Nothing But Blackened Teeth – by Cassandra Khaw

Here we go with the first entry of my horror-focuses reading list for October. Nothing But Blackened Teeth was advertised as “steeped in Japanese folklore and full of devastating twists”. Which in the end was only partly true, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Title: Nothing But Blackened Teeth

Author: Cassandra Khaw

Publisher: Titan Books

Publication Date: 21 October 2021

Genre: Horror Novella

Stand Alone or Series: Standalone

Synopsis: A small group of friends chooses a Heian-era mansion as a wedding venue for two of them; part of the appeal of such a location is the legend that surrounds it: the place, in fact, is rumored to be haunted by the ghost of a dead bride, its walls packed with the bones of the girls sacrificed to keep her company.

Soon enough, however, their joyful thrill-seeking attitude gives way to much darker moods: mutual grudges and resentments quickly come to surface, making it all too apparent how the members of this supposedly tight-knit bunch can’t really stand each other; meanwhile, more and more disquieting signs seem to suggest a terrifying truth behind the legend.

Analysis: Nothing But Blackened Teeth is written in first person from the point of view of Cat, a friend of the wedding couple who’s just recently emerged from a prolonged isolantion meant to treat her depression. Cat’s inner thoughts are delivered in a refined, flowery prose, that sounds as a counterpoint to the rough and juvenile language that connotes the dialogues; a juxtaposition that enhances the creepy ambience and its delirious crescendo as they are perceived by Cat herself, while on the other hand making all interactions come across as especially petty and grating.

At its best, the novella is successful at building a disquieting atmosphere; I enjoyed its visually rich, emotionally charged writing, as well as the references to Japanes art and myths.

Other than that, however, I can’t say I am entirely satisfied with this book. Rather than plot twists and genuine scares, I was met with a fairly predictable plot, and a conclusion that felt more forced than shocking. Now, I do not expect to be surprised and blown away by each and every book I read, especially when they’re built around a premise that all but writes its own conclusion (I mean, it’s a horror story set in a haunted house, we all know what’s going to happen); such a story could be still powerful and effective if it manages to keep us immersed in its story and invested in its characters.

The other main issue, however, is that the characters seem to be made on purpose to be as unsympathetic as humanly possible. And I don’t mean they’re interestingly flawed, or even detestable people who at least evoke strong emotions – I mean they’re a bunch of superficially irritating but actually quite insipid figures, whose mutual resentment is so obvious that their alledged “friendship” really tests my suspension of disbelief; because I can pretend to take haunted houses seriously, but I can’t for the life of mine fathom how these five people travelled across the world to spend any amount of time with each other. The book also plays with its overdone horror tropes by making its characters uselessly genre savvy, – which means they keep on snarking on their own ill-advised choices while still behaving like the stupidest horror story stereotypes ever. As a result it’s really hard to care for them, which seriously undermines any tension and fright the story could generate.

Conclusions & Recommendations: As you could have guessed, I didn’t particularly like this book, even though its style and imagery provided me with at least something to enjoy; that said, you might still want to give it a chance if you have a specific interest in ghost stories and Japanese-themed horror.

Content Warning: Gore, violence, death, mental illness, toxic relationships.

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