Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

Five friends arrive at a decaying Heian era mansion in Japan. Two of them have invited the rest to celebrate their wedding and to spend the night telling ghost stories.

Okay, I’ll play along. I think I’ve heard this story before, but it sounds like a good time.

And it was.

Though it took me a while to warm up to it, Nothing but Blackened Teeth delivers to goods. Creepy, suspenseful, scary, a little gross. Maybe this is just what you want in a horror genre novel.

And it’s quick enough to read in a single sitting. Nice.

However, while I did have a good time Nothing but Blackened Teeth, my issues with the book never really went away.

First, I had several problems with the basic set up. Four twenty-somethings of modest means have a very rich friend, who can give them all a trip to Japan and a weekend in an old Heian mansion. That’s a lot of privilege for a reader who just retired from 30 plus years of teaching middle school. But, whatever, rich twenty somethings have problems, too. I admit, it’s not easy for me to read about them, I basically hate read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Hana Yanagihira’s A Little Life because of their privileged characters and the “problems” they all faced, but I’ll play along. (I confess, I only read The Secret History in the hopes that the characters would die and when one of them did, I vocalized my happiness to the empty room.)

While I don’t expect a history disertation in a novel, I do believe the author has some responsibility to get the basic details right. I’m far from an expert of Heian era Japan, but I did spend two decades teaching a four day unit on it to 7th graders, so I have some knowledge. If you’re an author writing a book that deals with the period, even with a mansion from the period, you should know as much as I do. You should know that it was 1000 years ago, so the possibility of a mansion surviving all that time in Japan is very slim. Heian mansions were made from wood, with paper walls on the inside. Fire was a common occurrence. They were built in the area around modern-day Kyoto, which is heavily populated, always has been. So, the chances that there could still be one in a very isolated setting is next to nil. According to Google, the only structure from the Heian period still standing is a government bulding that was reconstructed after sever damage. Heian mansions tended to be a series of single story buildings around a central courtyard, so the isolated two-story structure, with multiple permanent rooms and a stone underground chamber that has survived more or less intact for 1000 years where Nothing but Blackened Teeth takes place is just not possible.

I’ve been reading horror genre novels for one of my local library’s book clubs. They’ve not really been a focus for my reading up till now. One thing I’ve found is that the better ones tend to spend a good amount of time establishing reality before things take a turn for the strange. It’s important for the situation to be fully realized, fully detailed enough to make it possible for the reader to suspend disbelief when the time comes. At one club meeting I pointed out that the movie version of The Exorcist goes on for about 45 minutes before something happens that is so extreme you have to believe it was supernatural. Up until then the story is about a woman who deeply loves her very troubled daughter.

There were too many things in Nothing but Blackened Teeth that I had trouble buying in to. One last one. Would any woman going on a weekend vacation with her fiancé and their close friends allow the man’s ex-girlfriend who tried to break them up to come along just for old times’ sake? What if she genuinely still held a grudge against this woman, as she probably should?

One more final thing. To make it possible for the titular ghost to appear, the bride-to-be lights 100 candles and then has them all take turns telling ghost stories, blowing out one candle when they are done. This will make a doorway to the spirit world. There are five of them at this little party so that’s twenty stories each. Do you know 20 ghost stories that none of your close friends also know? Does anyone? Could you sit there and listen to 80 ghost stories? I would fall asleep after three, but maybe I could have listened to thirty or forty when I was in my twenties. (See what I did there?)

So, in the end, while I had a good time more or less, there were too many problems with Nothing but Blackened Teeth for my taste. 😉

One thought on “Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

  1. I agree with your points regarding the historical correctness of fire/stonework. I also scoff along with you at the likelihood of the ex-girlfriend toting along.

    But I am unsettled a wee bit about your strong animosity towards what you call “privilege.”

    However, I am glad I read your review – a lot of other reviews seemed to not notice the points you brought forward and I appreciate your honesty.

Comments are closed.