[Book Review] Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw

hammers-on-bone-coverTitle: Hammers on Bone
Author: Cassandra Khaw (Twitter)
Rating: Highly Recommended
Genre/Category: Urban Fantasy, Noir, Detective, Lovecraftian Horror
Release Date: October 11, 2016
Publisher: Tor.com

Note: I received a free copy of this novella from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All of the views in review are my own.

I’ve been a huge Cassandra Khaw fan since reading her novella “Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef” last year. From the second that I saw the announcement back in May that Tor.com acquired two novellas from her, I was on the edge of my seat with excitement because her writing is so freaking good that my expectations were sky high.

And then I read the first novella “Hammers on Bone” and I felt as if my entire world had changed.

“Hammers on Bone” is a dark and twisted detective story with definite notes of Lovecraftian Horror that are turned inside out across the pages of the novella.

It gave me chills and goosebumps and I cringed quite often while reading it. But it was a good kind of cringing because I found myself savoring the discomfort I felt because it was so in line with the tone of the novella that it drew me in even deeper into the story.

The main character of “Hammers on Bone” is both a man and a monster. John Persons is a hardboiled private investigator that also happens to be an otherworldly entity running the joint while the original inhabitant of the body is kinda stuck as a backseat driver. Persons reads as almost quaintly old-fashioned in some parts of “Hammers on Bone” and subtly threatening at others. So much of the character makes me imagine the ghost of Humphrey Bogart playing a villain in a Doctor Strange movie: part film noir, part freaky fantasy.

Persons’ not a good guy, not how anyone nowadays would define it, but despite some moments of PI dickery, he’s decent from the start. Which is great for me because I absolutely hate it when I’m reading a book and the main character is so unlikeable that I begin to wish for their death.

What got me about “Hammers on Bone” was that very first page where Persons meets his new client, a little kid who can’t be more than eleven, who wants Persons to kill his stepfather because his stepfather is a monster. Look, when I read that, I know there was a part of my brain that was like “if Persons doesn’t help those kids, I will” despite how impossible it would be.

That’s how deeply the first chapter hooked me and how immediately I found myself clinging to these characters. Within a handful of pages, Khaw had me clenching my fingers around my kindle because I just cared so much about this kid and I wanted Persons to do right by them so badly that it was almost painful.

I adore Khaw’s writing in general. She has this talent for draping her narratives with rich descriptions and tension that tightens around you as you work your way through her works.

Even innocuous things like Persons walking into the factory where his client’s scary stepdad McKinsey works become something weighty. As I was reading, I found myself feeling jumpy because I could not figure out what would happen next: would there be a confrontation in the factory’s front yard between the two men/monsters? Would something else come out of left field to mess everything up?

Who knew?

All I could focus on was that uncertainty and how exciting it was to wonder what would follow.

Picture my face when the foreman of the factory starts growing extra eyes and mouths during Persons’ interrogation. Hell, I’m making a face right now in response to the pure and utter ick of that scene. That’s how intense it was.

I’m also a huge whiny baby when it comes to eye-horror so there’s a moment there where Persons uses his thumb to pop an eyeball that sprouted on the foreman’s neck (one of many) and I swear to god, I squealed. I’m not ashamed of that. Because a good book is one that can make me squeal and squirm and then keep reading.

The violence in “Hammers on Bone” is visceral, shocking. There are parts of it that made me worry that I couldn’t make it through to the next page because it shook me so deeply. The description of McKinsey’s behavior towards his sons, the way he talks to and about them, actually brought me to a point where I worried that I straight up couldn’t continue on.

That’s actually something anyone interested in reading “Hammers on Bone” should keep in mind. Persons’ client, that little kid, is dealing with all kinds of abuse from his stepfather and it’s implied and onscreen. Like you see some of his really terrible behavior towards them in chapter four where we (and Persons) actually meet him for the first time and it is bone-chilling how disgusting he is towards his sons.

McKinsey is so gross that I want to straight up punch him in the face for every single scene he was in. There are monsters that aren’t awful, but he’s not one of them. He’s just terrible and icky and when he gets his (albeit a little too late to actually save a certain someone), I would’ve cheered if not for how straight up terrifying the scene actually was for me.

What’s super interesting about “Hammers on Bone” is that Khaw does this great thing of showing that man-as-monster doesn’t have to be “monstrous”. Persons is a monster, but he’s a good egg when you get right down to it. All he wants to do is live his life and make as little waves as possible.

McKinsey on the other hand is the capital-M “Monster” and I don’t think all of that has to do with the otherworldly infection he’s embraced. He’s awash in, among other things, toxic masculinity and his everything winds up entangled in entitlement and ownership. Seriously, his “me, mine, move” outlook on life can’t possibly be a result of what lives in his head.

So reading “Hammers on Bone” and looking at the two men in that light is super enlightening and I left the book with some seriously thinky thoughts about men and monsters.

If you asked me how I felt about “Hammers on Bone”, I don’t have to think about it.

Despite – no, because of — the potentially squicky moments that left me frowning at my kindle and wriggling with discomfort, I can’t get enough of “Hammers on Bone”. After that ending and the whopper of an epilogue with Shub-Niggurath, all I can think of is how much I want more of this. I want more of John Persons and the meat that he rides around London (and wow, that sounded less… NSFW in my head). I want to know what plans Shubby has for London and why she doesn’t want him interfering.

And more than anything, I want to see what other cases Persons is going to find himself entangled in.

“Hammers on Bone” is thrilling, terrifying, and more than a little bit messed up. It messed me up for sure and I still want more of the universe. I think that if anything, the fact that it was rough to read and still so satisfying made the book a better experience for me.

Cassandra Khaw is an amazing writer, genuinely one of the best I’ve ever read, and if you’re like me and grouchy about white dude fascination with revering and repeating Lovecraft’s mistakes within his mythos, hers is a book you should check out.


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