P. Djèlí Clark is an author I’m reasonably familiar with. Every now and again I like to read novellas, and because my chosen genre within this format is invariably horror, science fiction, and fantasy, I always find I’ve a lot of titles to choose from. By far my most favourite novella is Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, his revisionist and masterful retelling of HP Lovecraft’s short story The Horror at Red Rock. Lovecraft is well-known for his racism and xenophobia, and Red Rock is risible reading and is justifiably disdained. LaValle retold the story from the viewpoint of a Black man and put right everything that was wrong about it. I wrote a review some time back for MTR Network, which you can read here. P. Djèlí Clark may have written a story to knock LaValle off the top of my list, though. Ring Shout is as good a read as you can get, but it’s not a comfortable one: nor should it be.
The setting is Macon, Georgia, 1922. It is Jim Crow South. Our lead character is Maryse Boudreaux; she hunts monsters called Ku Kluxes, and she has a sword enchanted with the spirits of kings, chiefs, and slaves from centuries past to aid her in her quest. Their pain, anger, and hate fuels the sword, igniting it with righteous fury and the desire for retribution. P. Djèlí Clark creates an alternative history where the premiere screening of D.W. Griffith’s movie The Birth of a Nation calls into this world demons from another dimension who use White people’s hatred of Black people as a way to gain a foothold on Earth. There’s the Klan, and then there’s the Ku Kluxes: both separate but connected. Maryse and her friends roam the county and kill as many Ku Kluxes as they can. A wonderfully rounded-out supporting cast includes Sadie, a sharpshooter who carries her Winchester (Winnie) with her wherever she goes; Chef, a cheerfully queer WW1 veteran who’s the group’s explosives expert; Emma, a German girl who spouts Marxist philosophy but knows what it’s about; and Nana Jean, the community’s matriarch who is pure Gullah from start to finish. Clark doesn’t need to translate her dialogue for us; we need to do that for ourselves.
Then there’s the Aunties: Ondone, Margaret, and Jadine — they seem to be from the world the Ku Kluxes came from, but enlisted Maryse when she was a child to be their champion. They appear to Maryse in dreams and visions, helping when they can, but knowing that whatever happens, it’s Maryse who gets to make the final choices. Traumatised by the events which took the lives of her family, Maryse and her friends find themselves in a race against time. Butcher Clyde, who describes himself as Ku Klux management, intends to use Maryse as a pawn to bring an even greater evil into the world, with yet another screening of The Birth of a Nation, this time using Maryse’s lover Michael George as bait.
The Shout of the title is a chant and ritual that helps create Mama’s Water, a bootlegged liquor that’s potent in magic and mysticism. Nana Jean oversees its production, and it earns the community enough money to keep everyone going. Clark is brilliant in how he allows us to catch up with Gullah traditions, but yet keeps the story moving at such a pace that you’ll be hard-pressed not to finish it in one or two sittings. As I said earlier, Ring Shout is not a comfortable read, for many reasons. It’s a horror novel first and foremost, and the violence is frightening but creative. Like Victor LaValle’s novella, this is a story about Black people living and dying in a world where White people want them dead. It’s about how Black people survive despite the threats against them. There are no White saviours in Clarke’s story, nor should there be. When Butcher Clyde tries to use Maryse’s rage to end White domination, but bring a greater evil to power, Maryse’s choice is the result of centuries of Black repression. It’s powerful, intense, bloody, and cathartic. It’s also a beautiful thing to read.
P. Djèlí Clark has written something majestic. I read a previous novella, The Black God’s Drums, and was very much taken by it. He has another, The Haunting of Tram Car 015, which I will read very soon. I’m also looking forward to his debut novel, A Master of Djinn, which is due out in 2021. He’s a writer to watch out for.