No doubt about it, Cassandra Khaw is one of the most exciting and fresh voices in horror. Literary and captivating, their fiction reads like someone took the horror canon and completely stripped away its many years of worn-down tropes and instead embodied each tale with a double dose of empathy and experimentation.
This fall, Nothing But Blackened Teeth, hits store shelves. A group of long-time friends celebrate their friend’s wedding by spending a night in a Heian-era mansion. A little food, a little booze, and a whole lot of paranormal investigation: What they soon realize is that the mansion has much more in store for them than they originally planned.
The Lineup spoke with Khaw about their influences, work in video games, upcoming projects, and more.
The Lineup: Where did the initial idea for Nothing But Blackened Teeth come from?
Cassandra Khaw: I don’t know, honestly. I think it came partially from being at home again in Malaysia. I didn’t really have a good childhood. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say it was rather traumatic, and a lot of that trauma happened when I was trapped in a house, feeling like I can’t leave, feeling like I’ll die there, surrounded by my monsters. (I suspect that’s how I became nomadic for ten years.) Being back there, I think, among other things, kicked off wanting to talk about houses and hauntings.
TLU: You’ve deftly jumped from sci-fi to fantasy but almost always with horror along for the ride. From one fan of horror to another, what do you like most about the genre?
CK: I like how horror cuts to the depth of the human experience: No matter who we are, we’re all afraid of something. We all have our personal trauma and bugbears. We might not always be able to understand each other, but like, we can understand a lot of each other’s fears. What it’s like to get nervous about that noise in the darkness outside. What it’s like to be afraid of drowning, of burning alive, of being buried while you’re still breathing. There’s something appealing about that.
TLU: Do you find writing horror to be liberating or limiting?
CK: Neither? If I had to choose, I guess I’d say it’s liberating. Horror is an act of exorcism for me, appropriately enough. I’ve had night terrors for most of my life. During the worst of them, I’ve woken up screaming *and* running. Writing horror seems to help with that. The nightmares dim for a while.
TLU: Nothing But Blackened Teeth is the sort of book that scares as much as it refreshes the maybe skeptical reader who has read their fair share of the genre. One thing that I adored about the book is how you cast the characters’ moods and energies onto the house, as though they are as much in control of the house’s various spaces as much as the house can feed on a person’s own energy. I’d love to get your take on this dynamic, and how you managed to so keenly reflect this in the book.
CK: Oh, god. I wish I knew. I basically staple whatever it is that is rattling around inside my head to paper. I just feel fortunate that people often see what I’m trying to do with my work.
TLU: Which is the bigger “monster” in the novella: the house or the friend group with their complex past? Both hold their own secrets, but maybe in the case of the house, it never hid the tragedy surrounding the buried-alive bride.
CK: Definitely the friends. The response to the random myth I came up with was fascinating. I really just wanted them to have a campy urban legend-kind of story to tell each other, one that only superficially touches on what is really going on in the house, but people have Opinions about it, and I’m delighted.
TLU: It seems like among some of the most popular subgenres of horror, it comes down to domestic horror, it involves haunted houses or home invasions. If you had to choose one, which would you consider the scariest?
CK: Home invasions. A few of the places I’ve lived in may have had ghosts, and I wasn’t very bothered by them. I am, however, very troubled by the idea of strangers in my den. Home invasion scares me a fair bit—you don’t want to know how many knives are casually hidden in strategic spots throughout my apartment due to this nervousness.
TLU: We talked paranormal energies in an earlier question, but I got to ask about your own belief in the paranormal; what do you think it is that goes bump in the night, the source(s) of the cold spots, the creak in the stairs, the feeling of being watched.
CK: I believe that there is a definite possibility that there are things in the world that we don’t understand yet. But I grew up in a very Asian household that saw such things as entities minding their own business in their own planes of existence. As long as they respect my space, I see no reason to poke my nose in theirs.
TLU: Care to recommend some of your favorite haunted house books (and/or films)? There’s so much out there and it’s so easily lost in the never-ending wave of new books.
TLU: You write for video games too, including Where The Water Tastes Like Wine and Wasteland 3. How is it writing for an interactive medium versus writing for the page? Is there any crossover?
CK: Nope. I get asked this question a surprising amount and it’s always fun to discuss the differences. Writing for books, regardless of whether you’re collaborating with someone else, is a solitary endeavor. Games aren’t. Games are a conversation with the mechanics of the medium, with the people you work with in different departments.
TLU: What’s next for Cassandra Khaw—are you working on any new books and/or games?
CK: Richard Kadrey and I just finished the first draft of The Dead Takes an A Train, which will be out next year. I also have a short story collection out then too! And a novella that is currently unannounced! As for the games part of things, I’m under so many NDAs, it’s kind of silly.
Nothing But Blackened Teeth will be published on October 19.