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 5-6 of T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Places, first published in 2020. Spoilers ahead—but we strongly recommend reading along!
“Oh, shit, it’s brain goblins.”
Kara and Simon congratulate each other on remaining very calm about the impossible corridors and large impossible room they’ve discovered behind the wall. Kara remains so calm that, seeing signs of water incursion, she worries about it leaking into the ostensibly-underlying Museum. They study the graffiti but can’t decide what language it’s in—the writing strikes Kara as vaguely Cyrillic.
Simon spots a door opposite the one they entered: rusty industrial metal, its three heavy bolts masses of oxidized iron. Kara asks if Simon can open it. Why, he asks. Do you wanna get eaten by monsters or unlock a portal to hell?
Instead they retreat to the hallway already traversed, to get a brief but potent scare when Beau the cat’s eyes shine green in their phones’ flashlight beams. Of course he’s followed them. Kara grabs Beau, and they return to the Museum. After covering the drywall hole with a batik tapestry and a cardboard Elvis cutout, they regroup over Irish coffee and Chinese take-out. Refreshed, Kara suggests another outing into the impossible. She’s still hoping that with better flashlights and measuring tape they can prove the hidden space is real, but constructed to create optical illusions. Simon’s reluctant, but agrees to go with her the next evening.
Could it mean anything that Kara’s take-out fortune cookie reads, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”?
Simon arrives dressed in proper exploratory gear of camo cargos, black fishnets, stompy boots, and a top hat. Kara hasn’t told her uncle about their discovery, not wanting to disturb him before his surgery. This time they explore the lefthand corridor, which should lead toward the boutique. Instead they find another door, stuck in place but wide enough to squeeze through. The room beyond is small, containing a single bed, a metal cupboard, a 55-gallon drum and a litter of empty tin cans. On the bed is a body. A dead body.
Kara and Simon clutch each other, but the body doesn’t rise. It’s obviously been dead a long time, being mostly bone and patches of blackened skin. Kara’s first thought is to call the police. Simon’s adamantly against that, given he has a twenty-year-old outstanding warrant for dealing LSD. Also, does she want the Museum overrun for weeks while the cops investigate what they’re now calling the concrete bunker? No cops, Kara agrees.
They return to the Museum. Kara notices that the edges of the makeshift doorway are concrete on the bunker side, drywall on the Museum side. Simon cuts an experimental hole from the Museum side, which falls into the bunker a six-inch thick chunk of concrete. More mystery, more impossibility, more evidence that the bunker side is another whole plane of existence.
They consider closing the door between worlds. Drywall seems too flimsy, concrete too difficult. Simon gets a sheet to cover the dead body. Kara presses continued exploration, again overcoming Simon’s reluctance. On the condition they will immediately retreat if the door in the large room reveals alien egg sacs or wicker men or clowns, he fetches his tools. While he’s gone, Kara spots a piece of wood just inside the bunker. It turns out to be the otter-corpse carving. It must have fallen in when the tourist knocked a hole into the wall and upset its shelf. Huh. She puts it on a case of taxidermied raccoons.
They re-enter the large room and, with better illumination, notice graffiti in a different style from the “Cyrillic” examples, still undecipherable. Someone other than the dead man’s been here? Kara wonders if they should have brought weapons, but neither are familiar with guns. Simon chisels the rusted bolts off the metal door, and together they tug it open.
To their confusion, bright daylight pours through—in their world, it’s still night. Kara wriggles through the tight opening first, to find herself on a small landing with stairs leading to an open door. She creeps upward and sees that the whiteness filling the door is a sky thick with fog, drifting over sluggishly moving water.
The door opens onto a tiny hump-shaped island covered with thick grass. Dozens of other tiny islands recede into the mist….
Welcome back to whatever-it-is beyond the Wonder Museum’s second-floor wall! As Chapter 5 opens, Kara and Simon have just confronted evidence that the “found space” can’t possibly be over Earl’s building: A concrete room, heavily graffitied, where there should be empty air over the street. However, their first exchange shows they’re not ready to take David Byrne’s advice and stop making sense. I’m not blaming them—who among us wants to believe in the unbelievable?
Or wait. Who among us doesn’t want to believe in the unbelievable? Want is the operative word here. I would like for cryptids to be real, but reason and lack of evidence forbids my belief. How cool would chupacabras be, if you aren’t one of the livestock whose blood they like to suck, and if they don’t sometimes consider people livestock….
Forget chupacabras. Let’s posit Bigfoot instead. I’d like to believe in Bigfoot, but I don’t. Uncle Earl, on the other hand, does believe in Bigfoot. Lots of people believe in a lot of things lacking reasonable evidence; we won’t delve into Real-Life religion and politics here, however deep one can delve in those fertile soils.
I view Kara and Simon as realists. They want to believe in the believable. They expect reality to be real, comprehensible and non-contradictory. The difference between them is that “supernaturally” sighted Simon has wider parameters for what can be real. Not that Kara is narrow-minded, but Simon’s mind (like his fashion sense) is singularly open. He can credit that Our-World impossibilities like black magic and aliens may be Other-World realities, and that these alternate realities may under certain circumstances be accessible to us. Kara clings more stubbornly to the reality she already knows. During their first mutual-debriefing in the coffee shop, Kara wants to scream at Simon that “there was nothing there and none of it had happened.” On her way to pick up their take-out, she inspects the brick facade of Earl’s building and struggles to convince herself it could conceal an additional level. That additional level could be full of optical illusions, which is why, when they explore the found space again, they’d better bring a tape measure.
Simon consistently thinks one of them should say “Don’t go in there;” sometimes horror movies have important things to teach us. Nevertheless, he goes along with Kara, I think for both his own curiosity and for fellowship’s sake.
Then they find a very dead body, which makes things very real indeed. Corpses, however antique, do not suggest a Safe Place. That aside, one has to do something about them, right? Kara’s immediate impulse would work fine in Our-World: Call the police. Simon has a good Our-World reason not to call the police: his outstanding warrant, which is sure to come up when the cops start a murder investigation and look into his and Kara’s backgrounds. Taking this into account, Kara adds another Our-World objection—does she really want the Wonder Museum shut down while investigators investigate?
Then, finally, she hits on the biggest objection of them all, which is whether Our-World cops have jurisdiction in impossible spaces. Oddly for an SFF fan, Kara doesn’t think about phoning the FBI and asking for Agents Mulder and Scully. On second thought, Kara, forget the FBI, because if they did come to look into a crime committed across dimensional lines, they would shut down the Museum of Wonders permanently and make it Area 52 (or whatever number the government’s up to for hypersecretive installations.)
In the end, the best thing they can do for the dead body is to show respect by covering it with Simon’s flowery bedsheet. This frees them to do the next obvious thing, which is either seal off the bunker and “forget” about it, or continue their explorations. At this point, their observation that drywall sawn from the Museum side falls into the bunker side as concrete has forced Kara to give up hope that the bunker is a weird-but-not-Other-Worldly space.
Its Other-Worldliness established, the bunker becomes for her a much more sinister place—there’s no telling what can happen there. At the same time, her curiosity rises irresistible, and so does Simon’s for all his muttering about horror movies. Being who they are, they have to learn what’s behind that rusted-shut door in the circular room. Don’t they? Wouldn’t you? Or could you appreciate that one last warning that Kara ignores?
While Simon goes for his tools, she finds the corpse-otter effigy inside the bunker. It briefly unnerves her to think the bunker effigy is a second one summoned by Earl’s original; when its Museum ID sticker assures her this isn’t the case, she assumes the effigy was knocked into the bunker when some tourist broke the drywall. Oh, that pesky-tourist theory! Can we fault Kara for clinging to it so tenaciously, instead of at least considering it was the EFFIGY that did the dimension-spanning deed?
Back when the otter-corpse carving arrived at the Museum complete with a Danube provenance, I assumed Kara could never have read “The Willows.” Otherwise, she’d have been more than vaguely creeped out by the thing. Continuing to assume her Blackwood-deficiency, I forgive her for not associating the carving with the break-through.
To be fair, as I conjectured in an earlier post, “The Willows” and Blackwood don’t even have to exist in Kingfisher’s fictional world. Is it a clue they don’t that Earl’s collector friend is named Algernon “Woody” Morwood?
The fictional fact is that Kara and Simon explore on, and suddenly there she is, confronted by a foggy riverscape dotted with grassy islands. Since she’s already accepted the bunker space as a Place Other Than Hog Chapel, she doesn’t need to freak out at the sight, or at seeing it’s day here while still night in Hog Chapel. Even so, the daylight makes Kara realize her mind still struggles to make the Other Place normal, not Other—it’s not daylight, just a really bright streetlamp in front of the Museum. Or something. Please, something.
It endears Kara to me that she clamps down on the rationalizations, understanding they rise from panic. One thing at a time, she thinks. You’ll figure it out when you get there. That’s the proper mindset for a budding paranormal explorer!
Not that a proper mindset guarantees the explorer won’t get eaten by Simon’s brain goblins. Brain goblins are the worst, or—
Are they? Who wants to bet Kara and Simon will soon find out?
There’s a bit in a Michael Crichton book—spoilers for Prey if you care, which I don’t recommend doing—where a swarm of nanobots has just achieved sapience. A developmental psychologist, delighted by the idea of collecting comparative data on a brand-new intelligence, goes to talk with it. Whereupon she promptly gets eaten because Michael Crichton because the bots were programmed based on the staying-together behavior of pack predators, and thus are obviously if you’re Michael Crichton predators who hunger for human flesh. And what really pisses me off about this scene is that this is treated as only what she deserves for acting like she’s in a science fiction novel, rather than intuiting that she’s really in a Michael Crichton thriller and also a woman.
One of the many things I love about The Hollow Places is that instant genre identification isn’t treated as an achievable virtue. Indeed, our protagonists argue about it delightfully. They’re genre savvy, sure, but have no way of knowing whether they’re in a portal fantasy, a science fiction adventure full of interplanetary exploration, or interdimensional horror. Their curiosity isn’t treated as foolish optimism, but as a sympathetic gamble. C’mon, you’re gonna tell me that you’re capable of finding an impossible hole in the wall and not going through? Or not grabbing some kit and going back for deeper exploration? (Itself a gamble; try to pack sensibly before a trip to Narnia and you’ll find yourself pounding on the back wall of your closet.)
Even the corpse isn’t a dead giveaway of genre (sorry). There are corpses a-plenty in Narnia, around the Guardian of Forever, and on a bad day probably near your local TARDIS parking spot too. Really, all that tells you is that you’ve bumped into Plot, and at that point you might as well go forward because there’s no avoiding further complications.
Science works whether or not you believe in it. So, unfortunately, does cosmic horror.
I do appreciate the practicality of Simon and Kara’s approach to interdimensional exploration. They want to be able to see, and measure, and find their way back home. I also appreciate the limits on that practicality. Simon is going to look absolutely fabulous whatever he encounters, complete with top hat. He’s also going to limit the possibilities for handing things over to the authorities when they get out of hand. This is probably a good thing—I strongly suspect that portal horror and broken space-time laws are among the many crises for which cops are not actually trained.
And boy, the laws of space-time are definitely being broken. Forget “bigger on the inside,” which is a fairly standard violation, probably good for a traffic ticket stuck to the windshield of your TARDIS. The bit with the wall that’s definitely made of drywall, and also definitely made of concrete… that’s further down the rabbit hole. The point where the transition between worldviews is no longer deniable.
At which point, it’s time to go outside. And our change of perspective is complete. On to adventure—even if, unfortunately, this really isn’t Narnia.
This week’s metrics:
What’s Cyclopean: The second door has “wept rust in long red streaks,” a vividly appropriate image.
Weirdbuilding: Genre options: getting eaten by monsters, portal to hell, dying in the first five minutes of a horror movie, brain goblins, black magic, aliens, neutral magic with no significant moral imperative, haunted house, portal to Narnia, silent monsters and things that appear out of nowhere and snatch you away, serial killers from another dimension, pocket consisting entirely of two rooms and a connecting hallway.
You know, when you list them all out in one place, most of those options are really not good.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Maybe this is all actually just a black mold hallucination? It would in fact be one of the better options.
Next week, more gnoles! Specifically Margaret St. Clair’s “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles.” You can find it in The Weird.
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.