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Nothing but Blackened Teeth - Horror Book Review

Five friends at a haunted house - what could go wrong?

By Haley Booker-LauridsonPublished 12 months ago 4 min read
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by Cassandra Khaw

3/5

  • Plot: 3/5
  • Characters: 2/5
  • Language/Prose: 3.5/5
  • Enjoyment: 3/5

A haunting is never truly just a haunting anymore, is it? In Cassandra Khaw's latest novella, five friends gather to spend the night at a historic Japanese mansion said to be haunted by a bride who was buried alive. At what should be a happy time - old friends reuniting to celebrate a wedding - it becomes clear that past injuries and secrets have strained relationships, and when things go bad, their tenuous friendships begin to unravel.

This was a book that my library recommended for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. I'm not sure if this was the best selection for that particular collection. While the author is Asian (Malaysian), and the setting is a Japanese mansion, it's clear that the story is told from an outside perspective that perhaps exoticizes parts of Japanese folklore rather than provides insight or representation for people of Asian heritage, Japanese or otherwise. The ghost, for instance, has blackened teeth, hence the title. This was a common practice during the Heian period for upper-class, married women to blacken their teeth using a solution of iron fillings and vinegar. It was a beauty standard that reflected a woman's high standing in society, and it had the added benefit of preventing tooth decay by essentially sealing the teeth. Khaw mentions the smell of iron and vinegar, and calls the ghost by the Japanese term for a woman with blackened teeth (ohaguro), but they otherwise omit the context that may make a reader understand the practice at all. Instead, the foreign terminology and strange smells are used to seemingly evoke fear in the otherness of this ghost, rather than acknowledgment that some different cultural practices.

The prose fully leans on purple, except for the dialogue, which is fairly realistic. The many similes, metaphors, and complicated words are hit-or-miss for a lot of people. I personally liked the descriptive language, but I do think that the author used 'harder' words in a way that didn't contribute to the story - in fact, it broke my immersion more than a few times as I had to look up definitions, as well as the sprinkling of Japanese terminology without any real context for the reader. At one point, the author uses an entire Japanese phrase, multiple times, without providing any meaningful translation for the reader. Even the narrator, who took some Japanese, can't translate it. I put it in Google Translate for similarly frustrating results.

The characters aren't very likeable. The cynicism radiates off of the narrator, and other than the bride- and groom-to-be in the story, it's hard to understand why they're even friends in the first place. The couple are clearly jealous and suspicious of the friends they invite to their wedding, and Cat, our depressive narrator, only seems to know how to describe the very worst of her friend group, even when she admits that one of them (the conspicuously privileged, white, all-star boy Phillip) is charismatic and charming.

What's worse is that, despite there being such a small group of characters, one of them seems wholly unnecessary. One of the friends comes into the story late, to provide the drink and food for them to enjoy right before things go bust. As far as I can tell, he was only there to be the "genre savvy" guy who, Scream (1996)-style, points out all of the horror tropes in the story. It works in Scream because while the movie pokes fun at the teen slasher genre, it doesn't pretend to be anything other than a teen slasher movie; it doesn't work here because our narrator is too introspective, and the language too haute to be a gentle ribbing of itself. So when one of the characters says, "We can't go there! You're bisexual and I'm the comic relief, which means that we're doomed" (paraphrasing), it jars you from the story, which was taking itself very seriously just paragraphs before.

Other than the dilapidation caused from disuse and time, the house was incredibly hard to visualize, especially since the author insisted on sprinkling in Japanese terminology to describe the different parts of the house, from the sliding panels (fusuma) to the straw mats (tatami), to the ghost herself (ohaguro-bettari). Which, great, but I have no idea what those are. Books should, of course, challenge the reader to step outside their own perspective, but this story is told through a first-person POV of an American woman. It's not like she was familiar with these things either, so it doesn't make much sense for her to continually describe things in the accurate Japanese terminology, rather than in a way that a young twenty-something American might. When the house starts bending to the ghost's will, I have no clue what's going on or where they are. They're in a room. And then another. And then a library materializes in the mansion, somehow.

During what is supposed to be the climax, where two characters that have been at odds with each other from the beginning reveal all their secrets, we're stuck in the narrator's head and can't see the "good bits", and when that thing happens, I can't say that I care very much. The story left me feeling a bit hollow - not in that good way where you finish a story and suddenly realize that you will never experience that story in the same way again, but rather in the "well, that was nothing" kind of way.

It's a 3/5 for me, simply because I did genuinely enjoy the cadence of the language, but I think either the language or the story would need changes to better match each other.

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About the Creator

Haley Booker-Lauridson

Haley is a passionate freelance writer who enjoys exploring a multitude of topics, from culture to education.

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  • Daniel morkaabout a year ago

    Hello guys I’m new on this app I wrote a story on this blog can you guys read and tell me if I should continue writing

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