P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout taps into fantasy and horror to tell a story of racism in America. It reads like an ominous tale told around the campfire, a short story to warn listeners against festering hatred that thrives on those who are quick to use it. I am usually a glutton for content, but the length of Ring Shout is just right. The novella wasn’t weighed down by complicated storytelling or extravagant worldbuilding, which ultimately would have diluted the powerful messaging that P. Djèlí Clark constructed. The story in its small packaging is powerful, imaginative, and cuts to the quick.
Hatred is infecting the nation. Ku Klux Klan members hold parades and make their presence known in the early 1920s South; however, not all of the members are human. Terrifying monsters called Ku Kluxes are hiding in plain sight. These bone-white creatures with curved heads and needle-sharp teeth are lurking just beneath the surface. And Maryse Boudreaux, blessed with the sight, hunts them with a magical sword. Under the guidance of mystical aunties and a Gullah woman with powerful magic, Maryse sets out to eradicate the creatures breeding hate and inciting violence against her people.
This is a story about hatred. Ku Kluxes are summoned by it, they thrive off it, and they’ve given power to hateful people looking for any excuse to use it. This is also a story about love. The people fighting these monsters are trying to protect it, share it, and keep it alive in this dark world. P. Djèlí Clark displays both emotions within Maryse as she tries to protect people while using violence to eliminate terrible creatures. There is a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. that immediately came to mind while I read: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Ring Shout explores this sentiment through characters that either chose to follow or ignore this sage advice.
Because this story was primarily plot-driven, I didn’t get to know the characters all that well, yet I still enjoyed them. The protagonist, Maryse, was fleshed out the most. She seems timid at first – constantly mothering her friends and admonishing them for speaking abrasively. But when it comes to hunting Ku Kluxes she doesn’t back down from a fight. I loved her determination throughout the entire story. Maryse was still mysterious, but there was a beauty in knowing so little about her because I never knew what she was going to do next. Her friends, Cordelia (Chef) and Sadie, are limited characters but great sidekicks. Only quick insights are shared about their personality and past. However, I am amazed at how much Clark conveyed about them without a lot of dedicated space. I appreciate the roles they filled to support Maryse on her own personal journey.
There are interdimensional aunties, terrible monsters, Gullah magic, and more. But I don’t know much about it other than it exists. I caught small glimpses of Gullah customs and ring shout rituals, but not enough to explore beneath the surface. I say all this, yet, the lack of worldbuilding did nothing to dampen my reading experience. Ring Shout fulfills its purpose, not as a tentpole fantasy, but as a powerful lesson in love and hatred as it reflects racism in our society. It’s about Maryse and her experience as a Black woman, and the racial prejudice that shapes her world. It just so happens to be a world with a little extra magic, and the racism she fights against manifests into actual monsters. Deep dives into the fantastical would have only been a distraction.
The elements that Ring Shout lacks are more than made up for with its powerful themes. P. Djèlí Clark conveyed racism in very real and imaginative ways. It’s a quick read that will forever leave a lasting impression. Good company and the warm glow of a fire can do nothing to assuage your fears because when this story ends you know the monsters are real.
Rating: Ring Shout – 8.0/10