Maryse Boudreaux knows all about monsters. White supremacists terrorise the streets from under their hoods and, in P. Djèlí Clark’s historical horror novella, also manifest as carnivorous demons. It’s Maryse’s job to hunt them down.
Set in Georgia during the early years of the American Prohibition, Ring Shout starts with a bang and a bomb. Led by narrator Maryse, a trio of monster hunters and bootleggers ensnare and destroy a cluster of “Klu Kluxes.” Clark, author of several novellas including A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015, weaves a nation whose Confederates and Klan members sold their souls for power, inviting the demonic Klu Kluxes from beyond. Premised on a mythology of dark magic, Ring Shout’s America is recognisable despite the genuine demons that prowl the streets. Though initially defeated by Black rebels, the Klan returns to foment evil into the world where it manifests as disenfranchisement, violence, and the rule of a Jim Crow America. Virulent in their hatred as the humans they march alongside, Klu Kluxes are not the humans they appear to be; otherworldly and grotesque monsters under their masks, only Maryse and a few others with a gifted sight are able to recognise them as monsters. The trio hunts in tandem, with Sadie, a young but skilful sharpshooter, and the World War I veteran Cordelia “Chef” Lawrence at Maryse’s side. When she realises the Klu Kluxes are evolving – and planning to dig their claws in for the long haul – it is up to her and her crew to stop them.
Clark cleverly mythologizes the American past to masterful effect. Night Riders – anti-Black vigilantes who violently targeted communities – and the 1915 film Birth of a Nation, which presents actors in blackface and commemorates the KKK, aid in the novella’s characterisation as an alternate, but horrifically familiar history. “Way I hear it,” Maryse says, “a heap of the big ups in the Confederacy was into sorcery. Dark stuff too. Jeff Davis, Bobby Lee, Stonewall Jackson – all in league with worse than the devil.” Right Shout’s fantastical elements brilliantly reconfigure the film and surrounding white supremacist propaganda into a spell aimed to enthral more Americans under the conjuring influence of hatred.
Though Ring Shout’s monstrous reimagination of American history excels in its candid depictions of gore and a dash of strange science, Clark further elevates the novella through its exploration of community and power; Maryse’s confrontation with the poisonous combination of power and hatred culminates in a beautifully rendered climax. Likewise, Ring Shout’s motif of musicality celebrates a tradition of song that tackles sorrow and suffering, and which becomes righteous – “a cry for justice.”
Ring Shout strikes a melancholic, yet at times joyous and smartly funny, tone that will haunt the reader long after closing the book. With its succinct but vivid portrayals of a cast of characters and settings, and a whole mythology beside, Ring Shout’s sole drawback is our desire to keep reading. We cheer for the heroic Maryse and selfishly want more pages of her adventures. If at moments the emotional cues might pack a stronger punch or the mythology may benefit from further development had the novella been full length, its stunning creativity and gripping narrative voice easily makes up for its brevity. Indeed, Clark accomplishes not only distinction between the many characters but also drives an entirely coherent plot despite the novella’s immense scope. Ring Shout’s alternate history will resonate with readers as both otherworldly and – perhaps more disturbingly – frighteningly familiar.
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark is published by Tordotcom.
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