Tor.com: Nothing but Blackened Teeth fills the mouth like a big bite of tendon—meat that requires chewing with all the muscle in your jaw, mixing savor with a visceral density. As a novella, of course, “one big bite” is especially apt. At the exact moment the brutality of the climax started to provoke the first wash of nausea for me, the grisly tension unspools and the remainder can be swallowed whole.
Khaw has a truly deft hand at crafting gruesome poetics within their prose fiction. Whether it’s the sensation of sipping from a water bottle to find it clogged with algae and old hair, or watching a friend use his fingernails to dig loose his own tooth roots and all, or devouring a sumptuously marrow-fatty wedding/funeral meal… the novella’s world is a felt world, one the characters engage through their bodies. It’s as nasty as it is delicious, as much rotten as sweet.
Which brings me to the other aspect of Nothing but Blackened Teeth that made me wriggle with delight: the merging and twisting of several generic forms into one dense, scary package. Khaw effortless interweaves source materials from the gothic to youkai tales, spooky traditions such as hyakumonogatari kaidankai to literary tropes about “loathsomely rich twenty-somethings and their murderous interpersonal drama.” And, more to the point, they explain none of those wellsprings to the audience. You’re either going to come along, or you aren’t. I appreciate being required to engage with a text on multiple levels—and Khaw’s novella allows the reader to dig as deep or coast as light as they like.
Critiques of power and violence are also woven into the manor’s original ghost story—an entombed young bride and the hundreds of girls murdered to be with her over the decades creating a ghost made from loss and desire, betrayal and loneliness. Ultimately, there is an intense emotional realism underlying the blood-soaked, claustrophobic horror of a night spent in the haunted manor. From the twistiness of Cat’s limping psychological recovery, to her miserable friends and their miserable attachments to one another, Khaw constructs a memorable and cautionary spooky story of their own.
Turn down the lights and give it a read, some dark night.