by Cassandra Khaw
Publication Date: October 19, 2021
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
Cassandra Khaw's Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a gorgeously creepy haunted house tale, steeped in Japanese folklore and full of devastating twists.
A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company.
It’s the perfect wedding venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends.
But a night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare. For lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart.
And she gets lonely down there in the dirt.
That cover is beautiful but terrifying, which is also an apt description of this novella. It’s a haunted house story with a uniquely Japanese setting, but also an exploration of mental health.
“One girl each year. Two hundred and six bones times a thousand years. More than enough calcium to keep this house standing until the stars ate themselves clean, picked the sinew from their own shining bones.
All for one girl as she waited and waited.
Alone in the dirt and the dark.”
Five friends have arrived at a crumbling Heian mansion for a destination wedding unlike any other. Local legend says that after a groom died on the way to his wedding there, the bride was buried alive in the foundation of the house in hopes her groom would one day show up, with a new woman being buried alive in the walls every year. Nadia, our modern bride, has always wanted to be married in a haunted house (me reading this: WHAT NO?!?!), and the prospect of spending time telling ghost stories and exploring the abandoned mansion is exactly her nuptial ideal. But the ghost that inhabits the house may have a different idea…
Cat, the narrator, has spent a year battling with depression, and her mental illness informs a lot of the way we see the story. The whole group is a tangle of complicated and toxic relationships, between jealousies over past relationships and slights, though all the messy backstory isn’t explained in detail. Suffice it to say that everyone is feeling salty about everyone else for their own reasons. Cat is particularly hurt by Phillip, the kind of guy who still wears his varsity jacket unironically, but whose family money has made this trip possible. Cat and Nadia are particularly at odds, since at one point Cat suggested Nadia and Faiz, her husband-to-be, would be better breaking up. Faiz, frankly, seems to just be along for the ride.
“But the interior didn’t smell like it’d had people here, not for a long, long time, and smelled instead like such old buildings do: green and damp and dark and hungry, hollow as a stomach that’d forgotten what it was like to eat.”
This isn’t one of those books where the story is being told from a remote distance. Instead, you’re in the middle of things with Cat, confused and frightened and, well, almost seduced. She feels a certain resonance with the tale of the dead bride, so maybe that’s the reason why she’s the first to notice that things aren’t quite right, though she’s reluctant to bring it up as her “friends” would just dismiss it as, at best, signs of her mental illness, or at worst, sour grapes. It’s Lin, the last of the five to arrive, who speaks the reader’s thoughts out loud – “this is the part where we all die”- a sort of fourth-wall breaking that adds a dose of humor and reality to the story. It’s very much needed because the prose is heavy and ornate, bordering on pretentious but somehow also gorgeously atmospheric and immersive. The story is inventive, with a mostly queer and diverse group of characters, and it knows what tropes to keep and which ones to invert. The tension builds bit by bit (bone by bone?) expertly until it reaches its shocking conclusion. I wanted a little more from the epilogue, but ultimately felt satisfied. This isn’t the sort of book where you’ll leave understanding everything that just happened, but it works.
“This is the problem with horror movies:
Everyone knows what’s coming next but actions have momentum, every decision an equal and justified reaction. Just because you know you should, doesn’t mean that you can, stop.”
Overall, a quick and atmospheric read, and definitely recommended for fans of haunted house tales.