P. Djeli Clark continues to amaze me with his writing. In this short novel, he leaves behind the “steampunk” and adds plenty of horror to a story set in 1922 Macon, Georgia. As with his previously reviewed works, Clark creates a world where magic is real and plenty of strong women of color stand ready to wield it. Ring Shout or Hunting Ku Kluxes in the End Times focuses, unsurprisingly, on American racism and white supremacy. I think we all accept that Klansmen are monsters, but in this world, there is a difference between Klans, who are violently racist whites, and Ku Kluxes, who are genuine monsters in human guise. This is a tale of hatred, power, and the apocalyptic link between them.
Maryse Boudreaux is 25 years old and wields a magical sword that materializes like smoke when she needs it. Infused with the suffering and voices of slaves and other ancestors, the sword sings to Maryse and energizes her into action versus evil. And there is plenty of evil in 1922 Macon. Clark starts the narrative with Maryse and her two compatriots, Sadie and Chef (aka Cordy) on a stakeout. Sadie, a teenager, is a sharpshooter and Chef is a veteran of WWI with special expertise in explosives. None of these women’s weapons are ordinary. Sadie’s bullets and the shrapnel in Chef’s bombs are meant to kill monsters. The Ku Kluxes, to those without the “sight,” appear as white men. To people like Maryse though, they look like terrifying wolves/demons. Drawn to water and dog meat, they’ve come to the trap the three women have set in an alley on Independence Day.
From here, Clark quickly takes the reader into a world where a band of women working across state lines tracks the movements of Ku Kluxes and coordinates activity to thwart them. It is becoming clear that these monsters are growing in number and power and that some greater, more ominous force is on the horizon. Maryse and her friends work with Nana Jean, a Gullah woman who has a powerful supernatural/spiritual strength and can sense this growing evil as well as marshal forces against it. Nana Jean called to Maryse, Sadie, Chef and others from across the country to come to her and work together. Her farm includes indigenous women like the scientist Molly who conducts forensic exams on the Ku Klux corpses; the German Jewish socialist Emma; and older folk who gather for “ring shouts,” which involve singing songs passed down from the ancestors. They are like a history lesson and a spiritual invocation.
The plot revolves around this idea that hate, as embodied by Klans and Ku Kluxes, is evolving into something so big, it could destroy the world. Maryse finds herself at the center of this development not just because she is a powerful and skilled Ku Klux hunter, but also because the forces of evil have turned their eyes on her (literally; it’s so creepy!). Maryse’s sword is important, but so is the manner in which she acquired it. Moreover, Maryse has three otherworldly “godmothers” (who remind me a bit of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which from A Wrinkle in Time) who try to prepare her for what is to come but cannot remove the biggest obstacle Maryse faces. She will, of course, have to figure all of this out for herself.
This story is impressive and provocative on so many levels. The horror aspect of it is something that I was not expecting and found to be both appropriate and, well, horrifying. If this story ever gets the Netflix treatment, I don’t know if I would be able to watch it! What makes it really impressive though is that the horrors described in the text, which might seem fantastical because they’re linked to monsters and magic, are so rooted in the Black American experience — horrors visited upon the Black body in the form of lynchings and medical experiments, for example. The idea of hate as a sort of virus that can mutate and rapidly spread through super-spreader events is also brilliantly demonstrated throughout the story and is incredibly on point during this time of COVID and rising white supremacy. Clark addresses things like “white allies” and non-violence in this novel but I can’t get into it here without spoiling the story, which I do not want to do.
If you are in a reading group that is looking for a novel that touches on matters of racism and history written by a Black author, then Ring Shout would be an excellent choice. I would love to see it become part of a Cannonball group read this year. Also, I would like to give a shoutout to Tor.com, publisher extraordinaire of cutting edge science fiction and fantasy by writers whose voices have been ignored. Tor has published Neon Yang’s novels, as well as works by Nnedi Okorafor and Rivers Solomon. It’s good stuff and much of it is in the form of novellas or short novels, which might be appealing to those who are new to the genre or who feel like they don’t have a lot of time to read for enjoyment.