Lovecraftian Jazz

This time I am going to be talking about A Song For Quiet by Cassandra Khaw. Now I had never heard of Cassandra Khaw before ordering this book. In truth I picked it up almost on a whim. Barnes and Noble had a list of anticipated scifi, fantasy, and horror books coming out in August and this was on it. I liked the blurb so I picked it up – and I have never been happier with my impulsive buying habits.

Let’s start with the cover blurb.

“Deacon James is a rambling bluesman straight from Georgia, a black man with troubles that he can’t escape, and music that won’t let him go. On a train to Arkham, he meets trouble — visions of nightmares, gaping mouths and grasping tendrils, and a madman who calls himself John Persons. According to the stranger, Deacon is carrying a seed in his head, a thing that will destroy the world if he lets it hatch.”

At only 103 pages it doesn’t seem like it could hold much depth but holy shit those 103 pages are brilliant from the first to the last. It’s the Music of Erich Zann from the musicians point of view and played through a saxophone. It accomplishes more in that space than most full novels do in 4 times that. It packs a full character arc, fleshed out characters, a full plot, insightful commentary on the plight of black people in the 30’s, and manages to be appropriately Lovecraftian all while maintaining prose that resonates with the blues.

It’s almost exhausting.

When I started reading it I was intending on reading for 15 minutes before going to bed. Instead I devoured this book. Too caught up in the pace and the language and the characters to even consider sleep. It pushes a truly monstrously fierce and engaging pace. How does it do this? There is this ability that great authors have to waste no space in their writing. Everything matters. Everything builds and feeds into the story. This is a masterful example of that.

The prose is beautiful and I do not often say that but there is a gorgeous command of the language on display here. And it’s not that pretentious way that some writers use where they want to prove that they own a thesaurus. The language used and the way it’s used is a part of the story itself rather than just the medium. It paints a picture of the world through Deacon James’ eyes. The opening line is just a taste – “The train rattles like teeth in a dead man’s skull as Deacon James sags against the window, hat pulled low over his eyes.” – and it flows like that from there. Smooth as silk.

And I have to pause here to say I fucking love Deacon James.

One thing that truly caught me off guard is the treatment of the experience of being black in the 30’s/40’s. It feels authentic. Raw. And it does so without preaching. It is simply shown as being a fact of life (and comes into play in the novella in a way that I do not want to spoil at all). Imagine my surprise when I look up the author of this sensitive and insightful take on a dark aspect of American culture and found a London based Asian woman. Threw me for a loop. I did not realize how unusual it is for me to see such a topic handled so beautifully by someone who is not a part of the community or culture in question until I encountered it. It’s amazing and I love it.

Last but not least this is far from the only Lovecraftian story I have ever read. Lovecraft may be my favorite writer of all time and so things in the vein of cosmic horror catches my interest. Mostly this ends in disappointment. Most seem to interpret that title as meaning generic horror with Nyarlathotep making a guest appearance as a nod wink to the reader. That is not what happens here. This is honestly deserving of the title Lovecraftian.

What else can I say? I cannot recommend A Song for Quiet highly enough. Get it. Read it. You won’t regret it. I am looking forward to reading more from Cassandra Khaw so don’t be too surprised if you see Hammers on Bone make an appearance here soon.

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