Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw (book review).

I love reading ghost stories. I am also interested in learning about Japan, its people, culture and fiction. So when I got offered a review copy of ‘Nothing But Blackened Teeth’, a ghost story based on Japanese folklore, I jumped at the chance to read it. The book is written by Cassandra Khaw, a Malaysian video game scriptwriter who lives in Canada.

The story revolves around five racially diverse friends, all in their twenties, who grew up together in Malaysia and have rented an abandoned and supposedly haunted mansion in Japan as an unusual venue for two of their number, Talia and Faiz, to get married in. The engaged couple are accompanied by Phillip, a rich but charming All-American boy whose money has paid for the entire trip, including first class return plane tickets for each of them, Lin, a Wall Street banker who is doing the catering, and Cat, a troubled woman who narrates the story. Although Phillip is by far the richest of the group, the others all seem to be from privileged backgrounds, exuding a high degree of self-assurance and a sense of entitlement from the start.

The plan is to have a massive party, sleep the night in the haunted house and then hold the wedding the following day, with the recently-ordained Phillip covering the ceremonial duties. The venue has been chosen because Talia has always wanted to get married in a haunted house. This one fits the bill perfectly. The myth is that it was to have been a wedding venue many centuries earlier, but the Japanese bridegroom died on the way.

The distraught bride insisted on being buried alive in the foundations by her wedding guests, so that she could stay there until her groom or his ghost finally found her. As if that wasn’t enough, the guests were instructed to return once a year and bury another girl alive to provide the frustrated bride with some company down in the dirt. Supposedly, there’s hundreds of bodies underneath the floorboards.

Of course, it’s just a myth, isn’t it? Certainly none of our present-day group seriously believe that the house is actually haunted. This turns out to be a bit of a mistake.

Running in parallel with the ghost story sub-plot, the book’s main plot concerns the relationships between our five protagonists. From the very first sentence of the story, the personal dynamics between the five supposedly close friends are filled with conflict. For example, despite being perfectly prepared to let him fund the entire trip, everyone else resents Phillip’s wealth and lets him know it at the drop of a hat. Faiz is also jealous of Phillip’s good looks and self-confidence, perhaps correctly suspecting that he had previously slept with Talia.

At the same time, Talia hates Cat, who briefly went out with Faiz before they became friends and who advised both Faiz and Talia that they weren’t suitable for each other when they first started dating. Lin, meanwhile, has little time for anyone except Cat and makes that abundantly clear. Finally, the heroine Cat is friends with the three men and has gone out with at least two of them, yet seems to be disappointed in all of them because they found it difficult to spend as many months helping her work through her mental health issues as she would have liked.

By the time the bride’s ghost finally appeared for real, some two-thirds of the way into this short tale, I must admit that I had grown tired of all five of the living characters and couldn’t wait for them to get their comeuppance. In brief, Talia is a stuck-up bitch. Faiz is a nice enough guy but has no backbone. Lin is arrogant. Phillip would be another nice guy if it weren’t for the fact that his life is so charmed by money and good looks that he finds it almost impossible to empathise with anyone undergoing hardships. Cat, by way of contrast, is so wrapped up in her own misery, the cause for which is never made particularly clear, that she’s an incredibly tedious narrator to have to spend the entire book listening to.

On the plus side, I’ve learned a lot of names for creatures that appear in Japanese folklore. However, none of them is explained or set in context, so I had to google them all afterwards. A glossary would have been a useful way to help readers not already intimately familiar with Japanese folklore terms from getting lost mid-story.

On the minus side, I found the book a challenge to complete and would not have done so if I had not been reading it for review. The characters are entirely lacking in self-awareness, making them unbelievably irritating to listen to for page after page.

They are a group of over-privileged young men and women who have far too much money and nowhere near enough common-sense. A story told at the length of a novella is necessarily highly compressed, which risks losing the character nuances that might elicit the reader’s sympathy in a longer version of the same tale. Even so, there would have been enough space to include one positive back story for each character if some of the interminable whingeing had been cut out. As it was, I could find no reason to sympathise with or care about any of them when the ghostly conclusion finally arrived.

I also found that the plot dragged rather badly. The tension that is generated early on for example, when Cat hears a disembodied voice speaking Japanese, is lost soon afterwards when another argument about who did what to whom takes centre stage. This happens throughout the book as each new step in the ghost story sub-plot which could have been highly effective, in my view is drowned out by another entirely predictable argument between the main protagonists.

For me, a constant ratcheting up of tension is a key element in an effective ghost story. Here, this element was repeatedly sabotaged by the focus on the mundane disputes between the characters.

As always, these are just the observations of one reader and it’s entirely possible that other people will judge the tale much more positively. For me, though, I’m afraid this is one ghost story I’m unlikely to re-read.

Patrick Mahon

13 November 2021

(pub: TOR, 2021. 128 page hardback novella. Price: $19.99 (USA), $26.99 (CAN), £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN 978-1-250-75941-2.

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