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Nathan’s review of Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

When four friends come together in a haunted mansion to celebrate a wedding, things take a very dark turn when a ohaguro bettari starts surrounding them….but it may be the four humans themselves who are the greatest threat to each other.

Khaw’s horror novella, Nothing But Blackened Teeth, is an unsettling story immersed in Japanese horror. Now, admittedly, I have very little knowledge or experience of the background and origins of a lot the dangerous entities lurking with these pages – so my reading experience might be a bit different than someone who better understands the history and tropes of this specific kind of horror (and I had to do a lot of googling while reading to try and catch myself up!).

I knew walking into this novella that it seems to be pretty polarizing. I have seen people who were absolutely swept away by it, and people who absolutely despised it. I knew that it had a not-so-hot sub 3 rating on Goodreads, but the cover and blurb were so enticing I couldn’t help but check it out for myself. And, with this novella in particular, I do recommend checking it out and seeing if its your thing. While this novella definitely won’t be for everyone, and I still had some things I wasn’t super impressed by, on the whole I had a great time reading this novella (and it’s also short).

I think it all comes down to knowing what works for you and what doesn’t as a reader, because Khaw goes hard with what she is doing here and that is either going to really work for you, or it will really turn you off.

The characters in this book are unlikeable, and you kind of just have to be ok with that. If likable characters are something you need in a story, definitely avoid this one. The main cast includes five characters who are petty, arrogant, and insecure. Our main POV character, Cat, is probably the most likable of the bunch, but that’s pretty much only because we see the story through her perspective. These characters are all broken and working through their own emotions and thoughts; anyone who has read Olivie Blake’s The Atlas Six will know if these kinds of characters work for you. Cat and co. would very much fit in with the Atlas Six crew. The major difference with the characters here is their shared history and resultant baggage. It seems like every combination of romantic and sexual relationship between the five is in their past, creating one of those toxic and “incestuous” friend groups (what the show All American wonderfully calls “The Vortex”).

The cover of this novella does the book a little bit of a disservice because it mismanaged my expectations. I was expecting something super dark, creepy, and scary (I mean, look at that cover), and what I got instead was some tense and thrilling scenes, but more so an exploration of mental health and the struggles of the quarter life crisis. The main characters in this book are what I would consider “friends by circumstance”; they are not friends because they share interests, but because they grew up together in Malaysia and never really gave up that bond. And now that they are getting older, they have to figure out what is next for them. They have to figure out if they even like each other, and what those relationships might be moving forward. Phillip is still holding onto his “All-American quarterback” popular guy past; Lin is financially successful; and Cat is recovering for a pretty serious depressive episode. And now a wedding within this tangled web of relationships (past and present) are bringing all of their needs and desires to the forefront.

Following the lead of The Haunting at Hill House (both the sublime Shirley Jackon original and the also very worthy Mike Flanagan Netflix series), Khaw uses the haunted house genre to explore her characters. Haunted houses are fantastic settings for this because these grand mansions have a lot of room to explore and maneuver, while simultaneously feeling claustrophobic and suffocating. The houses become a reflection of the characters themselves, and their ugly personalities become enmeshed with the old and slowly degrading house. As the characters slowly unhinge from reality, the house also becomes abstracted from any kind of realism – and this is when the novella truly hits its stride.

Therefore, this novella is really an examination of not-so-good people rather than being truly spine-tingling horror.

While you won’t be jumping out of your seat with fear, Khaw does evoke a aura of foreboding over the entire novella through her vivid writing. Khaw’s prose throughout the novel is absolutely gorgeous and, to be fair, verges a bit on the purple side. Khaw is obviously a big fan of poetic language and her thesaurus, but it contributed to the sense of doom that we all know comes with the haunted house genre. Even when the characters got a bit grating and the story wasn’t as scary as I was anticipating, I was always enthralled by Khaw’s use of language.

Khaw inserts a lot of meta-humor about the horror genre in the novella, where characters often make remarks on “who is going to die first” based on their racial or sexual status. As a reader your mileage may vary whether you find these asides are annoying or funny; I would say the closest barometer would be the Scream franchise – if you like its combination of meta-humor and legit thrills, you’ll probably find the small drops of humor in this book to your liking. It is clear that Khaw is a big fan of all of the horror tropes, and loves using this story to comment on them, use them, but also play around with them. If there was anything I was a tad disappointed in it was that much of the meta-humor was at the expense of the “slasher” genre of horror rather than the possessed/haunted house genre that Khaw was writing in here.

On the whole, once I managed my expectations and appreciated what Khaw was doing vs. what I expected her to do before I read the first page, I really enjoyed this novella. It is not a perfect book by any means, but it was a satisfying entry to the horror genre.

Concluding Thoughts: A haunted house novella dripping with dark and macabre prose, Khaw introduces readers to five unlikable people and challenges their pride, insecurities, and personal foibles in all kinds of thrilling and creepy ways. This book won’t work for everyone because it is not scary in the traditional sense, but if you like dark character studies with a sense of foreboding and some really great writing, you should check this one out.

 

Thank you for reading my review of Nothing But Blackened Teeth!

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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