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 7-8 of T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Places, first published in 2020. Spoilers ahead—but we strongly recommend reading along!
“We’re in the woods between the worlds and we’ve lost track of which one is ours…”
Feeling the mist-shrouded sun of another world on her skin, Kara realizes nothing can be taken for granted here. The quiet is oppressive, the rounded grassy islands too evenly spaced to be natural–they make her think of the barrows where ancient people buried their dead. Now she notices larger and less artificial-looking islands covered in short trees. She recognizes them from their silvery leaves: osier willows.
Kara and Simon climb atop their island; from that vantage, they see that it’s teardrop-shaped, as are dozens of other tiny islands stretching to the horizon. Upstream are more tiny islands, each with a single metal door in its side: some open, some ajar, some closed. Do they dare wade to another island to look inside? Simon sums it up: As much as they may not want to, can they spend the rest of their lives wondering what’s “behind door number one…number two…number fifty…”
Before they venture forth, Simon digs a deadlock set and drill from his bag and installs the lock in their bunker door. Now they’ll have a safe place to retreat should zombies or Godzilla show up.
The first island they splash to is a sandy spit covered in willows whose leaves whisper in the wind. They remind Kara of video game bugs that dump the player into the stage-set underpinnings beneath the virtual world’s pixel-deep skin. She feels as if the willows could be a skin of the same stuff as the island- and river-shaped skins, all covering “something vast and hollow. Hollow, but not empty.” She and Simon notice cone-shaped depressions in the sand: Ant lions, maybe?
They move on to door-bearing islands. The first door is rusted shut. The second is ajar, but its bunker is flooded with murky water. Next they try a larger “natural” island that sports willows, dune grasses, and even hunched trees. Kara drives a dead branch into the bank to guide them back to their “own” bunker. Rain begins to fall. Pushing on, they find — a rusty, willow-overgrown school bus buried axle-deep in the sand! To graphic designer Kara’s eye, its yellow paint is a bit too orange, and where in “our” world is Byricopa County? A sudden cloudburst drives them into the bus. Its green leather seats are empty, but when Kara moves to sit on one, Simon stops her. He can’t say why, just don’t. Not one to ignore Simon’s chimeric second sight, Kara sits with him on the floor beside the empty driver’s seat.
Kara dozes off. She dreams the bus seats aren’t quite unoccupied–schoolchildren fill them, only they’re inside the seats, moving restlessly beneath the green leather, stretching it into the shapes of their limbs and faces, murmuring to each other in the groans of leather and creaks of springs.
Too bad it’s not a dream, for Kara jolts wide awake to the same grotesque scene. Simon sees the trapped children, too. And Kara has an urgent sense of the driver in the seat next to her, invisible; if she could look sideways or through, she could meet their eyes!
Kara and Simon race from the bus. But the cloudburst has swollen the river, the river has swallowed Kara’s branch-marker, and across the water all the bunker-islands look alike. Lost much?
After a pause for Simon’s well-earned panic attack, the pair begins hunting for their door home. Several failures later, Kara’s almost ready to take any portal out of the Willow-world, if only they could find one. They settle for a reasonably dry bunker in which to wait out the encroaching night. Then Kara glimpses movement outside the bunker entry. She and Simon instinctively drop down to hide.
On the river floats a figure standing in a small boat, poling like a gondolier. It looks human enough: male, with a seamed face under a broad-brimmed hat, wearing clothes so nondescript they might belong to any region or era. Again Kara has the impression of “watching a thin skin of reality stretched over something vast and hollow.” One thing she’s sure of: She doesn’t want the boatman to see her.
He poles past, apparently oblivious to their presence.
They explore the new bunker, similar to the one “attached” to the Wonder Museum. Brass shells litter the floor, remnants of a serious gunfight. There are plenty of stains that might be blood, but no indication of what the shooters were aiming at. On one wall someone’s scratched a warning in letters eighteen inches high: THEY CAN HEAR YOU THINKING.
It’s Kara’s turn to panic. She doesn’t speculate aloud about who THEY may be. The schoolbus ghosts? The boatman? The willows themselves? Heading for a second internal door, they see another scratched message: PRAY THEY ARE HUNGRY.
Kara says nothing. Simon says nothing. They seem to stand on a soap bubble that could pop at the least breath, sending them into screaming breakdown. Kara turns from the warning, and they walk through the second door.
This week’s metrics:
What’s Cyclopean: If you want 50-cent words, the willow leaves make a susurration, or perhaps a murmuration, as they rustle against each other. (I’m not sure about the murmuration—sound there is only a secondary meaning, after the term for a flock of starlings. Then again, perhaps a flock of something that moves in ever-shifting formation is not so far from the truth. Eek.)
Weirdbuilding: Besides Narnia and video games, we also get brief mention of Hannibal Lecter. Also zombies and Godzilla. But these familiar horror taper off quickly in the face of admitting that this world’s horrors are nothing so well-known.
And this week our heroes figure out for sure what genre they’re in. It’s not a happy answer. That bus… OMG, I had definitely not forgotten the bus, I will never forget the bus, but I had perhaps suppressed the exact degree of eughhh involved with the bus. In general, this book hits all the buttons required to get around my usual hard-to-scare jadedness. Body horror more disturbing than gory? Check. Thinking the wrong thing will get you into deep dendo? Check. Cosmic-scale loss of car in parking garage? Also check.
That last is legit one of my regular nightmares—wandering around some strange landscape, unable to find what I need to get home. Admittedly it’s usually an airport gate, but searching for one specific bunker-island amid a riverscape of near-identical bunker-islands in Dimension X is not better.
I’ve been commenting regularly about the book’s focus on the process of coming to believe, and of moving from familiar reality to admission of unfamiliar reality. It’s made explicit here, as Kara comments that “C. S. Lewis had not spent nearly enough time on the sudden realization, when moving between worlds, that nothing could be taken for granted.” It’s all a matter of how you see that movement, I suppose. Lewis was writing about religious revelation, about the ecstasy and awe of belief opening up a literal new world–full of dangers, but also of greater purpose and certainty. Kara’s newfound world opens up instead opportunities for doubt and loss of purpose. Kingfisher plays up this contrast: where previously genre leaned towards horror, now Kara mostly makes Narnia comparisons. Just so we know, we’re in Anti-Narnia now.
“Not in Narnia Now” seems like the sort of ominous, context-begging statement that someone could paint on one of those bunker walls. If I’m ever stranded in Dimension X and facing a horrible fate, I want you all to hold me to the standard of good documentation. I do get, I really do, that in the midst of very reasonably panic-inducing events, one might be inclined to just graffiti out the sentence that’s stuck in one’s head. If you’ve been thinking “They Can Hear You Thinking” over and over, getting it on concrete and out of your head might help avoid Their notice for a few more hours. But really, if there’s any chance that someone else might find themselves in the same pickle, adding a footnote or two is just good citizenship. Pray They Are Hungry… thanks, I guess. That definitely helps me think more calmly and quietly. Not. At least “Their tongues—ahhhh—” comes with preceding documentation.
Aside from Narnia, our primary reference this week is video games. Specifically, the way that the wrong bug can make it plain that you’re moving through an illusion—that you can break through the world’s skin, only a pixel deep, and find yourself on the wrong side. It’s a brilliant, creepy metaphor, and I love it in part because these stories so often look to the old for both scariness (ancient houses!) and safety (versus every-shifting and untrustworthy modernity). But the terror of whatever’s behind the willows doesn’t have any connection to human time periods. Kara draws on all her experience, whether it’s video games or the ability to identify the precise shade and font of a not-so-normal school bus.
In the midst of this horror, Simon and Kara’s friendship remains a spot of contrasting brightness. Kara even thinks about how much worse the whole thing would be with her ex by her side. And we see them take turns panicking, which is honestly one of my standards for teamwork.
If you’ve got to be lost in Dimension X, it does help just a little to be stuck there with a good friend.
Nope, Kara and Simon aren’t in Hog Chapel anymore. Nor are they in Narnia, though the bunker-island set-up reminds Kara of C. S. Lewis’s Wood between the Worlds. In that Wood, each identical-looking pool leads to a different world, and you have to mark your pool to make sure you don’t lose it. She and Simon could argue forever about whether the Willow-world stretches on for miles or whether (as Simon speculates hopefully) it’s a “teeny” bubble-universe only a hundred yards across, encapsulated in fog. But they just don’t know.
Or let me express that in a way typographically sensitive Kara would appreciate: THEY JUST DON’T FREAKING KNOW! Dumped into a nonfictional out-of-homeworld experience, Kara severely faults Lewis for not spending enough time on how reality-hopping would screw up a person. She takes comfort in the seemingly familiar: the call of a killdeer, that the willows are identifiable as the earthly osier variety, that sand here looks to have developed via the same geological processes as Earth sand and that those odd funnels in it must be the traps of ant lions, like the ones in her ex-mother-in-law’s Texas yard, oh, and isn’t it a relief Kara won’t ever have to spend Thanksgiving in Texas again, barraged by the not-so-humble brags of her “relentlessly successful” ex-sister-in-law. How weird can her situation be when it includes things so mundane that they stream-of-consciousness her to the homely upsides of her divorce?
How weird? You JUST DON’T FREAKING KNOW, Kara. Bottom line, as you realize with dread: You can’t take anything for granted in Willow-world. The sun here might never burn off fog, night might never come, gravity might take a vacation every Tuesday. Dread thrives in the gaps of our knowledge, like monsters in the blank spaces of antique maps. Speaking of monsters, when you can’t take for granted that they don’t exist, they could lurk behind every rusted door, within every rustling willow. In school buses, too. Kara feels immediate unease over the wrongness of the bus’s paint color (“carrot,” not “goldenrod”!) and the serif font of its lettering (should be sans serif!) This wrongness–this unexpectedness–will vastly escalate into children who don’t fidget and bounce on the bus seats because the seats have sucked them in. At least they can give themselves temporary shape by distending the upholstery, some semblance of voice by creaking the springs. The driver has been rendered “empty space” still somehow, terrifyingly, not quite empty.
I thought the school bus that Stephen King packs with vampire kids in ‘Salem’s Lot was the scariest school bus in literature, but Kingfisher’s competes. What would have happened to Kara if she had snuggled down for a nap on one of those innocuous faux-leather seats? Go on and think about it, as Kingfisher implicitly dares us to.
Post-bus, Kara and Simon have lost all their zeal for exploring Willow-world, a sensible reaction to discovering that it does after all follow horror-movie protocols. Also in keeping with said protocols, when they most want to go home, and NOW, the way home is lost. We knew it would be from the moment Kara started thinking she had the location of their bunker down, no problem. Neither the story gods of Earth nor of Willow-world could forgive such trail-marking hubris. It shows what a good guy Simon is that even in the throes of his well-earned panic attack, he doesn’t vociferously blame Kara for their predicament.
It’s now both darkly humorous and psychologically credible for Kara to alternate between worrying about how she’ll be late opening the Museum for Saturday visitors and how she will have left a portal to Willow-world open to claim new victims, how she’s left cat Beau locked in the bathroom and how it may be Kara’s mother (unable to reach Kara) who may pass through the portal and then how awful for Kara to be trapped in evil-Narnia with Mom!
Kara’s early sense that she can assume nothing and trust nothing in Willow-world has become her working conviction by the time she and Simon encounter the boatman. Maybe he’s a perfectly normal human, maybe not. Maybe he’d share their horror over the school bus, maybe he’d shoot them as aliens before they could exchange a word. In fact, maybe he’d open his mouth and willow leaves would spill out instead of words….
Better paranoid than sorry, and maybe no reaction can even count as paranoid in Willow-world. In the bunker Kara and Simon choose as their refuge for the night, they find spent shells, maybe-bloodstains, and wall-scratched messages the more disturbing because so cryptic. The first, THEY CAN HEAR YOU THINKING, sends Kara into her well-earned panic attack. Who the hell can hear your thoughts: the bus kids, the boatman, the willows, Something ELSE? All those potential telepaths fall into the categories of mostly or wholly unknown, and so we’re back to the biggest of human fears.
Kingfisher caps Chapter Eight with her second wall-scratching, this one so hideous in its implications that neither Kara nor Simon can afford to react to it verbally. Mutual silence is their only protection, as is an actual and emotional turning of their backs to the words. PRAY THEY ARE HUNGRY? The writer had to have mistakenly omitted a word, because only PRAY THEY ARE NOT HUNGRY makes sense, right?
Or not right, in which case there is a fate worse in Willow-world than being devoured. In which case, our Kara and Simon could be well and truly screwed.
Next week, we face a strange missing person case in Robert Levy’s “DST (Fall Back)”. You can find it in Mike Davis’ Autumn Cthulhu anthology.
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.