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 11-12 of T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Places, first published in 2020. Spoilers ahead—but we strongly recommend reading along!
“…maybe time moved jaggedly in this world, or the sun didn’t rise until the willows were ready for it.”
The next time Kara and Simon venture topside, Willow-world bathes in sunlight. There are other changes: willows clothe their bunker-island where before only grass grew. Thirst-driven, they drink river water; whatever diseases or enchantments it may carry, they taste nothing worse than algae.
More disturbing is a pervasive hum like the reverberations of a struck gong. They can’t pinpoint its source or distance. Creepy, but what else is new? Simon jabs one of the sandy depressions without unearthing ant lions, or monsters.
They set off once more in search of the bunker connected to the Wonder Museum. They find a bunker with a half-open door, but it looks too flooded to be their goal. Simon probes the interior with his flashlight. His beam reveals two concrete pillars and, clinging to one, waist-deep in the water, a man—emaciated but alive. Eyes gleam in his sunken face. Long hair falls to the water. “Please,” he rasps. “The light hurts…my eyes…”
Simon lowers his beam. The person asks them to move back, then says in a chillingly familiar Southern drawl that, yes, he probably can’t reach them there. His laughter is a Gollum-like swallowing click that makes Simon whisper, “Oh God.”
The person says he’s not God but Martin Sturdivant, a ranger before he found a portal to Willow-world amid the kudzu in his park. No one’s from this place, you see. Everyone comes through, and then dies, or wishes they had. The willows are the place’s soul. The hum, however, is Their sound.
Sturdivant, Kara sees, is stroking something just under the water’s surface. Weeds, his own hair? She offers him food, but he declines. He’s been starving this long—if he eats now, he’ll have to start over again.
To Kara and Simon’s questions, Sturdivant supplies cryptic answers. What are They? This place. What’s this place? Just a place. Old, touching many places. Eventually the willows found it and took root. They are of the willows, and the willows serve Them. The “spirits” Kara and Simon saw rising from the willows? Those weren’t Them. Things come alive in the willowlight, but stop being alive when the willowlight goes. The bunkers? They didn’t make them. They don’t enter the bunkers—the willows can’t sink their roots into concrete. Away from the river are huge concrete buildings like parking garages around which They buzz, hating, wanting in. But don’t think about Them—that draws Them in. And when They aren’t hungry? They play with you, change you. Sturdivant met a woman whom They got a few days later. They left her a jelly-like mass, her bones stacked up beside her from small to large. It took Sturdivant a long time to kill her. Are the bunkers safe? When They touched Sturdivant, he fell into this bunker, which stopped Them from changing him more, but safe?
Sturdivant has subsided into the water. He stands to reveal that his lower body has been dissected. His guts, black with algae and dirt, float around him—it’s his own organs he’s been stroking “in a horrible, loving touch.”
Kara and Simon scream and flee. Collapsed amongst willows, Kara forces herself to think of the Wonder Museum. Sturdivant’s portal closed after he went through—what if that’s the case with the door to the Museum and home? The gong-like note sounds, louder, maybe closer. “We’re going to die here, aren’t we?” Kara asks. Probably, Simon answers, matter-of-factly. In an attempt not to think about Them, Kara tries to get an earworm on repeat-play in her head and settles on “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.”
At a river bend, they climb a bluff and discover the battered hull of a ship. It turns out to be a lucky find when the They-hum intensifies and something intangible-yet-undeniable passes, bending the willows. Simon’s chimeric eye makes it out as something like “a trilobite made of skin.” They take shelter under the ship, where Kara’s struck by an “intense feeling that this world was only a skin over a vast other space” in which They move. The hum returns. It descends toward the hull. Think about something else, Simon hisses, because They are right there. Kara tries to focus on “John Jacob.” Her ears pop, a hard thrum starts in her chest. She desperately reviews the Wonder Museum catalog, but more effective are memories of a toxic fifth-grade teacher, her ex-husband’s cluelessness, the cruel underbelly of internet fandom. She wallows in “petty outrage” until the hum drifts away.
She and Simon brave exiting the ship hull, and continue their search. Maybe ten bunkers later, the hum again nearing, they descend stairs to find… Simon’s toolbox. A dash through a concrete chamber and hallway bring them, unbelievably, to a still-open hole into the fluorescent light of the Wonder Museum. Both crying, they fall through into their own world, into home.
This week’s metrics:
What’s Cyclopean: Simon attempts to describe them. “Like a trilobite made of skin. Like you got really high and the back of your eyelids glued itself to your eyeballs, and then that got up and walked around. No. I don’t know.”
Weirdbuilding: Efforts to comprehend the incomprehensible via pop culture this week include Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Gollum from Lord of the Rings
Madness Takes Its Toll: What do you do if you can’t find your way home? “Go mad and starve in the willows.” And there are worse options. Although… actually that’s exactly what Sturdivant is doing, isn’t it? Gck.
I don’t know what’s scarier: answers that manage to be worse than wondering about the questions, or making it safely home… only halfway through the book. Might be time to embrace the power of “and.”
Along with the bus, Martin Sturdivant is one of Kingfisher’s nightmare images that’s stuck with me. There are sorts of body horror that leave me cold, and then there’s… and I’ve lost the end of that sentence because my brain has just jumped up and started showing off my mirror neurons’ capacity to simulate horrible injuries. But Sturdivant is such a helpful tour guide, taking the time to explain several mysteries and provide additional, vivid illustrations of exactly what they do when they’re not hungry. Which is play, and study things. Kind of like humans, or not.
Sturdivant also provides a hint that they are the apocalypse of what this place used to be. That once there was a more recognizable civilization who maybe built the bunkers, and who might still be hiding in the big concrete “parking garages” that they keep trying to get into. Perhaps the locals started opening portals along the river, with bunkers around them to provide a buffer? And maybe, like that guy who persists in thinking that raising Cthulhu is a good idea, they opened the wrong one? Blackwood’s original willows are at least confined to a corner of our own world, somewhere you can avoid. They’re not going anywhere, or at least we can hope they aren’t. Kingfisher’s willow-world is more like the broken planets from Langan’s “The Shallows,” or Wise’s “Venice Burning,” or Christian’s “Shadow Machine.” Postapocalyptic, and maybe contagious.
Going through these longreads a couple chapters at a time is teaching me some clever pacing tricks. Neither Jackson nor Kingfisher subscribes to the idea that the best stories involve non-stop, edge-of-your-seat thrills’n’chills. Rather, they both appreciate the value of a pause to catch your breath, so you can use that breath to scream louder when it’s scream time. I’m put in mind of a vignette from my Intro Psych textbook about a pianist who would slow down their melody just before fast, energetic sections in order to make those sections sound more dramatic.
In Hill House the contrasts were jarring, each nightmare night followed by a euphoric morning, which I read as the House deliberately playing with its victims’ heads, keeping them from running away whenever that might be possible. Here the contrast is kinder: we have protagonists who care about each other, and who take every opportunity to keep each other’s spirits up. And we have the bunkers, which allow occasional semi-safe retreat. It gives us wonderful moments of levity—and then terrible moments of levity, Kara’s desperation as she tries to think of anything but them and comes up with the worst ever version of “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” and the most useful ever petty rumination on her ex’s flaws. It makes “We’re going to die here, aren’t we?” that much bleaker. It makes the idea of the Wonder Museum—organized, kind weirdness as a bulwark against the not-okay-at-all weirdness—that much more unreachably desirable.
And then… they reach it. Relief more profound than any bunker, giddy joy that we want to share with Kara and Simon, who’ve certainly earned it. Except for that pesky line at the bottom of my e-reader screen, calmly noting that the book is 49% complete.
What’s the most effective way to thwart otherworldly entities who home in on you when you think of Them? Earworm songs can help. So can dwelling on your jerk-face ex or a teacher who tried to hammer you into their version of Normality (Fifth-grade Division.) But as someone who has dabbled in (okay, obsessed over) online role-playing and fan-fiction, I can appreciate their supreme utility. There is no greater petty rage, Kara finds, than that which fellow fans can rouse with their toxic comments and ingratitude; I’m telling you, spend enough time in internet fandom, and you’ll have accumulated a catalog of grievances no Wonder Museum inventory can match, no malevolent entity distract you from.
Fandom rocks. I hope indulging in rage over that lunk-head who refused to believe that Sirius/Remus was the ultimate ship will allow me to evict “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” from my brain. Thanks, T. Kingfisher.
But seriously. Thank you, T. Kingfisher, for introducing me to Martin Sturdivant, formerly a park ranger whose biggest problem was hyperinvasive kudzu, now a permanent resident of Willow-land. Even if he could find the door to the American South he seems to hail from, his hoop-skirt of floating organs wouldn’t be a good look or a state conducive to long survival. Not that Martin wants to survive any longer. For someone touched by Them, death is the consummation most devoutly to be wished and the blessing least likely to be granted. It seems wicked hard for the “touched” to kill themselves, as if They curse Their “playmates” with tortured immortality. According to Martin, it was wicked hard to mercy-kill the woman They relieved of her bones. Thinking back to Bradbury’s “Skeleton,” I wonder if Clarisse Harris had a rough time stopping her jellyfish husband from calling her name out of the sodden carpet. At least M. Munigant didn’t leave piles of bones for her to clean up.
Martin refuses Kara’s offer of food, implying he’s attempting to commit suicide by starvation; later she’ll think of the dead man in the Museum-adjacent bunker. Rather than face the terrors of Willow-world, that lost soul may have chosen starvation. Presumably yet untouched by Them, he succeeded. I’m afraid that, touched, Martin won’t succeed. Like the Gollum with whom Kara identifies him, he’ll just dwindle away in the dark, increasingly photophobic, incessantly caressing not the One Ring but his own stubbornly quick innards. Does he warn Kara and Simon to step beyond his reach—his guts’ reach—because otherwise he—or they—will give in to hunger and devour them?
They, monsters, have made Martin a monster. They made the researcher woman a monster. They made the children and driver on the school bus monsters. What about the boatman, who Martin says is always hungry? Is he another of Their victim-creations? I vote yes. I vote that in whatever eternity it’s been since the willows wormed their roots into this junction of many worlds, They have made innumerable monsters of those unfortunate enough to meet Them when They’re full and looking for entertainment, like well-stuffed housecats encountering hapless rodents.
Even when Kara allows that They may be driven by scientific curiosity, out for knowledge rather than mere amusement, she can’t help but take the point of view of the rodent, or dodo. If you’re the potential fodder for vivisection, it’s hard to be philosophical about it, to sympathize with the intellectual gains They may be making out of you.
Martin, though, is a monster we can sympathize with. He warns Kara and Simon away from himself. He answers their questions patiently, like a good ranger would answer the questions of park visitors, however tediously often he’s heard them. He even apologizes for his lapses into Gollumness, that swallowed laughter, those Gcks. Martin is a terrible creature but a hell of a good guy.
My impression is that he’s a reliable source of information about Willow-world, as far as his own knowledge extends, which includes whatever the woman (significantly, a researcher) was able to tell him. He admits his limits—he wasn’t able to venture far from the river before They got him. But he and the researcher did get deep enough “inland” to spot huge concrete buildings. Concrete’s the operative descriptor. Concrete is what the willow roots can’t penetrate, and so They can’t pierce it, either. They surround the “parking garages,” furious to gain entrance. Why are They so eager? What’s in the “garages”? What do we know They want but food and “toys.” What do we know They eat and play with? People, that’s who. So are there people in the “garages”? A mixed society of lost souls and researchers and military scouts who’ve found shelter together? Or is Martin wrong when he says nobody comes from Willow-world? Maybe there are natives, and they’ve withdrawn into the safety of concrete shells more commodious than their original bunkers.
I don’t blame Kara and Simon for not deferring their search for the way home in order to check out the “garages.” Meeting Martin was bad enough. Coming within a hull’s breadth of meeting Them? After that, of course they’re going to run sobbing for the good old mundane fluorescents of the Wonder Museum the moment they spot them. Of course they’re never going back to Willow-world. Right?
Right! Except…huh. We’re only halfway through the book, aren’t we?
Oh, hell, yeah…
Next week, how about a good old-fashioned alarming manuscript fragment? Join us for Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Horror of the Heights.”
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.