Cassandra Khaw’s horror novella Nothing but Blackened Teeth brings readers to Japan, where a wedding of questionable taste is about to unfold. Nadia, who is engaged to Faiz, has decided she wants to be married in a haunted house. The couple’s mega-rich friend Phillip secures a venue for them: a Heian-era mansion in a forest, built on the bones of a bride-to-be and other girls killed to appease her loneliness.
Khaw roots the novella in the perspective of Cat, who along with Phillip and the group’s resident pot-stirrer, Lin, is one of the wedding’s three guests. Cat has recently emerged from six months of self-imposed isolation to treat her depression, the exact details of which are left purposefully vague. Cat thinks this retreat has done her some good, but Khaw does not shy from portraying Cat’s ongoing experience with depression in the form of long, spiraling trains of thought. These mental soliloquies color the entire story with Cat’s internal angst. Her barely controlled depressive energy bleeds through every page, punctured by curt dialogue among the small fellowship of supposed friends. Supposed is the key adjective, as each member of the five-person crew has some sort of sordid history with another member—or two. Their friendships, especially as seen through Cat’s eyes, are flimsy at best. Despite flying across the world to participate in this marriage ceremony, the bonds between them disintegrate as the haunting begins.
Nothing but Blackened Teeth is a brooding horror story that incorporates Japanese mythology in colorful, excruciating detail, including spirits such as yōkai and bake-danuki in addition to the malicious, ghostly bride. Cat’s relative familiarity with Japanese culture (she is Chinese and grew up in Malaysia) means that she is quick to identify certain beings but doesn’t spend unrealistic amounts of time explaining significant details for the audience, a careful balance of clarity and obscurity that will appeal to Japanese horror aficionados and newcomers alike.
Khaw builds horror slowly and evenly. Rather than sporadically appearing to frighten and terrorize the young squad of not-quite-friends, the spirits of the house appear with steadily increasing frequency until they are simply present in every scene. By the novella’s climax, the tension has increased to such an unbearable degree that the final burst of violence is more expected than surprising.
Readers looking for bite-size horror on a stormy night will appreciate Khaw’s twisted tale of foolish young adults, all of whom are poorly prepared for the effects their decisions will have on their psyches (and lives).