The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
T. Kingfisher, AKA Ursula Vernon, has started a trend of basing her horror novels on obscure 19th century stories. She did it with her first book, The Twisted Ones, based on Arthur Machen's "The White People," and she does it again with this book. This story was inspired by Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows," and she quotes: "the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows."
In so doing, she has written two books that to varying degrees have scared the beejeezus out of me. The Twisted Ones was bigger in its concept and scares. This book is a little quieter, more sneaky--but when the author pulls back the curtain to show you what her protagonist is fighting, you want to scream and crawl under the bed.
One of the great strengths of these books is their characterizations. In this book, our protagonist is Kara, a 34-year-old woman recovering from a divorce who comes to live with her uncle Earl in Hog Chapel, North Carolina. Uncle Earl owns and runs the Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities, and Taxidermy. Kara is down-to-earth, practical, and devoted to her uncle, so much so that she refuses to leave when things start ramping up and most of us would run for the hills. But she will not abandon him to what is happening, and it's that relationship, and the kindness her uncle has always shown--both to her and other people--that saves her in the end.
I really enjoyed Kara and her friend, Simon, who ends up being dragged along with her on her "adventures" (put in quotes because what happens to Kara and Simon is not your typical fun, glorious adventure, not in the least). They both come across as real people, maybe your small-town next-door-neighbors, with believable quirks and personality flaws. I think it's important to have good characterizations in a story like this, as it serves to ground the reader in the midst of all the creepiness and horror Vernon portrays so well. Another strength is the dialogue--Simon in particular has such a droll sense of humor, even in the midst of all the terrifying things they encounter.
The museum setting is a major part of the novel--in fact, it's almost an equal protagonist in its own right, and Vernon does a marvelous job of portraying it for us. I've seen similar little museums and antique shops, full of silly, bizarre, ticky-tacky, way-out-there stuff that you can't imagine anyone would ever try to manufacture, much less attempt to sell. She draws us into the museum on the very first page.
Most of it is complete junk, of course. There are things in the cases that undoubtedly have MADE IN CHINA stamped on the underside. I threw out the shrunken heads when I was fifteen and found identical ones for sale at the Halloween store. But the wall of Thimbles of the World is real or, at least, contains real thimbles, and all the Barong masks are really from Bali, and if the Clovis points were chipped out in the seventies instead of thousands of years ago, they were at least still made by a human with a rock. The jar of MYSTERY PODS?! on the counter are the cones of a Banksia plant, but they're a mystery to most people, so I guess that counts.
And the taxidermy is real, inasmuch as it is genuine taxidermy. That part of the museum has eleven stuffed deer heads, six stuffed boar heads, one giraffe skull, forty-six stuffed birds of various species, three stuffed albino raccoons, a Genuine Feejee Mermaid--which I keep trying to get him to rename because I think it's probably racist, or at least he could put a sign up explaining the context--two jackalopes, an entire case of dried scorpions, a moth-eaten grizzly bear, five stuffed prairie dogs, two fur-bearing trout, one truly amazing Amazonian river otter, and a pickled cobra in a bottle.
(And right there, in those two paragraphs, some things are named which come into play in the book's terrifying climax. Y'all will just have to read the book to find out which ones.)
This is the tale of two people accidentally wandering into a sort of hub between the universes and what they find there. There are willow trees that move about on their own in the night, and people who have come to this in-between place from an alternate Earth to explore and conquer it, and died there--or didn't die, which is even more horrifying. There are entities from alternate dimensions drawn there by the willows, who prey on the unfortunates trapped there. One of the soldiers from another world writes a sort of diary in the margins of a Bible, which cleverly plays into the climax, as the creatures are so described:
They looked like nothing I understood, like an Old Testament angel, all wings and wheels and eyes. The sky billowed nauseatingly and the hole grew larger, edged with jittery migraine colors. What made the hole was a beak or a drill or a spike, pushing through the back of the sky. The sort of thing that might make a funnel-shaped hole in the water or reality or someone's body.
I read elsewhere about someone calling this book and its monsters "Lovecraftian," and that wasn't the case, at least for me. This is straight out of the book of Ezekiel. There really isn't any slime or tentacles to be found here. (There is, for anyone sensitive to such, one instance of body horror that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Be warned.)
(On the lighter side, the last book featured a lovable dimwitted dog, and to balance things out, this book has a huge fluffy attack cat. Neither animal dies. Maybe the next book will include a horse?)
The author writes in several different genres: webcomics, fantasy, children's/middle-grade, young adult, and now horror. She has had a very good year so far, with this book and the terrific young-adult tale A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking, published earlier this year. She is firing on all cylinders, and is pretty much an auto-buy for me.
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