Book Review: Ring Shout, by P. Djèlí Clark
Hate made flesh. That’s what Klansmen are under their hoods in P. Djèlí Clark’s 2020 novella Ring Shout—not just men committing monstrous acts, but actual monsters feeding on the hatred those hoods represent.
The story takes place in 1922 Georgia. Prohibition is ongoing, slavery and the Civil War are still living (if distant) memories, and the Ku Klux Klan is resurging in the South. The real history is grim enough on its own, but Clark infuses dark magic to explain how racism spread like a virus after the 1915 movie Birth of a Nation glorified the Klan (and popularized its infamous uniform). In Ring Shout, the film was a hex, threaded with sorcery that fanned the flames of prejudice. “It sold out week after week, month after month,” Maryse—our narrator—reports. “Got shown to the Supreme Court, Congress, even at the White House … Across the country, white folk who ain’t even heard of the Klan surrendered to the spell of them moving pictures. Got them believing the Klans the true heroes of the South, and colored people the monsters.”
Using the energy created by that swelling hate, Klan witches summoned demons Maryse calls “Ku Kluxes.” To most humans, these creatures look like ordinary men. But people that have the “sight” can see the interlopers for what they are: twisted beasts with skulls that “end in a sharp bony point … Every bit of the thing is a pale bone white, down to claws like carved blades of ivory. The only part not white are the eyes … six in all: beads of red on black in rows of threes on either side of that curving head.”
In other words, physical manifestations of the Klans’ robes.
Maryse and her friends aren’t idle observers of this conjuring, though. They hunt the monsters (and run booze on the side). But things are about to go from bad to worse. The Birth of a Nation is set to be released in a few days’ time, and the Klan is planning to capitalize on the new hate the film will induce to summon something even worse than Ku Kluxes.
It’s a wildly original premise. And a disturbing one: Clark’s imagery is often as unsettling as his subject matter. At one point, Maryse watches in horror as the seeming leader of the Ku Kluxes breaks out not into hives, but orifices: “On the exposed parts of his hairy arms, up on his neck, all along his round face. They’re mouths, I realize with a shudder—small mouths with tiny jagged teeth fitted into red gums. All as one they start singing too, joining him in the worst chorus you ever heard. No harmony or rhythm, just a hundred voices crashing together.”
I also appreciated how Clark drew from African American mythology, tapping (as he says in the afterword), “[t]he 1930s ex-slave narratives of the WPA,” “Gullah-Geechee culture,” and “[f]olktales of haints and root magic,” among other influences.
The only thing that truly bothered me was the mirror this holds up to reality. In Ring Shout, evil wizardry fuels the type of racial massacres that befell East St. Louis in 1917 and Tulsa in 1921. (Clark isn’t letting anyone off the hook, however: at one point, the monster of many mouths tells Maryse that he and his ilk didn’t plant the hate that grew into white supremacy. “[W]as always growing inside,” he says. “Just gave it a nudge to help it blossom.”)
But in real life, we don’t have any such excuse. Racism is an entirely human creation.
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