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Ring Shout Book Review: The Circle Will Be Broken

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BY October 13, 2020
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The idea of a character who feeds on emotion is so common that it’s become a trope. Most of the time, this kind of character is like Pennywise, a creature who feeds on fear. In our reading and review of the new book Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark, though, we meet another variation. We meet characters who feed on hate and misery and pain.

Background on Ring Shout‘s Setting

First of all, the title refers to a kind of a song, often spiritual in nature, that has its roots in American slavery. There are differences, but most of them, if not all, have a call-and-response, as well as a rhythmic component–a dance that the shouters do. (And despite the name, they don’t really shout so much as sing.)

Slavery is a little over a half-century in the past when the book begins (in 1922). The main character Maryse Boudreaux was born free, but not unburdened. She is, after all, a Black woman in the American South.

In 1865, a group of Confederate ding-dongs formed a social club they called the Ku Klux Klan, from the Greek word for circle, “kuklos.” (I am a descendant of Southern Unionists, so when I drag the Confederacy, it’s heritage, not hate, bro. But it’s also hate.) It didn’t even last a decade before the circle was broken.

ring shout review The Birth of a Nation, image via David W. Griffith Corporation and Epoch Producing Corporation

However, in 1915, director D.W. Griffith released the film The Birth of a Nation, which depicted the original Klan as glorious heroes. It was a landmark in film history for a number of reasons. This includes the fact that it was the first American movie they played at the White House. It’s also noteworthy for other reasons, including that it, along with Prohibition, jumpstarted the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. As we meet Maryse, the Klan is an organization with a national reach.

But the Klan members Maryse and her friends see aren’t just garden-variety monsters of men. Some of them are literal monsters, eldritch shape-shifters. Only some people, like Maryse and her friends Sadie and Chef, can see them for what they really are. In addition, the D.W. Griffith of the book is a wizard, whose movie has the power to enchant. The Klan is planning a screening of the film at Georgia’s Stone Mountain, the birthplace of the modern Klan. It’s clear from the beginning of the book, though, that it won’t be an ordinary show. Something terrible is coming.

Ring Shout Book Review

In the vein of Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, which I also read this year and loved, Clark’s book expertly melds Lovecraftian horror with the everyday horror of history. As the book begins, it’s only about a year out from the Tulsa Massacre, which you may have seen depicted on Watchmen. If you didn’t, then the briefest explanation is that a group flattened Tulsa’s prosperous Black community basically because they could.

I could be fanciful and call them a group of monsters or something like that. But they weren’t monsters, not in the literal sense. They were men, and one of the themes of Clark’s book is how easy it is to slip the barrier from man to monster. Or woman to monster. As in many fantasy stories, there come opportunities for our hero, Maryse, to give into temptation. She could succumb to fear, for example. Or she could let herself be subsumed by rage. Once we learn her history, after all, could we fault her?

And in sharing her history, Clark takes us on a tense as hell journey that includes violence and body horror. However, it’s not just horror. Even in the rough times, there were pockets of joy. We get to share those with Maryse and the other characters, whom Clark vividly renders. We get to know Sadie, an Alabama sharpshooter, and Chef, a woman who fought with the Harlem Hellfighters in WWI, the best, but all of the characters feel real. Even the ones who aren’t actually natural in the book.

Those moments of joy remind them and us why they’re fighting so hard. It’s not just revenge; it’s release. And it’s still so relevant today. There are still groups of people out there, lonely and isolated, looking for release and community, and thinking they find it in circles of hate. But there are also other people out there who can form their own circles. We can drown out that hate. We can raise our voices to a shout. And we can fight the monsters, too.

Ring Shout is now available.

featured image via Tordotcom

BooksBooksP. Djèlí ClarkRing Shout

Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.

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