There are monsters among us, and sometimes those monsters are fed by the media they consume. Many may find resonance with this statement in our current times, but media has been a corrupting influence for decades.
Take 1915’s The Birth of a Nation. D. W. Griffith’s racist ode to the Ku Klux Klan helped metastasize the KKK from a regional group of bigots into a national white supremacist organization with millions of members. The film was shown and re-shown constantly and was also used as a recruiting tool for the KKK for years.
The Ku Klux Klan, galvanized by The Birth of a Nation, no doubt created monsters in the metaphorical sense. And in the novella, Ring Shout, P. Djèlí Clark makes those monsters literal.
Ring Shout takes us to a Lovecraftian-infused 1920s America. In this slightly alternative history, some KKK members have turned into Ku Kluxes, creatures from another dimension who feed on humanity’s hate. The novella’s protagonist, Maryse Boudreaux, describes them as follows:
I can tell right off there’s something peculiar about them. Not just those silly costumes neither. Or because they sniffing at a chopped-up, half-burnt dog like regular folk sniff a meal. They don’t walk right—all jerky and stiff. And they breathing too fast. Those things anybody can notice, if they paying attention. But what only a few can see—people like me, Sadie, and Chef—is the way the faces on these men move. And I mean move. They don’t stay still for nothing—wobbling and twisting about, like reflections in those funny mirrors at carnivals. (pp. 18-19)
Maryse, a Black woman with a mystical eye and a magical sword, is hunting down and killing those Ku Kluxes with a handful of other women. Maryse’s dedication to ridding the world of Ku Kluxes is born from tragedy, one that is shared in one version or another by millions of Black people, and one that is no more or less painful than those many untold stories.
Slaying Ku Kluxes and saving the world from a tentacled beast may be the plot of Ring Shout, but it’s Maryse’s lived experience and how she deals with her pain that is the heart of the novella. Take her sword—a magical weapon that appears from thin air when she calls it. It was sent to her by mystical beings called the “three Aunties” after her family was killed by a lynch mob. The sword was called to her—it answers to her vengeance, but it also responds to the pain and struggles that Black people had already endured for centuries:
When I call the sword I get visions from them angry slaves, their songs pulling at restless chiefs and kings bound to the blade, making them cry out until sleeping gods stir in answer. That’s the sword’s power—a thing of vengeance and repentance. Don’t know how it ended up with these three. But they say it needs a champion. When it first came I wasn’t no champion, though. Just a scared girl, hiding under the floorboards. But I learned how to listen since then—how to move to its rhythm. (p. 74)
And so Maryse works to hunt and kill the monstrous Ku Kluxes before they can kill others. The events of the book unfold rapidly—it starts off with a fight scene that destroys buildings and escalates from there. Even though things happen quickly, however, Clark still gives us enough time with Maryse to connect with her—and to do so on a level that’s hard to do in a book of any length, much less a novella.
But back to the Ku Kluxes. It turns out that these creatures are a symptom of a larger interdimensional issue—an evil force is looking to devour humanity, and the way they’re slowly seeping into our dimension is through white people’s hate.
The KKK members’ hate is what turns them into something vicious and ugly—a fact that is true in our reality as well, even if people aren’t being literally consumed from the inside by interdimensional parasites. Even though there’s a magical element in Ring Shout that makes the Ku Kluxes inhuman, then, it’s clear that Clark is also saying that—even in the magic-infused world of Ring Shout—the hate KKK members have for Black people existed before any supernatural forces got involved. A scene in which Maryse faces off against her big bad, a creature covered with tiny mouths, hammers this home:
“We need you to let us in, to merge you to our great collective.” His gaze wanders over the shop’s patrons. “They was just the most willing. So easy to devour from the inside, body and soul. Always have been.”
A spike of anger hits me. “That why you have them go around killing us?”
“Oh, we might point them in a direction we need, but that hate they got in them is their own doing. You see, Maryse, we don’t care about what skin you got or religion. Far as we concerned, you all just meat.” (p. 84)
The cosmic powers from other dimensions that Maryse must fight are also clearly inspired by the work of the extremely racist H. P. Lovecraft. Like other works before it (The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle and Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff [both 2016] are but two examples), Clark’s novel takes Lovecraftian themes and flips them to center on those whom Lovecraft had demonized.
This repurposing of Lovecraftian themes to lift Black voices and refute racism is both rejecting and embracing the impact Lovecraft has had on genre writing. In that sense, Clark has made Maryse a warrior on many levels. She fights literal monsters, true, but she also makes the reader confront the pain Black people in America have had to bear, and how that pain and hurt doesn’t have to turn to hate:
The places where we hurt. Where we hurt. Not just me, all of us, colored folk everywhere, who carry our wounds with us, sometimes open for all to see, but always so much more buried and hidden deep. I remember the songs that come with all those visions. Songs full of hurt. Songs of sadness and tears. Songs pulsing with pain. A righteous anger and cry for justice.
But not hate.
They ain’t the same thing. Never was. (p. 155)
The climax of Ring Shout occurs at a public screening of The Birth of a Nation, which also happens to be the place where the Ku Kluxes, powered by the hate of those watching the movie, open a portal and let through their multi-eyed, tentacled master. Maryse is there too, and without giving away the details, she remains a heroic champion even after the battle is over—the fight isn’t over, after all, and so Maryse retains her sword and continues on in the war against evil.