Hi, friends! Thanks for joining me today; I’m so glad you’re here 💙. Today I’m sharing my review of Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark. Ring Shout features a masterful blend of historical fiction and real-life horror, as well as important themes that are as relevant in the story’s 1922 setting as they are today. With all that, it’s easy to see why this book won Best Novella at the 2021 Nebula Awards.
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
Rated 4.0 out of 5 stars
Read on January 27, 2022
Originally published in 2020
I read Ring Shout for Prompt #24 of my 2022 Reading Challenge: A book you can read in one sitting. Check out the complete list of prompts (and my selections!) ･ﾟ✧here✧ﾟ･.
It was freed people that helped end that first Klan — Robert Smalls and his band. The Klans died out, but the evil they loosed lived on — whipping and killing colored people for voting, driving them from government, whole massacres that established this Jim Crow what still choking us now. Hard to tell who won the war and who lost.
or, Killing Ku Kluxes in the End Times
In 1915, The Birth of a Nation reinvigorated what was, at the time, a dying white supremacy movement. William Joseph Simmons, a preacher, fraternal society organizer, and “regular old witch,” was inspired by the film to coordinate a gathering at Stone Mountain, about thirty miles east of Atlanta. Here, Simmons and his faction of newly-empowered Klansmen conducted a ritual that ushered in the Second Age of the Ku Klux Klan.
Fast-forward to 1922, a re-release of D.W. Griffith’s celebrated film is planned at Stone Mountain. Taking place just one year after the Tulsa Race Massacre, this event threatens to unleash an epidemic of hate on Georgia — and possibly the entire South. Our trio of heroines is determined not to sit idly by while these horrors consume everyone around them. Sword-slinging Maryse, sharpshooter Sadie, and explosives extraordinaire Chef are out to stop these terrible plans from coming to fruition.
Despite their years of demon-slaying experience, Maryse, Sadie, and Chef are not prepared for the nastiest Ku Klux they’ve ever faced: Butcher Clyde. Worse yet, Butcher Clyde plans to unleash an evil bigger and badder than even himself: the Grand Cyclops. Before the Grand Cyclops arrives, Butcher Clyde has an offer for Maryse — and it’s surprisingly enticing. Will Maryse be strong enough to refuse Butcher Clyde’s proposition? More to the point: will her choice even matter if the Grand Cyclops gets her way before Maryse makes up her mind?
Those horrible mouths turn up into wicked grins. “Grand Cyclops is coming,” they croon. “When she do, your world is over.”
Ring Shout: A Masterclass in Blending Historical Fiction and Real-Life Horror
Despite its brief 200 pages, there’s a lot to love about Ring Shout. Not only is the mythology of this world surprisingly detailed, but the actual horror elements are pretty good too. It’s mostly body horror and creepy monsters, but that was more than plenty for this horror novice!
P. Djèlí Clark also avoids a common pitfall with these types of wish-fulfillment alternate histories. He neither takes away from nor provides excuses for the horrors committed by the real-life monsters that inspired his fictional creatures.
Let’s open up our Bag of Holding and unpack that!
Ku Kluxes vs. The Klan — What’s the Difference?
When I decided to read Ring Shout this year, I didn’t have a lot of expectations going in. I’ve never read Clark’s work; I don’t read much horror at all, honestly. I also thought the premise of “the KKK are actually monsters, and these badass black ladies are gonna kill ’em” could get real gimmicky real fast.
Fortunately, my concerns were unfounded. I was pleasantly surprised at the detail and clarity of Clark’s mythology. While not always seamless, his integration of the origins of the Ku Kluxes, their goals, and their role in the rebirth of the Klan never bogged down the narrative with extraneous detail.
The thing standing in his place now can’t rightly be called a man. It’s easily nine feet tall, with legs that bend back like the hindquarters of a beast, joined to a long torso twice as wide as most men… It’s the head that stands out — long and curved to the end in a sharp bony point.
This is a Ku Klux… 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. Should be six in all: beads of red on black in rows of threes on either side of that curving head… And what passes for lips on a long muzzle peel back, revealing a nest of teeth like spiky icicles.
While I may have been left wanting a bit more, it’s not necessarily for lack of storytelling on Clark’s part. We get glimpses of other worlds and dimensions here, though they aren’t the focus of this story. I can easily envision Ring Shout as a full-length novel around 350 pages where those side worlds are more deeply explored.
or, My New Sleep Paralysis Demon
Ring Shout begins with a group of Ku Kluxes eating the explosives-rigged corpse of a dog. While that does set the tone of the novella quite well, rest assured there is no animal cruelty in this book. Most of the violence happens to Ku Kluxes, which is, in itself, quite satisfying.
That said, when it comes to describing the Ku Kluxes, Clark leaves no detail unexplored. Normal Ku Kluxes are nine-foot-tall, six-eyed, claw-fingered demons with teeth designed to shred their victim’s flesh. But Normal Ku Kluxes ain’t got nothing on Butcher Clyde and his wriggling, writhing, mouth-covered skin.
[Butcher Clyde] rolls his neck, and as I watch, sores break out across his skin… Not sores. Little mouths… Even his eyes roll back, leaving red gums and jagged teeth behind his spectacles. Every tongue flicks the air hungrily, and right then, I see him. Really see him. Now I understand why he keeps saying we and us. This ain’t one thing — it’s dozens! I can see the places where they join together, stitched up in this human suit. They move about under his skin, like maggots in a corpse… I grip my sword, imagining jumping up to slice that thick neck off his shoulders — and a hundred slithering things spilling out.
Something about a creature with a patchwork body made of other human bodies, covered in thousands of mouths — ergo, thousands of teeth — is just so hecking disturbing. I know this is my first time reading Clark’s work, but I can confidently say P. Djèlí Clark is a master of imagery. He does an incredible job of painting a picture in your mind with words — whether you want that picture or not.
The Truest Horror of Them All
One of the best aspects of Ring Shout is how Clark cleverly avoids giving the real-life monsters that inspired his fictional antagonists an excuse for their actions. He does not use these monstrosities as a paranormal justification for the genuine harm done by the Klan. Instead, Clark adds to his world-building by having them feed on the hate that’s already inside their victims.
The Ku Kluxes themselves are essentially Neutral Evil. They feed on whatever group of people have the most hatred to offer. In exchange, they let those hate-filled people enact their wildest fantasies upon those they despise the most.
“Once infected, morphological transformation seems dependent on the individual.” That’s science talk for how Klan folk turn Ku Klux. Molly says it’s like an infection, or a parasite. And it feeds on hate. She says chemicals in the body change up when you hate strong. When the infection meets hate, it starts growing until it’s powerful enough to turn the person Ku Klux. [If you] ask me, it’s plain evil them Klans let in, eating them up until they hollow inside.
Butcher Clyde offers Maryse the same proposition he gave to the Klan, which the Klan accepted. They were not merely possessed without consent. They allowed themselves to be consumed — literally and figuratively — by their hate.
Clark skillfully avoids falling into the trap of shifting responsibility from the actual Klan onto some supernatural beings. In doing so, he also bolsters his own theme about the power art and media have in shaping the way we see the world.
Important Themes Discussed in Ring Shout
Hey, speaking of themes, let’s talk about those for a minute, shall we? In addition to the brilliant content within Ring Shout, Clark’s novella also gives us a lot to reflect on during and long after our read has finished.
In delineating a difference between the Ku Kluxes and the Klan, he reminds us that complicity can be as deadly as active participation. By making The Birth of a Nation the genesis for the horrors in Ring Shout, Clark underscores the power of art. He also incorporates Negro spiritualism into the novella to highlight how intergenerational trauma informs much of the anti-racist movement today.
The most explicit theme present in Ring Shout is the meditation on the difference between hate and justice. Although he assures us that hatred of white supremacy is just and righteous, he warns us against stooping to the levels of our enemies.
I hope you didn’t put your Bag of Holding away because we’ve got a few more things to unpack!
Silence is Complicity
One of the themes explored in Ring Shout goes hand-in-hand with understanding the difference between Klans and Ku Kluxes.
The Klans are, to put it mildly, your regular, garden-variety racists. They watched Birth of a Nation and felt #seen. They participate in racist behavior simply because doing so benefits them.
The Ku Kluxes, on the other hand, are actual demons. They feed on the hate within the Klansmen and persuade them to do the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things they’ve always wanted to do. The Grand Cyclops — the biggest baddest Ku Klux of all — is a literal amalgamation of multiple Ku Kluxes morphed together.
We didn’t put [that hate] there, it was always growing inside. Just gave it a nudge to help it blossom. A few reels of celluloid and they come to us whole and willing. But sustaining as that hate is, it’s not very potent…
The hate they give is senseless. They already got power. Yet they hate those over who they got control, who don’t really pose a threat to them. Their fears aren’t real — just insecurities and inadequacies… Makes their hate like… watered-down whiskey.
This dividing line underscores Clark’s theme of the dangers of complicity. With it, he evokes the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
Even if you’re a “low-ranking” Klansman or just someone who chooses to cavort with racists, you are (sometimes literally, in the case of the story) contributing to greater evils. If you are not actively anti-racist, you are passively upholding the systems of white supremacy.
Art Has Power
I’m willing to bet that the kind of person reading this review doesn’t need to be reminded that art has an incredible influence. I’m also willing to bet that the type of person reading this review also knows that media has reinforced prejudices that result in real-life violence.
The consequences our characters face due to these prejudices might be different from those we encounter in real life, but the source of those consequences are no less real because of it.
You see, the Second Klan was birthed on November 25 back in 1915. What we call D-Day, or Devil’s Night — when William Joseph Simmons, a regular old witch, and fifteen others met up on Stone Mountain east of Atlanta. Stories say they read from a conjuring book inked in blood on human skin. Can’t vouch for that. But it was them that called up the monsters we call Ku Kluxes. And it all started with this damned movie…
The Birth of a Nation had delivered all the souls they needed to stir up them old evil powers. 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.
As an academic historian, Clark knows the real-life harm media like The Birth of a Nation directly caused. Yet, people in this world still claim dangerous media shouldn’t be taken seriously because “it’s just a book/movie” or that causing harm wasn’t the creator’s intention.
By canonically referring to D.W. Griffith’s film as a spell that “works to induce hate on a mass scale,” Clark makes it clear he has no time for such excuses.
I Am All of My Ancestors in One Body
Ring shouts are essential to this story, not just because they inspired the name of this novella. A ring shout is an actual ritual, described in the book as “about surviving slavery times, praying for freedom, and calling on God to end that wickedness.”
Ring shouts are also significant because they tie into the theme of intergenerational trauma and the centuries of violence that have been wreaked upon black bodies.
I hunt monsters. And I got a sword that sings.
It comes to me at a thought and a half-whispered prayer, pulled from nothingness into my waiting grip… Visions dance in my head as they always do when the sword comes: a man pounding out silver with raw, cut-up feet in a mine in Peru; a woman screaming and pushing out birth blood in the bowels of a slave ship…
And then there’s the girl. Always her. Sitting in a dark place, shaking all over, wide eyes staring up at me with fright. That fear is powerful, strong — like a black lake threatening to anoint me in a terrible baptism.
When Maryse draws her sword, she hears the voices and sees apparitions of enslaved people from various points across space and time; this is a common motif in diasporic fiction. Specifically, I am reminded of a quote from Son of the Storm. “Our ancestors still had mouths, and many of them knew well to pass down the right stories. I am not just me, you see. I am all of my ancestors in one body.”
Here, it is a literal power, driving Maryse to seek justice and retribution for the generations of mistreatment her ancestors and spiritual brethren endured. This, of course, alludes to the many ways past oppression informs our approach to ending present injustices.
Darkness Cannot Drive Out Darkness; Hate Cannot Drive Out Hate
Yes, that is another MLK quote; thank you for noticing.
We already discussed how Clark avoids using his mythical monstrosities as an excuse for real-life racists. He also avoids detracting from the justified outrage Maryse and her allies feel for centuries of oppression.
The turning point of the novella comes when Butcher Clyde makes Maryse an offer she’s reluctant to refuse. Maryse has the chance to protect herself and her people, the power to instill fear in the hearts of her enemies. Enticing, right?
As Chef says, “Devil wouldn’t be the Devil if he didn’t know how to tempt.”
They like the places where we hurt. They use it against us… Not just me, all of us, colored folk everywhere, who carry our wounds with us, sometimes open for all to see, but always so much more buried and hidden deep. I remember the songs that come with all those visions. Songs full of hurt, songs of sadness and tears, songs pulsing with pain. A righteous anger and cry for justice.
But not hate.
They ain’t the same thing. Never was. These monsters want to pervert that… Because that’s what they do. Twist you all up so that you forget yourself… Only I can’t forget, because all those memories always with me, showing me the way.
In having Maryse ponder Butcher Clyde’s offer, Clark allows those centuries of pain to be seen, felt, and heard.
Still, he recalls the wisdom of Maryse’s long-lost kin: They like the places where we hurt. They use it against us. Though this hatred may be righteous, it is not productive. Clark reminds us to keep up the fight. But he also cautions us against sinking to the level of our foes. We must never forget who we are.
Is Ring Shout a Perfect Book?
The short answer to that question is no. The long answer is… almost. My criticisms are minor, and they pale in comparison to all the redeeming qualities I’ve just addressed. Nevertheless, I will briefly discuss them.
The pacing was a bit uneven, with things getting weird as soon as the story begins. We have no idea what regular, everyday demon-slaying looks like before the world starts ending. Similarly, Clark does that thing where, during an action scene, a character has a page-long internal monologue that feels like it should take several minutes to think. Yet, somehow, it’s supposed to happen in the 1.3 seconds between the villain’s last line and our protagonist’s witty comeback.
I also wish that the side characters (namely Sadie and Chef) were as fleshed-out as Maryse. Any non-Maryse characters suffered from NPC syndrome. Also, I didn’t realize Molly and Emma were two different characters for like… way too long. That said, Maryse’s arc was so beautiful and whole that it almost makes up for everyone else’s two-dimensionality.
This is my pain. My scar to carry. Ain’t theirs to feast on, to suck dry like marrow from a bone. I’ve had enough of monsters, devouring bits of me, trying to eat me up altogether.
What’s Next from P. Djèlí Clark?
Wow, we made it, folks; we’ve arrived at the end of the review. If you made it this far, thanks so much for sticking around. I appreciate you reading my post — even if it’s almost as long as the novella itself.
If you have (or do) read Ring Shout, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this — or anything else you’ve read by P. Djèlí Clark — in the comments below. This was an incredible first impression, and I can’t wait to pick up his full-length novel: A Master of Djinn. Steampunk Historical Fantasy set in Egypt?! Sign me the heck up!
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for today! I’ll be back soon with another book review, so keep your eyes peeled for that! Since you made it this far, here’s a hint for what’s next. Maybe baby-boomer second-wave feminists should have their Radical™️ licenses revoked before they can qualify for pensioners’ benefits.
As always: thanks for reading, and I’ll see you soon. 💙
Every choice we make is a new tomorrow. Whole worlds waiting to be born.
You can also read my reviews on Goodreads. Check this one out ･ﾟ✧here✧ﾟ･.