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 Chapters 3-4 of T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Places, first published in 2020. Spoilers ahead—but we strongly recommend reading along!
“‘It’s a bit weird, yeah.’ Coming from a man wearing a T-shirt proclaiming BIGFOOT LIVES!!!, this was quite a statement.”
Kara has settled into a comfortable daily rhythm at uncle Earl’s museum. Mornings after coffee and the pastry of the day, she does whatever chores require legwork while Earl mans the front counter. Afternoons, she continues the Herculean task of cataloguing the museum’s highly miscellaneous contents. After they close, she goes next door to mooch the coffee shop Wi-Fi and work on freelance design projects, mostly business logos and wedding invitations. While she works, barista Simon tells stories about his Florida childhood: how he almost got eaten by alligators, twice, how his parents moonlighted weekends as religious-party clowns.
Back in the museum, she huddles in the wi-fi sweet spot under the portrait of Pope John Paul done entirely in sunflower seeds, and peruses her social media. She is not stalking her ex; his posts only pop up because, given their Friendly Divorce, it would be petty to unfollow him. He posts: “Today is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.” How did she ever live with him? Then there are pictures of him getting friendly with a coworker, but he’s allowed to have new relationships. And so is she. Only with whom, and why worry about it when the museum feels more like home every day? The taxidermied animals that might unnerve others seem like benevolent guardians; Earl’s kindness has “infused every corner of his beloved museum.”
Her cataloguing races to keep pace with the too-frequent boxes of donations. Earl’s old friend Woody at least provides provenance notes. Among bones and skulls and a fish-leather mask (that smells like lunch to Wonder Museum cat Beau) is a wood carving both Kara and Earl find creepy: One side is an otter with a weirdly broad head and an “un-otter-like expression”; the other is a human corpse wrapped in a shroud. Per Woody’s note, this “corpse-otter effigy” comes from the Danube area circa 1900. Earl asks Kara to put it, thematically, with their stuffed Amazonian otter. She clears a shelf and installs the piece. Her hands feel greasy, as if from a “malicious taint,” but then again, she’s also been handling fish leather.
Three weeks into her stay at Earl’s, his knees finally give out. The doctors recommend surgery that will put him out of commission for weeks. Kara arranges for him to stay with her mother (his sister) while recuperating, leaving her to run the museum alone.
Apart from some technical problems, the museum at first presents no major crises. Then one evening she discovers that some tourist has knocked an eighteen-inch hole in the drywall near the Amazonian otter exhibit. A shelf lies on the floor; her bigger concern is mending the hole. No great handywoman, she’s relieved when Simon volunteers to help.
After closing the coffee shop, he totes tools and patching supplies to the museum. Peering into the jagged rent, he discovers a bigger problem than the hole. Kara fears leaking pipes or asbestos; what Simon’s cell phone flashlight reveals is neither. Nor is it the expected back of a wall in the adjoining coffee shop. It’s a concrete hallway!
Kara asks Simon to enlarge the hole so they can explore the mystery space—curiosity and the chance of gaining more exhibit space override the likely increased repair costs. Simon saws out a doorway, and they step through onto a concrete floor and—complete silence. The corridor stretches at least thirty feet in both directions. Was it part of the Underground Railroad? Improbable in a building put up in 1907. Moonshining tunnels seem more likely.
They explore in the direction of the coffee shop. The darkness and scaling paint remind Simon of an abandoned mental hospital he snuck into as a teenager. They reach the end of the corridor, except it’s not the end—the corridor takes a right turn. But how? Where can there be room for all this hidden space in a two-story building of finite width? Have they stirred up black mold? Are they hallucinating?
If so, they might as well keep going.
The new corridor brings them to a doorway into a circular room forty feet wide, with graffiti-tagged concrete walls and a gritty concrete floor marked with wavy lines, as if the room has been flooded in the past.
Kara comes to an insane but inevitable conclusion: There’s no damn way this room can fit in the Wonder Museum.
The more of this stuff I read, the more the moment of transition fascinates me. At some point in most of these stories—barring those that start well after the breakdown of reality or from the point of view of a seasoned investigator or I, Monster—the protagonist has to either accept that their original understanding of reality was shockingly wrong, or go into deep, deep denial.
This series started with Lovecraft, who inspired a good portion of the modern weird but who remains pretty strange on this front. His obsession was with that moment of revelation, and his assumption was that the revelation itself was even more terrifying than the things that Things could do to you. Whole stories are built around admitting that your memories are real, or that your family genealogy is maybe not completely human/upper-class Anglo. It took me a while to realize that the character’s revelation isn’t intended to be a revelation to the reader—the point is to follow a psychological journey that the reader would themselves prefer (Lovecraft assumes) to avoid personally. It’s the horror of changing your mind. Indeed, in some cases safety hinges on “civilized” people refusing to change their minds in the face of staggeringly persuasive, even guiltily tempting, evidence.
It’s no surprise that few authors have actually copied this format, as it’s hard to pull off if you’re either less terrified of being Wrong About the World, or less drawn to write about it anyway. Failing to believe the evidence is another option: My Kid is Just Fine, and Totally Not a Ghoul. Slow acceptance is a subtler possibility. Last week’s “The Birds” follows Nat, survivor of one horror, into accepting that he’s entered another and may never make it out, even as he tries to provide tenuous deniability for the people he loves.
But for many stories, belief is just the beginning—it’s what frees you to start the adventure, or run away from the monster, or solve the unbelievable problem, at all. Which means you’ve go to go through Lovecraft’s worst thing in the world expediently on your way to even worse wonders. And your ability to do that, how you do that, is deeply shaped by character. This week’s chapters bridge that change, with two characters strangely suited to it.
I love how Kingfisher gives us in the first three chapters not only our ostensibly-familiar baseline reality, but Simon and Kara’s baseline perception of that reality. What’s actually weird to them? What’s scary? For Kara, the default-creepy stuff is comforting background. Frozen dead animals with staring glass eyes might keep you awake at night, but they’re her guardian angels. She’s also a graphic designer who pays careful attention to what things look like: all their beauty and ugliness and symbolism. This is not an unreliable narrator—her background suggests that we can trust not only her descriptions of her experiences, but her judgment about what’s actually frightening. If she thinks something is creepy, better run now.
Of course, she’s also just come out of a miserable marriage and had her world turned upside down, so she may not trust her instincts as far as the reader is ready to.
Simon, by contrast, is maybe an urban legend. Ambiguous of age, with a medical condition that makes little sense but makes a great story—and full of great stories. He can talk for hours, entertainingly, about all his close calls and wild experiences. He seems unflappable, but also like someone who’s always performing, a little too self-conscious to get at the truth easily. He’s full of unexpected skills from wall repair to urban exploration, many of which could come in handy in unexpected situations. In other words, he’s a great choice of companion for any trip through the looking glass. Except that you don’t know, and maybe neither does he, what will happen when something pierces his narrative armor.
In Chapter 4, we get the actual transition. It’s simple for now—barely unbelievable, a mere discontinuity of architecture. It’s almost something that could actually happen without violating your understanding of physics. Given what we know of our guides, it’s little surprise that they’re willing to accept it.
They might be more reluctant, if they knew what was going to follow.
This week’s metrics:
Libronomicon: In her downtime, Kara reads (unspecified) fanfic. Pick your own headcanons; I’m guessing Aslan slash.
Weirdbuilding: An old trophy hunter—one of the museum’s many donors, and the source of the 8-foot river otter—leads Kara to think about the “bleak down-at-the-bone enchantment” of fairy-tale horror. It’s an interesting description, and a contrast to the sort of awe-inspiring magic that might seem more appropriate for a museum focused on wonders.
I trusted Kingfisher not to leave out that necessary denizen of any self-respecting junk shop, er, storefront museum of natural curiosities: The presiding four-legged guardian. It might have been a dog, but a cat is a better choice, I think, especially an immense tabby with “a personality like a benevolent feline Genghis Khan.” Cats both embody and appreciate mystery. They can overnight by themselves without having nervous breakdowns about pack abandonment. And they can catch all those damn taxidermy-munching rodents. If Beauregard—Beau—does occasionally nibble on some fish leather, he’s earned it; besides, ew, fish leather. You can have too much of that stuff, what with the greasy, malicious taint it leaves on your fingers. Or was it the otter-corpse effigy that left the taint?
Nah, can’t be. While Kara and Earl both get creepy vibes from the effigy, Beau doesn’t so much as arch his back. That proves there’s nothing supernatural about it, because cats always sense the uncanny. Unless, maybe, when they’re distracted by fish leather?
Beau can be excused from ignoring Woody’s note on the effigy’s provenance, since he can’t read. Earl can read, but his preferred works of literature are the Bible and anything about Mothman and Bigfoot and government-concealed space aliens. It’s Kara whose salvaged books show her to be an SFF fan. You’d think “Carved corpse-otter effigy, Danube area, circa 1900” would have set off warning bells for her. Corpse-otter, Danube, 1900ish—wait a minute, that’s like something from Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows,” published 1907! We better send this sucker back to old “friend” Woody, if not straight to the Miskatonic University Archives!
Oh, cut Kara a break. Not every SFF fan has read “The Willows.” Nor need “The Willows” even exist in the fictional world of “The Hollow Places,” although I’m inclined to think it does, and that Kara may eventually realize that Blackwood’s story was based on terrible fact.
Chapter Three establishes that, though the life-disruptions of divorce and her ex-husband’s apparent transfer of affections still trouble Kara, she’s found a physically and emotionally comfortable haven at the Wonder Museum. The previous chapter has shown her competence as a museum keeper and prepared for Uncle Earl’s honorable exit from the main storyline. No need to kill off the old guy to leave Kara alone in the shop—bad knees are a more than adequate excuse, and Kara has plenty of drama coming at her in Chapter Four.
She handles tech glitches and confusing bills and cat puke without a hitch, but that eighteen-inch hole in the drywall is more daunting to someone with weak handyperson credentials. It’s credible that Kara blames the hole on a museum visitor too embarrassed to ‘fess up; it’s credible that, given the omnipresent clutter, she doesn’t remember what was on the hole-associated fallen shelf. Yet, given how singular the otter-corpse effigy was, could there be something more afoot than a natural lapse of memory?
Delightfully, Simon proves that a cross-dressing barista with possible second sight can also know all about spackle and wield a mean reciprocating saw. I so need him to move next door to me, but all right, Kara can have him for now. She’ll need a two-time alligator survivor with a quirky mindset to accompany her into what lies behind that damaged wall. Whereas, in order to visualize the space, I kind of need floor plans to Uncle Earl’s building.
Could be me. When I watch HGTV, I want the plans for each featured house, so I know where everything is. I’m thinking Earl’s building has three retail spaces, the oft-changing boutique and the museum and the coffee shop. Or maybe just the museum and coffee shop? Anyway, the museum and coffee shop share a wall, which should actually be two interior walls with little space between them. The two interior walls should run perpendicular to the front and rear walls of the building, making them only as long as the building is deep. What confuses me is why Kara thinks the exposed concrete corridor goes “clear to the end of the block,” which implies that it runs along the back of the building. But then it sounds like the right-turn corridor runs along the back of the building, an “outer wall of the coffee shop,” where per Simon there are windows. [RE: I think the building takes up a whole, small, block. So anything that crosses the whole building would likewise cross the whole block. Hypothetically.]
Never mind. I’m going with a between-shops wall that right turns into what should be the rear of the building. In trying to make sense of what has really stopped making sense as soon as Simon peers through the original hole, I’m identifying with him and Kara. Faced with a highly improbable concrete corridor between the museum and coffee shop and an even more highly improbable concrete corridor where there should be the coffee shop’s rear windows, the two struggle mightily to place their discovery in the reality they know. To do so, however, forces them to further skew that reality, with Kara trying to put a third floor on Earl’s two-story building and Simon trying to pin their perceptions on black-mold hallucinations, only why would they be having identical hallucinations?
Ironically, it must be a relief to the explorers to enter the circular room that in “just no damn way” can be part of the Wonder Museum. Now they, like me, can stop trying to reconcile known floor plans with what they actively perceive. They can acknowledge they’ve stepped not between walls but between worlds.
They aren’t in Hog Chapel anymore. Our so-far pleasant ride is about to get interesting, and too likely in the sense of the curse.
Next week, a weird businessman seeks weirder targets in Lord Dunsany’s “How Nuth Would Have Practiced His Art Upon the Gnoles.”
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.