REVIEW: The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

Genre publishing is a scene killer.

Back in the 1970s, a successful horror novel could sell in the hundreds of thousands of copies, the best-known writers were house-hold names and Hollywood producers were falling over themselves to sign the rights to anything even remotely decent. These were not just good years, they were fat years.

The problem was that for every world-famous author rubbing shoulders with movie stars on late-night TV there were literally dozens if not hundreds of authors who were… well… shit. When a book hits big, readers will walk into a book shop and say they want more of the same. Sometimes, successful authors will have back-catalogues that can satiate an audience’s desire but more often than not, great books are kind of hard to find. Publishing tries to solve this problem by publishing books that are a bit like something successful. Quite often, the people in publishing won’t be able to tell you why a particular book sold a million copies and so they spend a lot of their time trying to strike a balance between ‘more of the same’ and ‘might actually strike a nerve’. The problem is that, if none of those new books does strike a nerve and break out, the lack of new trends means that publishers wind up throwing more and more money after stuff whose moment has already passed.

One side effect of this strategy is that everything fresh and good inevitably winds up being buried in shit as publishing companies desperately churn out photocopies of photocopies until even the most devoted of readers tune out and the entire scene comes crashing down around their pointy little heads.

This is what happened to the horror genre. Desperate to replicate big successes, publishing companies would put their money behind any old shit with a monster or a murder. While this approach undoubtedly resulted in the publication of some amazing books, it also submerged the horror genre in a river of shit so deep that it has taken literally decades for fans and authors to dig it back out.

Since then, similar things have happened first in the world of Paranormal Romance, and more recently in the world of Young Adult fiction where the vast success of a small number of titles resulted in publishers filling the shelves with so many derivative works that markets collapsed. The rise and fall of Young Adult is a major problem for publishing as a lot of genre publishers pivoted hard towards YA when first the science fiction and then the fantasy genres began to decline. Desperate for a professional life raft, many YA authors have tried to re-invent themselves as adult-oriented writers and many younger authors have reacted with fury to the suggestion that they might ever have considered writing YA.

Genre publishing seems to be in the early stages of a pivot towards horror. This poses something of a challenge as the dark and jagged emotional aesthetics of horror are very different to the uplifting moral simplicity that followed the YA crowd into adult genre publishing. How do you sell horror to people who argue that one cannot depict abuse without endorsing it? How do you sell horror to people who have convinced themselves that morally-upstanding escapism is the only legitimate literary form? I’m not sure that publishing has a solution to this yet; the old world is dying but the new world still struggles to be born.

The Twisted Ones is a novel born of this interregnum. Written under a pseudonym by a Hugo-winning author best known for books aimed at children, this novel feels like fantasy but is being marketed as horror. Unfortunately, despite the dark cover, the evocative title, and the cover blurbs stressing the book’s terrifying affect, The Twisted Ones is more amiably beige than it is dark and disturbing.

The story is set in North Carolina and revolves around Mouse, a woman with few attachments who volunteers to go and clear out the house of her estranged grand-mother. Mouse arrives at the place with her bloodhound Bongo only to discover that Grandma was a hoarder as well as an abusive monster. This opening section works really well and The Twisted Ones is undoubtedly at its most true when dealing with Mouse’s feelings about her family but as with Rules for Vanishing, while trauma may be something that is invoked as part of the character’s backstory, the trauma itself is never a subject of active engagement. Traumatic events linger in the background but are never described. We do get some interesting observations about how abusive family dynamics can filter through into some families being less tightly-bound than others but to go any further would be uncouth.

Mouse starts the process of cleaning out her grandmother’s house and there are a few suitably creepy moments to get the juices flowing. Particularly effective are the snapshots of Grandma’s second marriage and how a kindly, sick old man took to sleeping in the woods in order to get away from his horrible wife. This goes some way towards humanising the clutter as it moves the novel away from ‘character does chores’ to ‘character is dealing with shit’ and Kingfisher strikes quite a careful balance as Mouse’s distance from her grandmother means that the novel never quite tips over into outright therapy. I mean… I think the novel would have been more satisfying and more enjoyable for me had Kingfisher used this sense of conflicted loss and trauma in the rest of the novel but this is not that kind of novel.

The plot arrives with the discovery of step-Grandpa’s hand-written notes that not only showcase the emotional hardship of his marriage but also provide a reason for Mouse to continue digging as they make frequent reference to a lost journal. The more Mouse searches, the weirder things get as Bongo starts seeing creepy deer in the back yard and some oddly-shaped stones herald the discovery of a tunnel from the real world to some other magical place. This set-up takes about a hundred pages and it works pretty well: There’s a tone of menace with a lingering smell of trauma, there’s the oddness of Mouse’s environment and the suspicion that digging through all the weird stuff might be messing with her head, and then there’s the lost journal. Unfortunately, the journal caused me to bounce straight out of the novel and abandon it for about a week.

One thing that always struck me as odd was the decision to make Mouse a professional book editor. While I don’t recall the character getting much in the way of physical description, the pick-up truck, coonhound, and lack of real social connections leave the impression of someone somewhat isolated and blue-collar. My mental image of Mouse was a skinny woman in a plaid shirt and work boots, her hair pulled up under a sun-faded trucker cap. This impression is supported not only by the unadorned speech patterns, but also by the lack of literary references and the fact that her phone gets borked in the opening pages and this does not really seem to bother her. Imagine a professional editor who doesn’t see the world in terms of books and who doesn’t spend twenty hours a day on Twitter…

This detail grated upon me until Mouse discovers the journal. At this point, The Twisted Ones adopts this really weird format which involves extended quotes from Arthur Machen’s “The White People along with additional commentary by Mouse. Seeing as “The White People” is already a commentary on a fictional text, this section of the book uses a three-tiered structure that deploys bold, italic, and standard font formatting to describe a text, a commentary on said text, and then a commentary upon both said text and said commentary. The result is a near-impassable swamp. I’ve seen reviews draw comparisons between this section and the experimental text formatting used in Danielewski’s House of Leaves but this is less evocative of a fraying mind than it is a torturous and ill-conceived mess.

The book concludes with an afterword by the author and Kingfisher mentions that she pitched the book to its eventual editor based upon a series of tweets and while I haven’t tried to seek out those tweets, I can imagine them being about a contemporary editor reading “The White People” and having to red pen all of the anachronistic and/or problematic passages. The problem is that while Kingfisher can do venom she doesn’t really do humour and so Mouse’s comments on the manuscript within a manuscript within a manuscript feel as weak as they are forced. They don’t even feel like the kinds of comments you would get from a professional editor.

It’s almost as though Kingfisher had the idea to write a story that played around with “The White People”, encountered the outdated ideas therein, and didn’t feel able to include references to the book without calling out all of the weird ideas. I really don’t mind ‘performative’ dunking, I think that literary horror needs to confront some of the ugly ideas and stereotypes embedded in canonical works but if you are going to dunk, then at least learn how. All this section does is slow the plot and make the book less pleasant to read. Maybe I should write a novel in which someone finds a copy of the Twisted Ones in the attic of an abusive parent and passes commentary upon Kingfisher’s commentary on the commentary on the fictional text. In fairness, my commentary would be quite short: “This bit sucks; it’s boring, it kills the pacing, it’s barely connected to the plot, and it does absolutely nothing for the rest of the novel”.

Things start to pick up as the contents of the journal start to get processed. A series of escalating vignettes involving the backyard deer come to fruition, Mouse discovers something in the trees, and the sassy elderly lady from over the road becomes an enjoyable foil and side-kick when Mouse decides to head into the woods and deal with the strangeness face-to-face. Somewhat unsatisfyingly, the plot of the novel turns out to hinge on a complete misunderstanding but the concluding riff on Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness works pretty well even if it comes across as more weird and whimsical than unpleasant and disturbing.

I refer to The Twisted Ones as an interregnum novel as while it may look like a horror novel and touch on the kind of stuff that horror usually deals with, it never quite makes the transition from fantasy to horror. The problem is that while Kingfisher is really good at locating these deep pools of negative emotion, she pointedly refuses to get our feet wet. Indeed, having spent a hundred pages priming the pumps by talking about Mouse’s troubled family history, Kingfisher suddenly shoves all of that background stuff into a cupboard and turns the novel into what is effectively quite a conventional portal fantasy in which a young woman goes for a walk and stumbles into a magical land. Despite the allusions to Arthur Machen, the more obvious precursors to The Twisted Ones are Alice in Wonderland and My Neighbour Totoro. Both of those stories have their dark and unpleasant moments but is the darkness and unpleasant the focus of those stories? No and the same is true for The Twisted Ones.

Kingfisher comes across as a competent contemporary genre writer. When she had me, she kept me hooked for hours at a time and this novel shows that she has a mind for place, an ear for character, and an eye for unpleasantness. I just wish that she hadn’t stopped at the water’s edge as the dark waters are why some of us picked up the book in the first place. Maybe that is what distinguishes me from the book’s intended audience as The Twisted Ones was most definitely not for me.

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