REVIEW: A Song For Quiet by Cassandra Khaw

Deacon James is a blues man. Not the stereotypical figure of a blues man either. There’s no deals done at crossroads, no careful deployment of artfully vague music as magic. Deacon is good at what he does, famous enough to be a little noticed, and folded in half with grief.

Deacon is also in the wrong place at the right time, his grief and anger combining with something truly monstrous and propelling him into the centre of a situation so vast he can only perceive some of it. A situation that John Persons is very interested in…

Cassandra Khaw is fearless and that gives this book a spine it hangs extraordinary things off. Persons, front and center in Hammers On Bone, is a supporting character here, a man rendered into something booth less and more than the hat he wears. This is Persons not as a man suit containing a God but a God trying on a man suit. It’s also Persons as the ultimate embodiment of his stereotype; the weary, bitter PI of Bone replaced by a younger, more enthusiastic piece of biological cosplay. You can almost hear his accent shift from Bogey to Cagney, almost see his facial features morph from Marlowe to Hammer. Because this is a prequel, and because the focus is not on Persons that gives him more freedom. Unbound, like his author, he’s an enigmatic, sinister figure whose agenda is only partially apparent until the very end. Even then, there’s a sense of this being Persons in transition, on his way to who we meet in Bone but taking the long way round.

This gleeful subversion of the core character is just the start of the chances A Song For Quiet takes. Here, Khaw re positions the Cthulhu mythos as a theological iceberg. It becomes something comparable to the vast creatures in Stephen King’s The Mist, its consequences vast and all consuming but still just the signs of its passing. The simple fact that Deacon is unlucky (or perhaps, his luck is…pushed) speaks to that. As does the calm, careful incision that peels back just where the story is taking place and everything that implies.

But where the novella really strikes home is with Deacon and everything he isn’t. It’s incredibly simple to write a standard off the peg supernatural blues story. You focus on Robert Johnson’s career, you set every second sequence at a crossroads and you make sure the devil is immaculately dressed, urbane and ruthless. Supernatural got at least a season out of that sort of approach and its fun.

But it’s also reductive of an entire genre and the culture behind it. That’s not even a criticism, it’s just a fact. The Blues is intimately tied to a vast area of history in terms of geography and time. To talk about all of it in a fictional context is all but impossible so, for the most part, people focus in on Johnson, the crossroads and the devil.

Khaw takes a different approach. Here, again, the Blues is used as a tidal force whose effects are felt more than its seen. Deacon is famous enough for the harassment he suffers to be mitigated. He’s not famous enough to not have to worry about it and he’s painfully aware of the width of the corridor he’s chipping through life. Deacon is surviving, but he’s not doing very much more than that.

It would be easy to make the ‘voice’ he’s infected with Faustian but its so much more interesting than that. Deacon acquires power, the ability to dominate an audience and the reality around it and it absolutely terrifies him. It also proves intensely personally destructive and that folds the book into its most interesting shape.

Deacon’s background, his choices and his craft wrap a discussion of institutionalized racism around a detailed examination of the creative mindset and the endless march of Doing The Work. The creative rails Deacon travels are the same ones that carnies, professional wrestlers, journeyman fighters and mid list authors know so well. Do the work. Keep healthy. Do the work again. Repeat.

Success, visibility for Deacon here is acquainted with destruction. Not the destruction of an overdose in a Paris bathroom but the destruction of being ripped apart by the work you do and the attention it garners. For a performer of any sort that’s an extraordinarily powerful motif. For a performer of color like Deacon, that’s a career choice he can’t escape from. Be mediocre forever. Be brilliant once. Deacon makes the right choice. Persons, that’s a different story. And that’s just what he wants.

A Song For Quiet is fearless. It’s a fearless examination of the price we pay for creativity, the cost of success and the unique perils of being a black man with a public image. The fact its also a blisteringly smart horror story and a re-purposing of an often intensely racist mythos makes it all the more impressive. Fierce, horrific, humane and a welcome return for John Persons and his world.

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