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 9-10 of T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Places, first published in 2020. Spoilers ahead—but we strongly recommend reading along!
“…for all I know, sometimes I do see ghosts, and they’re just blurry like everybody else.”
Kara and Simon have ventured deeper into the Bunker of Ominous Graffiti. A hallway leads them into a long room divided into a makeshift kitchen, bunkroom and latrine, done up in the highest military style. Of five cots, two are neatly made up, two rumpled. Lockers surprisingly un-rusted stand at the foot of each cot. On a bolt over the head of an unmade bed hangs—a rosary. As Simon quips, no matter where you go, the Jesuits got there first.
The door to the new-found refuge actually closes and has a working deadbolt. Simon checks the bunks with his chimeric eye for indwelling ghosts, but finds nothing like the children on the school bus. He mentions that he could “see” the bus driver Kara only sensed, who appeared to be deeper in whatever alternate space the bus’s passengers have been sucked into. They settle in for the night, flashlights off to conserve battery life. In the pitch blackness, with Pray They are hungry on their minds, sleep proves elusive, and they discuss their situation. Like Kara, Simon’s been reminded of Narnia’s Wood between the Worlds. He proposes that many worlds touch Willow-world. Sometimes people find ways in, people who use an English little different than their own, people whose graffiti is totally incomprehensible, whole buses that were suddenly pulled in somehow. Kara wants to believe there may be only two worlds, with one hole between them. Tomorrow she and Simon will find the way back home, and then they’ll hit the liquor store and max out her credit card.
They sleep, wake with no way of knowing whether it’s “day” except to go look. Creeping together up the steps from which they observed the Boatman the night before, they see a predawn world of gray light, or at least an “absence of dark.” The fog has settled, allowing them to make out a horizon of—hills? No, trees. Above, Kara can make out no familiar stars. (Of course, she’s familiar with maybe two constellations in our world, so this is not indicative.)
On an island opposite the bunker entrance, willows hiss and whisper and snicker in the wind. There’s no other sound, no insects or frogs or birds.
Simon grips Kara’s forearm. “Do you see it?” he whispers. And she does, something moving in the willows…
In the gaps between the twisting branches—in what Kara equates to the “negative space” of graphic design—there are bodies. Not physical bodies, but patterns of silver and bronze light rising from the sand, slithering through the willows, “huge and inhuman, shifting like smoke.” Kara focuses on one: faceless, long-necked, with two or ten or a hundred legs, she can’t tell. Reaching the treetops, it joins hundreds of other shapes barely visible in amber light, then vanishes. Optical illusion? Black mold? Strangely, Kara feels wonder, not fear. The ascending shapes are hypnotic, and she and Simon lie watching them for an hour, only jerking up when the last disappears.
Now something else goes through the willows: dark, solid enough to bend the branches. Maybe the insubstantial forms were Them, Kara doesn’t know, but she instantly believes this new being qualifies. Instinct screams at her to get away, and the feeling only worsens when it moves out of sight. She and Simon simultaneously retreat to their last night’s refuge and bolt the door. It may not actually keep out creatures of smoke and silver light, but at least it divides Willow-world into out there and in here. Surely in here must be safe?
Desperate, Simon claims the ghost-shapes in the willows couldn’t have been really real. Kara’s gut impression is that they were gods, not of humans, but of this place. On further consideration, Simon feels the rising spirits weren’t dangerous, more like weather than like anything that might respond directly to human visitors. The solid thing, on the other hand, he would not fuck with.
Grumbling stomachs remind them they’re out of food. Then there’s the problem of water—can they drink from Willow-world sources without being trapped there forever? They debate briefly whether that’s fairyland or Greek myth, and after a pause for hysterical giggles they check out the footlockers. The first contains a sweater, a porn magazine, and hallelujah, what the military in some parallel Earth calls FRRs, Field Ready Rations, property of the UNA government. Not caring if UNA stands for Union of Nasty Anarchists, they scarf down heat-stabilized chili and tortellini.
One footlocker yields a Bible complete with Books of Judith and Saul. It also contains a clipboard with log entries, mostly mystifying acronyms but with a Day One note that the military party has “entered the vacuae with gear” and “secured campsite in abandoned fortification.” Apparently these soldiers weren’t any more from Willow-world than Kara and Simon. As before, Kara resists the idea of many interconnected worlds, since it means that if they do find a hole out of Willow-world, it might not lead back to the Wonder Museum.
Simon suggests getting more sleep. Kara stops flipping through the porn mag for clues to the world of its origin and bunks down. Behind her eyelids she sees silvery shapes flowing together like amoebas of smoke and willows, until “sleep trampled through and set them all to flight.”
This week’s metrics:
What’s Cyclopean: The willow leaves hiss and whisper and snicker. But the things in the negative space between those leaves look “like the dreams of trees cast in bronze.”
Weirdbuilding: “Everything in a Lovecraft story has tentacles.”
Libronomicon: The bunker contains anthropologically-fascinating extradimensional reading material that inconveniently fails to provide much insight into Kara and Simon’s situation: a porn mag, an uninformative log, and a Bible that would make Aziraphale’s eyes bug out completely.
I was relieved when Kara and Simon found a fairly comfortable place to spend the first night of their sojourn in Willow-world. If there’s anything worse than being lost in an alternate reality, it’s being lost in one where there’s nowhere to lay one’s head but concrete or sand pocked with the trap-funnels of who knows what alt-reality relative of the ant lion. I envision something like the eel larva Khan drops into Chekov’s ear in The Wrath of. Waking up to discover some ravenous bug has gnawed its way into your brain is not a fun way to start the day, I don’t care how entomologically inclined you are.
Whatever the nature of the firefight that took place in the first chamber of this bunker, the second chamber seems untouched by violence. Our protagonists have stumbled into a veritable Goldilocks zone among emergency accommodations. There’s a door with a working lock. While the two unmade cots lend a certain homey touch, there are two other cots welcomingly made-up for a pair of guests. A smell of mildew and dust isn’t usually the sign of a first-rate hostelry, but at least it’s not the smell of decaying corpses. Moreover, dust, like the well-dried contents of the latrine bucket, indicates that the former occupants are long gone, unlikely to resent Kara and Simon’s intrusion. Simon dares to hope those occupants went home. No skeletons here, after all, unlike in that room just off the Wonder Museum. Nor does he detect—presences—lurking beneath the blankets like the kids lurked behind the bus seat upholstery. Score more points for the chimeric eye.
Evidence for Simon’s many-worlds theory keeps piling up, to Kara’s dismay. As she snips at him, adding on universes beyond their own and Willow-world doesn’t satisfy Occam’s razor. Or, to hell with Occam, it majorly complicates their primary mission: Getting home and opening up their respective businesses on time!
But yeah, Kara realizes that to worry over losing weekend visitors to the Museum is a coping mechanism, a desperate grab at lost normality, at a worldview with solid walls on all sides and only the expected spaces behind them. For all her love of SFF, she doesn’t want to accept sweeping changes to her cosmology. Not so all of a sudden, with the stepping through a damn hole in her drywall! Would any of us, really?
Even so, Kara’s sense of wonder hasn’t died. She’s mesmerized by the “spirits” in the willows, conceiving them as “gods” reassuringly indifferent to humanity. Simon shares her sense the “spirits” aren’t dangerous; equally, he shares her impression the dark and solid Thing they glimpsed afterwards is supremely dangerous, probably a Them.
Them must be the prime contender for scariest pronoun. It’s Them versus Us, because Them are the Not-Us. In the 1954 film, Them are giant-freaking-atomic ants! In the 2021 series, Them are malevolent forces, mundane and supernatural, that threaten a Black family who’ve settled in a previously all-white neighborhood. Watch out for Them, if you know what’s good for you, and watch out for Them all the more when you don’t actually know what They are!
When all you know is that They can hear you thinking, and you better hope They are hungry. Kara and Simon will see what happens when They are not hungry. They may already have seen it in the semi-occupants of the school bus.
Veering from content to composition, I’ve noticed how often Kara and Simon repeat themselves, both in conversation and (with Kara, the POV character) in thought. Simon frequently blames “black mold” for their predicament, as if it’s making them hallucinate Willow-world. Kara will likely respond that they wouldn’t be hallucinating exactly the same thing. Neither believes they’re simply victims of fungal contamination—“black mold” is their in-joke, to be deployed as a preposterous explanation for their increasingly preposterous circumstances. Kara’s recurrent mental fret is about being late to open the Wonder Museum for business as usual. She always acknowledges to herself how absurd this fret is in the face of her immediate (highly unusual!) problems.
Again and again the pair tackle the two-worlds versus many-worlds question without coming to a conclusion, preferably one that could be summed up in a single concise paragraph. Kara and Simon don’t do “concise.” Their exchanges are rambling, diffuse, like the exchanges of real people in real life. Does this naturalism work, or does it weaken Kingfisher’s novel? Does the repetition get tedious? Should Kara and Simon nicely point their dialogues and so get to the point, for chrissakes?
I’m falling into the “It works” camp. That our pair talk like real people rather than useful fictional constructs gives their interactions immediacy, draws the reader into the scene—into the circle around the campfire, or here, into the circle of flashlight illumination in a bunker between the worlds. Neither Kara nor Simon knows what’s going on. Both know they don’t know. It could be that they’re confronted with the unknowable.
I mean the more unknowable than usual, in the face of which their companionable rambling is perhaps the long-spun safety-rope to sanity.
This week Kara and Simon get a rest. Kinda, sorta. A safe-ish place to sleep, anyway, and a night with clues but nothing so dramatically awful as a revelation. Clues can still make for an uncomfortable night, though, and safe-ish is far from safe. Worse, it gives them both time to think.
They also get a moment outside the bunker to riff on my favorite image from the original Willows: the things making shapes in the trees. They’re never explained there, and they aren’t explained here, either. Nor are they ever directly connected to the actual danger. They’re beautiful, awe-inspiring, and too alien to be either dangerous or helpful. For Blackwood, it’s a moment of alien glory to contrast with more threatening events; Carson and Ford of course translate it into wildly wonderful illustration. Here, too, it tells us: there are powers here, and they are not all built to terrify us. This place is not human enough for that.
We still get a couple of Narnia references this week—references in the sense of library references, as the main question isn’t really what does this remind you of, but what are the rules. Are we in fairyland or the underworld, where eating local delicacies will trap you here? Are we in the Wood Between the Worlds, where every reflection might hide a door Elsewhere?
The most disturbing question: are there rules? There’s a lot going on in this little pocket universe, and at least for now none of it seems to fit together in an obvious pattern. Cursed school bus + endless bunker islands + scary boatman + awe-inspiring negative space light entities + worrisome willow trees + river that acts more or less like a river + They (who we pray are hungry) = …what? Definitely not profit, but beyond “creepy” the underlying pattern is far from obvious.
Which, in fact, I love. There are so many different things going on in this universe, and it gives it texture and makes it feel disturbingly plausible, as well simultaneously agoraphobic and claustrophobic. Our own world does not, in fact, fit together neatly in its surface details or have only one big scary thing going on. If you were an incomprehensible creature made of light and negative space (perhaps a stranded Color), would you be able to intuit the underlying principles that shape everything found on Earth, or the connections between those things? Or would you be thinking, “How are raccoons and garden vegetables and headlights and brick buildings and birdsong and roadkill even things that fit into the same universe?”
Similarly and more delightfully realistic is the mostly-uninformative-yet-tantalizing stuff they find in the bunker. Wouldn’t it be convenient—wouldn’t it suggest in fact that you were in a fictional story where things might work out—if the alternate-universe soldiers left detailed notes laying out the dangers you had to face, and the high-risk-yet-feasible set of actions you had to carry out to get around them? Nope. Frontline Titties of the Fifth. Have fun.
All Gideon the Ninth references aside, I have a serious weakness for extradimensional ephemera, and this is just enough to drop some interesting and utterly plot-irrelevant clues. The Council of Nicea went slightly differently, but bad military rations still exist and guys still worry about signs that their Girl is Cheating. A thousand theology dissertations await.
But Kara does learn one important, plot-relevant thing from all this: not all doors lead home. Not a happy insight to sleep on.
Next week, your gentle hostesses/eager Spring gardeners seek out some horticultural horror. And spot Wendy N. Wagner’s “The Black Azalea” in Autumn Cthulhu.
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.