Ring Shout, P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing 978-1-250-76702-8, $19.99, 192pp, hc) October 2020. Cover by Henry Sene Yee.
P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout is a wildly imaginative, superbly written narrative about friendship, magic, and fighting racism that occupies a strange interstitial space between historical fiction, fantasy, and body horror. It is also a smart reimagining of history that pushes current racial tensions to the forefront and forces readers to remember that bigotry should be fought in all its incarnations.
In 1915, The Birth of a Nation helped the Ku Klux Klan swell its ranks and stoked the fire of racism across the country. Now the Klan isn’t just a group of angry white folk obsessed with white supremacy and the enslavement of Black people; they want to bring hell to this side of the veil, and they have monsters to help them do it. Luckily there are people who know about them and will do everything in their power to stop the invasion. Maryse Boudreaux and her fellow resistance fighters, a hilarious sharpshooter named Sadie who carries a rifle named “Winnie,” and Chef, a Harlem Hellfighter, know how to identify and destroy the monsters hidden inside some Klan members. With help from an old Gullah woman and a small group of likeminded fighters, Maryse, Sadie, and Chef will become the last line of defense between the world and the hateful darkness threatening to overtake it.
Clark took history and reimagined it within the frame of a period known for its ugliness in terms of bigotry and abuse. The aftermath of slavery is very present in the story, as are the plethora of abuses suffered by Black people and the lingering tension between them and whites, which seeps into every aspect of life. The result is dark and violent, but also beautiful and inspiring. The mix of history and fiction is so meticulous and organic that it all seems real:
You see, the Second Klans was birthed on November 25 back in 1915. What we call D-Day, or Devil’s Night– when William Joseph Simmons, a regular old witch, and fifteen others met up on Stone Mountain east of Atlanta. Stories say they read from a conjuring book inked in blood on human skin. Can’t vouch for that. But it was them that called up the monsters we call Ku Kluxes. And it all started with this damned movie.
From a technical standpoint, everything in Ring Shout works. The characters are memorable, the pacing is superb, and the plot is engaging. However, the narrative is much more than the sum of its parts. With this book, Clark has brought racism to center stage and shown, through fiction, a series of truths. For example, that racism feeds on hatred… and that it can be defeated. This is an entertaining novel packed with action and even some romance, but it’s also a call to action, an invitation to make sure hatred doesn’t win.
Besides the underlying messages, the beauty of Ring Shout comes from the way magic sings in its pages. Literally. There are songs here, but also beautiful rhythm in the dialogue and the musicality of the Gullah accent. Also, Maryse’s sword is a magical weapon that draws its strength from the suffering of those tied to the same discrimination, the same struggle for survival, across time and space:
The sword comes at my call, with the visions. A woman in Saint-Domingue shouting a war song at shaken French troops as she set herself on fire; a man in Cuba applying a balm to another’s cut-open back, singing to soothe his lover’s cries; a mother fleeing through thick Mississippi pines to a contraband camp, humming to quiet her babies.
Ring Shout walks a fine line between pulp horror and the kind of literature that demands smart deconstruction to be savored. There are monsters covered in mouths, a dangerous quest in a supernatural realm, and even a scene in which creepy monstrosities dig around inside Maryse’s body, but there are also unflinching looks at the nature of bigotry, explorations of loss, and the literary equivalent of a scream that says “Black excellence is historical, and it won’t be denied.”
Clark has already established himself as one of the strongest voices in contemporary science fiction by creating ingenious narratives that allow his strengths as a historian to shine through, and Ring Shout further cements him as one of the most talented and fun writers of our time. There is a wave of #OwnVoices novels that are tackling the past while pushing stories into the future, and this book belongs to the group of narratives that are spearheading that movement. Ring Shout is a book that will make readers laugh but also make them angry. That combination is enough to make it a necessary read.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CrimeReads. His work has been published in five languages, optioned for film, and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl, and Meg Gardiner. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other print and online venues. He’s been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
This review and more like it in the December 2020 issue of Locus.
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