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Book Reviews: September 2020

Read This! Volume 14

Hate and rage are kissing cousins.

Usually born at the same time, they are two possible responses to the same stimuli. Equally powerful, they’re not identical, but one is often mistaken for the other, as they keep such close company.

As a child I had a father who’d been raised on forms of corporal punishment too often taken for granted in Black communities. He meted it out to me for the same perceived misdeeds he’d committed in his youth—mostly not doing what you’re told in the exacting way you’re told to do it. Belt whippings and the river of belittling comments he used to erode my self-esteem were among the methods used to keep Blacks in line during slavery. The ways we were managed under that fine institution, the forms of punishment we were subjected to, became means we used to control our children. They were the only lessons we learned about discipline, any better parental models from Africa lost over generations.

Many white people I’ve known were shocked when they first heard about Black children being whipped with belts and emotionally abused to keep them in line, because they weren’t raised that way. “How could they do that?” they ask, even those who’d been spanked by hand, meaning “how can you Black folks be so cruel to your kids?” They don’t understand that the roots of our cultural dysfunction in that area lie, like so many, in the soil of slavery. Much of the persistence of police violence against Blacks comes from the police’s historic origins as a service provided to capture runaway slaves. It’s an organization that still sees a large part of its job as keeping recalcitrant negroes in line for any infractions, no matter how minor, with maximum force.

It took ten years in therapy for me to sort out the tangled mess of my feelings toward my father and to realize that while I was justifiably angry at him, I did not hate him. In the many years of sessions with my therapist I grew to understand him, what made him who he was, why he did what he did, and how he tried to pass that conditioned response on to me.

With that understanding I was free to release my anger, to learn to love him. I put down the burden he’d borne for so long and had tried to hand off to me, resolved not to treat others as I had been. Today we have a loving relationship we both worked for decades to achieve. Americans have never taken that kind of time to honestly discuss our conflicts over the many obvious iniquities in race relations. It’s a lengthy path to understanding and acceptance that our nation has never walked, no matter how often we talk about it.

In the last four years we’ve seen how much hate and rage has been buried beneath the surface of American life around those issues, simmering, waiting to be unleashed on all sides. Both too often inspire violence and can literally burn down all they touch. They feed on the fears of both sides, show us how weak we are when we try to stop them. They often seem out of our control, as only haters can reduce the hate, only the enraged can stop the rage, except that they’re too filled with their perceived power over us to try.

The two novels I review this month effectively illustrate the destructive effects of both hate and rage, but also carefully distinguish them from each other. Their protagonists offer us options, potential solutions to the depredations of both.

Ring Shout
P. Djèlí Clark
Hardcover / Ebook
ISBN: 978-1250767028
Tor.com, October 13, 2020, 176 pages

Blacks and especially Black writers are often accused of always bringing up slavery and other forms of institutionalized racism, which irritates the hell out of me. From what I’ve read, it’s far from the only thing we write about, but until all that’s been held back for so long has been said, that dialogue should and must continue. Honest communication can be as revelatory as it is liberating, and I think anyone would agree with that.

Unless you take it personally.

Oddly enough, I’ve never thought racist Southerners back in the day who lynched Black people really hated them, not when it began. I was sure that the violence started as perceived retribution, rising acts of rage at the loss of their old status as overseers, Earth’s dominant species holding dominion over their lessers. I believe the blind fury over that first generation’s loss was distilled down into an instinctive hatred passed down from then to now, a bloody legacy that evolved over time until their successors could no longer remember the real reasons for its origin.

If there’s a thin line between love and hate, as the old song says, the one between hate and rage is even thinner. P. Djèlí Clark’s novel explores that narrow terrain in a novel that is at times terrifying, but at others tickled me with the wickedly satiric way he explores serious issues.

In this world, the original Klan was organized by evil Southern sorcerers, including Confederate leaders. They used the supernatural to further their own goals, in league with far worse than the Devil. When the Klans fell after the Confederacy failed, books, pamphlets and propaganda weren’t enough to revive it fast enough. A new enchantment was cast in the form of an epic film, the 1915 release of D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation, that reached the minds of millions by means of the still-new silver screen.

Griffith is depicted as colluding with Thomas Dixon Jr., the author of the two books the movie’s based on, The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots. Dixon’s father was a slave owner and Klansman, and his son wrote and published as a conjuring to revive the Klan. The books reached too few readers to make enough of a difference, but reimagined in the form of an inspiring film, their magic was electrifying, and stirred up cold embers of hate and rage in White audiences.

Set in Macon, Georgia in 1922, less than a decade after the movie’s premiere, Ring Shout opens on a group of armed Black women on a rooftop. They watch a well-attended Ku Klux Klan parade march down the town’s main street, cheered on by their families and others enjoying picnics alongside.

The Black women aren’t there to snipe at Klansmen on parade, but to hunt those among them who’ve been possessed by demonic mutated creatures called Ku Kluxes. While most see them as human, those with the gift of a special sight see them as hideous, malformed, Lovecraftian monstrosities nourished by hate and dead flesh. Two of them leave the crowd to sniff out the rotting corpse of a dead dog planted in an alley by the women, who can see these creatures as they really are while they feed—then find out how much harder they’ve become to kill.

The leader of the women warrior’s group, and narrator of their adventures, is a young woman named Maryse, the sole survivor of a Ku Klux attack on her family when she was a girl. By the end of that night she was forced from her childhood, forged into the fighter she is now. Her team dispatches the damnable things with unexpected difficulty, as they realize their enemy is quickly mutating, getting stronger to adapt to our world as their new home. Part of a resistance as large and organized as the Klan they fight, the team gathers the remains for study, although they’re still unaware of the true nature of their enemy.

After the Civil war and the collapse of the first Klan, so-called “Jim Crow” laws did their job to keep free Blacks segregated and in line. As resistance to that system slowly grew, a new Klan sprang up to deal with those who resisted. They were inspired by Griffith’s immensely popular epic, publicly praised by then-President Woodrow Wilson as “like writing history with lightning.” By the nineteen twenties the Klan had risen again in popularity and numbers enough to be unabashed in their public displays of white solidarity, eventually marching proudly in 1925, thousands strong, to celebrate their primacy in Washington, D.C.

This is the malignant world our heroes and heroines inhabit, one filled with enemies both mortal and mystical. The resistance has their own Conjure Woman to defend them against the latter, Nana Jean, and her scientist of sorts, Molly. She can’t see the Ku Klux body parts in their true demonic form, but can still analyze what they bring back to increase their knowledge of the real enemy, to find better ways to defeat the monsters. She arms the women with bullets and explosives made of silver and iron that will wound or kill the Ku Kluxers, defenses backed up by their own magic in the titular Shout. A rhythmic ritual carried down from before slavery, drums, feet, and voices in a ring stamp and sing in a call and response prayer that powers up Maryse’s supernatural sword. It glows brightly when it manifests, a gift from powerful spirit guides who appear to her in dreams in the guise of three churchgoing Aunties.

Maryse meets the bloody Butcher Clyde in her dreams as well, a monstrous man who’s much more than that. He—or really, it—acts as her introduction to the larger forces behind the scenes carefully moving everyone, Black and White, into place. They have plans for Maryse, too, and the slaughter of her family was only a first step to their domination of the world, by honing her to be their champion . . .

The number of players in the game, both human and inhuman, increase, and the story builds to a final confrontation between good and evil at the base of Stone Mountain. At a massive public screening of Birth of a Nation, the combined hate of its White audience will be used to open an inter-dimensional door to an early apocalypse, with Maryse and her crew all that can stop it.

Ring Shout is told in the first person present tense, which can be difficult to pull off effectively, but is handled here so smoothly that it took me a few chapters to even realize it. Clark’s characters have a casual realism in their relationships that made me feel at home and invested, his supernatural elements made it all the more fun. Making the monstrous nature of the Klan literal and offering a deeper, more twisted explanation for its horrific excesses doesn’t excuse anything, but gives us a way to re-examine the issues their actions raise at a safer, if strangely more sinister, distance.

By the end, Clark stands firmly in Lovecraft territory, his survivors primed for a visit to Provincetown to meet the man himself, and I hope that next novel is already in the works. One of the great ironies of Lovecraft’s now notorious views on race and religion has been watching modern writers of all backgrounds use his tropes to make social commentaries that would have appalled him, but thrill me—from Victor LaSalle’s highly lauded Black Tom, and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (now an HBO series), to N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became. I even find myself adapting his mythos as well in writing Past Life, the final novel of my vampire trilogy.

The plot of Ring Shout is based on the idea that hate serves as food for horrific beings who would otherwise view us as beneath their notice. Its story, however, is about the boundaries of our hate, how it can destroy, but also how it can fail. Clark offers a valuable distinction between hate and rage in a timely and entertaining lesson we need today more than ever.

The Blade Between
Sam J. Miller
Hardcover / Ebook
ISBN: 978-0062969828
Publisher: Ecco, December 1, 2020, 384 pages

For others, home is where the hate is.

Ronan Szepessy wakes up on a train headed up the Hudson River Line from Manhattan, unsure where he is or why he’s there. It doesn’t seem to be because he relapsed into a crystal meth addiction only recently abandoned, like an unfaithful banished lover who could return at any time. From the camera bag at his feet and a brief entry on his phone’s calendar, Ronan pieces together that he’s going there to meet Katch, a beautiful young man from his hometown who asked to model for him.

Ronan truly deeply hates the town of Hudson, where he grew up hounded for being gay, miserable, misunderstood by everyone but his suicidal mother. Ronan has finally returned to his childhood home as a successful fashion photographer, but finds it empty. He locates his father in town instead, standing like a dazed ghost inside the trendy antique shop that took over his old butcher shop.

Gentrification has slowly erased the other established businesses around his. A billionaire web czar, Jark, founder of a sort of artsier barter-based Etsy, is running for mayor, and planning a massive new luxury complex that will seal the end of Hudson’s old community. After losing his shop, Ronan’s father is now the last holdout who refuses to sell his home, the only obstacle left in the way of perceived progress.

The first sign I noticed that something’s not right in Hudson, beyond the recent multiple suicides, is when Ronan hears the local late night DJ announce the time and play a song that seems tailored for him and his mood. Then, at his friends Dominick and Attalah’s house (both Black, which allows Miller to bring in additional issues organically) she announces the same time on the radio, but plays a different song that means something to them. It’s the first subtle cue that beneath a surface being roiled by the rigors of change lies something stranger and scarier in Hudson than hipsters and antique shops. Perceptions slowly become personalized, until everyone in town sees only what they want to see, hears and believes only what they want to hear, as their social media is manufactured by magic to destroy their spirits.

It takes longer than I expected for Ronan to finally look at the funeral photo on his friends’ fridge and discover that his appointment in Hudson is with a young man who committed suicide before Ronan met him. The book is full of moments of slowly rising dread that end in shocking revelations, all of them building to a nightmarish town festival where the growing horror finally reveals its true face and intent.

Ronan teams with Attalah, the wife of his high school lover, Dom, to start a campaign to undermine the coming mayoral election and the development. He offers his father’s house up for sale and pretends to side with Jark, the web czar, while Attalah starts an online whisper campaign, like digital poison pen letters, to undermine Jark’s takeover of the town as they enlist others to their covert cause.

“You are hated” is the campaign that Ronan and Attalah devise to unite the townies, aimed at newcomers and tourists, expressed at first in billboards and buttons, then with acts of vandalism that rise to terrorism. They spark the coming conflagration by fanning local embers of hate into a hot blaze that rapidly burns out of control. Reality slips away for everyone in town as Ronan realizes that he’s the one who lit the match to the fuse—almost too late, long after he feels he has any chance to snuff it out. Tom Minniq, a bisexual stud Ronan invents for dating services to harvest dirt on everyone in town for blackmail, mysteriously appears in the flesh to give his victims sadistic and destructive orders. When Ronan tells people that he’s been eating and drinking at old familiar bars and restaurants he’s told they closed decades ago, and wonders where he really spent that time. Dead Katch comes and goes, and gradually confirms Ronan’s worst fear that it’s only his own deep and abiding loathing for Hudson that makes this living nightmare possible.

Like Ring Shout, the real menace in Hudson is otherworldly, the ghosts of murdered whales from the town’s whaling past, hunted down for profit. They’ve evolved into vengeful, godlike beings that have manifested to keep Hudson trapped in an entropic past they control rather than an affluent future. Along the way, Miller deals in depth with the social issues of gentrification on local communities, not with dry invective, but by artfully illustrating the pressure it puts on individuals of all races and classes.

Miller offers us another alternative to hate in his ending, and his own way to defuse it. Both books tell us clearly that there are more ways to eliminate injustices than obliteration. It has been said many times, in many cultures, in many ways, that the reed that bends in strong winds stays standing when the mighty oak falls. Change is always possible, we just have to be willing to pay the price for it.

Miller and Clark tell us that we still can.

Terence Taylor

Terence Taylor (terencetaylor.com) is an award-winning children’s television writer whose work has appeared on PBS, Nickelodeon, and Disney, among many others. After years of comforting tiny tots with TV, he turned to scaring their parents. His first published short story, “Plaything”, appeared in Dark Dreams, the first horror/suspense anthology of African-American authors. He was included in the next two volumes, and his short stories and non-fiction have appeared in Lightspeed and Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. Terence is also author of the first two novels of his Vampire Testaments trilogy, Bite Marks and Blood Pressure. He is currently writing the conclusion, Past Life. Follow him on Twitter @vamptestaments.