The Hollow Places: I read it in one sitting because I was afraid to put it down

The Hollow Places by T. KingfisherThe Hollow Places by T. KingfisherThe Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

 … and we watched the willow branches bow outward from the passing, and it was invisible except that invisible was not the right word, because its not-there-ness hung in the air like an afterimage.

The Hollow Places (2020), by T. Kingfisher, reminded me a lot of the other folk-horror novel of hers I read recently, The Twisted Ones. Both take place in or close to small southern towns, both have alternate realities, protagonists coming to town to help a relative, and discovered manuscripts. Both were inspired by earlier works of horror or Weird. (This one was inspired by “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood.) The Twisted Ones was deeply creepy. I found The Hollow Places to be even creepier; start-at-sounds and lie-awake-at-night creepy. Like, “Oh, no, I have to walk down the dark hall of my own house!” creepy.

So, yeah, I really liked it.

Kara, a self-employed graphic designer, recently one-half of a “friendly divorce,” comes to a small southern town to help her uncle run his eccentric Museum of Wonders. Uncle Earl calls her Carrot, and Carrot has loved the weird museum with its collection of kitsch, taxidermy and eccentricity since she was small. In many ways, the museum personifies her uncle, who is capable of believing many things, often things that contradict each other.

A few items in the museum include: a portrait of the pope in sunflower seeds; a Genuine Feejee Mermaid (Carrot thinks this might be racist); a stuffed Amazon otter; taxidermy mice, in costume, riding cane toads; lots of skulls; and the head of a bull elk six-year-old Carrot named Prince after the father in Bambi. When Uncle Earl is hospitalized for surgery, Carrot is doing a fine job of running the museum until someone or something punches a hole in the wall of the shop’s second story. When she and her barista friend from next door, Simon, investigate, they don’t find the inside of a wall. They find another world. And it’s not a nice place.

Simon is a delightful character with a suitable touch of the weird himself; one of his eyes can actually see into other realities. He and Carrot make a good team. Kingfisher directs the story through several layers of creepy weirdness. The first part of the “world of the willows” looks like an unused extension of the building that houses both the museum and the neighboring except the dimensions are wrong. Carrot and Simon discover a door, locked from their side, disturbing graffiti and another locked room with a skeleton in it.

Eventually, of course, they go through the first locked door into the world of willows, and the story gets several orders of magnitude scarier — and then even more scary, since even though they took care to mark the place where they entered, soon Simon and Carrot realize they can’t locate the route back to their world. Meanwhile, graffiti gives them warnings like, “Pray they are hungry,” and “They can hear you thinking.”

Kingfisher expertly nails the Weird here. This isn’t “slasher” scary although there’s plenty of grossness; it’s otherworldly scary. Carrot and Simon struggle to even articulate what they are experiencing. Then, when they seem to find their way to safety, the story takes another weird turn and becomes even more seriously frightening.

Along the way, Kingfisher entertains us with bits from our world that relieve the tension and make Carrot an even more endearing character. Hiding from the dread things and trying really hard not to think of Them (which helps Them find you) Carrot starts thinking about her fanfic community, in a delightful riff on fanfiction that very few writers, even those from the community, could adequately pull off. Kingfisher does. The different tourists who come to the museum, and their various reactions, are realistic and funny. Near the end of the book, when things are getting dire, Carrot finds herself dealing with frantic phone calls from her ex-husband Mark, who is suddenly admitting things he never said during the divorce. To her surprise, Carrot realizes that she doesn’t care. The things she is facing suddenly put her self-absorbed, shallow ex into perspective.

And, as I expected, there is a perfect animal companion: Beau, the museum cat, who is described as having a skull like a fist.

I read The Hollow Places in one stretch, because I was too scared to put it down. I wasn’t just scared or creeped out; I cared about Carrot, Uncle Earl and Simon, and I wanted the museum saved. Kingfisher had me caring about these things pretty early in the story.

If “eldritch horror” or folk horror is your thing, pick up The Hollow Places. And leave the lights on.

Published in October 2020. A young woman discovers a strange portal in her uncle’s house, leading to madness and terror in this gripping new novel from the author of the “innovative, unexpected, and absolutely chilling” (Mira Grant, Nebula Award–winning author) The Twisted Ones. Pray they are hungry. Kara finds the words in the mysterious bunker that she’s discovered behind a hole in the wall of her uncle’s house. Freshly divorced and living back at home, Kara now becomes obsessed with these cryptic words and starts exploring this peculiar area—only to discover that it holds portals to countless alternate realities. But these places are haunted by creatures that seem to hear thoughts…and the more one fears them, the stronger they become. With her distinctive “delightfully fresh and subversive” (SF Bluestocking) prose and the strange, sinister wonder found in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s LabyrinthThe Hollow Places is another compelling and white-knuckled horror novel that you won’t be able to put down.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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