The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
T. Kingfisher, also known as Ursula Vernon, has been publishing award-nominated and -winning stories for quite a while. Her stories are combinations of magical whimsy and pragmatic, ordinary characters. This is the first novel of hers I've read, and it's a lot darker than the stories I've read of hers to date. But it takes the same basic situation, of an ordinary person thrown into an extraordinary situation, and steadily ratchets up the dread and terror.
Melissa, aka Mouse, is a freelance editor who gets roped into clearing out her grandmother's house after Grandma's death. Grandma was a bitter, nasty old woman, and also a hoarder, something Mouse doesn't discover until after she and her redbone coonhound Bongo arrive at the house. (It matters a great deal what kind of dog Bongo is--as Mouse admits in her writeup of events, if Bongo had been a border collie, she wouldn't be here now to write down what happened.) The house is in the middle of the North Carolina woods, surrounded by loblolly pines, kudzu, a very strange rock in the back yard, and woodpeckers--or what she thinks is woodpeckers--going tap tap tap.
The first night she is there, Mouse discovers a journal left behind by her late step-grandfather, Frederick Cotgrave, and as she reads it, a particular phrase repeats itself over and over: And I twisted myself about like the twisted ones. Cotgrave is trying to find the "Green Book," which his wife, Mouse's grandmother, has taken from him and hidden, and he writes down as much of it as he can remember in his journal. Thus we have a story within a story, which slowly unfolds as Mouse's story does, giving clues to "the twisted ones" and "the holler people."
This is a slow, stealthy escalation of terror, until halfway through when all hell breaks loose. Suffice to say you will never regard the word "effigy" in the same way again. Kingfisher is in complete control of her story and characters at all times. Mouse, like so many of Kingfisher's (and Vernon's) characters, is not a hero, or a badass; she's muddling through as best she can, gradually rising to the occasion as the situation gets worse. She is surrounded by several well-drawn supporting characters, particularly Foxy, the sixty- or seventy-something next door neighbor. Foxy is a delightful character, and I would love another book about her. All the characters are relatable, everyday people, and you really care what happens to them.
Kingfisher also gets that horror and humor can live side by side, and she deftly plays with the absurdities of the tropes she is writing about. There are multiple laugh-out-loud moments in this book alongside the multiple creeptastic moments (especially the Last Stand in Grandma's Kitchen at the end of the book). This book (according to the Author's Note at the end) is in conversation with, and inspired by, a turn-of-the-century (the last century) horror story, The White People, by an author I've never heard of, Arthur Machen. I'm not sure if the "white" or "holler" people were meant to be the Fae--in one way it sounds like that, with their hidden gateways to faerie mounds in alternate worlds, maybe in Wales and maybe not--but these White People are like no Fae you've ever read before.
This is one fine, scary book, but let me assure you the hound doesn't die: in a lot of ways, he saves the day, in his lovable dimwitted manner. And if you, the reader, never want to step into a hoarder's house again, and if you particularly don't want to deal with leftover doll collections...after closing the covers of this book, that's perfectly understandable.
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