Given that I didn’t think that much of The Twisted Ones, I was surprised to find myself reading T. Kingfisher’s second horror novel The Hollow Places.
Perhaps I am growing generous in my old age but I did quite enjoy some of that book’s characterisation and while I felt that Kingfisher lacked the stomach to engage the book’s darker themes and images, I was at least impressed by her ability to locate these themes in the first place. Sadly, The Hollow Places is not an improvement on The Twisted Ones as while the worse bits of that novel are (thankfully) not replicated in this one, this relative easing of the reader’s burdens comes at the expense of much of what made The Twisted Ones interesting. Like islands on the Danube, my interest in this author’s output has now slipped beneath the waves.
Much like The Twisted Ones, The Hollow Places revolves around an isolated female character forced back to the places of her childhood. In The Twisted Ones, that place was the home of an unpleasant grand-parent, here it is a quirky museum run by a loveably eccentric uncle.
Freshly divorced and on the outs with her mother, Kara is delighted when her uncle asks her to come and stay with him in order to help out with the museum. She is delighted because she really doesn’t want to stay with her mother and because the museum’s collection of weird taxidermy and anthropological artefacts seem to be her happy place. Desperate to make herself feel useful, Kara volunteers to catalogue the museum’s collection but she’s soon catapulted into a leadership position when her uncle is forced into hospital for knee surgery.
Reading these opening chapters, I was reminded of what I enjoyed about Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones: the protagonist is a pleasingly acerbic presence with complex family ties and Kingfisher does a really good job of positioning her in a minimalistic social world. As with The Twisted Ones, we have the attenuated family, the isolated protagonist and the solitary friend working in a coffee shop. The set-up is almost the same, the protagonist is almost identical and the whole thing works just as well. The problem is that while The Twisted Ones used this set-up to stress not only the isolation of the protagonist but also the psychologically pregnant nature of her surroundings, Kara feels neither isolated nor poised to contend with her past. If anything, she is in a less psychologically stressful position than she was prior to the start of the novel when she was getting divorced. In The Twisted Ones, that sense of unearthed trauma gave the opening sections quite a dark vibe and here that vibe is completely absent. There is nothing inherently sinister or foreboding to be seen though it is interesting that Kingfisher is again opening a novel by hinting at the presence of complex emotions only to then pointedly refuse to engage with any of them. When I read the Twisted Ones, I assumed this was a form of trauma-bait but it would appear that Kingfisher struggles not only to deal with dark and complex emotions, but normal ones too.
Things take an unexpected turn when Kara wanders through the museum only to notice that someone appears to have knocked a hole in one of the walls. Choosing to blame an accident-prone tourist, Kara approaches her friend Simon in the hope that he can help her patch the wall and repair the damage before her uncle returns. However, the pair soon notice that the hole gives onto a previously hidden hallway that extends beyond the confines of not only the museum but also the city block on which the museum is constructed. The pair then decide to wander down the hallway until they discover a doorway to another world, a world filled with abandoned fortifications and a load of willow trees.
The single worst thing about The Twisted Ones was undoubtedly the nested commentary on a fictional text referred to in Arthur Machen’s “The White People”. Thankfully, Kingfisher has not tried to re-visit her experiments in typographic violence but just as The Twisted Ones was a novel that drew on Machen’s “The White People”, The Hollow Places is a novel that draws on Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”.
Before I go any further, I must admit to having a great deal of affection for the works of Algernon Blackwood. However, my love for Blackwood’s work is not born of the fact that I find his work frightening or his imagery memorable but rather of the fact that a lot of his stories appear to be about Middle-class people going on holiday and having massive nervous breakdowns that cause them to find supernatural menace in what is basically nothing more than the great outdoors. For me, “The Willows” is not about sinister otters and clumps of trees but about a city-dweller being driven mad by the majesty of nature and projecting his fears out onto an innocent clump of trees. Clearly, Kingfisher and I read very different stories as while I see “The Willows” as a work of psychological horror, she sees it as a story that is literally about sinister alien trees. What, you may very well ask, is sinister about a clump of trees? Well… nothing unless you’re really invested in the structural integrity of riverbanks and that’s why I tend to read Blackwood as a purveyor of psychological rather than supernatural horror.
One of the real weaknesses of The Twisted Ones is that it felt more like a portal fantasy novel than a work of horror. This is in part due to the fact that Kingfisher struggles to imbue her magical dream-worlds with much in the way of menace. The realm of the fairies in The Twisted Ones feels more weird and fantastical than frightening and the same can be said of the world inhabited by the willows of this novel.
Simon and Kara wander around this weird landscape until they discover a school bus. The bus is painted orange rather than yellow leading the pair to conclude that it must be from a parallel universe. This feeling is then confirmed when they discover the remains of an expedition similar to their own. The traces of other worlds they uncover are the things I like most about this novel as they are subtle and evocative in a variety of different ways.
The tone slowly starts to shift when the pair realise they are lost. They are lost because, as in the Blackwood short story, the landscape appears to be changing as clumps of trees undermine riverbanks causing them to collapse into the water. Desperate to find their way home, the pair duck into an abandoned fortification where they are confronted by something that is monstrous but not particularly scary.
At this point in the novel, Kingfisher effectively runs out of gas. The pair run away, get home, and decide to return to the sunken world for no apparent reason beyond some kind of convenient supernatural yearning. Thinly drawn and sparsely populated, the magical world struggles to hold the reader’s attention or to drive the plot forward and so the novel feels like it effectively treads water for about 150 pages. As with The Twisted Ones, Kingfisher seems oddly reluctant to connect the narrative proper with either of the characters’ backstories and so rather than being able to hit a character beat when the narrative starts to slow down, she fills her pages with two thinly-drawn characters wandering around a thinly-drawn landscape and engaging in what can only be described as soy banter; dialogue that assumes the syntactic form of humour without containing any actual jokes.
Just as the plot of The Twisted Ones turns out to hinge on a simple misunderstanding, the plot of The Hollow Places hinges on the fact that while one character claims to be an expert in home repair he has never heard of using either a patch or a wire mesh to fill an oversized hole. The result is a novel that does not so much conclude as drag itself over the finishing line with the help of a cringe-worthy deus ex machina.
Reading The Hollow Spaceswas a singularly frustrating experience. Kingfisher’s writing is competent enough on a sentence-by-sentence basis that you rip through the novel in no time at all but despite being able to do some things really well the novel simply does not work. It does not work as horror, it does not work as drama, and it barely even works as fantasy. This reads more like a first draft than a completed novel. The whole thing feels… well… hollow.