At The Broken Plate, the strife that accompanies being human is something we value greatly. Often, themes of fragility and the presence of various inner demons appear in ghost stories. There is strife from things like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House to shows like The Haunting of Bly Manor, where there is the supernatural. Cassandra Khaw’s 2021 novella Nothing But Blackened Teeth is no exception to this. This was one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and it certainly did not disappoint.
I should briefly warn that this book discusses suicide, moderately heavy drinking, and a host of gory, supernatural things. Similarly, I’ll try to keep blatant and/or detailed spoilers to a minimum, as it’s more fun to experience the reveals and twists first-hand when reading. The novella is set in an abandoned Heian-era mansion haunted by the legend of a young bride whose husband ditched her at an altar, causing her to ask her bridal party to bury her alive under the house. Every year since that event, the legend claims that the house demands one young woman be buried alive in the same fashion to satiate its hunger. The narrative begins moments before a group of friends (or people who used to be friends) arrive at the manor for a “surprise elopement” of the narrator’s best friend and his fiancée.
From the first pages, it’s evident that the group of twenty-somethings that the reader will be following have their fair share of baggage, notably the narrator, Cat. Even before the drinks begin to flow, it’s made clear that something happened in her past that led her close to suicide and that some of her behavior when the entire group arrives is worrying. Throughout the story, a whisper “Suenomatsuyama nami mo koenamu” emanates from the house itself, which references an ancient love poem. However, it seems as though only Cat hears the whisper; even then, she only hears it once. This, coupled with the second half of the narrative introducing several yokai and other supernatural beings that only Cat (and sometimes not even her) can see with the exception of a few moments, it’s a natural interpretation that the house itself is emblematic of a mind wracked by hardship or other forms of literal inner demons.
This is a metaphor I think a lot of people can relate to. As I previously mentioned, a haunted house and a distressed mind often are synonymous in ghost stories. With how closely the reader sees Cat’s anger and resistance to trust, it feels as though the setting is inevitable for her character and vice-versa. Both are weary, distraught buildings full of ghosts and demons. There’s a moment near the end where a procession of spirits follows the group, loitering near them and greeting each other in a way that mocks the protagonists and their plight. All the while, the group feels as though they’re trapped in the bowels of the mansion. Much like someone stuck within their own mind with their inner demons, the supernatural beings mock them and toy with their emotions, just out of view from everyone (except for Cat, on occasion).
To be trapped, with your mind sending wave after wave of gleeful demons to mock your bloodied willpower, is a gruesome but potent parallel to Cat’s plight. She’s not well when we see her at the beginning of the book, and through all of the hardships faced in the house, her internal demons become as vivid as the yokai before her eyes. Much like The Haunting of Hill House, which is a comparison I’ve both drawn from the book itself and a blurb quote on the back cover, and many other stories that follow this framework, Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a close look at both external and internal hauntings, as experienced by a group of twenty-something-year-olds with individual and collective strife.