In Ring Shout (2020), P. Djèlí Clark melds two types of horror, Lovecraftian monsters and the bloody rise of the Ku Klux Klan in 1922 Georgia, as a group of black resistance fighters take on an enemy with frightening supernatural powers.
As Ku Klux Klan members march down the streets of Macon, Georgia on the Fourth of July, Maryse Boudreaux, who narrates the story, watches from a rooftop with her two companions, sharpshooter Sadie and former soldier Cordelia “Chef” Lawrence, a bomb expert. They’ve baited a trap for the “Ku Kluxes,” who are hellish demons that hide in disguise among the Klan humans, taking over the bodies of the worst of them. The trap works, but the silver pellets and iron slags contained in the bomb aren’t enough to kill the three monsters that rise out of the wreckage and their human outer veneers. It takes more to kill a Ku Klux.
Since The Birth of a Nation had come out seven years earlier, in 1915, susceptible white folk surrendered to the spell of hatred woven by the groundbreaking silent film with its message of white supremacy and KKK heroism, lending manpower to the KKK and spiritual power to evil demons. Now The Birth of a Nation is getting a grand rerelease at Stone Mountain, a Georgia park honoring the Confederacy, in a few days. The spirits that frequently commune with Maryse let her know that this will cause a massive rise of evil and hatred, a rift that the demonic powers can use to fully inhabit and take over our world.
Ring Shout is little hard to wade through at times, with lots of idiomatic speech. Otherwise, though, this is powerful stuff. H.P. Lovecraft’s eldritch monsters and, more, his infamous racism lend themselves well to a plot centered on the infiltration of the KKK — and from there, our world — by unearthly, destructive powers that use our weaknesses against us. Opposing them are lively, earthy blacks and their sympathizers, many of whom have their own supernatural connections, primarily arising out of African traditions and folklore. Among these are Maryse’s magical sword and the Ring Shout, a ritual gathering involving song and dance. It’s “about surviving slavery times, praying for freedom, and calling on God to end that wickedness.”
Clark’s novella also points out the seductive power of hatred and rage, and how they can twist good to bad. “A righteous anger and a cry for justice,” Maryse realizes, aren’t the same thing at all as hate.
These monsters want to pervert that. Turn it to their own ends. Because that’s what they do. Twist you all up so that you forget yourself. Make you into something like them.
In Ring Shout, Clark deftly uses a historical and fantastical setting, characters and motifs to create a novella that’s both timeless and timely, with a powerful message for all.
Tadiana’s review gives a great synopsis of the plot, so I won’t rehash it here. I liked this book even more than she did.
The story is told in the first person by Maryse Boudreau, and written in what I would call dialect, which might not be the correct term. Depending on your taste, this can be a feature or a bug. For me, it’s a feature. The narrative voice centered me right in Maryse’s head, grounding the story and giving it a breath-taking immediacy. That close connection with the character becomes crucial by page three or four, when Maryse is in danger from the Ku Klux monsters chasing her. Along with the close connection, Maryse’s speech grounded me in a specific time and place in a way I haven’t experienced since I read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
From the beginning, the novella is a perfectly balanced blend of genres; horror, with the monsters and a plan to open a door to another place and bring something even worse than the Ku Kluxes into our world; folkloric fantasy, with root magic and folk magic paying a huge role; alternate history, and even epic fantasy, since even though it’s 1922 Georgia, Maryse still fights monsters with a magical sword.
The story is a tour de force on that level alone. With glorious language and a brilliant mashup, it was these still characters that gripped me and kept me reading: Maryse herself, with her sword and her secrets, Sadie, the tabloid-loving sharpshooter, Chef, an explosives expert, and the “root woman” Nana Jean. When the story places the infamous Birth of a Nation Film front and center as a delivery system for hate, I was hooked.
Ring Shout has plenty of love, song and humor, but it is a serious story, with serious losses, and real problems for the characters to solve. The thing the villain uses to tempt Maryse at the end is diabolically clever, because it is so genuinely tempting. If Maryse had said “Yes” to the bargain I would have understood why. Along the way we get moment after moment of magic grounded in history and stories — like the Night Doctors and the Dead Angel Tree.
This story has helped me decide that I am going to buy and read everything P. Djèlí Clark has published so far. I know he has a busy schedule, but I hope the throwaway line in the Epilogue isn’t just a throwaway, and we will see Maryse, her sword, and the team paying a certain racist “gentleman from Providence” a visit in the very near future.