Monday, November 2, 2020

"Ring Shout" by P. Djèlí Clark

A powerful and spooky novella that's a delight to read, Ring Shout is a darkly fantastic alt-history—a community fighting literal demons in the Klu Klux Klan. Narrator Maryse Boudreaux hunts these monsters with the help of a magic sword, ethereal advisors, and two other talented Black women, and soon discovers that the dark magic under the white hoods is evolving in dangerous ways. It's a fast but fairly intricate novella, doing a really good job of fleshing out its world and characters while propelling the story forward.

One of the dangers of "secret history" fantasies, which imagine supernatural or science-fictional forces behind actual events, is that they can erase the real significance and continually-relevant causes of those events, often in racist ways. The "ancient aliens" idea, for example, often acts as a way to minimize the accomplishments of non-European civilizations, while imagining that occult forces were behind Nazi evil risks obscuring the more banal (if no less horrifying) nature of their motivations.

Clark rather brilliantly sidesteps this pitfall: in Ring Shout, though the antagonists are definitely demons and other supernatural creatures, it's clear that they haven't caused the pathological racism of the KKK: they're expressions of it. Indeed, one of my favorite parts of the book is the nuanced and rather ambiguous treatment of the tension between unjust hatred and righteous anger. One of the main villains reveals to Maryse, of the white Klan members, that "their fears aren't real—just insecurities and inadequacies. Deep down they know that." Nor is the morality the novella circles a saccharine call for letting go of anger in the name of an empty peace; Maryse's struggle is to stay true to her deserved anger, the real history of pain and injustice, without letting destructive revenge stand in for justice. It voices anger as a vital but not over-riding component of power in ways that reminded me of Jemisin's Fractured Earth.

The novella feels very timely, but not in any topical way. One of the best things about Ring Shout is how Clark is able to quickly sketch out some of the complexity and depth of this time and place—the reality of a prosperous, diverse Black community in Macon's Pleasant Hill, snippets of Gullah language, and the intersection of cultures, identities, and revolutionary thought among Maryse's compatriots. Like HBO's Watchmen's spotlight on the Tulsa massacre, these are historical realities that many readers may be unaware of, and in reading this I was never confused about which elements were factual or plausible (as opposed to the truly fantastical). It's a deft bit of work to subtly communicate that these characters and communities are not the "alternate" part of the alt-history.

For all the weight of its concerns, Ring Shout is a very fun read, quickly drawing a memorable cast and sending them swashbuckling, mixing entertaining action with effective horror. There are some very creepy villains and monsters, with splashes of Lovecraftian or Cronenberg-y horror mixed in with folk tales and the real horror of slavery and its legacy. LaValle's The Ballad of Black Tom was close to mind while reading this, but the continued (and lamentable) importance of racist icons like Stone Mountain and Birth of a Nation loom larger here than the eldritch horrors. Expertly paced and quite action-packed, Ring Shout could certainly be the start of a longer series, if Clark decides to go that way.

Highly recommended.

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