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 13-14 of T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Places, first published in 2020. Spoilers ahead—but we strongly recommend reading along!
“Our society doesn’t teach us a graceful way to handle the aftermath of incredibly stressful events.”
Just escaped from Willow-world, Kara and Simon hear a sound they’ve feared they’d never hear again: a phone ringing. They rush downstairs, and Kara’s relieved to hear her mother yelling at her for being incommunicado for more than a day, oh, and why didn’t she open the Museum on Saturday? One of her uncle’s cronies called a post-surgical Earl, and Earl called Mom, and she’s been calling and calling, and what with the coffee shop being unaccountably closed too, Mom feared a double homicide!
Kara’s impromptu alibi: She found Simon having a seizure, from an allergic reaction. To what? Sotto voce, Simon suggests the chemical-laden flavored syrups, and Kara blames the maple-bacon variety. Anyway, she took him to the ER and stayed with him afterwards, in a hospital with crap cell reception, but now Simon’s fine, and Kara will open the Museum on Monday to make up for Saturday.
Kara hangs up, declaring she could sleep a week after surviving a hellish otherworld and then Mom’s wrath. Simon says they first have to close the hell-gate. They reluctantly re-enter Willow-world long enough to bolt the bunker door, then nail drywall over the hole. Kara again finds the corpse-otter carving just inside the bunker—hadn’t she picked it up before? Maybe not, in her distraction. She puts it on the raccoon display case; after hanging a batik-print sheet over their patch-job, she and Simon push the case in front of it. It’s a flimsy barricade, but filling the bunker with concrete isn’t an option.
Crying the whole time, Kara showers. Beau, still infuriated about his day in the bathroom, refuses to cuddle; Kara hugs Prince the taxidermied elk instead, then falls into dreamless sleep.
Sunday morning she forces herself to open the Museum. Luckily, it’s a slow tourist day. As she catalogs a delivery (dried toads and gourds), she thinks of adding to the Museum’s attractions a hole to Narnia, ten million willows, and an unknown number of Them. Not a good thought: She huddles behind the counter and cries again. That’s okay, though, a normal reaction. She had to be competent in Willow-world. Freaking out now is safe.
Beau finally comes by to head-butt Kara and purr. She rubs his ears and observes that at least she’s not crying over her failed marriage.
That evening she goes to the coffee shop. While waiting for Simon to close up, she opens her laptop and runs some searches. People visiting other worlds nets alien cover-up videos. Alien willows? Invasive species in Australia. Byricopa County—did she mean Maricopa County? The otherworld soldier’s log described entering Willow-world via the vacuae. That turns out to be the Latin plural for vacuum. Definitions include emptiness, vacant space, or provocatively, space unfilled or unoccupied, or apparently unoccupied. Willow-world sure is full of apparently unoccupied spaces, like the school bus.
Up in Simon’s apartment they drink tequila, munch microwave popcorn, and try to make sense of their Willow-world ordeal. Forget delusion—Kara’s brought back a military-issue sweater and Rosary-soldier’s Bible, Simon a ready-to-eat meal. What bothers Simon most is the question of how the hole in the Museum wall got there in the first place. He can’t buy the “a tourist did it by accident” theory.
That night Kara dreams she’s back in a Willow-world bunker, fingers lacerated from trying to claw her way out. The cold is terrible. She ascends to silver willow-light and finds Sturdivant standing in the river outside, his organs swimming around him. Did she get out, Kara asks. Sturdivant shakes his head sadly and opens his mouth to speak. Only willow leaves emerge.
Kara wakes to sweat-soaked sheets. Great: If she has PTSD, how’s she going to explain her situation to a therapist? Simon’s two pounds of LSD, maybe? Although she’s sure it was only a dream, she checks upstairs. The drywall patch, batik sheet and raccoon case are undisturbed. The next morning, she discovers dirt under her nails and blisters on her fingertips. Maybe she was exposed to harsh taxidermy chemicals; the pain might even have triggered the dream.
Simon, too, has nightmares, and senses the presence of the Willow-world hole next door like a buzzing wasp. They wonder if the patch could have “healed” the rift; if not, can Simon figure out how to make a concrete barrier work? However much they may want to run like hell, they can’t bail out on the Museum.
Worried what could happen if there’s another “tourist” accident or if Uncle Earl needs to open walls for repairs, Kara takes a screwdriver to an inconspicuous spot behind the taxidermized grizzly. The new hole reveals only a shallow space filled with mouse-gnawed insulation, and she sags in tearful relief.
This week’s metrics:
What’s Cyclopean: Vacuae, a term used in the journal from the bunker, turns out to mean empty spaces, or spaces apparently unoccupied. You know, hollow places.
Weirdbuilding: This week’s references include Lord of the Rings and more Narnia. Also a 30 Rock meme.
What’s the first thing you do after escaping from a terrifying other-world? That is, after grabbing at reassuringly normal your-world objects and conjuring impromptu alibis to pacify your wrathful-because-panicked loved ones? Kara’s phone call from Mom is at least useful in establishing that time passed in Willow-world at roughly the same speed as it did at home, so thankfully she and Simon haven’t become latter-day Rip Van Winkles. They left on Friday night. Now it’s around 1:30 Sunday morning. Time for bed! Sorry, no. Unless the pair are going to spring for a hotel room, they’ve first got to close the interdimensional rift, aka the hole in the Museum wall. Or even if they were going to hightail it the hell out of there, they’d have to close the hole. Something might slither out of it and wreak havoc on Hog Chapel. Neither Kara nor Simon want that, because they’re good people.
They’re also brave people, because they risk re-entering the bunker to close the fortified door, lest something slither, et cetera. The bravery of desperation is bravery nonetheless.
Drywall, sheeting cloth and even a heavy display case may not seem like a sufficient barrier between worlds, but you build the barrier you’ve got materials and strength for, not the barrier you might want to build, which would be enough concrete to fill in the whole bunker, plus some kind of energetic or magical anti-Them shield. I don’t know about your local hardware store, but mine doesn’t carry anti-Them shields, or weed-killers specific to otherworldly willows, either. Amazon also neglects to stock them, so forget free overnight delivery.
While putting up the drywall patch, Kara finds—actually re-finds—the corpse-otter carving she supposes fell into the bunker after someone knocked the hole into Willow-world. Her reaction is more annoyance than trepidation. Damn thing’s always getting in the way, and Kara must have forgotten to bring it back inside the Museum. With all the pressure of handling Willow-world, it understandably slipped her mind to pick up the carving. With all the pressure of reading about Willow-world, it may understandably slip the reader’s mind that way back in Chapter 6, Kara DID pick up the carving and DID set it on top of the raccoon case.
I semi-forgot it, but a nagging sense of déja-read sent me back through my chapter summaries. I’m torn about whether I should excuse Kara for her lapse of memory, but I’m leaning toward leniency. Kara doesn’t have chapter summaries like I do, or even a terse log of her Willow-world experiences like Rosary-soldier’s. Plus curation of one more weird Museum piece can hardly be top on her list of priorities right now. Plus if she doesn’t have PTSD, shouldn’t she have? Plus… what if the corpse-otter carving or some force behind the corpse-otter carving doesn’t want her to remember this little Groundhog Day thing going with the nasty relic? What if it doesn’t want her to suspect that what opened the rift could be—Corpse-Otter!
Instead Kara toys wearily with such answers to the conundrum as generic or cosmic accident, Fate, or a deliberate attempt to open a transworlds gateway by “some nefarious being come to the museum disguised as a tourist.” She imagines a willow wearing sunglasses and a trench coat, which is a great image, by the way. It almost pitches Kara into hysterical giggling, to be followed by screams. I might giggle thinking about a willow-spy. What would send me into shrieks would be Sturdivant in a trench coat, because there’s no trench coat in all the worlds baggy enough to hide his octopus-like array of entrails.
Sturdivant actually makes a repeat appearance in Kara’s first nightmare to suggest that, no, she didn’t get out of Willow-world after all. Oh hell yes, she did; Kara proves it by going upstairs to make sure the drywall-sheet-display case barricades are all intact. She’s not indulging in denial there, it’s the next morning she resorts to that defense mechanism. She dreamed she clawed her fingers raw trying to get out of the bunker. She wakes up to—fingernails packed with gray dirt (concrete dust?) and blistered fingertips. This is classic weird-tale evidence one has been sleepwalking who knows where. Instead Kara concludes that she hurt her fingers in Real Life, by handling toxic taxidermy, yeah, which made her dream her fingers were hurt. Never mind we’ve had no mention that the Museum’s stuffed residents ever blistered her up before, or that she particularly handled stuffed residents the day before, unless we want to blame her hugging Prince the Elk, and when has he ever offended so?
Simon has also had serious nightmares on their second night back. He tries to shrug them off by reasoning that “given… everything… it’d be amazing if we didn’t have them.” That makes some kind of sense. More troubling is his constant sense of the hole into Willow-world as a “wasp in the room, except in the next building over.” Simon’s special sensory perceptions are not to be lightly dismissed. The “long, unreadable look” he gives Kara when she hopefully suggests the hole is closed should be read as his very much doubting that it is. Especially when he follows the unreadable look by asking what Kara thinks would happen if they pried the patch off.
Poor Kara. Just what she needs, to wonder about the extent of the junction between Wonder Museum and Willow-world. Her first experiment behind the stuffed grizzly is heartening—her test hole penetrates only between walls. She can sag and tear up with relief. Can we, the readers?
Of course not. We have the privilege of skipping back chapters and of noting how many more chapters remain. We also don’t want everything to be settled so soon. Because our thrills are vicarious, two relatively calm chapters are enough of a breather for us. Who cares about Kara and Simon?
Okay, we care about Kara and Simon. Really, we do. We’re not monsters, except, maybe, vicariously…
Returning from Narnia or Fairyland can be a fraught business. Maybe time doesn’t match up between worlds, and you’re either trying to make up for way too long an absence, or else hoping no one notices that you’ve definitely had more than an evening’s experiences since last night. Even with coordinated clocks, both absence and your experiences can be difficult to explain.
Kara gets off relatively lightly on the absence front. The museum’s missed a few sales and Mom’s upset, but a lost day is pretty easy to explain (assuming no one checks hospital records, and why would they). Her experiences, on the other hand… Willow-World is no Narnia.
Still, both Kara and Simon start their return, just as they started their ill-fated exploration, by measuring and problem-solving. The hole gets spackled, the cat gets fed, cross-dimensional references get googled, and a few souvenirs get put aside against outbreaks of self-doubt. Kara considers how Willow-World might fit into her catalogue spreadsheet. (Do not catalogue them. Just don’t.) As for bad dreams, well, there’s plenty of trauma to explain them. And we’re just… not thinking… about that nasty otter-thing that keeps showing up around the hole to the Bad Place.
Yeah. We’re in catching-your-breath mode, just like in the bunker. And just like the bunker, it can’t last.
In most scary-house stories, this would be the point at which the reader urges everyone to get out now. Also the point where the house in question, or just the author, has to work to keep everyone around for the rest of the plot. Here, though, it isn’t the house that’s scary—the Wonder Museum remains a place of refuge. But the scariness is inextricably tied to the Museum, a rotten, hollow spot in one corner. And that ties Kara to the place even more closely, because if there’s anything worse than falling to Them, it’s letting people you love do so. Uncle Earl is not the sort of person, as Kara points out, to exercise healthy fear of the unknown. If he saw the boatman, he’d probably say hi and ask if he’d seen (or was himself) Bigfoot. Exactly how Kara could persuade him to stay out of further holes is maybe a bit unclear. But her obligation to try isn’t unclear at all.
It’s a standard bit of writerly advice that “maybe it was all a dream” is never a good idea. You want your fantastic stuff to be real within the confines of the story itself, your reader to feel like you’re telling them about something truly important in the characters’ lives. That all gets turned on its head, though, if the thing that might be a dream is the good stuff. “Had I ever left? Had I only dreamed that Simon and I had gotten home safely?”
Suppose you can’t get away? Suppose there’s something in the experience of weirdness that latches on and won’t let you go, even when you think you’ve escaped? Suppose everything orderly and comfortable is just an illusion?
And of course Kara checks, as well as she can. Drilled holes confirm that most of the museum’s walls are just walls. Nastily-preserved taxidermy could easily explain suddenly-sore fingers, much better than dream-scrabbling at walls. Maybe everything’s fine.
Next week, we try to find beauty in apocalypse in Livia Llewellyn’s “Bright Crown of Joy.” You can find it in the old Children of Lovecraft anthology, or Nick Mamatas’s new Wonder and Glory Forever collection.
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.