By Alex Wallace
Racism is oftentimes a terrifying thing to those who have to bear the brunt of it. In the Jim Crow South, specifically Macon, Georgia in the 1920s, it was existentially terrifying. It was a time of lynchings and ethnic cleansings of African-American communities throughout the United States, where mere hearsay could lead to murder. It is that time of terror for Black Americans that P. Djèlí Clark has altered, by turning the Ku Klux Klan, the white-hooded emblem of racial terror in the time of Jim Crow, into the harbingers of literal demonic influence.
I’ve gone to bat for Clark before (my editor has referred to my “one man Djèlí Clark cheerleading session”) , and I believe that his work deserves a much larger readership among the online alternate history community. Partially it’s because he’s an African-American writer who confronts issues of identity and doesn’t simply consign minorities to colonialism and genocide like many current writers do. Partly it’s because I simply think he’s a great writer with a magisterial ability to bring other worlds to life.
That’s what he does in Ring Shout, and it gives me no reason to doubt his abilities. The story follows a collection of Black guerrilla fighters whose cause is fighting the Ku Klux Klan, which at this time is in its second incarnation (which, as a side note, was from a marketing gimmick more than anything else; for a good overview of the Klan during this period, see The Second Coming of the KKK by Linda Gordon). They are freedom fighters in the purest sense of the term, on a struggle for their own survival. They are aided by the magic of their people; the title ‘ring shout’ comes from a religious ritual practiced by slaves in the American South, which has endured in Black Christianity. How this actually manifests is spectacular, but I will not reveal it lest I ruin the reading experience.
On a more philosophical level, this book is very much a reckoning with racism of the interwar period. One of the recurring beats in the novella is The Birth of the Nation, the W. B. Griffith film that glamorized the First Klan (active during Reconstruction) and brought the organization to nationwide prominence; even Woodrow Wilson spoke positively of the film. Clark displays American racism that is centuries old and yet something very modern in its embrace of cutting-edge technology.
For the horror fan, there is plenty; there is arcane magic and truly monstrous supernatural horrors. Clark brings these things to life with a writing style that I find has very good imagery. As someone whose enjoyment of literature often hinges on the writer’s ability to visualize a scene, the images that Clark has conjured will last with me for years; that’s what often determines whether a book is memorable for me. Again, I don’t want to give too many details of what these are, but I will say that the impressive cover art is not a metaphor.
One little bit that I appreciated quite a bit, as an aficionado of blues music, blues dance, and blues culture more generally (albeit as one who can sometimes pass as white), I was very happy to see the presence of a juke joint, one of those hotbeds of African-American culture during the period, in the novella. The blues in all its manifestations came out of the juke joints; Clark portrays his characters listening to blues music and dancing a dance that is clearly one of the dances that was the source to modern blues dance. It was only one part of the novella, but I was very happy to see it.