Ring Shout (2020) by P. Djèlí Clark

I think whether one reads Lovecraft or not, his influence is all over genre—from television shows like Buffy to Marvel concepts of cosmic world-devouring beings like Galactus. So you grow up with it. Then you read Lovecraft and you’re like, uhhh, this guy is pretty problematic. And some of the xenophobic meanings behind unknowable horrors lurking on the edge of human civilization give you serious pause. But you still dig tentacles. What are you to do? Give up tentacles altogether? Now you got no tentacles to like, because the guy from way back was a serious ass? Thing is, marginalized people have been ingesting problematic things in SFF, from dark elves on down, and loving it through our gritted teeth—since forever. This isn’t a new thing for us. So when we’re fortunate enough to get the chance to flip the script, to use those same tentacles to tell stories from different perspectives, we take it. And I think there are lots of readers, consumers of Genre of all backgrounds, who with relief are like, “finally…”
—P. Djéli Clark interviewed by Daryl M,
Interview With an Author: P. Djeli Clark (17 Dec 2020)

In 1905, Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan was published, the second in a trilogy of novels set in the South during the period of Reconstruction. That same year, it was adapted into a play and premiered on the stage. A full decade later, the play and novel were adapted into an epic film, The Birth of the Nation (1915)—and on the night of its release, a second Ku Klux Klan was founded. Within a few years, chapters would spread throughout the country; membership would escalate into the millions by the 1920s, and even expand into Canada at the height of the new Klan’s power and influence. Fractious groups descended from or inspired by the Klan persist to this day.

The persistent lies and historical revisionism of The Clansman and The Birth of a Nation did not go unopposed. Protests were held against both play and film, the nascent NAACP made an organized effort to get the film banned from theaters, reviews criticized the historicity of the film. At the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia, a brick thrown through the plateglass window of the box-office spurred armed police to charge the crowd protesting the screening. In a pair of self-published magazines, two amateur journalists briefly argued over the film, among other issues of race and prejudice (see “Concerning the Conservative” (1915) by Charles D. Isaacson).

Ring Shout is not a novel concerned with what H. P. Lovecraft thought about the Ku Klux Klan. P. Djéli Clark centers his fantasy novel on those whom the revived Klan aimed themselves against: Black people, immigrants, communists, LGBTQ+ folks. The style borrows from urban fantasy: it is a recognizable contemporary period, and a secret war is being waged. The enemy is not white people, at least, not all white people. There are monsters that lurk beneath the white hoods; people that have let themselves become so consumed by hate that an otherworldly infection has set in. The heroes who fight them still live under Jim Crow, face persecution for the color of their skin, their gender, their sexuality, even their politics.

Clark weaves together fact and fiction, real elements of Gullah culture and fictional folklore. The combination is compelling; Ring Shout does not need to drop familiar names like Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth, and if it draws inspiration from Clive Barker’s “The Hellbound Heart” (1986), it is only that: inspiration. Ring Shout weaves its own mythos together, carves out its own space…and it works all the better for that. It builds off many of the ideas that have been popularized in the Mythos, but does so in its own way, unbeholden to any previous writer. In this way, it is more free than efforts to depict the Black experience of the Mythos in stories like “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” (1982) by Charles R. Saunders or “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle.

In less skilled hands, Ring Shout could easily have become a mere power fantasy. The KKK, because of their militant prejudice and involvement with racial violence are almost as easy targets as the Nazis. Little sympathy is wasted for men who dressed up in white hoods to burn crosses, terrorized Black people and immigrants, and participated in numerous murders and lynchings over a period of decades. That all of this was in service to the rather banal evil of promoting racism as a profit-making enterprise doesn’t engender any additional sympathy, either (see Hatred and Profits: Getting Under The Hood of the Ku Klux Klan). As it is, Clark’s characters show little sympathy for human members of the Klan—but they do not go out of their way to kill and terrorize them either. Their fight is with the monsters, and that raises the conflict conflict to a philosophical level.

He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby becomes a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 

Maryse Boudreaux fights monsters in Ring Shout, and her struggle is a pulpy, action-heavy fantasy where she can literally use a magic sword forged from centuries of pain to fight back against the literal monsters that have fed the hate against her, her family, and everyone that looks like her. Yet the philosophical struggle she faces is one which many people of color have faced, and continue to face: whether to allow the hate and pain inflicted on her to define who she is. Whether to meet racism with more racism, hate with more hate, violence with more violence…and where and how do you draw the line?

At the every end of the novel, a brief setup is given for a potential sequel:

“A new threat rises,” Auntie Ondine goes on. She leans in. “You must go on a quest! To an isle within the Province of Rhodes!”
I stop mid-sip. “You mean Providence, Rhode Island?”
She blinks. “Isn’t that what I said? The enemy has their eyes fixed there—on a man they believe can help them further infilitrate your world, open doors to worse than their Grand Cyclops. They’re inculcating him with their vileness and he appears a willing vessel. He has been named their Dark Prince and—”
—P. Djéli Clark, Ring Shout (2020) 180

This is neither the first time Lovecraft has been tied to the KKK in posthumous literature: Richard Lupoff had Lovecraft become entangled in a plot involving the Nazis and KKK in his novel Lovecraft’s Book (1985), later republished as Marblehead (2015), to give one example. Clark is being tongue-in-cheek with this little reference, and Ring Shout has nothing to do with Lovecraft’s thoughts on the Klan…but Lovecraft may help readers better understand an aspect of this novel, if we read what he wrote about the Ku Klux Klan in 1914 in his amateur journal The Conservative:

Mr. Isaacson’s protest is directed specifically against a widely advertised motion picture, “The Birth of a Nation”, which is said to furnish a remarkable insight into the methods of the Ku-Klux-Klan, that noble but much maligned band of Southerners who saved half of our country from destruction at the close of the Civil War. The Conservative has not yet witnessed the picture in question, but he has seen both in literary and dramatic form The Clansman, that stirring, though crude and melodramatic story by Rev. Thomas Dixon, Jr., on which “The Birth of a Nation” is based, and has likewise made a close historical study of the Ku-Klux-Klan, finding as a result of his research nothing but Honour, Chivalry, and Patriotism in the activities of the Invisible Empire. The Klan merely did for the people what the law refused to do, removing the ballot from unfit hands and restoring to the victims of political vindictiveness their natural rights. The alleged lawbreaking of the Klan was committed only by irresponsibile miscreants who, after the dissolution of the Order by its Grand Wizard, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, used its weird masks and terrifying costumes to vein their unorganised villainies.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “In A Major Key,” Collected Essays 1.56

There is no evidence Lovecraft ever did any “research” into the KKK, and his statements make it clear that any reading he could have done on the subject must have been from sources promoting the Lost Cause. He makes no reference to the violence that accompanied the political intimidation, the loss of life and property, and unspoken but implicitly stated is the disbelief in the validity of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendmants. Lovecraft is parroting the anti-Reconstruction myth propogated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Dunning school.

The horror in this statement is not that it’s Lovecraft that said it in 1915—it is that this is what millions on millions of people in the United States believed was true during the early 20th century, even long after Lovecraft was dead. Lovecraft was ignorant and racist, but he was one man. Ring Shout is set during a time when any white person in the United States might have made, and believed, similar claims. Lovecraft never put the KKK into any of his stories, never joined the Klan, never participated in a lynching, and in later life changed his views (at least on the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan), but in this instance we may turn to Lovecraft as an example of how those ideas were put into words. What people thought and believed.

They took The Birth of a Nation not as propaganda, but as history.

Ring Shout is a novel about people fighting monsters under the guise of the Ku Klux Klan. It is also a novel about how people subject to pain and discrimination struggle to not let that hate define who and what they are. Yet neither of these things is the same as fighting and overcoming racism. That is the ultimate horror that Ring Shout leaves us with. Even if a sequel is written, and Lovecraft is a willing vessel to terrible entities from beyond, and the heroes win through in the end…there will still be millions of Americans that continue to believe the same lies, to propogate the same hate, to cast the oppressors as the victims and the victims as monsters who must be defeated.

You cannot kill racism with a magic sword.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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