I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor.com (October 19, 2021)
Length: 128 pages
The cover to Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth is really something else. I mean, I kind of hate it but I also really love it, if that makes sense. It’s definitely one of the most disturbing covers I’ve ever seen, such a nightmare-inducing sight that I can barely even stand to be in the same room as the book most nights. And yet, as a lover of scary stories, how could I resist the temptation? Not possible, of course.
So, steeling myself, I dove into this dark and broody tale following a group of childhood friends as they travel to a Haian-era mansion in Japan to celebrate a union between two of their own. For Nadia, having her wedding at a haunted house has been a forever dream of hers, one that her likewise adventurous husband-to-be Faiz was happy to make come true. They’ve invited their three friends Cat, Lin, and Philip to come along, though in truth, things aren’t really all that friendly between the five of them, as they’ve all dated each other at some point, resulting in a history full of hurt feelings and bitter grudges.
The story is actually told from Cat’s point of view, and her animosity towards the bride is immediately made apparent, since she never got over the fact Nadia once stole Phillip from her, back when the two of them dated. It is later revealed that the feeling is mutual, as Faiz also used to date Cat, something that still very much bothers Nadia to this day. However, all this pent-up hate and frustration turns out to be no match for the negative energies of the house where, according to a famous legend, was where a young bride had herself buried alive after her fiancé was killed on the way to their wedding. Notoriously unhinged, her restless spirit, a ohaguro-bettari, is said to be still haunting the halls, waiting for the ghost of her lost love, while demanding sacrifice from innocents and visitors who dare enter her domain.
At 128 pages, Nothing But Blackened Teeth was a short read, and at the end of the day, I suppose a novella is the perfect format to tell this kind of story. By that, I mean it’s not complicated. Much of the book is given to the endless drama between this group of frenemies, and ultimately, the collective weight of their emotional baggage pretty much cripples any kind of meaningful character development. Essentially then, all you have left is the horror plot that matters, and it’s one that’s pretty straightforward.
Here’s what I enjoyed: I’ve always had a fondness for Japanese mythology, especially the huge body of legends and folktales surrounding yōkai or supernatural creatures that include monsters, spirits, and ghosts. Didn’t really take me long to realize that this book wasn’t scary at all (it was a bit too over-the-top for that), but that was fine because it had the creep-factor and the atmosphere, both thanks to the wonderful way the author built up the mansion’s disturbing details and history.
As for the rest, I confess my feelings are somewhat mixed. This being my first book by Cassandra Khaw, I’m unfamiliar with her writing style so I’m not sure if the prose here is how she usually writes or just an affectation which she adopted for this story only. While at times her descriptions felt overly embellished, dialogue is another matter, coming across as shallow and simple. The words “soap opera script” came to mind, given the kind of fickle characters we’re dealing with. As you can imagine, taken together, the two clashing forms made for a jarring experience.
I also don’t think you’re really meant to like any of the characters, but it was very bizarre how this aspect was handled. Clearly a lot of effort was put into trying to make them sympathetic, because otherwise there wouldn’t have been so many words invested into everyone’s backstories which included a long list of their relationship problems, insecurities and hang-ups. If this was meant to humanize them though, or make them more relatable or pitiable even, it completely backfired on me, as I didn’t even make it halfway before I was ready for the ohaguro-bettari to tear them all to pieces. In that sense, I guess, the book scores another win, because everything goes to hell in the ending, but in a good way where the blood and guts are literally flying.
Still, bottom line, I can’t say that I was overly moved by this novella, though it had its moments of creeping dread and genuine spookiness. However, I can also say that it was the perfect length, and despite my issues with the prose or the thoroughly unsympathetic characters, the entertainment value was enough that I’m honestly not sorry I read this. Nothing But Blackened Teeth might not be anything too special, but as someone who enjoys horror stories with a cultural and mythological bent, it was a fun way to spend a couple hours in the afternoon as we head into the Halloween season.