I was once told the pacing for a novella should be no different than that of a novel, just scaled down to an appropriate size. While I can see some argument for that, I disagree. Novellas can pack big stories into a slender volume, but they get to the point much faster. There aren’t as many twists or turns, and fewer instances of trying and failing to reach a resolution. Novellas aren’t small novels and don’t obey the same points of structure as their larger cousins; they are a thing all their own and unfold their secrets at whatever pace they feel. And sometimes that’s really fast.
That was certainly the case with the end of Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw, with a resolution to a secondary problem that came very, very quickly. But the rest of this novella is so rich and chilling that I’m mostly just sad because I wanted more.
On the eve of a couple’s wedding, they and three friends gather for an elopement of sorts at a Heian-era mansion in Japan. The richest of these friends, Phillip, has paid for their passes to spend the night here, a call back to their younger days of exploring haunted places and creepy things, and he’s really outdone himself this time: this mansion is said to be haunted, built on the bones of a bride left at the altar when her groom was killed en route to their wedding, and the bones of the young women the bride insisted be killed in the years since to keep her corpse company until her groom finally arrived.
Just a story, of course, though our narrator, Cat, isn’t so sure. But her mental health hasn’t been so good lately and her credibility with her friends isn’t great, so the five of them settle in amid the tattered screens and surprisingly fresh tatami mats. It isn’t long before the demons start to emerge—not from the house, but from each other; from their own pasts. Still, they eat and drink and pretend nothing is amiss, because that always works out so well in the horror movies (and they are all keenly aware of the tropes of horror movies).
And then, just as things reach an emotional fever pitch, the real ghost—the apparition, the possession—comes, and the night takes a sudden turn from reconciliation to survival.
The interesting thing about that turn is that, while things have definitely changed for the characters—and for the readers, too, to some extent, seeing the monster creeping in the shadows now out in the open—so much of the plot comes squarely back to the figurative ghost of these young characters’ lives. As they’re trying to figure out how to banish the spirit, the barriers between them hinder their progress. The tension is not abated by this new reality, but heightened despite it. It’s a very human thing for us to be concerned with ourselves when something like a literal ghost bride is creeping nearer with a gaping maw set to devour, and Khaw displays it well.
She also does a spectacular job of leading us down those dark hallways before the ghost appears. The whole book is just 125 pages, including acknowledgements, but Khaw budgets her space so she can have passages like this:
“I followed the shutter-pop of Phillip’s new camera to where he stood in an antechamber, painted by the evening penumbra, dusk colors: gold and pink. A moting of dust spiraled in the damp air, glinting palely where particles caught in the cooling sun. At some point, the roof here had fissured, letting the weather slop through. The flooring underneath was rotten, green where the mould and ferns and whorls of thick moss had taken root in the mulch.”
“You know how poets say sometimes that it feels like the whole world is listening? It was just like that. Except with a house instead of an auditorium of academics, collars starched, textbooks like scriptures, each chapter color-coded by importance. The manor inhaled. It felt like church. Like the architecture had dulled its heartbeat so it could hear me better, the wood warping, curling around the room like it was a womb, and I was a new beginning. Dust sighed from the ceiling. Spiderwebs fell in umbilical cords, a drape of silver.
“It felt like the house talking to me through the mouths of moths and woodlice, the creak of its foundations, the little black summer ants chewing through what remained of our food like we’d left bodies, not balled-up, slickly gleaming cling wrap. The air smelled of raw meat, lard, and bits of seared protein. I hoped to hell in that moment that she was listening.”
It’s beautiful, all of it beautiful, and I am a sucker for lush passages that drip spiraling description and feeling like a sodden sponge. However, there was a lot of it. If this had been a full-length novel, I think I would have gotten tired of it. But it’s not, so Khaw can have her spiderweb umbilical cords and moss growing in the mulch of the ruined building. But if there’s space for all that, I wish there had also been space allotted for the end to be drawn out more. I don’t mind how long it took us to reach the actual ghost—truth told, I’m glad there was a real spook rather than the haunting being only in the mind of our characters—but after that things felt they wrapped up so quickly.
We meet the actual ghost about two-thirds of the way through, and a lot happens in that remaining third, almost too much. I wish there had been a little more time to languish on some of those things like we got in the first two-thirds. With what comes at the end, it would have been nice to spend a little more time with the characters as the disaster unfolds. As it is, the end is brief, the fallout summarized in an epilogue, and we are left to ponder meaning by ourselves.
Don’t mistake me: this isn’t a bad book. I don’t even wish it were a novel—I think the novella format works great for this story, but novellas can be a little longer than this. It packs a lot of creepiness in not a lot of pages. It’s the kind of thing you read when the wind is blowing and the air bites and the memories of a worse past start wafting from the corners of your mind, trying to tempt you into resurrecting phantoms. It’s what you read when you want your dreams tainted by the smell of rot and the gritty feel of decay, and ghosts that are not your own. And for that, it does its job spectacularly.
Edit 11/10: Great news! Cassandra Khaw will be back with another one! Come on, 2023!