I was having a conversation with the other QTL staff the other day about how hard it can be to sort out the proper cosmic horror from the remainder of the “weird fiction”, and how frustrating that can be for someone who likes cosmic horror so much more than weird fiction. We came to the conclusion that cosmic horror is likely so niche that it sells better when lumped in with weird fiction than it would by itself. I think there’s likely something to that. If that is the case, however, imagine how niche cosmic horror stories through the window dressing of old pulp noir detective novels must be. Very niche. Very fun, but definitely very niche. Would you put it in the detective section? It’s definitely a detective story. Would you put it in the thrillers section? It’s definitely thrilling. Would you put it in the weird fiction section? Fuck no, make a cosmic horror section and put it there for god’s sake. Regardless of how you’d like to categorize it, Cassandra Khaw’s Persons Non Grata series is a compelling, fun, and extremely fresh entry into the overarching body of work in the Cthulhu Mythos and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for any of the genres I just listed.
Persons Non Grata is made up of two short novels, Hammers on Bone and A Song for Quiet. Both books have runtimes of around a hundred pages, which is a good length for horror in my personal opinion. I find the shorter stories can end up feeling more gimmicky than truly unsettling, the equivalent of jump scares in movies. On the other hand, longer form horror never truly scares me due to it spreading itself so thin. This particular length really allows for a small and focused tale to stretch out and breathe without wearing out its welcome. I think these stories would be published best as one novel with a third part as a finale, but I just review horror books on a fantasy blog, what do I know?
Hammers On Bone follows John Persons, the series namesake, a hardboiled private investigator from another time. A very, very different time. You see, there’s something not quite right about Persons, maybe the fact that he’s really just a monster wearing human flesh himself. Not really a spoiler, as he mentions this frequent enough to start to get old towards the end of the story. Khaw’s dedication to the pulp detective story vibe comes through most in Persons’ inner monologues, his vocabulary is straight out of a Dick Tracy comic. Women are birds, men are toughs, you get the idea. If you find this particular type of storytelling annoying you probably won’t enjoy it any more than normal here, and I can see this being a major turnoff for people who are unable to fall in to the Spenser vibe. I personally am a fan, and the mix of pulp, noir, thriller, and chthonic entities tickles me in just the right way.
The motivation for the detecting in Hammers on Bone isn’t hugely important. A kid goes to Persons and hires him to kill his dad. It’s made to seem that he’s just a domestic abuser, but based on the fact that the detective is a primordial monster himself that’s probably not the case, right? Right. The horror in Hammers on Bone is absolutely fantastic. Khaw walks a fine line between the concise and punchy narration style of old detective novels while nodding at the overly descriptive and flowery language of the older school of cosmic horror and the combination allows the reader’s imagination to do the heavy lifting. Descriptions of a man transforming into a mass of eyes (Maybe? How reliable is our narrator?), a fight with an eldritch horror, and just the depersonalizing dreary grind of life in modern cities are all dripping with dread and create an absolutely oppressive atmosphere throughout. I thought that some of the descriptions of the actual action were a little confusing, but the novel isn’t about the action and I think that’s forgivable.
A Song for Quiet switches protagonist to Deacon James, a saxophone playing blues man from Georgia. Persons still features, but as a persistent secondary character that is shown to be just as monstrous as the things he fights. It’s great to see the protagonist from the first book through another person’s (heh) eyes, you’re shown that he’s not putting on quite as convincing a façade as he believes, and paints the first book in a very different light than if it were read alone. I thought A Song for Quiet was incredible. The horror is varied, it’s described sublimely, the length is perfect, and the characters are everything I want in a horror story. I was on edge from the second page of the book, and there were passages where I desperately wanted to put the book down but found myself unable to, wrapped up in the horrible spectacle of it all. I don’t want to spoil anything about this book, and it’s short enough to take a gamble on without reading the blurb on goodreads, just pick it up and see for yourself. A Song for Quiet is in my top 5 for horror stories, and I cannot recommend it enough.
Persons Non Grata is an absolutely fantastic series that more people should be checking out. Short and easy to read, unique and flavorful, brilliantly written, and absolutely dripping with that heavy sense of wrong that fans of cosmic horror will instantly recognize, this series has jumped into my must reads and I cannot wait to see what Cassandra Khaw does with this series next.
Hammers on Bone: 8.5/10
A Song for Quiet: 9.5/10