'Nothing but Blackened Teeth' is a real spooky trip
Lights on? Good. Dysfunctional relationships from the past, expunged or resolved? Very good! Wedding invitations that involve ghost hunting in an abandoned Japanese manor? Ignore, however tempting.
The characters in Cassandra Khaw's creepy, gorgeous novella Nothing But Blackened Teeth leave well-lit places and easy access to help. Their past history seethes on or just under the surface; scratch any of them, and complicated hurts and loyalties spill out like viscera. They do go to the wedding, although the five protagonists used to ghost-hunt and legend trip (that's when you visit the site of some supernatural or tragic event) together, so the haunting is invited, too.
Nadia and Faiz are tying the knot, and Nadia's always wanted to get married in a haunted house. Phillip, charming do-gooder rich boy, uses his money to facilitate one last legend trip to Japan. Cat, our narrator and Faiz's best friend (we are told), is still fresh from a hospital stay (depression), and the nexus for a lot of strong and complex emotions. She is often the voice of reason and occupies the role of prophet, seeming a little more sensitive to the supernatural and very genre savvy. Finally, there's Lin, also genre savvy, a wise-cracker with his life together who's there mostly "for Cat."
Turns out, the deal for this particular creepy abandoned Japanese manor is that once upon a time a bridegroom never made it to his wedding, so the bride ordered her wedding guests to bury her alive so she could wait for him. Every year afterwards, more girls were buried in the walls, until the manor fell to ruin. So when our five arrive for the wedding, emotions run high. Things get out of hand. Survival becomes uncertain. Difficult choices are made.
Nothing But Blackened Teeth is visually stunning. Of course, a novella is just words but Khaw's command of language in service of an image — their brilliance when it comes to wedding image with emotion — is sheer perfection here, with gorgeous turns of phrase that deepen our understanding of the characters and their responses to one another. Atmosphere seeps from every page, and you really feel like you too are exploring this house, like this house is closing around you, too. You feel like you just might be able to notice what's wrong, or where the wrongness is springing from, before anybody else.
I like the characters. They form a unit more because of shared history than because they would be friends in the present, which serves this particular type of story very well. Readers will get frustrated with one person's choices and say "Why are you being so stupid?" or "Don't do that!" — but so will another character. One of Khaw's strengths is their ability to show fully realized, nuanced social dynamics. That said, one character remained a bit of a question mark in a way which might have gone unnoticed if how the others related to or felt about each other wasn't so clear. If we knew this character better, the climax would have had just a little more oof. Don't get me wrong, the climax has oof, is plenty gut-wrenching, but it might have been a little keener.
This is a short novella, just over 100 pages, but Khaw has given us a haunted house that fully inhabits those — like you and me, reader — who come in contact with it. Because this is so short, it's an easy read with few twists. If you aren't familiar with the haunted house genre, you might be surprised by some of them, but otherwise the inevitability is very much the point. This is a creepy, meticulously-crafted tragedy and frankly, one of the most beautifully written haunted stories I've ever read. As in the best ghost stories, the house is full of ghosts, but it's the people who are the houses. We're haunted by our histories, by the ugly things we want to keep buried, by the things we just can't let go. Nothing But Blackened Teeth will linger with you.
Jessica P. Wick is a writer, freelance editor, and California native currently living in Rhode Island.