Investigating the Cult of Toxic Masculinity in Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone

When someone tells you their father is a monster, believe them. At least, that’s what the client, a young boy, says to private investigator John Persons in Cassandra Khaw’s fantastic novella Hammers on Bone. The boy hires Persons to kill his father, a chauvinistic, possessive, and abusive the boy is convinced will soon kill his mother. 

Persons being something of an Old God (cleverly left rather undefined by Khaw) he is obviously the right person for the job and, having a conscience, he takes the case.

It turns out, the kid’s father is also possessed by an alien presence that causes eyeballs to grow all over his body, just beneath his skin, and makes him tough as hell to kill. The alien presence is almost like an STD, spreading to the father’s foreman, whom Persons interviews (intimidates?) and any other women the kid’s father has slept with.  

Hammers on Bone is a fantastic read, blending hard-boiled noir with cosmic Lovecraftian horror, but there’s also a sneaky critique of society. At first, it seems like a perfect genre staple for a P.I. to refer to women as dames and for the bad person to be abusive and abrasive. I mean, they’re the bad people. But as the story continues to develop, it’s clear that the way the alien presence spreads is almost a metaphor for the way toxic masculinity is transmitted through macho interactions and domestic abuse can perpetuate it. 

Khaw’s writing is excellent; sharp wit is contrasted with beautiful and sometimes frightening images like this one:

“The noise becomes a whisper, a hiss, a celebration, a roar, a black surf breaking on the glaciers of an old, decaying, world. It sutures itself into syllables, strings of sounds that could almost be called words if you’re feeling generous.” 

-Cassandra Khaw

The characters are similarly sharp and engaging; the narrative voice crackles with the empathy of a cynic who has seen it all. 

Khaw’s world is dangerous, and there are dangerous and interesting entities there. The fact that she’s subtly fused these genres to turn such a blinding mirror to our world is remarkable.

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