Cassandra Khaw
Cassandra Khaw

A Review of Cassandra Khaw’s “Nothing But Blackened Teeth”

Judging a Book by Its Cover, Part II

“Nothing But Blackened Teeth” Book Cover Art

The book cover art for author Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth is compelling, if not garish, to say the least. If you look to the left of this paragraph, you’ll see the frightening image conjured up for this horror novella that will probably give you bad dreams for days, if not weeks. Well, just like Malcolm Brooks’ recently reviewed Cloudmaker, the cover art sells what is a bit of a crummy book. That’s not to say that there are things to like or admire with Nothing But Blackened Teeth. However, the parts don’t add up to much of a whole. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about it is that the time investment in reading this work is negligible. You can easily read it in one sitting. In fact, it can be read in the space of about an hour.

The story is about five young American college-aged adults who travel to a haunted mansion in Japan as a bit of a dare before two of the five get married. The mansion, it turns out, is home to a ghost (a bride) who was buried alive on her wedding day when it turned out that the groom had gotten killed before the wedding. While the bride waits for her groom to return in spiritual form, she has other female bodies buried with her to keep her company. Meanwhile, it turns out that the five friends are, in truth, not too friendly with each other, and some of them have actually slept around with each other before coupling with their current boyfriend or girlfriend. In any event, this being a horror novel, bad things start to happen, and you can expect people to start getting killed off.

While I did say that the best thing about this book is that it’s short, I must say that I’m impressed with the level of language in Nothing But Blackened Teeth, which is filled with all sorts of $50 words and Japanese terms. However, this is also a liability in so much as it is an asset. It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on with all of the flowery language. It winds up detracting from the story. Meanwhile, I found the dialogue used in the book to be conversely pedestrian. It’s the sort of thing you’ll find in manga or anime. Some of it is laughably juvenile, which is probably not the thing you’ll want to convey in a book that’s supposed to be scary.

And that’s the thing: Nothing But Blackened Teeth isn’t too scary at all. At best, it’s kind of creepy. It is filled with all sorts of imagery of decay and disuse. But that’s about as far as the book goes in terms of psyching the reader out. The book isn’t scary at all because the characters are all so unlikeable in many ways. Since everyone is at each other’s throats for the entirety of the novella, it’s hard to get invested in their plight. Thus, when bad things start to happen to them, you’ll wind up finding yourself not caring about what happens to them or even not caring when some of them seemingly wind up dead. You may find yourself applauding their deaths.

It seems that all that this book accomplishes in the positive realm is exuding a sense of atmosphere. However, the author could have gone much further in mining a particular mood. The novella could have been a bonafide novel with perhaps more of a backstory about the ghosts and more of an explanation for some of the Japanese terminology used in telling the story. I’m not sure what having this at a novella’s length accomplishes, other than thinking that the author does seem to be rather young — a quick check reveals her to be in her 30s — and writing a novel might be biting off more than can be chewed at this point in her career. That said, there’s a great story waiting to break out of this book, and a longer length might have achieved the goal of giving us more of a sense of who these characters are and why they might like and dislike each other all at the same time.

Even though Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a bit of a failure as a novella, it’s clearly apparent that Cassandra Khaw has talent and is a name to watch. She does succeed at some aspects of writing horror fiction and did think that as much as I generally disliked the elevated language, it gave a shot in the arm to a maligned genre of fiction. Horror novels get shafted even more than science-fiction in the literary community it seems (unless your name as a horror author was Shirley Jackson), so it’s good to see someone trying to rise above convention and do something rich and rewarding. That it doesn’t quite pan out in the way that might have been expected here shouldn’t detract curious readers from checking out future works by Khaw.

Indeed, Cassandra Khaw certainly has a promising future in front of her. It’s just too bad that Nothing But Blackened Teeth doesn’t quite excel. There’s a terrific premise here in setting the haunted house genre in Japan, so having more detail spent on creating quality dialogue and amplifying the atmosphere so that readers can understand what’s going on would have gone a long way in helping the author achieve the goal of worldly success in the horror genre. In the end, it will also make Khaw worthy of that damn scary cover art that her publisher is investing in her work.

Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth will be published by Tor Nightfire on October 19, 2021.

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Book critic, Fiction author, Poet, Writer, Editor. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.