Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches.
This week, we cover the first two chapters of T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Places, first published in 2020. Spoilers ahead—but we strongly recommend reading along!
“A man who had devoured his twin in the womb and was now carrying her eye around in his head was pitying me. That seemed as if it should be a good metaphor for my life, although I’d be damned if I could make sense of it.”
When Kara tells people her uncle Earl owns a museum, they never believe her. Their doubt dwindles when she admits it’s a tiny storefront museum in Hog Chapel, North Carolina; it burgeons again when she tells them the museum’s name: The Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities, and Taxidermy.
Kara’s classmates used to ask if she found the museum creepy, but it’s her second home. As a teenager, she worked summers behind the counter and among the packed aisles of fake shrunken heads, Barong masks actually from Bali and Clovis points actually chipped out by hand (if not thousands of years ago), and absolutely genuine taxidermy and osseous relics. The Feejee Mermaid, fur-bearing trout and jackalopes may be (are) composite frauds, but there are plenty of real dead animals in varying states of preservation: deer and antelope and boar heads, a moth-chewed and broke-legged grizzly bear, stuffed birds and dried scorpions and armor-clad mice astride cane toads. A giant Amazonian river otter is the star of the collection.
Uncle Earl is himself a natural believer. He believes in Jesus, healing crystals, Roswell aliens suppressed by the government, snake-handling, gasoline replacements suppressed by oil companies, demonic possession, the astonishing powers of Vicks VapoRub, the Skunk Ape and Chupacabras and especially Mothman and Bigfoot. He’s nearly convinced the end times cometh soon, but that’s fine with him as long as they don’t interfere with museum hours. The saving grace: Earl doesn’t try to impose his beliefs on others. Why would he? He likes just about everyone he’s ever met, and they like him in return.
Sixteen-year-old Kara, whom Earl calls Carrot, convinced him of the truth of evolution—though he’s dubious about being descended from apes, only evolution can explain Bigfoot. Eighteen years to the day after Earl’s enlightenment, Kara’s marriage ends.
There’s no revelation of infidelity, no violence, just a knot tied too young and “a long, slow slide into comfortable misery.” With uncertain freelance graphic design income and no health insurance, Kara can’t afford to keep the house even when Mark offers. She packs the few things she wants to keep, mostly books, crying too often. The horror of moving back in with her mother looms; they love each other but their relationship thrives on distance. Then, deus ex museum, uncle Earl calls. He’s just happened to clean out the spare room, and she’s welcome to stay while she sorts things out. Besides, he’s gotten gouty and would welcome help.
Kara accepts his offer and heads to Hog Chapel. She’s moved to find that Earl’s painted her room a warm yellow and hung Prince on the wall opposite a charmingly ornate four-poster bed. Not Prince the musician—Prince the Roosevelt elk, or at least his mounted head with its awesome spread of antlers. Six-year-old Kara identified the elk with Bambi’s father, the Prince of the Forest, and she’s loved it ever since.
Next morning Kara rouses herself for the Museum’s 9AM opening. Earl’s gotten Krispy Kreme doughnuts to welcome her back to the South. He asks her to fetch coffee from the cafe next door, and she realizes he’d rather not make the short walk himself. In addition to the gout, he wears a back brace and is obviously in more pain than he’ll admit.
Earl owns the building that houses both Museum and the Black Hen coffee shop, where Simon has been the barista for a decade. Nearly forty, he looks about eighteen and dresses like “a thrift-store Mad Hatter.” He commiserates about Kara’s divorce, then tells her the news about his left eye. Turns out it’s afflicted with a form of color-blindness only women get, so Simon must be a chimera who ate his female twin in the womb! Sometimes he sees weird shit with that eye. Kara wonders if he sees weird shit in the Museum, but given it’s already full of weird shit, how would he know?
Back in the Museum, Kara decides her first big job will be cataloging its contents, a task Earl’s never undertaken. Spreadsheets, photos, labels… she starts with Prince, affixing a sticker to the back of his plaque inscribed #1.
“That’s one down,” she mutters. “Another couple million to go.”
If there’s any fictional setting I find more alluring than a tome-stocked bookstore, it’s a curiosity emporium that could be more candidly described as a junk shop. But a good junk shop, a helluva junk shop, which Uncle Earl’s establishment decidedly is. He calls it a museum. That could be a ludicrous (or mildly fraudulent) label, except that Earl believes it’s a museum, and Earl’s capacity for belief is itself a Natural Wonder. I mean, Earl likes pretty much everyone he meets, in person and online, and has faith they’ll all come to the Lord in time to avoid hellfire.
That’s a wonder, all right, but an endearing one. No wonder Kara jumps at the chance to hunker down at Earl’s after a divorce low on drama but high on financial angst. Kingfisher has chosen her narrator well. Kara is predisposed to the museum by her lifelong attachment to both it and its proprietor. More skeptical and organized than her uncle—his ideal business partner—she’s nonetheless curious and imaginatively receptive to the whimsical and bizarre miscellany that is stock in trade of the Wonder Museum.
She is also in need of new digs, and the freer the better. Given Kara can count her museum chores as a labor of love as much as rent-via-labor, digs don’t come freer than Earl’s spare room. A huge added inducement for Kara (as it would be for many of us): There’s a coffee shop attached to the building, the barista is sympathetic, and the coffee is both great and gratis. So when things go hideously south at the Museum—and we know by the genre that they must—Kara has reasonable motives to stay on. In more or less ascending order of persuasion:
- She won’t find a cheaper alternative.
- Except Mom’s, and living with Mom means fighting with Mom.
- Simon’s next door, and she likes Simon.
- The Museum itself is a second home, quirky but comforting.
- From the start, Uncle Earl needs her help to run the place. Later, there’s no way she can abandon him to the things going hideously south. Nor can she abandon the neighborhood. Or the city, the state, the country, perhaps all Earthly life as we know it.
So—and this is important to me as a reader—I’m not forehead-butting my Kindle screen to shards because this dumbass character is staying in the Scary-And-Dangerous Place because the plot demands that SOMEONE be that much of a dumbass; otherwise, the Scary-And-Dangerous Things wouldn’t have anyone to Scare-And-Endanger.
Have you ever noticed that there’s a certain type of writer who caps words in direct proportion to how much of a pet peeve she’s writing about? Not that I’ve ever noticed any such thing, just wondering.
To recap, without caps. In her first two chapters, Kingfisher has powerfully hooked me with her setting, and a narrator with both engaging voice and adequate reasons to stick around and narrate. Kara’s divorce sends her to the cool setting, but isn’t so agonizing a development that it detracts from the plot. The other principal characters are equally engaging. In my experience, people like to characterize individuals with troubling beliefs as that uncle you have to put up with at Thanksgiving. I would put up with Uncle Earl for a full year of Thanksgivings, since he so amiably tempers his wacko ideas with tolerance and good humor. Simon—
Come on, Simon is a chimera! That’s in the biological sense of the word: an organism containing genetically mixed tissues created by embryonic fusion, grafting or mutation. It’s embryonic fusion for Simon, who’s apparently absorbed a female twin and so “inherited” her color-blind left eye. His optometrist got very excited. We readers can get even more excited when Simon adds that while his left eye is chromatically challenged (does this in part explain his wardrobe?), it sometimes sees “weird shit.” A friend with extraordinary sensory perception is likely to come in handy for Kara in her inevitable tribulations as co-proprietor of a junk shop (sorry, museum) in a dark fantasy novel.
About the taxidermatological exhibits in Earl’s collection. I think Kara’s classmates were justified in being creeped out. Now, poorly done taxidermy is more tacky-sad than scary. Well-done taxidermy—that is, taxidermied creatures that actually fool the eye into thinking they’re alive—those can be damn unnerving. Mounted body parts invite speculation on where the rest of their former owners may be. Embedded in the walls? Caught in a neighboring dimension? Full-body “stuffies” you really have to watch. Maybe that grizzly is just pretending to be dead and mounted. Maybe the minute you turn your back, it will bite your head off and put that on the wall. Remember Lovecraft and Heald’s “Horror in the Museum”? How some of the so-called waxwork monsters were actually taxidermied monsters? How the ultimate monster-god Rhan-Tegoth remained as motionless as a waxwork or a stuffy only because It required sustenance to awaken?
Kara might have read “The Horror in the Museum,” because Lovecraft is one of the authors whose books she rescues from the ruins of her marriage. If she did read it, could she have resisted comparing the madman Jones’s museum with uncle Earl’s?
If so, no problem for her. Earl’s enthusiasm for monsters is innocent, having only led to his collection of Mothman posters and Bigfoot videos. He acquires his specimens from flea markets, estate sales and the internet, not from ice-buried prehuman ruins in the Alaskan wilderness. He would never sacrifice dogs, or tourists, to evil extraterrestrial gods. He and Kara are perfectly safe in the quirky-yet-oddly-cozy storefront in Hog Chapel, North Carolina.
Right? Right. If nothing else, the Wonder Museum has a whole wall of Thimbles of the World as talismanic protection against preternatural incursions, and that’s got to put the Elder Sign to shame.
The Hollow Places marks my turn to reread a favorite, noting resonances and clever foreshadowings that I tore through too quickly to notice the first time. It’s a riff on Blackwood masterpiece “The Willows,” and Kingfisher (grownup-fiction nom du plume for Ursula Vernon) recalls our review of Blackwood as her probable introduction to said story, so your hostesses are both extremely chuffed and spiraling into a vortex of self-referentiality.
This read-through, the first thing that jumps out at me is a break from the original Blackwood: where Blackwood’s adventurous young men (and Carson and Ford’s adventurous young women) paddle into wilderness seeking non-supernatural adventure, Kara isn’t anticipating adventure until the weirdness drops on her doorstep. Instead we open—as in The Haunting of Hill House—with the journey to that doorstep, and to the hope of a happier life away from an unpleasant relationship. We’re therefore set up for “Willows” remixed as some hybrid of haunted house and portal fantasy, with the Wonder Museum both comfort and danger.
Like Anne, I love the museum as our baseline setting. It’s a roadside attraction, offering tame weirdness to both visitors and readers: the sort of place you go when you want your sense of reality turned upside down just a little, and comfort food in a diner afterwards. Mystery spots, giant balls of yarn, wunderkammer large and small… these are the stuff of the American gothic, and I don’t know whether I’m looking in the wrong places or whether they’re legitimately underutilized in weird fiction. (Why has Atlas Obscura not yet put out an anthology of stories inspired by their catalogued attractions, is what I’m asking.) But for Kara, the museum is an unquestionably safe refuge. The weirdness isn’t weird to her, and the taxidermied animals are old friends. She can wake up confident in her location, reality reassuringly absolute—making the contrast with what’s to come all the harsher.
Museums do appear on a regular basis in weird and fantastic fiction, and my appetite on this front is basically insatiable. Modest or gargantuan, fruits of single obsessive collectors or institutions staffed like universities, they offer giant piles of shiny knowledge, tangible evidence of deep time, and a reminder that our most everyday experiences will someday confuse archaeologists. They also provide excuse for just about any object you might need to touch off your plot. Their keepers can be experts in whatever obscure subject requires explaining, and the non-plot-related collections provide endless background color. Our column has so far visited the Parrington, the Cabot Museum of Archaeology, and the Rogers Museum. The Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities, and Taxidermy makes a worthy addition.
People as much as place provide Kara’s comfortable baseline. Uncle Earl is weird and kind and believes in all the things. (Possibly making it easy for all the things to show up in his little corner of reality, oh dear.) Simon is weird and friendly and sees strange things out of his chimerical eye (kind of like Blackwood’s unnamed Swede, oh dear). One of the things I adore about Kingfisher’s writing is the way all her relationships are so thoroughly themselves, and so thoroughly unmistakable for any other kind of relationship. Kara’s fraught interactions with her mother are instantly recognizable, as is her ease with Earl. Her friendship with Simon is a delight, and is very clearly deep friendship with no hint of romance. (And boy, can Kingfisher write a romance when she wants to. Though where her horror books tend to start out gentle, the romances often have more blood up front.) The relationships provide another solid foundation to contrast with the extremely un-solid universe in which Kara is soon to learn that she lives.
This Week’s Metrics
The Degenerate Dutch: Kara keeps trying to get Uncle Earl to either put a label on the Feejee Mermaid explaining the cultural context, or just rename the thing.
Weirdbuilding: Looking back at our “Willows” review, I recall the importance of river otters, or things that might be mistaken for river otters. And here’s the Wonder Museum’s “truly amazing” taxidermied river otter, right on cue. Also a kayak paddle.
Libronomicon: Kara spends a good part of this section dealing with the horrors of moving a giant collection of books, combined with the horrors of determining custody of said books in a divorce. She’s taking the Pratchett, dammit, along with the Lovecraft (of course) and the Bear. (Based on her other tastes, I’m guessing Elizabeth rather than Greg.) Mark gets the P.K. Dick.
The commentary about disturbing animal books ostensibly for kids, Watership Down versus Bambi, is possibly not unrelated to the author writing her own animal books for kids (as Ursula Vernon, in that case).
Spring is coming, and we’re enjoying watching all the birds coming back. Daphne Du Maurier’s “The Birds,” that is. You can find it most easily in her The Birds and Other Stories collection.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, weird and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.