"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, March 12, 2021

A successful sequel to Machen's The White People? A review of The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher (2019)

           ….Pretty much as soon as they released me from the ER, I got in my truck and drove into town. Enid took one look at me and let me sleep in the back of the coffee shop for a couple of hours.

     I told her there had been a fire but I honestly didn't remember much.

     When I had about five hours of sleep in me, I drove to Pittsburgh. I stopped only at brightly lit places. Even those were too dim. I wanted the world to be lit up with halogens, with great blazes of artificial light. I wanted to see every corner of the world so I knew nothing could be hiding in it.

     I tuned the radio to something loud and brassy and sang along with everything, whether I knew the words or not.

     I got home and sat in the truck for probably an hour. Bongo was confused, but he'd gotten a cheeseburger at the last stop, so he was in a congenial mood.

     The DJ came on to tell us what the last song had been, and I was puzzled for a moment that I wasn't being told about how my pledge would help support quality programming like this, and then I put my forehead on the steering wheel and cried hysterically for what felt like another hour.

     Then I went inside and turned on every light in the house.

     I never told my dad the truth. How could I? The official word was that I was asleep and somebody broke in, and Bongo woke me up. There was a struggle and my wrist got broken and a fire started somewhere in all the junk. Foxy was drinking out on the front porch and heard Bongo freaking out, so she came and managed to pull me out. I was still confused from being half asleep and it was dark. No, I don't know who'd break in. No, I didn't get a good look at anybody.

     Dad apologized for how it had all gone down, and I told him there was no way he could have known. The doctor's got him pretty well medicated right now, trying to deal with the rattle in his lungs. I don't know how much longer he's got, and I'm not going to tear up what peace he's got trying to tell him the truth.

     The insurance company didn't investigate the fire too hard. The place had obviously been a firetrap and we weren't asking for money to rebuild, just to have someone with a backhoe knock the whole place down and fill in the basement. Foxy says the stone's gone. I don't know if they did that, or if it was someone else. If it really was a signpost, maybe the effigies came and fetched it back, now that they didn't need it anymore.

     I prefer to think it was the people with the backhoe.

     The insurance company sent Dad what remained from the settlement and he sent it to me. I looked at the check—six thousand dollars, a lot of money by my standards—and started crying. I needed the money and I couldn't keep it. Even the thought of cashing that check made me want to throw up. Anything I bought with that money would be tainted. If I tried to make a house payment with it, then my grandmother would own a little bit of my house. I couldn't do it.

     I tried to send it to Foxy, and she refused. "I ain't gonna take money for arson, hon."

     I tossed and turned for three nights before I finally got an idea and sent the whole damn thing to North Carolina Public Radio in memory of Freddy Cotgrave. I got the tax break, and maybe that's worth something.

     Obviously the Green Book was never found. If it didn't burn, it's probably buried somewhere in the pile of rubble left from the house. I've got the manuscript, though. I didn't want that either, but Tomas had been reading it back at Foxy's place when the house burned.

     They put it in an envelope and mailed it to me. It was a repeat of the insurance check—I cried. I wanted to throw up. I put it in the trash. I went back out and took it out of the trash.

     I tried to put it in a drawer and it felt like there was a snake in the room. Every time I went into the back bedroom, I could feel it lurking there.

     Eventually I rented a safe-deposit box. They're not that expensive, as it turns out. Now the bank can worry about it.

     I suppose it goes without saying that I've pretty well lost my shit. My aunt wants me to see a therapist, but what am I going to tell them? There's no therapist in the world who will believe the truth, and I don't want to have to sit and lie to someone for sixty dollars an hour.

     Hell, how do you tell someone, I nearly spent the rest of my life giving birth to monsters in a city full of walking sticks and bones? They'd have you on antipsychotics so fast that your head would spin, and that wouldn't help. I wish to God there was a medication that would make it all go away, but if there was, maybe I'd forget to watch for holler people. Maybe I wouldn't be so lucky next time.

     It's better than it was. Bongo helps a lot. I can leave the house, and as long as I'm in my truck or someplace with people, I'm pretty okay. I put hickory twigs in all the windows, but that just looks like a weird decorating choice.

     Do you know what I think about the most, though? It's not Cotgrave's effigy, lonely and wandering the woods near his dead wife's house until he had a chance to build her up again out of parts. It's not the stones or the voorish dome or the fact that there's got to be other cities out there like the one in Wales, maybe less dead, full of the holler people and their servants.

     It's the linoleum in my grandmother's kitchen.

     When the hoarder effigy reached the kitchen, it skidded. Its feet nearly went out from under it. That's probably the only reason we made it to the stairs.

     Three whole lives, hinging on shitty seventies linoleum. If she'd left the original hardwood, we'd be dead. Everybody talks about how awful it is that people cover up the nice wood floors in houses, and it turned out to save my life.

     I feel like the world must be full of things like that. Stupid minor things nobody pays attention to, and then one day you pick up the umbrella stand you've been meaning to throw out and beat the killer over the head with it, or you trip over the pizza boxes that you meant to throw out and the killer gets you instead.

     Things like dog leashes or hickory beads.

     I still carry the beads with me. If I leave them at home, I panic and have to go back. They've become a security blanket. As long as I've got them, I can probably see the holler people coming.

     Foxy and I still talk. Well, text mostly. After our little jaunt, she allowed as how a cell phone might be useful to have around, and Tomas set her up with a cheap one. She likes texting. I think she'd communicate entirely in emojis and smiley faces if she could. Skip is fine. Tomas gets hassled sometimes by people who think that anybody like him must be from another country, but that's nothing new. Foxy went on a new heart medication after Skip badgered her into it. She says it makes her cranky, but I remember how blue her lips would get and I'm glad she's on it.

     No effigies in the woods. No holler people. If they're still back there—and of course they're still back there—everything's very quiet.

     "Why don't you move?" I asked her, one of the few times that we talked instead of texting.

     "With what money?" asked Foxy. "Ain't nobody gonna buy this crappy piece of dirt out here, and my social security ain't gonna pay for a house anywhere else."

     "I could help," I promised recklessly. Half the time my own mortgage was a struggle, but I'd bring all three of them up to Pittsburgh if I had to.

     "Nah. It's fine, hon. No different from living by a dump or one of them toxic waste things. I keep my hickory and I don't go walking in the woods on that side."

     A long silence. I heard the soft static of the line. Even after I got my phone fixed, Foxy's connection wasn't good.

     I wondered if she was thinking about Anna too.

     I should hate Anna for what she did. I know I should. She would have sold me for her own freedom without a second thought.

     But I think of what it must have been like, walking the corridors of that dead city, seeing nothing but monsters around you. When she found out she was pregnant, was she hopeful? Did she think that maybe it would be more company than Uriah and the effigies? And what kind of monstrous midwife had attended her, what claws of bone and twig and wire reached out to catch her firstborn?

     Was it easier, after she stopped being able to carry a child? It doesn't work anymore. I can't do what they want.

     Did she just stop caring? Or was she still hoping, every time? Did she plead her case to the Building, to the things hanging from the ceiling? Did they have a long, rattling conference about her fate?

     In the end, did the effigies drag her to the white stone anyway?

     Sometimes at night I wake up thinking I'm her and that if I turn my head I'll find out that I didn't get out of the dome after all. If I open my eyes there will be effigies around me, and the weight on my legs won't be Bongo but something made out of his bones.

     It takes me a long time after that to turn on the light.

     No, I don't hate Anna. If she hadn't called me, maybe I'd be able to sleep at night. Maybe I wouldn't think about monsters pressing against the walls of the world, effigies making more and more copies of themselves, waiting for their masters to come home.

     Or until they overflow the hills and break through.

     But I still can't hate her. Sometimes I even feel guilty. Here I am, trembling and quaking in the dark, at the mere possibility of taking her place. What right do I have to be so broken, when she carried on, year after year, decade after decade?

     All those years in the dead city, and she survived. I couldn't have done that. Maybe that was the gift of her inhuman blood, that she didn't kill herself or curl into a ball and give up. The Lady Cassap, the narrator of the Green Book said, had been burned alive. And I wondered whether she cared, after all the strange things she had done…

     Perhaps that's what set the holler people apart, not the white skin and the red eyes, but the ability to be burned alive and not care or to walk a dead city for decades and not go mad.

     "Do you think she's still back there?" I asked. Trying not to think of Anna, alone, having murdered the last of her human company. Anna, not aging fast enough, part of the effigies' desperate, twisted breeding program to bring back their old masters.

     "No," said Foxy slowly. "No, I think maybe she didn't make it."

     After she hung up, I stared at the phone and remembered how Anna's screaming had stopped after Foxy had fired her last bullets.

     And I knew that I was never going to ask, and thus Foxy was never going to have to lie to me about what had happened.

     I hoped like hell that she was right.


The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher (2019)

YA fantasy writer T. Kingfisher has written two mainstream horror novels in the last two years. 

The latest is 2020's The Hollow Lands, a sequel to Algernon Blackwood's sublime "The Willows." My review of The Hollow Lands can be found here

2019 saw the publication of The Twisted Ones, a sequel to Arthur Machen's "The White People."

The likes of me are not required to watch and ward the aesthetic sanctity of Blackwood or Machen. It would be crass arrogance to base criticism of T. Kingfisher on a rhetorical slap-down for daring to write sequels to the two finest works of weird literature produced in English. 

The Twisted Ones is an ambitious attempt to flesh-out material presented by Machen in a prose style best described as occult.

As The Twisted Ones commences, Kingfisher's protagonist Melissa arrives at her late grandmother's isolated property thirty minutes out of Pondsboro, North Carolina. 

Melissa is a freelance editor who drives a pickup truck and has a redbone coonhound named Bongo as constant companion and confidante. (Readers allergic to supposedly adorable interactions between dog lovers and their dogs should not even start this novel. I had to, but you?)

Grandma's house in the woods is a hoarder nightmare packed to the ceilings with newspapers, baby dolls, and decades worth of detritus. Melissa's dad has asked her to clean-out the house prior to sale.

After a few days of blood, sweat, and tears, Melissa has cleared enough sleeping space for herself and Bongo in a ground floor bedroom.

     I opened the nightstand drawer. It was full of the usual detritus that accumulate in drawers—old tweezers, broken nail clippers, the warranty for a piece of electronics that had stopped functioning years ago. There was a black book on top, with an elastic ribbon holding it closed.

     I flipped the book open. It was probably just an address book, but just in case there were any hundred-dollar bills tucked between the pages…

     There weren't. It was full of handwriting instead.

     I almost threw it away. I had the mouth of the garbage bag open and was moving my hand toward it when a phrase jumped out at me.

     She has hid the book.

     I had to read it twice to make sure I was right the first time. Whoever wrote it had neat-enough handwriting, but it was tightly slanted and the s's and the a's looked nearly identical.

     That's wrong, I thought. It's either she hid the book or she has hidden the book. Pick one and commit.

     Like I said, I'm a freelance editor. The Chicago Manual of Style is tattooed on my soul. I'm pretty lenient about these things when editing fiction—show me a character who uses "whom" correctly and I'll show you a real prat—but she has hid the book? No.

     The next line was I'm afraid she might have destroyed it, but there are no fresh ashes in the burn barrel. I went through the trash, but it was not there. It must be hidden. I asked her where it was, and she asked had I lost something, but there was that look in her eyes like when she hid my keys.

     I sat down on the bed. Good God, was this Cotgrave's? And was she my grandmother?

     I could easily believe that Grandma would hide something and take pleasure in the other person looking for it. There's mean and then there's pathological. Once you start calling up people to laugh when their dog dies, you're way over on the pathology side of the equation.

     On the other hand, Cotgrave had been getting on in years himself, and lots of old people get paranoid that other people are stealing things from them. I couldn't swear that Grandma was doing any such thing just because she was a nasty piece of work in other regards.

     I flipped to the next page.

     Still can't find the book. Checked all the shelves. Shades of the "Purloined Letter."

     I won't leave without it. It's the last I've got of Ambrose.

Cotgrave and Ambrose are of course the Machen characters in the framing narrative of "The White People." Cotgrave at some point moved to the U.S. and married Melissa's widowed Grandmother.

Melissa has more to contend with at the property than decades of hoarded material.

     Just before dawn, Bongo woke me up by leaping to his feet and baying hysterically at the window.

     I opened my eyes, said, "Jesus," and looked at the window. The moon had gone down, but the yard was bathed in that cold gray light that means you're either up too early or way too late.

     Something pale bounded through the yard on four legs, followed by another one. Bongo lost his mind. He'd start with a bark and it would trail up at the end into a "rooooo-roOOO!" howl. Every time he bayed, he bounced on his front feet, which made the bed shake.

     "It's deer, idiot!"

     "Hwuaaaafffforrrroooo!" he said, or words to that effect.

From this initial sighting, thickening begins. Melissa has peripheral sigtings of shapes, tracks, and rock sculptures that take on figural outlines.  At the same time she delves more deeply into Cotgrave's journal.

Meeting Tomas from the commune across the road adds another element to the uncanny collage of impressions she is forming of the area:

     There was something infectious about his grin. "He volunteered you, actually. But it's okay. I won't hold you to it."

     Tomas groaned. "Ah, man." He ducked his head. "What for?"

     "Helping me move appliances."

     "Ohhh, is that all? Man, I thought you wanted me to hide a body."

     "Maybe later. I haven't gotten into the attic yet."

     He laughed again. So did I, although I wasn't entirely joking.

     "Sure. What do you need moved?"

     "Just the microwave so far. It's one of those giant heavy ones. I'm sure there'll be other stuff eventually."

     "I'll do it right now, if you want," he said.

     This was unexpected, but I wasn't going to look gift muscles in the mouth. "Sure. Follow me."

     He got in through the door and whistled.

     "I know, right?"

     "Didn't know it was this bad in here." He shook his head. "I only talked to the old lady a few times, you know? Man."

     "Same here, actually. I had no idea she'd been living like this until Dad called me." I braced myself to defend my father, but Tomas just accepted this without comment.

     He had to turn sideways to get through the newspaper stacks. I pointed to the heavier microwave. "There's the beast."

     He laughed again. "No problem," he said, and picked it up as if it weighed nothing. I felt a pang of resentment at evolution for stiffing me on upper-body strength.

     Tomas carried it out. He started to set it in the truck, then paused. "Hey, you gonna take this to the dump?"

     "That was the plan."

     "Mind if I take it?" He jerked his chin over to the cluster of houses across the road. "Believe it or not, I think it's newer than the one Foxy's got."

     "Foxy?" I said, a bit dubiously.

     That infectious grin came out again. "Foxy. You'll know her if you see her."

     I felt bad inflicting a microwave that old on anyone else and told him so. Tomas laughed.

     "Foxy won't mind. She likes old stuff. Still has a landline phone and everything."

     "Well, all right. The microwave's yours," I said. "I don't know if it works. If it doesn't, just bring it over and toss it in the truck and I'll haul it away. Heck, once I'm done here, if you want the other microwave, I know that one works."

     "Sure. Thanks." He paused. "You need anything else moved, just come on over and bang on the door."

     "Will do." I waited with my hand on the doorknob, ready to turn away.

     He didn't leave immediately, though. He glanced upward, over the roof, and then said, "Hey, be careful, yeah?"

     "Careful?" I said, a bit more sharply than I intended.

     "Ah, you know. Things in the woods around here." He fiddled with the knob on the microwave.

     "What kind of things?" I asked.

     He was silent a little too long. I filled in the silence, which is a bad habit of mine. "Like… skunks or something?"

     "Yeah." He seized on that as if he was relieved. "Skunks. Some of 'em got rabies."

     "Bongo's had his shots."

     "Good. Yeah. That's good. Thanks for the microwave."

Later, Melissa takes the dog for a walk in the woods.

     Bongo snuffled through the scrubby brushes, occasionally poking himself in the nose with a twig. Then he'd jerk his head back, looking offended, and snort.

     I gave him a little bit more line so that he could run back and forth. Every now and then he'd get it wrapped around me and I had to do a balletic twirl to straighten it out again.

     I was in the middle of one such twirl when I looked up and saw a woman watching me.

     My startle reflex was so strong that I gasped. Not that there shouldn't be people there—I mean, this probably wasn't even Grandma's property anymore—but I just hadn't expected anyone.

     Bongo really wanted to go make friends. I pulled him back, just in case she didn't like dogs, and waved.

     The woman looked at me for a little too long, then raised her hand in the limpest sort of greeting. She was tall and had long, pale hair. Her clothes were loose and flowing, sort of hippie-earth-mother type, only in gray and brown, which was probably why I hadn't spotted her at first.

     She turned and began to walk away.

     Well, then.

     "Guess she doesn't want to make friends," I told Bongo quietly.

The woods around the house are flat, and the area is not part of the Appalachian foothills. But on a subsequent walk Melissa and Bongo discover a holloway: Bongo plunges in and Melissa quickly realizes they are dramatically ascending.

     The path got darker and steeper, and Bongo started doing some of the work of pulling me up the hill. I have friends with huskies who do a type of cross-country skiing where they hook the leashes to their belts and let the huskies pull them along. Huskies are made for pulling, though. Coonhounds are mostly made to follow their nose to a tree and then bay hysterically until a hunter comes along and shoots whatever is in the tree.

     Still, he got his shoulders into it and didn't complain. He was bound and determined to go up this hillside even if he had to drag me.

     "Buddy, if this tunnel gets any lower, I'm sure as hell not crawling after you!"

     It did not get much lower. I had to duck my head, but I was going hunched over anyway. I couldn't believe how steep it had gotten. We talk about the hills around here, but they're not like you get up by the mountains, when you have actual honest-to-God valleys. I must have been going downhill at a gentle slope for most of the walk to have an incline like this waiting for me.

     Oh well, at least it'd be downhill on the way back.…

     I tried to say this to Bongo, but I was wheezing and he was making that raspy whrrrff noise that meant his collar was cutting into his neck. I couldn't go any faster, but he wasn't about to stop.

     About five minutes before we both died, light bloomed around us. Bongo took three steps into grass and froze.

     I took two more steps and fell to my knees on top of a mountain that shouldn't have been there....

     White stones littered the grass. I don't know much about rocks. If Aunt Kate had been a geologist, I could probably talk for hours about glacial remnants and thrust faults, but she wasn't, so hey, they were big white rocks.

     Right. Geography lesson over. I was somewhere impossible.

     I dug my knuckles into the grass and touched dirt. The world was not painted on some kind of enormous canvas designed to fool random dog walkers.

     So my options were that I was dreaming, hallucinating, or that Bongo and I had just walked a few hundred miles in twenty minutes.

     "Or aliens," I told Bongo. "Maybe we've had missing time. Maybe we were abducted. Did you get probed? I don't think I got probed." My nether regions did not feel any different than they normally felt. I assume you notice that sort of thing.

     I stood up. Nothing much happened.

     I turned in a circle, passing the leash from hand to hand. Behind me, where we had come up, stood the tunnel of trees. There were thin, scruffy bushes around the entrance. They hadn't leafed out yet, or perhaps they were dead.

     The tunnel seemed very small and very steep. I had a hard time believing that I'd climbed it at all, and getting back down was going to be an experience. It seemed to go straight down, surrounded by the bare branches, which were layered densely on top of one another until they faded together like dark smoke. If I tried to go back down through the bushes instead, I was going to get flayed alive by twigs, assuming I could get through them at all.

     I turned away from the tunnel and looked out across the bald.

     On two sides, it seemed to fall away sharply, but the third side, opposite the tunnel, stretched out in a gentle slope, littered with stones.

     Bongo was facing that direction, and when I took a step, he strode out as if we were going for a perfectly normal walk. His ears and tail were still up, though, and I had the impression that he was thinking very hard about something (or more accurately, that his nose was thinking very hard about something. Bongo's nose is far more intelligent than the rest of him, and I believe it uses his brain primarily as a counterweight).

     His nose was working now, nostrils flaring in and out.

     Well. I reasoned that either one of two things was going to happen. Either I would go down the tunnel and be in the woods behind my grandmother's house—in which case either my understanding of geography was completely and utterly messed up or Something Weird Was Going On—or I would go down the tunnel and discover myself somewhere in the Great Smoky Mountains and have to walk to a ranger station and get a lift to a rental car place so that I could drive home (and yes, Something Weird Would Be Going On).

Back at the house, Melissa confides in Tomas' friend and fellow commune member Foxy.

She must have sensed me looking at her and glanced up. "They say people used to go up in the hills and do devil things here, too, in the old days," she said. "But it was mostly moonshiners, and I expect they put the stories about to keep people off their stills. And the Klan of course." She made a gesture as if to spit and then remembered she was indoors. "They're dumb enough to mess around with the hollers, I expect, but too dumb to live through it."

The crisis of accelerating revel commences several nights later.

     I woke up very slowly. There was a sound that I had been hearing for some time, and gradually I came awake, still hearing it.

     It was Bongo. He lay flat at the foot of the bed, his fur standing up in spikes, and he was growling.

     His growl was harsh and awful, like nothing I'd ever heard before. I could see the square of moonlight coming through the window reflected in his eyes.

     It came to me, rather distantly, that Bongo was terrified.

     My first instinct was to sit up, put my arms around him, ask him what was wrong. Being only half awake may have saved me.

     I did not move my head. I looked over to the window, where Bongo was staring.

     There was a white face in the window.

     I didn't scream. That's the thing that's still the most astonishing to me about the whole terrible encounter—I didn't scream.

     It was horribly misshapen. The eyes were huge and dark, it had an impossibly thin, vapid smile, and the forehead jutted upward.

     It took a moment, as I lay there not screaming, to realize that it was an animal skull, upside down, and what looked like a smile was the suture between plates of bone. The jutting forehead was the skull's snout, flipped over. Teeth gleamed at the top and the eye sockets were laced with black.

     It was the effigy.

     I don't remember what I thought in that moment. Something that allowed me not to scream or go mad, I suppose—it's not real. I'm dreaming, or if it's really there, it's someone trying to scare me, they've dragged that awful thing on the porch as a prank—

     It turned its head.

     It moved like a living thing, like a great bird, turning the skull head on the hanging folds of neck. It turned and looked at me.

     I knew it couldn't possibly see me. I was lying in the deep shadow of the wall, and my eyes were slits. Even if it could see me, it couldn't know that I was awake. It was very important, somehow, that it not know I was awake.

     Because it's a monster and monsters can't get you when you're asleep and if I pull the blankets over my head it can't get me but I don't dare move because I can't get the blankets over my head fast enough and it could still get Bongo if I move it can come through the window but as long as I stay still it has to stay out there—

     It turned its head again, sideways, so that one dark eye socket stared in the window. Bongo's growl was so loud that I could feel it in my teeth.

     Tap. Tap. Tok. Tappa-tap. Tok.

     The hollow woodpecker noise. Right outside the window.

     Caused by the stones hanging from the effigy's rib cage knocking together.

     The sound I'd been hearing for days now.

     I stopped thinking in words. My mind was a pure white terror.

     The skull tilted sideways, still birdlike, as if it saw something that interested it. Bongo's fur stood up in spikes.

     And then it left.

     I heard it drop to the planks of the porch, heard unsteady footsteps going away, down the steps. (Two feet or four? I couldn't tell.) Heard the tok-tappa-tok of the holed stones. One knocked against wood—probably the railing post—and the sound was loud, as loud as I had ever heard, and that means it's been here before

     it's been here all along

     oh God

     the twisted ones are here

     the twisted ones were always here

     The front door was locked. The back door was probably locked, but even if it wasn't, an intruder would have to move a few hundred pounds of newspapers to get to it. The windows were all shut and had screens. If it tried to take the screens off, surely I would hear it.

Once Melissa heads outdoors into the yard, Bongo takes off alone in pursuit of the creature. 

     "Oh, honey! What's wrong?" 

     Before I quite knew what was happening, I was sobbing on Foxy's nonexistent bosom. She was all collarbones and necklaces.

     "Bongo's gone," I choked out. "He ran off—I hope he ran off—there's things in the woods, Foxy, I saw one—I think I'm going crazy—oh God, what if they got him?"

     "Easy now," said Foxy, patting my back. "Easy, hon. We'll get it sorted." She patted me for a few minutes, just long enough for me to start feeling horrified and embarrassed instead of horrified and overwhelmed, and then produced a handkerchief from somewhere in her pockets.

     I wiped my eyes. "I'm sorry," I said.

     "Don't be. You ain't the first to cry on me. Or the tenth. Now, let's go to my place and have some lemonade, and we can sit on the porch and you can tell me all what happened."

     "You'll think I'm crazy," I whispered. My throat was raw.

     "Sure, but I won't hold that against you."

     Foxy led me across the road as I leaned on her arm. I felt like I was limping with both feet.

     As soon as I was sitting on her porch, I felt better. Foxy had wind chimes hanging all over the porch, and some of them were stones with holes in them. But they went click-clack-jangle in a cheerful manner, like Foxy's bangles rattling together, not like a monster with stones in its ribs.

     There were other people around. I had an idea somehow that the thing wouldn't show up in front of other people. Maybe that was a horror movie idea, that monsters only show up when you're alone, but I felt… safe.

     Foxy went inside and came out a moment later with a pitcher of lemonade and two glasses. I took one and drank it while the condensation ran down over my fingers.

     "All right," she said. She sat down beside me on the steps, and we looked out over the winding driveway in the grass. I couldn't see my grandmother's house from here. From the very slight elevation, I could see a little way over the woods behind the house.

     There was no hill, and no ring of hills, and somehow that didn't surprise me.

     I told her everything. I started crying again when I had to explain that Bongo was missing, and then I said out loud the thing I hadn't wanted to think, which was that the thing would get him and I should have protected him and I'd failed and he'd trusted me because I was his human, and then I burst into tears again.

     "Now, stop that," said Foxy sharply. "You don't know that at all. He might come on back tonight, full of deer ticks and smelling like skunk."

     I scrubbed at my face. "Do you think so?"

     "Wouldn't surprise me. Dogs are smart enough to be afraid. If he ran off, I can promise it wasn't after one of them."

     I took another gulp of lemonade. "You believe me? About the thing?"

     "Believe you? Shit." The lines of her face deepened, and for a minute she looked a lot older than sixty. "Of course. Didn't realize until just now that you don't know."

     "Know what?" I said blankly.

     " 'Bout them. The people in the hollers. Whatever you want to call 'em."

     "I don't know anything!" I spread my hands. "What am I supposed to know?"

     Foxy shook her head. "I messed up," she said. "I thought you had to know about them, at least a bit. Figured your granny would have told you."

     "Ha!" I said, and took a slug of lemonade.

     "Yeah, not the brightest thing I've ever thought. But when you said you saw the hill, I figured you had to know something, 'cos you got up there in the first place, and then got out again." She glared into her lemonade.

     "I don't know anything!" I repeated. "What am I supposed to know about? Who's in the hollers? There aren't even any hollers around here, are there?"

     "Ehhh. Sometimes there are, sometimes there ain't. It comes and goes. Most times there's no problems, you understand. Sometimes things get turned around and you end up in country that ain't supposed to be there."

     "Like hills that don't exist?"

     "Yeah, like that."

     "But how is that possible?" I flapped my hands. "Hasn't somebody made a topographic map or taken photos or something and noticed that there was a hill that wasn't supposed to be there?"

     Foxy shook her head. "Don't think it's that easy to get there. I only done it once myself. And you show up spouting foolishness about hills being where everybody knows there's no hills, who's gonna believe you? They can look over and see there's no hill there."

     "But what…? How…?"

     Foxy sighed. "I dunno. I mean, people say they know things and try to look smart, but I don't think anybody knows anything for sure. The hills're just where the holler people live. Old-timers talk about seeing 'em now and again. Tall and skinny and white like nobody you ever saw."

     "I didn't see anybody like that," I said. I thought of the hiker I'd seen, the one dressed like a hippie, but she hadn't been particularly tall and pale, had she? Not unnaturally so, anyway.

     "Yeah. Never seen one either. But the deer thing's one of theirs. They leave stuff around sometimes. Mostly it's piled-up stones and marks on trees. Talking to each other, like. But sometimes they make something that walks around."

     I clutched my lemonade. The porch didn't seem quite so safe anymore.

     "But why?"

     Foxy shrugged. "Dunno. I only seen it twice. One was a hog, but they'd stuck a wasp's nest where its head oughta be. It was out digging up fields and a friend of my daddy's shot it. Couldn't get too close to it 'cos of the wasps, so they threw hay over it and burned it. They're uncanny, but they ain't fireproof."

     "That's a relief," I said faintly. "What about the other time?"

     "Raccoon. Thought it had rabies or something. It was sort of shuffling around, but you got close enough, you could see it was all held together with cords 'n' junk."

     "What did you do?"

     "Ran it over with the tractor a coupla times. Had to stop using that chunk of field, of course. Daddy said the ground would be bad under it. This was over in Bynum. When we sold the place, we told 'em that bit was bad, but I doubt they listened. Still, I figure if you're growing all those weird-ass glow-in-the-dark soy beans, a little bad magic ain't gonna make things much worse."

     "So it's magic, then?"

     Foxy rolled her eyes. "It's makin' dead animals walk around and hills vanish. What the hell else would it be? Aliens?"

     "But magic—I mean—" I flailed. Magic in my head was a mix of stage magicians in white gloves and really well-meaning people who did yoga and believed in the healing power of crystals.

     I attempted to express this to Foxy, who looked at me like I was a baby bird that had fallen out of the nest and hit its head.

     "I don't think the holler people are doing yoga," she said.

     "But where are they?"

     "I dunno. Little to one side of here, I think. Somewhere like this, but with hills and hollers. They come through sometimes and we go through sometimes, and sometimes the way's open and sometimes it ain't. You must've gone through when it was open. Dumb luck or something."

     "It was Bongo," I said. "He found the way through."

     "Yeah. A lot of dogs would've thought twice, but hounds get a smell and their brain turns off. Well, you know. But even he was smart enough to be scared of one of their walking things."

     "And nobody reports this? Nobody says, 'Hey, there's a bunch of scary people around here making—making dead animals walk around?' "

     She snorted. "Yeah, that'd be good for a story. 'Hillbillies Claim the Woods Are Haunted, Blame Little People.' Or, if they did find one of the walking things, it'd be 'Redneck Satanic Horror!!' We'd have reporters in the shitter and nobody'd find anything. Assuming anybody even listened in the first place."

     "So nobody knows, then."

     "Eh, most old-timers around here get a notion. But you talk about it and you sound crazy, so nobody talks about it much. And the cops just shrug. That sheriff fellow who was out here earlier? He knows the stories, I'll bet you, but what cop is gonna admit they believe in that kinda thing? They'd get laughed outta the station. And if you get any of them ghost hunter people, they head over to Chatham and the Devil's Tramping Ground. Though I'll tell you, I've been there, and the Devil needs to throw out them old refrigerators if he wants to do any serious tramping. Place is a dump."


     She looked at me over the rim of her jar. "Think about it, hon. You tell somebody, how you gonna start?"

     I took a deep shuddering breath and drank more lemonade, trying to think of an answer. Sure, Enid and Officer Bob had believed me about the effigy hanging from a tree, but if I tried to tell them it had been in the window, that it had been alive… Officer Bob probably already half believed that I was making things up. Enid seemed like she might be more sympathetic, but what was she going to do about it? Come fight the effigy off with a thermos of decaf?

     I imagined calling my father and saying, Dad, there's monsters in the woods. Dad, I saw something horrible, and the weird woman across the road says it's the holler people, and I climbed a hill that wasn't there and there was a deer effigy hanging in the trees, but when I tried to call the cops, it was gone, and then it came back at night in my window.… No, I didn't dream it.…

     Even in my head, it sounded stupid.

     The wind chimes blew back and forth in a wind that smelled like turned earth and spring, not like raccoons held together with cords and hogs with wasp nests where their heads would be.

     "Like I said, I figured your granny'd have told you something," said Foxy after a while. "Didn't think about what a nasty piece of work she was."

     "I don't think she knew," I said. "Cotgrave—her husband—he knew something. He had a journal and said he saw them in Wales."

     Foxy nodded. "Figure you get any set of old hills, you'll have something in it."

The biggest demand The Twisted Ones makes on the reader is patience while the material from "The White People" is recapitulated. Kingfisher here at least has one of Machen's own character's notebooks to excerpt. Cotgrave recalls The Green Book contents imperfectly, but every little bit helps. One reason for the tedium of The Hollow Places was Kingfisher's struggles to contort and banalize a work like "The Willows" for the popular horror novel format.

The "banalization" of Machen's tale does far less harm to the reader's blood pressure. The last third of the novel, in which Melissa, Bongo, and Foxy are brought to, and must escape from, a belated underworld whose denizens hunger for a new breeding female from Cotgrave's bloodline, goes quickly. The subsequent slingshot ending summa quoted at the top of this review pickles the melodrama nicely.

Machen may not outright defy imitators and "continuers," but unless they realize the magic is in the style and authorial shaping of material, and are capable of the same hard work and have the commensurate skill, a desire to write such sequels is best avoided.


12 March 2021


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