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 15-16 of T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Places, first published in 2020. Spoilers ahead!
“Maybe it’s the willows. Maybe they got their roots into you and they’re dragging you back.”
Kara continues to poke small holes in the Museum’s walls, relieved each time to encounter pipes rather than Willow-world. She doesn’t yet dare poke an experimental hole in her and Simon’s drywall patch. After Museum hours, she struggles to devise a working theory about the multiverse they’ve apparently discovered; her best (scientifically vague) guess is that it must involve hyperspace, blackholes, string theory and/or quantum thingies. No way she’s going back to collect more data.
Some data, actually, have come home with her. In her backpack, Kara finds the soldier’s Bible she and Simon briefly perused. Closer examination reveals that Bible-Soldier kept a personal journal in the book’s margins. He describes the highly classified nature of his team’s mission and how going through the “vacuae” was a huge anticlimax after their intensive training. They stepped through plastic sheeting from world to world without even a sound effect to jazz up the transition!
At first the team found the new dimension’s quiet its weirdest feature. Then one member saw inexplicable movement in the willows. (Kara nervously skips past Bible-Soldier’s attempts to sketch the things in the bushes.) Then their commander vanished. No use returning to the entry point before their week is up, Bible-Soldier notes, since the way home won’t reopen until then. (Hmm, Kara thinks, so this team’s people have learned how to manage gateways between worlds? If so, Bible-Soldier doesn’t describe the method. Maybe his people’s authorities were really as clueless as she and Simon?)
That night Kara dreams about descending into a bunker where Sturdivant waits amid his innards. She has to get out of the willows, she tells him. There are things in the willows. No, says Sturdivant, the things are the willows. Something rustles behind Kara, and she turns to see a bunker entrance clogged with leaves through which something without eyes peers….
Waking in a sweat, she feels angry stinging in her fingertips and peels off yesterday’s bandages to find a powdery white substance under her nails. Talcum powder? Sure. She makes it through another day smiling at tourists. Ex-husband Mark calls to say he’s selling their house, and to be irritated that neither that nor his new relationship seems to be at the top of her mind. (She’s just relieved to realize that she doesn’t have to explain her current troubles.) She tells Simon about the Bible journal. Later she reads more: how the team found their commander’s body riddled with holes just like the ubiquitous sand-funnels! Kara is horrified to realize the funnels weren’t ant lion burrows but something like Their footprints.
Next morning she does a routine inspection of the drywall patch and finds huge gouges, as if from someone’s clawing. So much for “talc” under her nails–it was plaster dust! Repositioning the barricades over the patch, she once again stumbles over the ever-underfoot corpse-otter carving. Damn thing, but she’s on her way to her car, Beau the cat in arms, determined to drive as far away as possible. Only a call from Uncle Earl reminds her of her obligations to him and Simon.
Either she’s going suicidally insane, trying to return to Willow-world in her sleep, or the willows are somehow dragging her back. She confesses her dilemma to Simon, who hasn’t been sleepwalking. Together they examine the drywall damage. They discuss whether burning down the Museum might be helpful but decide that might just make the between-worlds rift bigger. So, tomorrow they’ll reinforce the patch. In the meantime, Simon will put Velcro wrist-restraints on Kara to keep her from leaving her bed in the night.
It doesn’t work. Sleeping, she finds herself again in Willow-world, this time looking out of the Museum-linked bunker at the Boatman. Against her will, she’s drawn up the steps to him. Above willow-rustle and river-hiss, she hears the gong-noise associated with Them. Then Simon grabs her from behind! No dream: they’re both really there, and unhappily awake. A frustrated Boatman emits inhuman shrieks, harmonizing with the gong. He furiously poles his raft out of the river, revealing that his legs have rooted to the decking like willow-trunks. Simon and Kara tumble down the bunker steps. She severely injures one knee, but manages to limp back to the Museum while Boatman tears at the bunker door with terrible strength.
Simon explains he was sleepwalking too: the willows are trying to get both of them back. Kara’s knee is a wreck; insuranceless, she makes do with raiding Earl’s arthritis supplies for drugs and a brace. They overnight in Simon’s apartment and keep each other safely awake while speculating that Boatman may be a sort of “hunting dog” for Them, a flusher-out of prey.
Somehow both make it through work the next day. Simon brings sheet metal to repair the now shattered drywall. Again the corpse-otter’s underfoot. Exasperated, Kara shoves it into the raccoon case. The new patch in place, they further barricade the hole with Earl’s huge wooden Bigfoot–no way Kara will be able to pull that aside in her sleep, or tear through sheet metal with her nails.
That night she stays in the Museum and sleeps straight through to morning.
This week’s metrics
Libronomicon: Kara discovers a marginal journal in the alternate-universe bible, in which the soldier provides a few more clues and complains about his chatty comrades, the food, and the worst possible place to be deployed.
Unnerved by the souvenir AU books, Kara turns to Uncle Earl’s video collection: The Search for Bigfoot, Behind the Red Eyes, Bigfoot Unveiled, Loch Ness: Home of Mystery, and a documentary on phantom kangaroos which are totally a thing.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Mental illness stigma rears its head even amid the risk of falling into evil Narnia: “There is something horribly embarrassing about going mad. I’d had no idea how humiliating it would be.”
You know what I love about this book? I mean, I love a lot of things about this book, but today I particularly love the way utterly mundane annoyances are woven in among horrifically fantastic events—not to trivialize them, but to make everything seem more relatable. Have I ever stumbled over a hole to evil Narnia? No. Been drawn toward a hell dimension every time I fall asleep? Only metaphorically. Has it ever been my turn to change the cat litter when I was completely fried from other problems? Uh-huh. It keeps the whole chain of events terribly tangible, and kind of makes me want to come over and offer to change Kara’s cat litter so she can lie down. (But, um, maybe only after she figures out how I can come over without risking stumbling over the hole to evil Narnia. Sorry, Kara.)
Speaking of utterly mundane annoyances, we finally meet Kara’s ex. Briefly, but sufficiently. If there’s anything good about getting inextricably linked with a hell dimension (which there isn’t, really), it’s doing it without someone like that. Annoying exes show up frequently in Kingfisher’s work, as do people who are pleasant contrasts with them even in the midst of unpleasant situations. There’s a keen understanding there of the degree to which a good relationship (romantic or otherwise) can make even the wildest problems easier to handle, and a bad one… well. Imagine splashing through the willows with someone who gets peeved every time you don’t fall apart so he can be the tolerant hero. Simon and Kara make a much better match, never mind that it isn’t the sort of match that involves better times with pink leopard-print handcuffs. (Though even if they were in any way each other’s romantic types, I have a sneaking feeling those cuffs are going in the trash next time there’s a bin handy.)
Aside from the possibility of Mark as travel companion, our other suggestion that it could have been worse comes in Kara’s sudden fear that books from another universe might carry some sort of virgin-field superbug. Fortunately for her, this is not a Mira Grant novel and Kingfisher has other plots to fry. But interdimensional travel sounds less and less appealing. Some doors lead to Wonderland, but some lead to Willow-World, and others might lead to the hyper-infectious zombie apocalypse.
Instead, the bible-margins journal brings the subtler horror of personalizing someone who almost certainly died among the willows. Someone who missed home and good food, who wanted a cigarette, who wanted an interdimensional portal to go “glorp.” The universe may not care about us as individuals, but people do, and it doesn’t necessarily take much for them to do so. It’s an interesting, and lampshaded, contrast with more plot-focused journals, and with stories where a journal creates distance from the reader rather than closeness.
And then… very unsubtle horror, as we confirm that the stuff under Kara’s nails is not leftover taxidermy goo, and the willows are not letting go. And they can pull hard. Even here, we get “could’ve been worse” comparisons, as Kara deals with American culture’s desire for us to shame ourselves about basically everything that goes wrong in our lives. Sick, probably your fault. Mental illness, why don’t you try harder to push through? Sleepwalking back to the hell dimension you just escaped, clearly you need to do something about your self-destructive tendencies. Simon isn’t buying it, and Kara manages to be relieved even while fleeing for her life.
Ladies, get you a man who can handle a portal to hell without freaking out. And who can make you feel better about your reactions to said portal rather than worse. That’s some good advice right there.
After Kara’s ordeal in Willow-world, should we expect her to shake off the trauma simply by determining that interworld links don’t lurk under every wall of the Wonder Museum? No, we should not–if under similar circumstances we expected any such easy healing from ourselves, we would be the crazy ones, not Kara. I’m afraid I’d have been out of the Museum as soon as I could stop kissing the mundane floorboards, but then Earl isn’t my beloved uncle, and Simon my increasingly beloved friend, and I have another home to go to and zero emotional ties to what that rude tourist called a “junk heap.” If I said I’d have paused to take Beau the cat with me, I might be giving myself too much credit for Ripley-like ailurophilia.
But I probably would have yelled back for Simon to pet-sit Beau. I’m not that much of a monster.
The point is, while Kara has courage for which she doesn’t give herself credit, she’s no more superhumanly fearless than the above-mentioned Ellen Louise Ripley; thus, she’s equally relatable.
Kingfisher has a knack for creating animal characters who are much more than stage decoration, or superficial “proofs” that human characters are decent sorts because they nurture puppies and kittens rather than kicking them aside. In The Twisted Ones, Kingfisher’s “Machen tribute” novel, the not-so-bright but stalwart dog Bongo plays an important role as protagonist Mouse’s companion in preternatural adventure. His prominence insures that he’ll be no mere convenient deathspian, whatever his fate. The same is proving true for Beau, who in Chapter Fifteen serves as a patient sounding-board for Kara’s musings about the nature of Willow-world, the multiverse and other topics of feline disinterest. Nor is there always pork fried rice to induce his attention to Kara, although there’s enough pork or body warmth or the prospect of ear-scratching to mark Beau as a properly self-centered cat.
Kara can’t constantly be bouncing ideas back and forth with Simon. And when she’s talking to Beau, she doesn’t have to keep up a brave, bantering front. That must be a relief for her–I confess it is for me. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy me some banter, but I do like listening to Kara in another “expressive mode.”
When Kara finds Bible-Soldier’s marginalia, she (and we) can hope for some critical information, because isn’t that what fortuitously discovered narratives within the narrative are supposed to provide? As far as Kara (and we) have read, Bible-Soldier provides no big bombshells or game-changers. We will probably already have guessed that the sand-funnels aren’t ant lion traps or the Willow-world equivalent. We may already have associated them with the presence of Them, Their mark or “foot-prints.” Overall, Kara’s glad to have confirmation for her experiences; for example, Bible-Soldier and Team also saw ineffable presences in the willows. But she’s frustrated when Bible-Soldier implies that his fellows back home can control access to the vacuae, opening and closing them at predetermined intervals even if there’s no communicating between worlds–no way of hammering on the door for re-entry ahead of time.
Why Kara’s frustration? Bible-Soldier doesn’t “casually mention the details of how you close up the hole,” which are the details Kara is panting for. At the same time, her sardonic phrasing of the plea acknowledges that for Bible-Soldier to have “casually mentioned details” would have been a narrative trope, a variant on “As you know, Bob”: “As I myself know, Bible-Soldier, and so I’m going to regurgitate the facts at exhaustive length for some future inexplicably ignorant reader.”
Instead he rants at exhaustive length about the stupidity of his teammates, because that’s what his understandably stressed-out self feels like doing, needs to do. He hates, hates, hates Willow-world. “I feel you, brother,” Kara mutters, and so for her (and us), the unnamed journalist becomes a real and sympathetic person rather than an information-insertion device. After all, Bible-Soldier intentionally starts his journal at Chronicles, not Revelations. He’s got a story to tell, same as Kara, even though he has no answers to give.
So, am I beating a corpse-otter to death here if I again wonder why Kara doesn’t notice the pesky carving is always underfoot when something’s going on at the evil Narnia portal? Earlier I excused her obtuseness by supposing Blackwood’s “Willows” doesn’t exist on the fictional bookshelves of Hollow Places, or at least on Kara’s bookshelf. I can still easily suppose this, but even so, Kara, it could be time for you to make some connections between corpse-otter and the hole between worlds. Don’t burn down the whole Wonder Museum. Start with the pesky carving, see if that helps.
That’s, of course, if the carving will burn.
Not all pets are as pleasant as cats, as we’ll discover next week. Join us for Lisa Tuttle’s “Replacements.” 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.