There are two types of horror story. The first is the kind in which the protagonists are completely unaware of ghosts and ghouls and the tropes of fiction; the second is the sort where they are fully aware of what it is they are doing. In Cassandra Khaw’s novella Nothing but Blackened Teeth we are clearly in the latter territory. But while this is common in modern horror fiction (in which I include film and TV as well, for example the Scream franchise), and there are nods and winks aplenty (late in the story, one character even exclaims that they have reached the point at which the supporting cast die), Khaw’s story manages to be an engaging read and elicit a chill or two.
Five people—it would be a stretch to call them friends, as we shall see—arrive at an enormous Japanese mansion for the weirdest wedding I’ve ever read about. Our protagonists have extremely twisted histories with each other. They also know that the mansion—from the Heian era, a period in Japan from 794 to 1185 when the influence of China started to wane and Japanese art flourished—is reputedly haunted. The story of this particular abandoned mansion is that it was built on foundations that contain the bones of a bride who is perpetually waiting on the return of her groom. Meanwhile, the walls have been packed with a succession of young women and girls, sacrificed annually: over the ages, they were sent to keep the dead bride company. Our modern bride-to-be has always wanted to be married in a haunted house. What better place?
We are introduced to two friends, Cat and Phillip. Phillip is the classic square-jawed, sharp-cheekboned, preppy American, the kind that has charm enough to start a cult following without trying (Khaw’s characterisation of him reflects the one-way relationship of organised religion). It is Phillip who has funded the trip, which Cat believes to be extravagant (Cat, it turns out, is not overly happy that she is friends with a billionaire); for his part, he sees the wedding venue as “just” a mansion, which simply required permits to visit. Cat, from Malaysia, is also concerned about the attendance of another of the party, Lin. But before we meet him, the bride and groom arrive: Faiz and Nadia. Khaw describes their arrival in the style of a Hallmark commercial, deliberately contrasting what is to follow. Nadia is tall and Indian and seemingly in control of her life, despite the weird obsession with this creepy wedding venue. Faiz is Cat’s best friend, but Nadia is less than impressed with Cat and her presence: Cat and Faiz have a history. Phillip and Nadia, meanwhile, also have a history.
And then there’s a whispered phrase. Only Cat hears it. It appears to this reader to be in Japanese. Cat immediately suspects her mental health issues are back. At this point, we don’t know the history of the house, nor the reason why the five are gathering there. Phillip asks Cat what she hears, and now it is revealed that we’re in the “knowing and understanding” type of ghost story, as Cat manages to make light of ghosts but also aim a dig at Phillip about a period when he ghosted her. And we’re still only a couple of pages in.
There is an efficiency of worldbuilding that is necessary in a novella, and there is no messing around here from Khaw. Within the first few pages we understand who our characters are—and why, in some cases, their pasts have led to this moment in time. Cat, who narrates for us, studies Japanese literature and has recently had mental health issues. She feels like the world moves too swiftly for her. She knows of superstitions and hauntings from her upbringing. She believes she has been changed by her recent experiences and is possibly in tune with the building. Before long, the reader, too, surely needs to know what is going on and why. In time-honoured tradition, the ghost story is laid before both the characters and us; in this case, Phillip tells the story of the bride who was buried alive beneath the mansion and the subsequent traditional sacrifices.
After this moment, Lin turns up, all sports cars and wagyu steaks and a bone-crushing hug for Cat. Indeed, Lin has only come to see Cat, leaving his “Wall Street” life and “thoroughbred wife” back home. Now that the ensemble has gathered, Nadia decides that it is time to play a game. Of course. She suggests an ancient samurai game loosely translated as “A Gathering of One Hundred Ghost Stories.” This is going to end well, especially with added alcohol! Truths come out about past relationships; there are denials, recriminations, and the loss of temper. Tensions rise between Cat and Nadia until any pretence of a truce shatters. Soon, however, we’re back to the ghost story as the lights suddenly go out. Thankfully, everyone has their smartphones, so they’re not left in the dark.
Friends such as Khaw’s motley bunch always have secrets in stories such as these. And when they come out, they tend to drive the plot along. In a ghost story, the secrets are usually the cause of the group splitting up. This story is no different, and Cat and Lin find themselves suddenly alone. After just over one hundred pages, we quickly approach the climax of Nothing but Blackened Teeth. We learn that when she was experiencing poor mental health, Cat felt abandoned by Lin. Lin becomes serious for the first time and admits his failings. This means that they are going to get through this together. But of course, the climax itself is the wedding, so they soon find their way back to the others.
When the ohaguro-bettari (a female spirit with blackened teeth) eventually shows herself by possessing Nadia, dressed in her wedding outfit, it isn’t a surprise. The ensemble all scream, a reaction you’d expect, despite them all being aware that they are in a haunted house. Moments later, Lin is discussing the fact that it is time for the murders to start, demonstrating the unrealistic character traits of someone caught in this type of tale. You or I would have run away a long time ago, rather than sing a little ditty about how we are about to die. All this leads us to the final ritual: the gang conveniently discover an ancient book that, oddly, they can read (there’s always a book). This explains the necessary ritual … and then someone does indeed die.
Khaw’s prose style throughout is appropriate both for the characters (perhaps millennials) and the setting (which is steeped in traditional Japanese folklore). When Cat describes her feelings, such as when she calls herself and her fellow visitors “idiot foreigners,” or when every character swears like a sailor at every given opportunity, Khaw writes with a contemporary swagger. When they are describing the interior of the mansion, they write like an art historian, describing “tails curling” and “jewelled seas.” Khaw describes the horror of the ancient, dead bride like an experienced horror storyteller, albeit within the confines of familiar Japanese horror tropes: “the red of her rosebud mouth, the lacquered black of her hair.” At times it feels like Khaw has written a screenplay as opposed to a novella (which is odd, as later in the story Khaw mentions Hollywood dross), especially after the introduction of creepy dolls. At one point, Cat watches a fly emerge from a crack in a doll, which reads like a stage direction to the photographer of a movie. Perhaps this is all about building up the atmosphere.
Khaw’s descriptions of the supernatural within this novella are all perfectly fine and do raise the occasional hair on the back of the neck—especially the moment the ohaguro-bettari is revealed. The well-worn tropes, too, are handled well enough, and in a way that persuades you to ignore the occasional misstep. The ending is appropriately gory. What makes Nothing but Blackened Teeth worth reading, however, is the engaging nature of Cat’s narration, the authenticity of the elements of Japanese folklore, and the weirdly unreal atmosphere Khaw has constructed. Experiences are what many people crave, especially those wealthy enough to have possessions that are almost meaningless. Horror provides for, and Khaw’s protagonists are exemplars of, this need. The events and the atmosphere of this crazy wedding, only made possible by Phillip’s trust fund, are more memorable than any of the secrets and lies that the friends brought with them.