Ring Shout is the kind of book I jokingly call “a Tardis-like story”, one that is much bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside: it’s a well-crafted mix of historical fiction and horror that kept me compulsively turning the pages, and what’s more prompted me to search for its many references to facts or details I knew nothing about, so that I ended up with a little more knowledge than I possessed before I started reading, which is always a definite plus for me.
The story is set in Georgia, in 1922: never-vanquished racism is experiencing a resurgence thanks to the 1915 first showing of D.W. Griffith’s movie The Birth of a Nation, which offered a sort of heroic aura to members of the Ku Klux Klan, whose heinous actions are here made worse by the appearance of monstrous, extra-dimensional creatures called Klu Kluxes – essentially supernatural beasts able to wear human form. Griffith himself is portrayed as an evil sorcerer using his movie to propagate hateful, racist ideas to a wider public: while the very real writings of white suprematist Thomas Dixon reached a wide public, it was not considered wide enough, so that it was understood that a more capillary means of propagation was needed, hence the movie:
[…] books could only reach so many. That’s when D.W. Griffith took ahold of it. […] Dixon and Griffith had made a conjuring that reached more people than any book would.
Against this encroaching tide of evil, three very badass young women battle daily to keep the beasts as contained as possible: Maryse is a sort of “chosen one” heroine, able to summon a magical sword animated by the spirits of those who sold their people into slavery; Sadie is an exceptional, fearless sniper, wielding her Winchester rifle, affectionately called Winnie, with gleeful skill; and Cordelia (nicknamed Chef for her ability to cook devastating explosives) is a veteran of WWI dealing with post-war trauma. As the three engage the Ku Kluxes through guerrilla sorties – selling bootleg liquor in their free time – a new menace appears on the horizon through the ominous figure of Butcher Clyde, who rallies both Klansmen and Ku Kluxes for what might be a devastating engagement that threatens to unleash a new, pervasive form of destruction, touching both body and spirit.
As I said, I learned many new interesting facts by following the historical leads contained in this novella: even though I was aware of the existence of Griffith’s movie, I ignored both the story it portrayed and its not-so-subtle racism, just as I heard for the first time the term Ring Shout, which depicts a traditional dance brought from Africa by its enslaved people and offering strength from mixing Christian themes with reverence for one’s ancestors and the wisdom their example can offer. And another first is represented by the mention of Night Doctors, mythical figures used as a scaremongering technique by slave owners to prevent their laborers from running away.
These fascinating real-world details mix quite seamlessly with the breathless pace of the story and its horrific elements, whose Lovecraftian quality seemed to me a sort of tongue-in-cheek poke at racism, given that Lovecraft was well-known for his views on the subject, so that the presence of Cthulhu-like monsters wearing the guise of human beings can speak volumes on the effect that mindless hate and prejudice can have on people. Not to mention the further message that evil need not necessarily wear the face of a slavering monster from Hell, because it can be strengthened just as easily by witnessing injustice and choosing to do nothing about it, or worse, allowing it to prosper by supporting it wholeheartedly.
Even though set in the recent past, Ring Shout brings home in no uncertain terms the awareness that the issues of that past are still present today, unchanged and unchangeable: I like the way the author avoided the use of a preaching tone, but rather blended the more horrifying aspects of the story with some unabashed, witty banter that gifted the narrative with an easily flowing current but was nevertheless able to carry the message home quite clearly. Still, this apparent lightness never shifts attention from important themes, or the realization that now, like back then, humankind is divided by chasms that seem to get deeper with every passing day, that mindless hatred and anger are turning people into virtual monsters, driving them to forget their very humanity in the name of the oh-so-very dangerous mentality of “us and them”.
The concept of the movie as a recruiting force (for want of a better word), as the images on screen bring the spectators’ worst instincts the surface, is one that I found profoundly disturbing: just as people at the start of the 20th Century felt legitimized in publicly supporting racism by seeing it portrayed in a widely popular movie, now, a hundred years later, their “inheritors” feel the same way because figures invested with authority give them the unspoken permission to be openly and proudly as racist as their ancestors. Hate of the other has long been a way of mitigating one’s perceived inadequacies, as one of the characters underlines so well:
White folk earn something from that hate. Might not be wages, but knowing we on the bottom and they set above us – just as good, maybe better.
reminding us that such feelings can be a powerfully dangerous tool when wielded by the wrong person…
Despite its short number of pages, Ring Shout is a deep, and deeply engrossing story, a way to explore both factual history and the recesses of the human soul – and above all a thought-provoking book that we should not miss at any cost.