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 wrap up T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Places, first published in 2020, with Chapters 21-22. Spoilers ahead!
“The Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities, and Taxidermy, open nine to six, six days a week, closed Mondays.”
As Simon bandages her wounds, Kara tells him the corpse-otter carving was the source of all their Willow-world woes. Her catalog reminds them that the malignant artifact came from the Danube region; perhaps somewhere along that river “a clump of silver willows swayed in the wind from another world.”
And it was Uncle Earl’s friend Woody Morwood who sent the carving. Ignoring Simon’s alarm at seeing her on her feet, she hobbles to Earl’s Rolodex. The first thing she shouts when he answers her call is, “Did you send the otter carving?” Then she bursts into furious tears.
Woody’s distressed but not surprised by her anger. With Simon’s help, Kara relates their tale of extramundane terror, ending with the obvious question: Why did Woody send Earl the otter?
Woody found the thing on a willow-covered island in the Danube. He realized it was “not good,” but understood the corpse-otter as the “key” to the willows’ “lock.” He thought if he sent it far away it wouldn’t be able to open anything. As for why he didn’t warn Earl, um actually, he did. In that book he sent along with the carving, he told Earl to keep it locked up. Hadn’t they read it?
Kara checks the catalog and finds the “blank” banana-leaf book that was also in his consignment, and which neither she nor Earl bothered to open.
Woody burned the willows around the corpse-otter, but the carving refused to burn. Where did it come from? Locals claim a “wizard” used to live in the area. Maybe he found a way through to Willow-world? Maybe a hole opened between the worlds, disgorging a log someone carved into the very shape the log wanted to assume? In any case, if he’d known the carving’s solo power, he’d never have sent it to the Museum.
Kara asks if Woody knows how to close interdimensional holes. He’s horrified to learn that hers is still open. She must get it closed, whatever it takes. His theory: you have to fill it with whatever was there before it opened.
Simon checks the Necronomicon Google, and finds a relatively easy way to put up walls by stacking bags of quick-set concrete, then soaking them with water. Relatively is right; with Kara’s knee in such bad shape, Simon has to haul and position the bags by himself. When the rough-and-ready “bunker” wall has hardened, he starts on the Museum-side plasterwork. As he spackles, the drywall repairs itself to a never-damaged smoothness. Later, both Kara’s drill and Simon’s eye agree that the hole is gone. It’s over, hopefully forever.
“From your lips to God’s ears,” Kara says, repeating a favorite Earlism.
What’s not over is the lingering trauma. Kara has nightmares, of course. Worse are lapses when awake, as when the silvery light of certain street lamps tilts her into momentary panic. Twice the terror’s nearly run her off the road. A willow tree in the yard next to her mother’s also spooks her, as do images of otters.
Earl returns to the Museum, and Kara stays on. Is the reader surprised she doesn’t run from the scene of her ordeal? How can she, though, when the Museum is what saved her, all those taxidermied animals that battled the possessed Amazonian otter to buy her time. She’s developed a theory to explain her “guardians.” Perhaps animals have souls, and some bit of memory cling to their bones once the souls have departed. Earl’s taxidermies spent decades “marinating in [his] fierce, befuddled kindness.” Many, particularly the elk Prince, spent years bathed in young Kara’s love. Profound as is the malice of Willow-world, the taxidermies awakened by the corpse-otter had the concentrated benevolence to defeat it.
Prince’s head is tilted from its original position, as if the elk were listening for Kara to return from her flight upstairs. Many of the cane toads have moved, and many of the costumed mice just — don’t look as they did before the night of their quickening.
Kara has finally seen a doctor about her ruined knee. She can’t afford the needed operation, so for now she and Earl hobble around the Museum together. He promises to leave the place to Kara in his will. Woody visits. In his eyes, Kara sees the same haunted look she sees in Simon’s, and that she supposes must darken her own.
She and Simon spend many evenings together in the coffee shop, or watching bad movies in the back of the Museum. They don’t talk about the willows much, or at all, but it helps to have someone around who’s been there.
Sometimes Kara thinks of getting her own apartment, but how can she leave behind her valiant, if unliving, protectors? Besides, there’s no rent, and the coffee too is free. She has found her way back at last to the Wonder Museum and—
She wonders what will happen next.
Libronomicon: “Blank book of banana leaves” would be better labeled as “explanation of enclosed monster.”
Madness Takes Its Toll: Kara says “my grip on sanity is not quite what it was” post-willows. What she means: PTSD is a thing whether or not you can afford therapy (or explain yourself to the therapist), and people aren’t kidding when they say that anything can be a trigger. In this case, triggers include cute otters, streetlights, and—unsurprisingly—willows.
So end Kara and Simon’s misadventures in Willow-world, and even reckless Beau the cat has survived. The worst physical casualty is Kara’s knee—regarding which, can’t someone please Crowdfund her reconstructive surgery? Still more serious are her psychic injuries. As we’ve often seen in our journey through cosmic horror, a comfortable sense of Humanity’s Central Importance in the Universe is not recoverable once shaken by the truth of Our Insignificance in the Uncaring Void. Kara finds her nightmares bad enough. Worse are the panic-triggers of silvery light, willows and that internet staple, ridiculously cute otters. If Kara doesn’t go mad or retreat to the peace and safety of a new dark age, her best bet would be countering her Cosmic Insignificance with her Personal Significance to Earl and Simon, to Beau, even in some unexplained but absolutely felt way to the Wonder Museum itself.
Kara’s been learning a lot about hollow places. One emptiness was her marriage to Mark, which can’t compete with Willow-world and wherever They come from. What’s a clueless ex compared to malignly sentient vegetation or alien entities whose “kindest” intention toward other beings is to devour them? Woe unto those They encounter when They’re full, because then it’s Their ravenous curiosity They seek to satisfy. THEY may come from a hollow place between worlds, a corridor or umbilical dimension. THEY may hollow out the spaces They visit by annihilating most of their populations, leaving only mutated survivors as hungry as Themselves, such as the Boatman and Sturdivant.
Could the Boatman be that “Danube-wizard” of whom Woody heard tales? “If there’s a way into hell,” Woody opines, “someone will always find it.” Say the Boatman carved the corpse-otter key and opened a door between his native river and Willow-world; his hell was then what They made of him, a fusion of man and vessel, flesh and wood, always hungry. Or the corpse-otter carving could have ended up on the willow-infested island some other way entirely—Woody doesn’t know the origin story of the thing. That he’s a seeker after the weird could give his speculations more weight than Kara or Simon’s, but he doesn’t necessarily have answers.
And it’s answers Kara wants. She’s always trying to “logic [her] way through” the puzzle of Willow-world. In the end she has to concede defeat, for “there were too many holes in our understanding, to go with the holes in the world.”
How is she going to live with those knowledge-holes? Like many in similar situations, she turns to belief. Kara believes that animals have souls, not that she thinks Earl’s taxidermies retain theirs. But maybe their bones absorb spiritual energy, here Earl’s “fierce, befuddled kindness” and Kara’s little-girl love. Maybe the corpse-otter carving animated the Museum’s preserved inhabitants as an unintended consequence of animating the Amazonian otter, but it wasn’t strong enough to control both its borrowed body and all of them. That left the animated beasts to act as their latent energies disposed them: To defend Kara and Earl’s treasured Museum.
Kara wants to believe this, and so she does believe it, strongly enough to remain in the Museum and close to her loved ones, Earl and Simon, Beau and Prince. Let it be her refuge, with guardian magic strong enough to hold off the willows that are Their harbingers and allies.
Simon and Woody are also haunted by Willow-world—Kara can see it in their eyes. Woody is intriguing but something of a plot problem. I don’t quite buy him sending Earl a dangerous artifact without explicit instructions on how to manage it. His defense is that he did send instructions, in a banana-leaf book that Earl and Kara assumed to be blank, certainly unconnected to the corpse-otter, unfortunate but not unreasonable assumptions. It would have been a lot less haphazard for Woody to attach a letter to the carving, the envelope marked READ RIGHT AWAY. Or maybe he could have called ahead? Emailed? Or if he was afraid someone nefarious might be after the carving, maybe he shouldn’t have sent it at all?
I’m going to stop beating up on Woody. I’m not going to start about how Simon and Kara finally closed the (worm)hole between the Museum and Willow-world. I was seriously confused by this passage. So Simon constructed the quick-set cement wall on the bunker side of the hole? Then he spackled the wall on its Museum side, which simultaneously restored the Museum’s drywall? And the “corridor” into which Simon was leaning to spackle was the space between the new cement wall and…what? Because there wasn’t any drywall up on the Museum side, was there? That was what was magically appearing.
Never mind. If Kara can put up with “holes” in her understanding, so can I. And also like Kara, I can wonder what happens next in the homey oddity that is the Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities and Taxidermy!
I love aftermath. It’s one thing to kill the monster or escape the danger, to get through the terrifying events that forced you to change your understanding of the world. It’s another to keep going with that knowledge. To survive the trauma and process it and maybe heal and maybe just learn to live with a new, less, comfortable insight into the nature of reality. How do we react to strangeness and horror? How do our reactions shape our experience of those things? How do those experiences shape the rest of our lives? These questions, even more than the excitement of brain-straining ideas and images, are why I keep coming back to the cosmic horror well despite the weird colors in the water.
Kara and Simon survive the aftermath as they survived the events: through kindness and cooperation and sarcasm, in a place that they love, surrounded by supportive community. It doesn’t make it easy, but it makes it possible.
They also find further understanding in the person of Woody, who sent the otter carving in the first place. Turns out, he knows what it does, but thought it wouldn’t be able to do that in the Wonder Museum. You can’t blame him for trusting the inherent goodness of the place, but maybe a banana-leaf notebook is not the best place to annotate your interdimensionally-catastrophic donation. No surprise, though, that Earl’s friends are as… quirky… as Earl. To the IT agent’s eternal complaint of RTFM, we can now add LTFM: “Label the F-ing Manual!”
Woody’s story, even more than the otter from the Danube, links Hollow Places to Blackwood’s “Willows” and manages to make the original even scarier. In light of his report (so to speak), the awakened willows in that tale were part of an ongoing incursion, something that’s continued over a century and happened in more than one place. And someday—Kara doesn’t want to think about this too carefully and neither do we—we might not get so lucky. People who don’t come back from Willow-World can’t patch their own vacuae.
Also contributing to the difficulty of the situation is Kara’s lack of health insurance. Maybe not quite the real horror was the lack of systematic social supports we had along the way, but a couple of trips to the ER and the ability to get knee surgery would have been pretty useful. Among other things, I have to assume that along with otters and silvery light, knee pain has gotten pretty triggering at this point. And speaking of systematic social supports, any world with regular willow holes would also benefit from a publicly-listed X-Files hotline. (Not that Simon would ever let us call them, so if interdimensional rifts destroy the planet you can blame the War on Drugs.)
While they’ve spent most of the book making comparisons to Narnia, I find it interesting that as Kara and Simon patch the hole, their analogy is to Road Runner cartoons. If you want to close up The Wood Between the Worlds, you’re out of luck unless Aslan cooperates. If you want to close up a Looney Tunes painted-on train tunnel, you need creativity and a sense of humor. Uncle Earl seems like the depend-on-the-love-of-god sort; Kara and Simon are on their toes with the jokes, the willingness to follow the logic of the moment rather than expecting consistency, and flexibility in the face of ever-shifting gravity.
Beep beep. What did you think “physics alien to earthly experience” would look like, anyway?
Not all interdimensional rifts are bad for you! Join us next week for Stephen King’s “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut”; you can find it in Skeleton Crew. Then the following week we’ll start on our next long(ish)read, John Connoly’s Fractured Atlas.
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.