In P. Djèlí Clark’s ‘Ring Shout,” the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s are actual monsters
You already know the Klan is bad. Just wait till you see the Ku Kluxes.
P. Djèlí Clark’s acclaimed speculative fiction includes short stories like the Nebula- and Locus-winning “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” and books like the Hugo-nominated “The Black God’s Drums.” He’s also a founding member of FIYAH Literary Magazine and an academic who studies comparative slavery.
So add his new Ring Shout to the growing canon of stories that use fantasy and horror to explore racist history, like Lovecraft Country and Watchmen. In fact, I’m surprised this stellar novella hasn’t already been snapped up for adaptation rights.
Set in Macon, Ga., in 1922, Ring Shout follows young sword-wielding Maryse Boudreaux as she hunts the beings she calls Ku Kluxes.
“I can tell right off there’s something peculiar about them,” Maryse thinks, as she and the Black women who hunt with her watch a Klan parade from the city’s rooftops. “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.”
Maryse has magic on her side. She has the “sight” to detect these beings. She consults with a trio of aunties who appear, oracle-like, to offer counsel. And she has the power of the ring shout itself, ecstatic movement with music that melds traditions of Africa with the American South.
“In the Shout, you got to move the way the spirit tell you and can’t stop until you let it go. And don’t call it no dance!” Maryse warns. “Not unless you want Uncle Will to set you down and learn you proper. See, the Shout ain’t really the song, it’s the movement. He say the Shouts like this one got the most power: about surviving slavery times, praying for freedom, and calling on God to end that wickedness.”
She’ll need all the help she can get. Something big is brewing in tandem with a planned screening of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and Maryse must figure how to stop it. To succeed, she’ll also have to make peace with her past.
Birth of a Nation’s fueling of racism is well-known, and Clark weaves other real-life historical references into his story, including the Tulsa massacre, the Gullah community, and the Harlem Hellfighters.
It’s exciting to see Black women dominating this story as warriors and sages. Some of the best new young-adult fantasy novels have had Black girls at their center, including Bethany Morrow’s A Song Below Water and Tracey Deonn’s Legendborn. And there’s been plenty of debate in genre awards circles about celebrating authors who reflect more than the white male lens.
That’s all important. But Ring Shout soars due to Clark’s superior scene-crafting and pacing. He ferries you from battle to juke joint to parallel universe, each encounter fully realized in evocative prose. This novella won’t take you long to read, but its brilliance and intensity lingers.
(Tor, Oct. 13, 2020)