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 19-20 of T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Places, first published in 2020. Spoilers ahead!
the light makes things alive
Kara’s first thought after recognizing the corpse-otter carving as the link between Wonder Museum and Willow-world is: How dare it come here—the Museum is home. The Museum has always been her place of refuge, “the safe place where Uncle Earl kept a little corner of the world weird and ridiculous and kind.” Her next thought is that while she was trying to escape from Willow-world, the corpse-otter was trying to escape back to it. If only Kara hadn’t kept absentmindedly picking it up!
The stuffed fisher, possessed by the carving, limps back upstairs. With the fresh injuries to her knee, there’s no way Kara can chase it. She cowers behind the counter, watching silver willow-light flare from the second floor, waxing, making the shadows of wall-mounted taxidermy “elongate like the shapes in the willows at night.” The wildebeest head above her twitches to life. If the corpse-otter can do that, could it summon Them into our world as well?
Knee screaming, Kara forces herself to crawl up the stairs. Around her the Museum specimens quicken, skeletal snakes and grizzly, jackalope and Feejee Mermaid. She makes it to the second floor in time to see that the corpse-otter has discarded the wrecked skin of the fisher and possessed instead the giant Amazonian otter, aka a water-jaguar. With claws as long as Kara’s fingers and preternatural strength, it begins to tear Simon’s sheet-metal barricade from the wall. So the corpse-otter just wants to go home? Kara silently urges it on.
Then something furry brushes past her. And yowls. It’s stupid valiant Beau the cat, whose challenge draws the otter’s attention. Eight feet of sleek predator, swift as a river, the monster gives chase. Clutching Beau, Kara butt-slides downstairs, hobbles into her bedroom. The otter attacks her locked door, which doesn’t seem likely to hold up long. Aaand—on the wall, her pet elk head scrapes his antlers on the wall. Et tu, Prince?
But though animated by willow-magic, Prince takes Kara’s part. As the otter crashes in, he impales it on his antlers. Beau joins in, raking out its glass eyes before making his escape from the bedroom. Kara too squeezes past the skewered otter. Countering her impulse to get out of the Museum is her fear that the otter will pursue her, perhaps with Them in tow. A flash of empathy brings the solution. The corpse-otter carving wants to go home, as she did when trapped in Willow-world. So let her lead it in its borrowed skin through the portal.
The Museum’s taxidermied beasts, its protectors, keep attacking the giant otter, buying Kara time. She struggles into the bunker behind the wall and up the steps to Willow-world. She’s hoped to shelter in the trees, but they are awake now and clutch at her. She jumps into the river. Bad move: The otter’s in its element there. It gives chase and slashes open her calf. Overhead Their hum sounds, close, too close.
With deadly enemies in water and air, Kara takes the desperate chance of going underground. She throws herself into the nearest bunker, praying it will have a door she can close. No such luck, and this is one of the bunkers inundated with filthy water. Weeds brush her legs as she gropes into darkness. The otter blocks the doorway behind. She encounters a concrete wall, a niche, a pillar—and Sturdivant, who can taste her bleeding in the water. Not weeds brushing against her after all. Gck! He marvels that she’s still alive.
Not alive for much longer, Kara manages to convince him, what with her pursuers. Sturdivant distracts the otter with his Gollum-like gcks, long enough for Kara to head for the steps. The entrance above gives just enough light for her to see the otter erupt from the water, with Sturdivant’s bony arms wrapped around its neck and his innards, a “kraken wrap of tentacles,” entangling its body.
She crawls back out to the river and swims for her own bunker with Their hum overhead and Their “footsteps” plunging into the water around her. Kara tries to stop thinking about Them. It’s impossible, especially when she makes it to shore, rolls over, and sees one of Them. It’s tearing a hole in the sky, pushing against the skin of the world, “like an Old Testament angel, all wings and wheels and eyes.” It protrudes the sort of beak that might make a funnel-shaped hole in water or sand or flesh, and Its voice is “a train whistle of hunger.”
As They descend, Kara remembers what saved Bible-Soldier, what saved her when she first injured her knee, the ultimate They-shield: pain. She deliberately drops her full weight on her knee and plunges into “a red-shot void” of agony. The maneuver works: Their strike misses her by an inch. And then They drift off, frustrated.
Protected by the pain her outraged knee amply supplies, Kara drags herself back into her own bunker. She makes it to the hole between worlds and falls into the Museum. The silver willow-light exuded by the corpse-otter is gone, replaced by the gray of dawn. The taxidermied animals are again still, for the light makes things alive then not alive.
Kara curls on her side on the floor and watches the sun come up over Hog Chapel.
This week’s metrics
What’s Cyclopean: We get a lot of creepy sound effects, but there’s a reason Kingfisher makes the giant river otter “terribly silent”: it’s because the alternative is this (vocalizations start around 0:47).
Weirdbuilding: In movies, a chair under the doorknob will hold off the monster—not so much in real life, especially if you have cheap doors.
This read-through—peering between my fingers as Kara escapes fates worse than death via knee injury—I notice a pattern in our visits to Willow-World. The first and longest visit is a choice, but uninformed. Simon and Kara have no idea what they’re getting into, and stumble their way to survival through the power of friendship and stubborn luck. The second visit is against their wills entirely; in fact they’ve been taking serious measures to avoid it. The third visit is different. Kara knows exactly what she’s doing and exactly what she’s risking—and exactly what she’s working to save. She chooses the danger that she now understands way too well, because she can imagine the alternative of Willow-light corrupting museum, coffee shop, town, world.
That third, heroic trip is also the only one she takes alone. There’s no way to call Simon, and nothing summons him. Which makes it, despite being the time when Kara has the most agency, considerably scarier.
Another difference across the three trips is the relative emphasis placed on the transition between worlds. In the first trip, the crossover takes a couple of full chapters, keeping the reader aware of every gradation between “safely in museum” and “holy shit, definitely in a hell dimension.” For the second, the shift is blurred by Kara’s sleepwalking, so we go abruptly from “dreaming and probably basically safe” to “holy shit, definitely in a hell dimension” belatedly and on the wrong side of the door. Though Kara’s fully awake for the third trip, it feels more like the second than the first. The line between nightmare and actual danger is whited out not by actual sleep, but by fear and focus too strong to allow much attention to corridor or bunker.
We also, for this last trip, get a keen awareness of just how different the museum is from Willow-World. Kara is rightly and righteously furious to find the Willow’s power manifesting in her refuge. The exhibits have been her comfort and her retreat, and she sees their animation in the Willow-light as a betrayal worse than Mark’s. Mark is, after all, only a fallible non-Museum-affiliated human. The museum and its denizens have been safe, “weird and ridiculous and kind,” far longer than she’s counted on any romantic relationship.
And I love that her trust turns out to be justified. Even animated by alien light, Uncle Earl’s collection is what he’s made it. The hosts picked directly by the corpse-otter are a lost cause, but everything else fights with and for Kara. Led, of course, by Prince. And by Beau, who to be fair put her in danger in the first place by being too damn vocally valiant. These two champions are quickly followed by a furry trout, a feejee mermaid with a strong resemblance to Mira Grant’s mermaids, and all their skeletal and stuffed kin.
Kara, too, turns out to be worthy of the museum. What ultimately saves her is empathy: her ability to see through pain and fear to a corpse-otter carving that just wants to go home. Possibly killing her and her cat on the way—but they have one emotion in common, and that’s enough for her to figure out what needs doing, and then to do it.
Weird and ridiculous and kind. That seems like a good goal for all of us.
In “The Death of the Hired Man,” Robert Frost opined that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Where Kara and Earl are concerned, we can rewrite that to “Home is the place where, when you want to go there, he’s glad to take you in.” In some ways, the Wonder Museum is more home to Kara than the home of her childhood. In many ways, it’s more home than the home of her failed marriage. The Museum is her safe place, “where Uncle Earl kept a little corner of the world weird and ridiculous and kind.” Kara doesn’t object to the weirder aspects and artifacts of life, so long as they provoke her to benign hilarity or wonder—see also her friendship with Simon.
The denizens of Willow-world qualify as weird, all right, but it’s the wrong kind of weird; the laughter to which they prompt Kara is the sort of insane howling she’s constantly choking back. Any wonder they initially inspired has turned to dread, and kindness is not a quality we humans can attribute to them. To Them, in particular. Not that Their sinister-silvery enablers, the willows, are likely to win any Congeniality awards.
Finally, finally, Kara has realized the corpse-otter carving belongs to Willow-world—the sinister-silvery light it emits is a dead giveaway, as is that light’s ability to make things alive that should sit still on shelves or hang quiet on walls, being dead and stuffed. Its presence in the Museum is an infection, a betrayal. “It wasn’t allowed to be here” is Kara’s immediate outraged conviction. Above we’ve considered what HOME is. What HOME absolutely is not is a place where the Outside leaks in. HOME, by definition, is a monster-free zone. Even vampires need an invitation to enter!
Never mind vampires, though They may be an interdimensional variation on the same, when hungry. That corpse-otter must go. Fine, it wants nothing more than to go, after wreaking some frustration-powered payback on Kara for repeatedly imprisoning it on the wrong side of the wall.
Its wrong side is Kara’s right side, its right side her wrong. Its hell is her home, its home her hell. That Kara achieves this flash of empathy so soon after identifying the corpse-otter as the portal maker is impressive. Fortunately for verisimilitude, this empathy doesn’t make her wallow in warm cozies over the carving’s plight—after all, it is trying to kill her. After all, it is antithetical to the Wonder Museum, which Kara tells it “is a good place.”
But watching willow-light animate the wildebeest head on the wall over the front counter, she adds, in silent misery, that the Museum “was a good place.” Now, invaded, infected, rendered alien, it’s no longer her home, or Earl’s.
Kara, however, is wrong. Let’s speculate that “magic” is directed or latent energy, and that Earl’s comprehensive benevolence has charged the Museum’s “spiritual” batteries to overflowing. Kara’s ardor for the place has likely augmented the protective reserve. Whatever the explanation, the willows have not taken root in Kara’s good place. The corpse-otter (carved from their substance?) is a limited conduit for the malevolent energy of willow-light. It can effectively possess and manipulate one taxidermied body at a time. It can even simultaneously animate all of the taxidermies and dry bones, but it can’t command them. The latent energy of the Museum resides in them and makes them, vivified, its guardians. Fittingly, it’s when Prince attacks the giant otter rather than Kara that she gets what’s going on. If the Museum can’t destroy the giant otter and its corpse-otter pilot, at least it can buy her time.
Time for what? If her empathetic flash was right, the corpse-otter’s ruling desire is to GO HOME. So let her lead it in the right direction, and once it’s in Willow-world, it will leave her alone. Or maybe it will still want to kill her?
Yeah. Turns out it still wants to kill her. And where’s Simon all this time? Kara can’t call him without her cell phone, but shouldn’t he hear all that ruckus of woman and cat versus animated taxidermy right next door? A few chapters back, he mentioned his intention of getting falling down drunk so he wouldn’t be able to sleepwalk. Maybe on this night too he’s self-medicated himself to oblivion. I’m a little sorry he’s absent for the climax. On the other hand, Kara is the keeper of the Wonder Museum and the unwitting focus of the corpse-otter’s frustration, so it’s fitting this last fight should be all hers.
Besides, she has another ally against the forces of Willow-world. Chekhov famously wrote that if you introduce an alien-transfigured park ranger weltering in his own intestines in the first act, you have to fire him in the third act. Good old Sturdivant. I bet he was the best damn ranger in his kudzu-plagued world, and he’s still ready and able to foil zombie Amazonian otters at the last possible moment!
I’m going to miss that Gcker.
Next week, we find our way through the flood in John Langan’s “Breakwater.” You can read it in Ashes and Entropy.
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.