P. Djèlí Clark’s new novella, Ring Shout, is a fantasy built around an ugly moment in American history—the emergence of the second Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century.
The story follows three monster hunters: Maryse Boudreaux, who wields a magic sword; Chef, who had previously disguised herself as a man to serve with the Harlem Hellfighters during World War I; and Sadie, a sharpshooter who calls her Winchester rifle Winnie.
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The monsters are Ku Kluxes—member of the KKK who have transformed into huge, six-eyed, pointy-toothed, flesh-eating demons.
The idea to turn hate-filled racists into larger-than-life demons came from Clark’s work as a historian. (In addition to an award-winning writer of speculative fiction, Clark is a professor of history at the University of Connecticut.)
When reading narratives of formerly enslaved individuals collected by the Federal Writers’ Project, he’d been struck by the way they described the KKK. “They often talk about them … wearing simply a pillowcase, sometimes having bells on them, sometimes having horns or tails. And they speak of them as haints, that is as ghosts and spirits,” Clark tells me.
Clark’s two careers—historian and fiction writer—have grown side by side (his first major publication, A Dead Djinn in Cairo, was published the day he defended his PhD.) While he has tried to keep the careers separate (by writing under a pen name), Clark believes they complement each other.
Fiction can animate information lost to history, he says.
“Finding the voices of enslaved people, finding out what they thought is very difficult. There weren’t a lot of people going around asking them what they thought during that time. And so what you have to do, for instance, if you’re trying to understand an enslaved person, you might read a lot of court records or you might try to read what their owners thought and then you have to speculate and piece together that enslaved person’s life.”