Tag Archives: Horror

Childhood Christmas Books

I think I was about six or seven years old when I found out there was no real Santa Claus. I shrugged when the realisation hit me. It came about when I found a bag of books and toys hidden in my parents’ wardrobe (don’t ask me what I was looking for at the time; I can’t remember). My mother found out and came clean. To be honest, I was more interested in the books.

I can’t recall what titles they were. I just know that at the time I read pretty much everything Enid Blyton wrote, from The Famous Five to The Secret Seven, and beyond. (I stayed away from Noddy because he just wasn’t my thing.) I loved the adventure, the derring-do, and the sheer upper-class Britishness of Blyton’s books despite me being Irish, and I don’t think there was an Irish writer at the time who did what Blyton was doing. I am ready to be corrected, though. This is just my memory.

Every Christmas I would get books from my parents. About a month before the holidays I was given x amount of money to spend on books, and I would walk up to a nearby shopping centre where the only bookstore within a manageable distance was located. The store was called Books Unlimited and there I found a corner of joy in a world that was at the time, in the mid-to-late 1970s, going mad. (SPOILER: It’s still going mad.) As the seasons passed, my reading tastes changed. I left Enid behind and graduated straight to adult class literature. Smugglers Top was replaced by the Orient Express and mysterious goings-on at Styles. I devoured Agatha Christie, who is to this day, the best-selling crime novelist of all time. My wife and I would listen to podcasts dedicated to Dame Agatha’s books, particularly All About Agatha, hosted by Kemper Donovan and Catherine Brobeck. My wife would also listen to Christmas themed stories on audio at night time. (I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard Hercules Poirot and The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding this month.)

Later years would see me pick up every action thriller written by the great Alistair MacLean. I’m sure many of you will have seen the movie adaptations of some MacLean’s books, especially The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, but the books are where it all began. He was a prolific writer, and while his characters and dialogue would be considered tropish in this day and age, you can imagine the thrill I got when I started a new story. At the time, there was no writer like him, even if the likes of Len Deighton and Hammond Innes were, without question, better at the craft.

Then, with the popularity of horror fiction coming in the wake of the blockbusting success of The Exorcist and The Omen, I read books of terror and dread into the small hours of the morning. I discovered Graham Masterton, who still publishes to this day. (In fact, I have a new book by Masterton on my NetGalley shelf, which I will read and review ahead of its publication this coming February.)

So, for me, Christmas was as much about new books as it was about food and family. And I love to think back to how it all started, with Enid, with Agatha, with Alistair, and how I looked forward to finally getting my hands on the books that had been bought by me and for me in the run up to Christmas Day. This year I can’t wait to open up the present I bought myself. More on that later.

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

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.

(Image: cavalierhousebooks.com)

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.

(Image: blacknerdproblems.com)

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.

P. Djèlí Clark