Following the Machen-inspired The Twisted Ones, T. Kingfisher takes on another classic of weird fiction by presenting a hole in the wall of a Curiosity Museum which leads to the “region of singular loneliness and desolation” described in Algernon Blackwood’s 1907 The Willows. It’s an incredibly engaging idea, and the book powers along with a likeable narrator, a well-sketched supporting cast, and the author’s clear delight in genre. If you’ve ever wondered how Blackwood would meld with a pacey plot, a touch of Buffy, another of House of Leaves, another of Annihilation – then this is one for you.
We start with the Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities, and Taxidermy, owned by Uncle Earl. Our narrator is Kara, a 34-year-old woman who’s going through a divorce and has moved into a spare room at the museum – the scene of fond childhood memories – while she picks up the strands of her life. The two of them are immediately beautifully drawn. We get nearly a full-page recitation of Uncle Earl’s beliefs, both laugh-out-loud funny and instantly recognisable: “Uncle Earl believes strongly in Jesus, Moses, the healing power of crystals, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, that aliens landed at Roswell but the government is suppressing it, secret histories, faith-healing, snake-handling, that there is an invention that will replace gasoline but the oil companies are suppressing it…” As for Kara, she leads us into the novel with a chatty conversational tone, likeable and exasperated: noting that – for her – moving back in with her mother is actually a more upsetting prospect than divorce. It’s little details like this which make her both relatable and sharply-drawn, and we instantly get a sense of the warmth between her and Earl by the spare room with its just-painted yellow walls, a green comforter decorated with little pineapples, and her favourite piece of the museum’s taxidermy, “PRINCE”, a giant elk’s head.
Kara’s narration does much to make this novel intensely readable. We learn up-front that she’s likely to be genre-savvy (she takes all the Lovecraft books when leaving the house she shared with her ex), and this plays out entertainingly throughout the book. It’s refreshing to have the obvious perils of opening a bolted door inside your house’s too-long, non-Euclidean walls recognised – “we’ll discuss this like people who don’t die in the first five minutes of a horror movie” – and then played with, using a literal ‘cat jump scare’. Readers may either love or hate stories in which the narrator name-drops other works of fiction, but I personally found this added a lot to Kara’s charm and meant that scenarios could be swiftly set up with a minimum of narrative fuss: so it’s like The Wood Between The Worlds in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew. Both Kara and the reader now know (sort of) where we are. My only reservation was where Kara’s wry or sarcastic tone felt liable to rob a moment of unease or dread, but this tonal wobble resolved quickly within the first few chapters of the novel as the action transitioned further from her real world.
It would feel artificial to have Kara not be able to recognise some of the genre elements playing out around her, as this is a book which is steeped in the weird both old and new. From the cover copy promising “creatures that appear to hear thoughts” I was expecting a Blackwood-inspired tale, and this materialises within the opening chapters when Kara and Earl receive (from “Woody”) a “Carved corpse-otter effigy, Danube area, circa 1900” (delicious). The otter is one of the more obscure and troubling elements of Blackwood’s seminal tale, both a live otter (with yellow eyes) and a man’s body floating in the tide, “its black skin wet and shining in the sunlight”. When Kara and her barista friend Simon from the coffee-shop next door take a trip through the walls of the museum, they are bigger on the inside, twisting and turning, grimy with concrete and grit and water, calling to mind both the horrible crawl-space corridors of 2020’s Relic and the “five and a half minute hallway” in Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves. They eventually emerge into somewhere that looks very like the maze of sandy-banked islands, willow trees and splashing water described in The Willows – but dotted with concrete bunkers, signs of earlier (military) incursions from a different world running missions into their own “Area X” (Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation).
What made this story more than the sum of its influences was Kingfisher’s real gift in conjuring up the religious levels of awe and dread inspired by this alien landscape and its denizens. When we first hear the madness-inducing sound of the willows, the author nails it with understatement: “They rustled in the wind. A hissing rustle, layered and complex, the sound made by hundreds of leaves moving against each other… the water flowed by silently, but the willows whispered on and on and on.” The terror induced is described economically by Kara: a sense that, like encountering a videogame bug, you might “suddenly fall through the world”. The unheimlich stalks these willows, whether in a school bus where the yellow paint is a couple of shades off or Blackwood’s terrible boatman, “a thin skin of reality stretched over something vast and hollow. As if the boatman and the river and maybe even the sun piercing the clouds were all paint on a flat canvas,” as if Simon might suddenly turn around and be not-Simon. When we ‘see’ the creatures in the willows, there’s a wonderful sense of nightmarish religion, and the concept of negative space – or seeing shapes in clouds – is a spot-on way to conceptualise the Mythos-like scale and indifference of the entities being experienced.
Into this recognisable cosmic-horror setting, Kingfisher introduces some fresh-feeling elements. The incursions by the military are clearly from a world not our own, and the way this is teased out is great: the force is from the “U.N.A”, and a porno mag found in the bunker gives the model’s “moon house” and “blood sign”; the Bible has five books of Thessalonians. An apocalyptic found document from that military group allows Kara to live second-hand through some of the horrors of the place. And there’s a welcome twist into body horror in one of the ‘survivors’ they encounter, allowing us to appreciate the meaning of the phrase “pray that they are hungry”: the alien entities are fascinated and conscienceless, and might well dissect you to see what makes you tick, like the disturbed Elder Things in H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.
The book is a page-turner, and the elements introduced all come together to a very satisfying conclusion in the finale (mindful of how Blackwood’s willows required a “victim” to break their spell, I was on tenterhooks to see how this played out). The beautifully-depicted homely (or ‘heimlich’) location of the Wonder Museum is made creepy and unheimlich by the incursion of the willow-light, and Kara must fight for it – and, by extension – our world.
The Hollow Places is a treat for fans of the weird, with an entertaining and refreshingly clear writing style and a likeable genre-savvy protagonist. Marketed as adult fiction, the book has all the hallmarks of an enjoyable and pacey YA novel, and while it deals well with its out-and-out moments of sheer horror and the uncanny, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Consequently, it’s a very easy read – and a very appealing one.
The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher is published by Titan Books (UK) and Saga Press (US).