Welcome back to another instalment of WWAC’s trip through the Best Novella category at the 2021 Hugo Awards. This time, we shall be covering P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout and Nino Cipri’s FINNA…
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
The year is 1922, and the Ku Klux Klan is on the march in Macon, Georgia. Maryse Boudreaux and her band of allies have taken it upon themselves to slay the Ku Kluxes before they can spread their hatred and violence. But these are more than mere vigilantes, and their opponents something else than just bigots in white sheets. The novella’s opening scene has its protagonists leaving a roasted dog carcass as bait, and we see the inhuman nature of the Ku Kluxes when a few of their number smell the aroma, get down on all fours and began biting away at the meat like animals. The dog contains a bomb, but rather than killing the Ku Kluxes, this reveals their true forms:
The sickening sound of bone cracking, of muscle and flesh stretching and pulling, fills the alley. The lanky man’s body grows impossibly large, tearing out his skin as easy as it shreds away his white robes. The thing standing in his place now can’t rightly be called a man. It’s easily nine feet tall, with legs that bend back like the hindquarters of a beast, joined to a long torso twice as wide as most men. Arms of thick bone and muscle jut from its shoulders, stretching to the ground. But it’s the head that stands out – long and curved to end in a sharp bony point.
This is a Ku Klux. A real Ku Klux. Every bit of the thing is a pale bone white, down to claws like carved blades of ivory. The only part not white are the eyes. Should be six in all: beads of red on black in rows of threes on either side of that curving head.
Ring Shout is a story that straddles the gap between magical realism and urban fantasy – or, perhaps, calls into question whether that gap ever existed in the first place. Urban fantasy has long since been shrink-wrapped and commodified into a commercial genre, and the plot of Ring Shout admittedly does not stray far from familiar formula: a heroic character and her allies pick off monsters before raising their powers for a final, major threat. But at the same time, its unflinching exploration of real-world racial strife, its often wryly humorous treatment of folklore and its determination to find magic in seemingly every crack and fissure of reality surely push it towards the sphere of urban fantasy’s literati-approved cousin: magical realism.
The novella’s fantastical depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as literally demonic monsters is entwined with details from the history of the real KKK. The story portrays the Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee as sorcerers in league with the forces of supernatural evil, with this strain of sinister magic remaining beyond the Civil War:
The first Klan started after the war. Nathan Bedford Forrest – another wicked conjurer – and some spiteful rebels sold their souls to the evil powers. Started calling themselves Night Riders. Witches is what the freed people named them. They talk about them first Klans having horns and looking like beasts! People think it’s just Negro superstition. But some of them ex-slaves could see what Forrest and those hateful rebels had become. Monsters, like these Ku Kluxes.
In this version of events, the Ku Kluxes – the monstrous entities attached to the human Klansmen – were summoned by William Joseph Simmons, who revived the KKK in 1915. Also involved with this evil magic were D. W. Griffiths and Thomas Dixon Jr, the creative minds behind the film The Birth of a Nation, which is presented by the story as a work of mind-altering magic designed to win the souls of white filmgoers.
The forces of progress are similarly drawn from a mixture of history and fantasy. Maryse frequents a juke joint with a group of fellow rebels, and between them these characters show a varied range of perspectives on their plight, all influenced by the real-life social backdrop of 1922.
Molly – the group’s scientist, who views the Ku Kluxes as parasites rather than demons – was born to slaves owned by Native American Baptists, and her materialistic worldview is mingled with Choctaw spirituality. Another character, Emma, is an ardent Marxist who believes that socialism will eradicate racism, the white working class realising its commonality with racial minorities; but Chef (a World War I veteran nicknamed for her skill at cooking up explosives) is unconvinced. “Your poor white workers be the first ones at a lynching”, she says. “Up in Chicago they chase colored folk from their unions… When I was small, white folk rioted because Jack Johnson outboxed a white man on the Fourth of July. They hunted Negroes from New York to Omaha. Slit a colored man’s throat on a streetcar, just for saying who won the fight. You think Marx can fix that?” Another disagreement breaks out when Marcus Garvey’s belief that “the Negro has to go back to Africa” enters conversation.
This makes for a believable set of characters, each one well aware of the problem they face but none able to agree on the long-term solution – a frustration familiar enough to span the eras. When Clark injects fantasy into this setting, he is able to do so because the culture he depicted is already haunted by ghosts. As representatives of evil, the novella naturally uses the KKK’s own phantasmagoria of hooded white figures and the “Grand Cyclops” (in Klan terminology, a group leader; in Ring Shout, an apocalyptic monster due to be summoned by the Klansmen). The division between the human Klan and the demonic Ku Kluxes is a succinct metaphor for the soul-consuming effects of bigotry.
Presiding over the Ku Kluxes and their human hosts is the grotesque Butcher Clyde. Outwardly resembling a lone man, Clyde is actually a Legion-like swarm of entities inhabiting a single form, the skin of which is pock-marked with dozens of tiny, crawling mouths, complete with teeth. The central villain of the story, Clyde embodies the banality of evil, stirring up racism to cause destruction and bloodshed despite being personally (or collectively) indifferent to matters of race: “You see, Maryse, we don’t care about what skin you got or religion. Far as we concerned, you all just meat.” The only reason Butcher Clyde took the KKK as their acolytes, they explain, is because the Klan were the most willing to submit themselves; Clyde would be just as willingly take Maryse as one of their own.
Standing in opposition to the likes of Clyde, the Ku Kluxes and the Grand Cyclops are the characters and creatures from African-American folklore. Bruh Rabbit, Bruh Fox and their associated tricksters are regular topics of discussion, and the three supernatural “Aunties” who guide Maryse – Ondine, Margaret and Jadine – are given fox-like attributes. The folktale asserting that Africans had wings prior to being enslaved also turns up, as do such macabre beings as the breath-stealing Boo Hag, the headless slave-girl Big Liz and the limb-stealing Night Doctors. Some of these entities are fearsome indeed, but even the most dreadful of African-American folk-devils are potential allies against the all-too-tangible devils of the Klan.
These folkloric borrowings and the historical backdrop of early-twenties Georgia all come together to form what is — in structure and plotting – a good, old-fashioned pulp sword-and-sorcery adventure. The narrative beats it hits are, beyond the added cultural connotations, familiar ones. One of the protagonist’s allies suffers a tragic but noble death towards the final battle (and expresses hope that she shall rejoin her winged ancestors). The villains give Maryse a last-minute offer of temptation (a moment directly compared to Bruh rabbit’s scheme with the briar patch). Maryse is even given a sword with which to fight the sorcerers:
It comes to me at a thought and a half-whispered prayer, pulled from nothingness into my waiting grip—a silver hilt joined to smoke that moves like black oil before dripping away. The flat, leaf-shaped blade it leaves behind is almost half my height, with designs cut into the dark iron. Visions dance in my head as they always do when the sword comes: a man pounding out silver with raw, cut-up feet in a mine in Peru; a woman screaming and pushing out birth blood in the bowels of a slave ship; a boy, wading to his chest in a rice field in the Carolinas.
And then there’s the girl. Always her. Sitting in a dark place, shaking all over, wide eyes staring up at me with fright. That fear is powerful strong—like a black lake threatening to anoint me in a terrible baptism.
Like Sarah Gailey’s treatment of the Western in Upright Women Wanted, Ring Shout shows just how malleable the old genre frameworks remain. Raw with countercultural rage, glistening with the authentic weirdness of folklore and animated by pulpy spirit, this novella makes a triumphant update of sword and sorcery.
FINNA by Nino Cipri
Ava and Jules are workers at LitenVärld, an IKEA-esque retail giant, where their daily lives are blighted by both their overbearing manager Tricia and the arguments arising from their messy romantic break-up. When one of the shoppers reports that her grandmother Ursula has gone missing, the two former lovers are forced to work together in finding her. The disappearance turns out to be rather more severe than simply walking down the wrong aisle: Ursula has vanished down a wormhole that has opened up in the furniture showroom, leading towards a place Jules likens to “a creepy Scandinavian Narnia”.
Fortunately, the store is equipped for such occasions. After being shown a training video on “what to do if a wormhole opens up on your shift” Ava and Jules are given a device called FINNA that allows them to trace Ursula across the multiverse. The other worlds can be dangerous, however, as evidenced by the disturbing alt- LitenVärld where hive-minded staff extract payment in the form of blood from their similarly clone-like customers. It transpires that Ursula – at least, the Ursula who went missing – has already suffered a strange and terrible fate; and the two workers have no choice but to find an alt-Ursula to take her place. Doing so, of course, involves surviving not only multiversal hazards but also the shattered remains of their relationship.
With its cartoonish worldbuilding and giggling-schoolkid sense of humour, FINNA can lay claim to being a rare example of Hugo-nominated bizarro fiction (rare, but not unique, lest we forget the dinosaur porn of Chuck Tingle and Stick Hiscox). The novella’s comedy, for all of its outward lack of subtlety, has a strain of observational wit that makes it a true pleasure to read. Even before the reality-hopping strangeness kicks in, we are treated to Ava’s nicknames for the various mock-up rooms on show throughout the store: Pastel Goth Hideaway, Nihilist Bachelor Cube (containing “modular shelves stacked with Camus and Palahniuk novels”) and Massage Therapist Who Lives in Their Studio.
FINNA comments on more than just demographics of furniture shoppers. Underpinning the entire narrative is a recognition of the sheer drudgery that comes with working in retail: Ava and Jules are ground down by corporate bureaucracy and an overwhelming awareness of their essential replaceability as members of the workforce. Their adventures across fantasy realms do not distract from this unhappy condition so much as underline it – albeit in chunky, colourful Crayola.
The worlds visited by the protagonists act as Bunyanesque allegories for their mundane existence. One reality has nature conflated with consumer goods (cookware sprouting from the ground, giant butterflies with fabric-pattern wings, a giant plant shaped like an armchair) and although Jules puts a positive spin on this spectacle — “maybe this world has moved beyond materialism and the need to keep buying the same crap over and over” — things take a rather more negative turn when they find that the chair-plant is carnivorous and contains a disturbingly humanoid lump. The world of blood-sucking retail clones, meanwhile, needs no comment.
Visiting alternate realities does have its benefits, however, as it allows glimpses of other ways of living quite apart from Ava and Jules’ daily grind: “Much as ‘Ugh, capitalism’ was a running joke between them, their system was too big to do anything but joke about it. It’s not like they had a plethora of options waiting for them out there. But now there were options.” Small wonder, concludes Ava, that the store keeps the FINNA technology away from retail staff except in dire emergency — and even then, its usage is couched in management-speak: the device’s manual speaks of finding “suitable replacements” for dead customers.
Sitting at the core of the story alongside its commentary is the well-developed relationship between Ava and Jules. Their split, we learn, was the combined result of Ava’s mental health problems and the commitment issues rising from Jules’ low self-esteem. Their fantastic adventure together forces them to expose some old wounds, all a necessary part of the healing process:
“…I don’t trust you to come back!” Ava hissed. “You always do this. You ignore inconvenient realities like your girlfriend is fucked up in the head and there are giant spiders in other worlds! Then when the problems get too big to ignore, you run.”
“… You dumped me,” Jules said numbly.
“Because you never would,” Ava answered. “I would have just woken up and you’d be gone.”
Jules looked like she’d stuck a dagger somewhere soft. Some uncallused piece of them, secreted away from the world and from Jules’ own introspection.
The queer coupling between the female Ava and non-binary Jules leads to some admittedly on-the-nose digs at social norms. In one scene, Jules complains that a “soccer mom… managed to misgender me four times in two minutes” and elsewhere the narrative voice notes that Jules “could have been a Boy Scout, if the Boy Scouts weren’t transphobic trash.” Meanwhile, the animated training video, which shows a blobby pink character with eyelashes and a blobby blue character with a moustache, is “the most obnoxiously heterosexual thing Ava had seen since the last St. Patrick’s Day parade.”
These moments of bluntness do not detract from what is a fleshed-out pair of protagonists with convincing emotional ties. Their relationship, with all of its ups and downs, becomes paramount towards the end of the story when the candy-coloured froth starts to dissipate and true emotional poignancy takes hold.
FINNA is a very silly novella, and it does look a little insubstantial when compared to the deeper-rooted satirical fantasy of P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout. That said, for a light-hearted romp to build up as much genuine weight as Nino Cipri does with their story is a definite achievement.