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 17-18 of T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Places, first published in 2020. Spoilers ahead!
“When there is a portal to hell or Narnia lurking upstairs, you tend to fall behind on your blogging.”
When she wakes after a night without sleepwalking, Kara’s knee has stiffened up again. At least her limp upstairs verifies the sheet metal between Wonder Museum and Willow-world remains intact. Not so a nearby display case, though she doesn’t notice the broken glass front until Museum visitors point out the damage. After sweeping up the glass, Kara finds an empty shelf in the case where the albino raccoon used to sit. Who would steal something like that? Her catalog reveals that another taxidermied piece has vanished from the broken case: the weasel-like fisher.
It’s actually a relief to ponder a mystery besides Willow-world. Simon suggests that cultists might have stolen the raccoon, or if not cultists then some tourist. Kara writes a humorous post about the disappearance for the Museum website. Not until much later will she realize something else is gone, something she’s already forgotten putting in the raccoon case.
The next day, something scurrying along a baseboard sends Beau into a hunting frenzy. Whatever his prey is, it escapes under the staircase. Monday, Kara’s off-day, she drives to nearby Southern Pines, buys a book, eats a crepe, normal stuff. Back home, Willow-world remains safely barricaded. Kara retires to her bedroom with Beau. Before long she exchanges her not-so-interesting book for Bible-soldier’s journal. She hesitates to finish his account, imagining it can only end with everyone dying, but starts reading anyway.
Bible-soldier writes that a woman named Singer showed up in his team’s bunker. She’s from yet another planet. She’s also the sole survivor from a 10-pereson team, having subsisted five weeks on fish from the river. The soldiers decide she should come with them when their vacuae opens, to hell with the decontamination boys back home. When they debate scouting out their extraction point, Singer says maybe They won’t notice—if the team doesn’t think too loud. She’s convinced that They hear you thinking.
Kara puts aside the otherworldly Bible-journal, fastens herself to her bed, and sleeps. She wakes to Beau’s “goblin-wail.” Something’s scratching at the bedroom door. Some animal that’s gotten into the Museum? Kara opens the door to unleash Beau and watches him tear into a pale, possum-sized beast. The combatants roll out of sight. Eventually silence falls, and Beau returns triumphant, his only apparent injury a scratch along the flank. Kara again checks the sheet metal barricade; again, it’s intact.
Next morning she searches for the corpse of Beau’s opponent—she doesn’t want dead vermin stinking up the place and freaking out tourists. Under a display case, she finds a gashed heap of fur. Beau has gutted it, but he hasn’t killed it, because it was dead before he attacked.
Kara has found the missing albino raccoon, deflated now with its wood-wool stuffing torn out. She reasons that since taxidermied animals don’t scratch on bedroom doors, a rat must have found the missing piece and hollowed it out for a nest. Obviously this rat scratched on the door, and Beau then chased it back to its lair and gutted the raccoon to get at it. He must have killed and hid it elsewhere, though, because there’s no rat corpse in sight. Oh well, Kara’s in for a game of “Where’s that smell coming from?” There are worse things.
Simon accepts Kara’s story about the raccoon-dwelling rat. He reports that he had no Willow-world nightmares during the night. Maybe they’re getting over their ordeal.
Ex-husband Mark calls again, this time admitting he was seeing his new girlfriend before their divorce. Kara hangs up on his self-indulgent guilt and returns to Bible-soldier’s journal. He writes about something breaking into the bunker, a cross between a deer and chimp, with toothpick legs and a child’s scream. Marco shoots it dead; from a tattoo under its fur, Singer identifies it as one of her teammates. She breaks down, and Bible-soldier comforts her.
His next entry relates their trip toward the extraction-point vacuae, which has left only him and Singer alive. They got Marco first, unravelling him like a skein of yarn. Steen goes the same way. Petrov gets riddled with holes like Their footprints. Singer saves Bible-soldier by yanking his ear so pain will mask his thoughts. He does the same for her with a punch. They plan another desperate run for the vacuae.
Bible-soldier final entry notes he’s leaving his journal in the bunker in case anyone else ventures into Willow-world. He’ll tell his own people never to return, though he doubts they’ll listen. Anyone reading his journal, bug out of Willow-world ASAP!
Kara hopes Bible-soldier and Singer escaped. She tucks the Bible-journal, an artifact from another universe, into a kitchen drawer. Maybe some of the rubber bands in there also come from other worlds—how would anyone know?
Unable to sleep the next night, Kara sits against the Museum wall with best cafe internet access, reading fanfic rants—until she hears a scratching noise. She looks up to see silvery willow-light spreading from some creature creeping around the cases. Did the willows somehow get to Beau? She crouches behind the front counter, but her phone rings, Mark’s damn number. He’s going to get her killed!
The monster that leaps on her from the countertop isn’t a possessed Beau. Instead, it’s the missing stuffed fisher. It claws and tries to bite with a mouth half-sewn shut. Kara throws it off, then beats it with her cane, kneeling with her wounded knee in agony. Silver light spills from the fisher’s torn hide, as if it’s burning inside. Kara struggles to stand. The fisher makes it to its feet first. A hole in its chest gapes like a mouth, and from inside, outlined in silver light, the corpse-otter carving turns its head toward Kara.
So one mystery is solved. “It was you… It was you the whole time.”
This week’s metrics
Weirdbuilding: Never trust otters from the Danube.
Libronomicon: The bible diary leaves off without resolution, left behind as the writer makes his last desperate run for the way home. “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” meanwhile, cuts a little too close to home with “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”
With her knee newly and badly bunged up, Kara starts really sympathizing with Uncle Earl; the intensity of the pain he long endured is now “being driven home like a railroad spike through [her] leg.” As the not-so-proud owner of two arthritic knees myself, I’ll go her one degree of commiseration better and empathize with her and Earl. I’ve been cringing and sucking in sharp breaths every time Kara drags herself up those damn stairs to check on Simon’s sheet-metal patch. She needs to put a security camera on that hell-gate and save herself the agony! I can understand why Earl didn’t bother with cameras, sweet trusting soul that he is. Kara’s opinion before recent events would likely have been that the Museum contained nothing worth the expense of a CCTV system. A hell-gate is worth the expense, but since Kara can’t even afford an urgent care visit for her knee…
Yeah, I’m obsessed with Kara’s bunged-up knee. It’s not just her—I tend to fixate on every fictional injury that slows a character down when they most need to be quick on their feet and top of their physical form. I don’t dispute the likelihood of injuries happening when one is fleeing baboon-fanged monsters and tumbling ass-every-which-way down concrete stairs. I’d agree that a character who comes through such experiences unscathed is more culpable than an injured Kara of stretching reader credulity. I don’t contest that partially disabling a character can ratchet up tension and justify head-on confrontations. When you can’t run away, you can’t run away. And there’s that sympathy-empathy factor mentioned above. What reader isn’t going to root harder for the hurt-but-game character?
Um, I could sometimes be that reader? I mean, isn’t Kara in enough physical peril without the bum knee? Is Kingfisher dealing her an Adversity Card too many? Honestly, I’m on the fence about this one.
I think I’d hop down on the “Never Mind, Kara’s Just Fine As Is” side of the fence if it weren’t that she’s already handicapped with a big old blind spot about the connection between the corpse-otter carving and Willow-world. How many times does Corpse-Otter have to turn up in the immediate vicinity of the portal before Kara figures out its game? In previous Hollow Places blogs, I’ve written in Kara’s defense that she can’t have read Blackwood’s “Willows” and that Blackwood’s “Willows” may not even exist in Kingfisher’s Hollowverse. Either of these legitimate authorial choices would justify Kara in not immediately associating the carving with the willowy landscape she and Simon discover beyond the bunker.
That conceded (again, Anne, god!), should it really take until Chapter Eighteen, when Corpse-Otter emerges from its taxidermied shell shedding silvery willow-light, for Kara to have her Eureka moment: “It was you the whole time”?
All these paragraphs later, I haven’t decided. Therefore, I will officially let my nagging niggling doubts on the matter rest.
Highlights of Chapters 17 and 18 for me included the High Scares of carving-animated stuffed beasts, particularly the blind and blundering way that fisher moves—with its glass eyes and long-dead limbs, how else can it ambulate? Nasty, as is the thought that Corpse-Otter’s just practicing with the raccoon and fisher—waiting until it perfects its skills, maybe in a stuffed grizzly? Maybe in a fresher corpse, like Beau’s?
As if Beau would ever let himself be zombified! Beau is proving to be one of the most realistically feline cats I’ve enjoyed in a novel, self-contained yet companionable, as he chooses to be. And, of course, a contender for Biggest Badass, “Domestic” Division.
Kara’s understandable reluctance to let Bible-Soldier go delays her (and us) reading from the finale of his marginalia journal. She fears that death or worse-than-death transfiguration can be the only outcome for him and his team. Oh, and for Singer, who joins them after the death and worse-than-death of her own teammates. Singer comes from a world other than Bible-Soldier’s, though one of the languages she speaks is his. Why not: Bible-Soldier’s language is our own English, different only in some slang and technical terms. The dominant species of Bible-Soldier and Singer’s worlds appear to be as human as Earthlings Kara and Simon. The semi-there passengers on the Byricopa County school bus are humaniform. Park ranger Sturdivant is (was) human, perhaps even from Earth’s American South, judging by his accent and close acquaintance with kudzu. The Boatman is still recognizable as partly human. However many worlds or dimensions impinge on Willow-world, the ones we see are all intriguingly close parallels of Earth. Maybe they all “spawned” from the same clutch of potential universes? Our siblings!
Must we always hold the family reunions in Willow-world, though?
At last, at last, the otter! The reveal that everyone but Kara has seen coming for chapters. It’s not a secret that’s been particularly well-hidden—especially, as Anne has pointed out, to any reader going in with Blackwood as background—so why does it take her so long? Hypotheses include:
- Mind control: the otter is either deliberately pushing Kara to forget about it, or just projects a powerful Somebody Else’s Problem field;
- Distraction: it’s been a stressful week, and this stuff is just not as obvious if you aren’t getting your experiences in prose form;
- Plot force: no amount of genre savvy will allow the protagonist of a horror story to identify an obviously-haunted doll.
To these possibilities, I would like to add Kara’s shaken admission that “it was hard to think that something weird could happen that didn’t have anything to do with the willows. As if every awful horror had to be linked somehow.” And yet, she stretches the limits of plausibility to explain why this week’s weirdnesses are not linked to the willows, right up to the point that the connection literally jumps up and bites her. “Denial” is perhaps the name of a river in Evil Narnia.
Denial is not a particularly healthy coping strategy for the trauma of her travels to Willow-world, but it’s not a terribly surprising one. Having found herself drawn back to hell in her sleep, having finally found a way to cut off access and rest safely, no wonder she needs to believe that everything hellish remains on the other side of that barrier. She needs to believe that the museum is safe. She needs to believe that things from here may go there, but that nothing from there has crossed over to here. Because if a little otter carving can enter our world, what else might do so?
Singer suggests, via our bible journal-writer, that it’s happened before. That Willow-world is not where They are from, which means They aren’t stuck there, either. Admitting that might make it hard for Kara to sleep, ever again.
Beyond these excellent reasons for wishful thinking, Kara gets along better with her uncle than her mom, but she has her mom’s stubbornness and lacks her uncle’s credulity. Her skepticism is reflexive: even after admitting the reality of Willow-world to herself, she doesn’t make the leap to accepting other weirdnesses. This is most obvious at the point where she’s reading about ships gone missing at sea, and the wild theories about their fates. She informs us cheerfully that “The answer is always cannibalism.” Kara, you literally saw a shipwreck in the Willows on Saturday. Maybe reconsider your assumptions about the Bermuda Triangle?
But she doesn’t, and animate stuffies are a much bigger leap from the existence of alternate dimensions, so clearly that taxidermied raccoon was just being used as a hidey-hole by a perfectly. Normal. Rat. And got broken out of its case, then abandoned, by a perfectly. Normal. Thief.
She slips a couple times, like when she figures out that the “rat” didn’t bite Beau because the raccoon’s mouth is sewn shut. At some level, she does know better. She’s just not going to admit the truth until it jumps on her back.
Next week, attracted by the great title of Brian Evenson’s Song for the Unraveling of the World collection, we’ll cover “No Matter Which Way We Turned.”
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.