Blues is about wanting and not having, about putting that need into someone else’s hands for a little while so you can pause and breathe.Cassandra Khaw, A Song for Quiet 35
In Hammers on Bone (2016) by Cassandra Khaw, an eldritch abomination walks around in a human suit, playing hardboiled private detective John Persons, a monster who works against other monsters, working for its own inscrutable reasons against Lovecraftian incursions. A Song for Quiet is a standalone novella in the same setting, though a continent away and decades prior, with Persons relegated to an ambiguous supporting role as the narrative shifts to focus on rambling bluesman Deacon James.
Any more detail would give away the plot of the story, and it has little to spare.
In terms of theme and content, A Song for Quiet is a distant literary descendent of “The Music of Erich Zann,” the essential theme reworked and woven with considerable skill and imagination into a new context, a cousin to stories like “The Opera Singer” (2015) by Priya J. Sridhar and “While The Black Stars Burn” (2015) by Lucy A. Snyder—in part because music is the language and the medium by which the weirdness from Outside penetrates this reality, but because music doesn’t just happen. You need a figure on the threshold, like Erich Zann, who has the skills to play and faces the choice to do so. That places a very human conflict in the midst of what might otherwise be a very impersonal cosmic struggle. Ultimately, the musician on the threshold has to decide if to play.
Khaw’s choice to center the narrative on one such threshold-character, Deacon James, comes with advantages and drawbacks. The advantage is that Khaw is a skillful writer who really gets into James’ head, and the world seen through his eyes is a part of the world in stories like The Ballad of Black Tom (2016) by Victor LaValle, Lovecraft Country (2016) by Matt Ruff, and Ring Shout (2020) by P. Djèlí Clark—where Black people, even in a relatively unsegregated northern city like Arkham, have to step carefully, watch their words and actions, because any wrong step could mean violence and death. Jim Crow America was an ugly place with its very mundane horrors, without adding any Lovecraftian horrors to the mix.
The downside is, James knows nothing about the Lovecraftian aspect of the setting and doesn’t learn much of anything by the book’s end. Hammers on Bone worked so well in part because John Persons was an insider on the occult world of the Mythos, readers got their point of view and many things could be explained or accepted because of that. A Song for Quiet, seen mostly through the bluesman’s eyes, is like much in life a puzzle for which many pieces are missing and which will never be complete. John Persons in this book is one piece that doesn’t seem to fit (unless the reader has read Hammers on Bone at some point); he appears from nowhere, does things, explains almost nothing, and this is all perfectly in keeping with how the character might appear to James, but it’s as damnably frustrating as a poorly-played non-player character in a session of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, enigmatic to a fault.
Another piece that doesn’t quite fit is Arkham itself. As a setting, Khaw does a tremendous job of expressing the unease a Black man might feel traveling to and being in a relatively unknown northern city; used to the more openly segregated South, Deacon James is only really at ease in Black spaces. Why it features in the story is another question entirely: Arkham is the backdrop, but it could almost as easily have been Boston, New York, or even London. While an American city makes sense, since blues music is an African-American creation, by the 1940s the geographic remit of blues music and players had gone global. There’s nothing special about Arkham in this regard—it is the place name to cement a Lovecraftian connection, but Deacon James isn’t playing to an audience of hip Miskatonic University students or anything like that. So the setting feels a bit superfluous; like a film that drops a few Lovecraftian place names but doesn’t really connect to Lovecraft’s stories about those places.
This isn’t a damning criticism: many stories have only peripheral connections to the wider Mythos, and that’s fine. The first and most important thing is whether or not the story is good, the amount of Mythos lore dropped is not a primary measure of story quality. The lament here is that it could have been better. Khaw’s take on Arkham through James’ POV is intriguing, it’s something that the novella could have used more of, and if that setting had tied more strongly into the plot it would have been smashing…or perhaps it would have turned a tightly written and fast-paced novella into a bloated short novel.
There is a lot to like about this story; Khaw’s prose is alternately poetic and grounded, using music metaphors to give shape and texture to things seen and unseen, and the characters are well-defined. As another episode of the Persona Non Grata series, it expands the world of Hammers on Bone without stepping on any toes, far enough away in time and space so that the two stories can work independently, but taken together suggesting a wider, more complex world. Thematically, the ending is a strong focus on the human conflict of the musician on the threshold, but the missing pieces of the puzzle leave a bit of tension, like a chord that refuses to resolve.
Cassandra Khaw’s A Song for Quite (2017) was published as part of Tor.com’s Lovecraftian novella series including Hammers on Bone (2016) by Cassandra Khaw, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (2016) by Kij Johnson, The Ballad of Black Tom (2016) by Victor LaValle, and Agents of Dreamland (2017) by Caitlín R. Kiernan.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.
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