RING SHOUT by P. Djèlí Clark (Book Review)
I have been following the career of P. Djèlí Clark for some time (including a review and interview on this site) so when the e-ARC of this landed in my inbox, I dropped everything – even though it isn’t out until October. Some of this was because it seemed a particularly appropriate reading matter for the early days of June, 2020…
Anyway, I’m very happy to report that the author’s newest novella is not only his best yet, but an agonisingly timely and heart-wrenching story of resistance, horror, and hope. It manages to celebrate aspects of what was a typically dark time in African-American history, walking the line between wish-fulfilment fantasy and cosmic horror without giving in to either. There is a simmering tension between optimism and futility in both the story and the telling of it, which resonates to this day – especially right now.
Ring Shout tells the story of a gang of resistance fighters in 1922 Georgia – a historical setting a little more grounded in reality than some of Clark’s previous, and just as richly evoked. Of course, the departure from history that makes this fantasy – with hints of cosmic horror – is that the Klan are not just a human evil, but a gateway for another evil from outside our reality. These are what our hunters – a war vet with a penchant for explosives, a sharpshooting prodigy, and the wielder of a mystic sword – hunt, rather than the actual human Klan members. Helping them are a diverse cast including a gullah magic woman, a Choctaw scientist, a Jewish Marxist, and a slick creole juke-joint owner.
It’s a great cast, and I found them even more real and rounded than in previous work. The plot is also his most complete, perhaps because this is by far his longest novella (perhaps even a short novel). The length allows him to explore the story completely while also keeping the tight focus that serves the shorter format so well, and leaves the large cast just enough room to breathe – and suffer. I’ve been crying out for longer works from Clark for a while, because you are always left wanting more – even with about 50% more in this case!
The most interesting choice in the novel is to blend the true-to-life horror of the KKK, Jim Crow, and segregation in the South with a fantastical cosmic horror of inhuman beings feeding off the hate and fear. On some level, you would have thought the actual horror was enough – and while he doesn’t lift the blame from the actual Klanners, he leaves the conflict with them aside, somewhat off-limits – perhaps reflecting historical constraints. As tempting as it would be to re-write the era with a team of elite and magical heroes wreaking righteous vengeance, that might cheapen the sacrifice and struggle of the actual resistance. Instead, our heroes are saving the world – not just “their people” from an even greater threat, despite the best efforts of white racists. There is a sort of tragic nobility in this, and perhaps an acknowledgement that some monsters are easier to fight – and defeat – than others, even with magic swords and the power of the Shout.
Sadly, it’s a fight that’s still going on.
So, if you want a fantastic, timely, tense, power-packed short (but not too short) read, then I can recommend few better than this from one of the stars of the novella scene. Looking forward to whatever he does next – which might just be a novel!