do too much expository writing; she simply sets the scene through conversation and interactions among the cast and then barrels through the plot.
“Nothing But Blackened Teeth” follows a group of 20- and 30-somethings as they explore an ancient, abandoned Heian-era mansion in rural Japan. The mansion is a cliche set up for a horror scenario and familiar to aficionados of movies like “The Grudge” and “The Wailing.” The group of characters also echo tropes including a young bride, her groom, an all-American and newly ordained priest, a jokester who refuses to take things seriously and our narrator, Cat, the “weird” one who didn’t think she’d even survive long enough to be on the trip.
Most of the time when I’m enjoying a piece of horror media, it’s easy to say, “Those stupid kids!” or “What a privileged thing to do.” Khaw took advantage of my experience and bias. The friends, instead of being white campers or travelers like an ’80s callback, are a diverse group.
They’ve traveled to Japan to spend the night in a haunted villa where a local folk tale has sprung up. Thousands of years ago, a bride was sacrificed and buried under the foundations. From then on, more women were sacrificed in order to keep the ghost bride at bay. All the ghosts have blackened mouths and teeth, from swallowing dirt after being buried alive.
The friends soon realize that they have no contact information for the person they booked the rental through, only the vague promise of a permit to legally be there. This tidbit is laughed off, much like the other warning signs subtly woven into the text.
The relationships between the characters are messy at best. Just like in real life, there are heartbreaks and history, and some characters don’t particularly like the others. Cat is also dealing with the repercussions of a suicide attempt and how each of her frinds responded to it and act around her now. Khaw doesn’t give the information up all at once; the reader is forced to make the connections in their head, and the end result is an organic release of information that left me craving more.
Although “Nothing But Blackened Teeth” is rife with actual ghosts, the spirits of past relationships, arguments and trauma haunt Cat equally. She is weighing these mental nightmares of her own against the horrors they experience, as the group’s night of drunken revelry wakes something far more dangerous than petty squabbles.
Every decision that leads them deeper into the clutches of the ghost is a deliberate one. The reader wants to scream at them that this is a stupid idea and that they are tempting fate. Each character, while being a horror trope, is more fleshed out than in any 90-minute movie. Cat is also extremely aware that they are all stereotypes and tropes in the situation, but she is unable to rewrite her story so that who she is — brown, troubled and queer — can survive the impending doom.
Cat’s main battle is choosing between surviving — especially as a queer and mentally ill woman — and diving into dangerous situations to try and save her friends. That battle is at the heart of the story.
It’s their hyperawareness of the plot and situation that makes it so easy to root for the characters. They may make foolish decisions, but there is also an ownership of their mistakes that makes them endearing. Cat and her friends are not passive in their fate. They dive into the viscera and horrors around them to help each other against better judgement and have the fundamental understanding that the only way out is through. They are proactive in their fate, whether or not that includes survival.
Unlike those in most horror media, Khaw’s endings and lessons will likely surprise the reader. The story begins with the sacrifice of young women over a thousand years. Khaw examines that concept of sacrifice, whose life is worth giving up and who deserves to flourish. It’s clear in the writing who Cat thinks has been blessed by fate, but it is unclear if the ghosts in the mansion feel the same way.
Khaw masterfully uses “Nothing But Blackened Teeth” to embrace everything horror fans love. It is character- and action-driven and has a surprising amount of description in such a short page count. The language Khaw uses has teeth and makes the novella impossible to put down. The words she picks are intentionally vicious and vibrant. Khaw manages to write gore without being gratuitous, and the creepiness of the setting wraps around you like a dark, damp blanket. When you finish reading, you may catch yourself looking at shadows just a little bit longer.
If you are interested in “Nothing But Blackened Teeth,” you may also like:
• “Lovecraft Country” (2020), produced by Misha Green.
• “His House” (2020), dir. Remi Weeks.
• “Within These Wicked Walls” by Lauren Blackwood.
Leinani Lucas is an Indigenous and Black writer from the Pacific Northwest. She can be found on Twitter @LeinaniLucas
Read more of the Oct. 13-19, 2021 issue.