The Hollow Places is the first cozy cosmic horror novel I have read. It depicts a world of generally happy and stoic people who can laugh at themselves, treasure maddening traits of family members, and do right by friends.
The Hollow Places also depicts a world where a middle aged graphic designer with nothing must start her life over. Kara is not predestined to save the world, or the corner of it called Hog Chapel, North Carolina where she winds up at the start of the novel. But she is a plucky cozy heroine with plenty of grit, common sense, and self-deprecating humor, all of which turn out to be adequate for the challenges she faces.
The Hollow Places is a curio shop/small town/cat owner/quirky best friend/lovable older relative type of popular cozy novel. If you like the witty interactions and absurdly relaxed glibness of Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr and his gay pal and neighboring business-owner friend Carolyn in the face of murder and mortal menace, it's the kind of novel you'll appreciate.
It's the kind of cutesy-pie material I detest like nails on a chalkboard.
T. Kingfisher writes the kind of novel where the heroine is incredibly well-versed in the rules of fantastika. Kara is gravid with details and insights about Narnia, sharing them as a form of deflected reader fan-service with her pal Simon once she realizes, incorrectly, that they are in a portal fantasy.
After divorce, never-sink Kara moves in with her Uncle Earl above his Hog Chapel store-front business, the Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities, and Taxidermy. (The Black Hen Coffee Shop where Simon works, is next door, allowing for an early meet-cute).
Things start going wrong when a new museum acquisition is received:
The final object in the box was wedged crosswise to fit. It was a wooden carving, about the size of my forearm. Uncle Earl unwrapped it on the counter and paused, slowly crumpling the newspaper in his hands.
"Yech," I said. "That's a creepy one."
He picked up the card and read, "Carved corpse-otter effigy, Danube area, circa 1900."
"That's what Woody says…." Uncle Earl slid off the stool and actually came out from behind the counter to study the carving from both sides. "What a strange piece."
The carving was fairly crude, but you could still tell what it was. One side was an otter, turned with belly toward the viewer, head tilted up. The skull was too broad for any otter I'd ever seen, and it had a distinctly un-otter-like expression, but the tucked paws and long tail were unmistakable.
From the other side, it was a dead body. You could tell by the crossed arms and the wrapped shroud that covered everything. The artist had scored lines that had been filled with dark dye or simply with years of dirt, which clearly indicated tightly wrapped cloth. The corpse's head was at an odd, broken-neck angle, to match the otter on the other side.
"That's messed up."
"It's a bit weird, yeah." Coming from a man wearing a T-shirt proclaiming BIGFOOT LIVES!!!, this was quite a statement. He turned the carving over a few times. The carved lines seemed to squirm under the fluorescent light.
While Uncle Earl is out of town recovering from knee surgery, the otter carving starts trying to tunnel through a second floor rear wall of the building:
"It's gonna need the big patch put in." Simon frowned. "I'm gonna need to find a stud."
"Don't we all," I said, not quite under my breath. Simon grinned.
He took out his phone, turned on the screen, and stuck it into the hole, angling it to the side, then peered into the hole. "Let's see where the…"
He turned the phone the other way and turned his head to look.
"No stud?" I asked after a few seconds.
"Um," he said. "Carrot, you might want to take a look at this."
Simon backed away from the hole and held his phone out to me. He sounded calm, but it had a strange, brittle edge.
My heart sank. There would be leaking pipes or exposed asbestos or something. Something expensive.
I shone the light through the hole.
There were no leaking pipes. There was no stud.
I was looking into a dark hallway that vanished out of the circle of light, in both directions.
"Ugh." I pulled my arm back. "Isn't this over the coffee shop? Isn't there supposed to be more of a wall?"
Simon looked at me. "I don't think you quite understand. That's not the coffee shop."
"Well, it's not the museum. Did somebody wall up a room between us?"
Simon looked skeptical. "I don't think there's enough space, is there?"
"Don't look at me, I just work here." I frowned at the hallway. It looked as if it was made of concrete, which was weird given that it was on the second floor of a brick building, but then again, I was working in a museum with a sunflower seed portrait of the pope, so who was I to talk about weird? "Hmm. Do you think you can take out a big enough chunk of wallboard for us to go through? I'd like to see where it goes."
Simon gnawed his lower lip. "Yeah, but my patch kit isn't gonna work to close it back up. I'll need to go buy actual wallboard."
I dithered for a minute, but curiosity won out. This wasn't just a crawl space, this was clearly a full-size hallway. Presumably the ends were blocked off, but if we could get even a couple square yards of usable space, that would give us room for another couple displays. And room in the Wonder Museum was always at a premium.
"Open it up," I said. The chance of more room was worth the few bucks to patch the hole.
He pulled out a power tool of some description. A saw thingy. Like I said, home improvement is not my skill set. A few minutes of muttering about the charger and fooling with batteries, and then he made four bold cuts in the wall, chopping a doorway three feet wide and tall enough to step through if we ducked our heads.
"Mind the floor," he said. "There's a soft patch in the floor over the coffee shop, and if this attaches to it, it might be rotting out."
"God, I hope not." I had a flashlight app on my phone and shone it into the hole. The floor looked like concrete. Did that mean it was solid, or that I was going to ride a slab of broken cement down two stories and into the basement?
Well. Nothing ventured…
I stepped through into the hallway.
It was quiet. That was the first thing I noticed. It was very, very quiet, more so even than you'd expect from the Wonder Museum at night. No car noises came through the wall. Even the soft hum of electric motors, the one you stop hearing after about thirty seconds, was silenced.
Simon stepped through after me, holding his top hat in one hand. He settled it back on his head and adjusted the brim.
I shone my cell light down the corridor and whistled. It went much farther than I expected, at least thirty feet, before hitting a wall. "Holy crap. This must go clear to the end of the block."
"In both directions," said Simon, checking the opposite way. "Shit. Do you think we found… I don't know, part of the Underground Railroad or something?"
"The building's from 1907, Simon. I'm pretty sure the Underground Railroad stopped before that." (I wish I could say that I was an expert at local history, but there's actually a big brick in the outer wall with 1907 stamped on it, and I passed it every time I went to get coffee.)
He thought for a minute. "Moonshining tunnels?"
"Now we're talkin'."
I set out in the direction of the coffee shop. The concrete wall had been painted, but the paint had chipped off and fallen away so that the only thing left were scaly patches of navy blue.
The floor didn't echo at all. It also didn't feel particularly unsteady, thankfully. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure that Simon was following.
"Right behind you."
"Good. This is eerie."
"Hell yeah." He grinned. "There was an abandoned mental hospital in the town I grew up in. We used to get high and go sneak into it."
"Oh, that place was creepy as hell. Peeling linoleum and weird rings on the walls and empty elevator shafts. Plus it was totally haunted by dead inmates."
"How do you know that?"
"How could it not be?"
"…You make a valid point."
We were about ten feet from the end of the corridor when I saw that I'd been wrong about its being the end. There was a gap in the right-hand wall. It wasn't a dead end, it was a ninety-degree turn.
Simon and I both slowed down as we approached the turn. I don't know what we were expecting. Monsters, maybe. Empty elevator shafts.
No, it was just more corridor.
"Along the outer wall of the coffee shop, do you think?" I said.
"There's windows in that wall."
"Oh. Hmm." I played my light down the corridor. "Maybe… uh… we went up, somehow? We're just under the roof?" The concrete had felt level underfoot, but I was coming up short on other explanations.
"It's only a two-story building."
"Well, maybe we didn't go as far as we thought and this is in between the two buildings."
"Maybe there was a shit ton of black mold in the crawl space and we're both lying on the floor hallucinating," said Simon.
"Pretty consistent hallucination."
"I mean, assuming you're actually seeing this and I'm not hallucinating you."
"If we're both hallucinating, then we might as well keep going," I said, stepping forward.
Another twenty or thirty feet on and the corridor opened up suddenly.
I stopped in the doorway, slowly playing my light across the room.
It was circular. It was at least forty feet across. The walls were concrete, scraped and marked with graffiti. The floor was also concrete, but a thin layer of grit and watermarks made wavy lines across it, as if it had flooded sometime in the past.
And there was just no damn way that it was in the Wonder Museum.
At one end of the concrete corridor they find a room with a cot, and on the cot the corpse of a man who starved to death. At the other end of the corridor are steps leading up to another door. This door is ajar, and daylight is streaming through it.
Will it sound strange that the thing that bothered me most was the daylight?
It couldn't be daytime. It was dark outside. And I hadn't gotten on a plane and flown for hundreds of miles, crossing out of night. There simply hadn't been enough time.
I thought I had believed in a different world when I'd held the concrete. But a piece of concrete is a small thing. The sun is the biggest thing. Now I was feeling that different world on my skin, even if I couldn't see the sun through the thick white mist.
It'll burn off soon, I thought, and then, like an echo, at least, it would in my world.
I had always had mixed feelings about Narnia, mostly because of the heavy-handed lion-Jesus allegory. I suddenly had very strong feelings that C. S. Lewis had not spent nearly enough time on the sudden realization, when moving between worlds, that nothing could be taken for granted. Maybe fog hung around all day here, even when the sky was bright. Maybe there was no night, or maybe this was what night looked like. Maybe gravity stopped working here on Tuesdays.
It was strange and quiet. The landscape looked deeply unnatural to me, all those strange, rounded islands. They were too evenly spaced, like gravestones. I thought of European barrows, the low, artificial hills where ancient people buried their dead.
"O… kay…," said Simon, crouching beside me. "Okay. That was… not what I was expecting."
After my first, bewildered impression, I saw that a few larger islands were scattered among the tiny islands. These were flatter, more natural looking, covered in short shrubs with silvery leaves.
"Osier willows," I said, pointing. "At least if they're the same as in our world."
Simon gave me a look. "You're a botanist now?"
I snorted. "No, I did a logo design for a guy who sold woven-willow baskets. Withyworld LLC. I did about a thousand variations on willow patterns for him, and he could not make up his mind. I have looked at more willow photos than God."
"Does God look at a lot of willow photos?"
"He does if he's a graphic designer. Do you think we can get to one of those other islands?"
"Depends on how deep the water is." Simon climbed out and stood on the edge of the island. The grass stretched out in front of us, maybe three feet or so, then dropped off sharply. Algae softened the line, but it looked unnaturally squared off.
"I think this is part of the bunker," said Simon, crouching down. "Look, there's steps down there, too."
I stepped up beside him and looked down. Sure enough, there were slick green stairs under the water, stepping down three or four feet, then vanishing into the mud.
"I can't tell how deep it is." Simon tapped his forehead over the eye that may or may not have belonged to his dead twin. "Depth perception's hard."
"We'd be wading. At the very least. Depends on how deep the mud is."
"If we climb up on top of this one, maybe we can get a better view."
The island was, as I had guessed, another of the tiny barrow-like islands. Once we were actually standing on it, it looked like an elongated teardrop. Silt had piled up on the backside, probably from upstream, and presumably that was why the grass was growing so lushly over it. It was wet and slick underfoot, and we had to go up on our hands and knees.
At the top, barely six feet wide and maybe ten feet long, we stood up.
Downstream, the landscape was what we'd seen. Dozens of the tiny islands, though from this height, they were teardrop shaped as well.
Simon turned to look upstream and his breath went out of him as if he'd been kicked in the chest. Filled with sudden dread, I turned.
There were more islands upstream as well. All of them identical, green with grass, spaced like graves.
Set into the side of each of those other islands was a single metal door.
"Holy…" Simon shook his head. "I… dude…"
"There's so many."
"Do you think they're all bunkers like this one?"
"I don't know. Seems likely, doesn't it?"
"Why would there be so many?" I turned in a slow circle, trying to count all the little islands. If the ones downstream had doors as well… that was thirty, forty, fifty bunkers. And that's just what I could see before the fog brought the curtain down.
A bird called somewhere over the water, and both Simon and I jumped like we'd heard a gunshot. Then we both laughed. It was a killdeer, the sort you see in fields and parking lots all over North Carolina, dragging its wing and pretending to be injured. "Kildeeeeee kildeeee kildeeeee…"
"I guess that's the same as back home." Simon exhaled. "Glad it's not a crow."
He shrugged, looking embarrassed. "I feel like the crows here would be weird. Too smart, maybe."
"Huh." I thought about that. It didn't make a lot of sense, but then I thought of the great mobs of crows that gather sometimes at twilight, cawing at each other, and thought of all those crows sitting in the willows on the larger islands or perched across the barrow islands… yes, all right, maybe I could see it.
I scanned the mist-covered horizon again. The islands vanished into it, growing paler and less distinct, an exercise in atmospheric perspective. One or two had willows growing over them, which should have broken up the monotonous regularity and made the scene less strange, but didn't.
"This is so bizarre," said Simon finally.
I shook my head. That it was clearly daylight here was still messing me up, more than it should have. My internal clock had shorted out and was blinking 12:00.
The dozens of tiny islands and doors weren't helping.
A couple of the doors were ajar. One or two seemed to be all the way open, or perhaps the doors themselves were missing.
Kara and Simon decide to go exploring on this shallow atoll. On other islets, in other bunkers, they find signs that other explorers have preceded them. Further along, they find a school bus mired in sand; it had been full of students, but now its seats only writhe with student-shapes moving on the other side of the fabric.
In one bunker they find a starving man waist-deep in filthy water and clinging to a column.
Simon and I tried to flinch backward simultaneously and ended up sitting down hard on the steps behind us.
"Sorry," said Sturdivant. "Sorrysorrysorry. I forget. It's been so long." He shook his head, but his hair was so long and wet and clinging that it seemed to limit the distance he could turn his head. He coughed again. "The kudzu. I went into the kudzu cathedral. It's like a basket underneath. I heard something. I went toward it, and then it got darker and darker, and I tried to turn around, but I came out here. In the willows."
"And you couldn't get back?" I asked.
"No… I could never find it again. I was lost or it had closed already. I spent days in the willows, looking…."
"I hate those things," I said.
"Yes. You should." He kneaded the water as if it were dough. "Yes. The willows are the soul of this place."
"So the holes are everywhere?" asked Simon. "Not just the bunkers?"
"Everywhere. Anywhere. You come through where you come through." Sturdivant raised his head. "Have you heard the sound yet?"
Simon and I looked at each other, then back. "There was a hum," said Simon cautiously. "Like a gong a long way away. We weren't sure if it was real."
"Yesssss…." Sturdivant sank an inch or two down in the water. "Yes, that is Their sound." After a moment he added, "You'll hear it again."
"Whose sound?" I asked.
"Them. The ones here. You must have seen their mark already."
Simon and I looked at each other again, shrugging helplessly.
"Perhaps not. Perhaps I'm remembering wrong." Sturdivant sank even deeper in the water, still stroking the surface with his fingers. "It's been so long. How long have you been here?"
"Since yesterday," said Simon.
"Not long, then. No. Not yet." Was it just the water that he was touching? No, there was something else in there, something he was running through his fingers, over and over. I couldn't make it out, except that it was long and dark. Waterweed, or… oh, Lord, maybe his own hair, in the water. How long was it? "Some holes last longer, I think. Yours may be there still. Or not."
It hadn't even occurred to me to worry that the way home might have closed.
"Did you see a school bus, when you got here?" asked Simon.
"School bus? No."
Simon tried to describe it, the way the children were trapped inside. It was hard to wrap words around it. It was doubly hard when we were talking to a wet, skeletal man lurking in the dark water, stroking his floating hair.
Not that he seems hostile, exactly, but… what did he mean by "I probably can't reach you there"?
The first person we'd met and I wanted to get the hell away as quickly as I could. Typical. Although if he can tell us something about this place… like what They are…
"Yesss…," said Sturdivant when Simon had finished. "That sounds like something They might do."
"Why?" I asked. "Why would someone do that?"
"Because… They weren't hungry." Sturdivant closed his eyes.
"What does that mean?" asked Simon. "I don't understand!"
For a long moment, I didn't think Sturdivant would answer. He was so emaciated that even talking to us must have exhausted him.
"We have some food," I said hesitantly. "If you're hungry." As skeletal as he was, I didn't see how he couldn't be hungry.
Sturdivant shook his head. He was submerged to the collarbone now, but I could see his shoulders moving, as if he were treading water. "I've been starving this long. If I eat now… I'd have to start over."
That made more sense than I wanted it to make. I didn't want to think about it, but there were so many things now that I didn't want to think about that they were fighting and jostling for position in the back of my head.
"What are They?" I asked.
He shook his head. "This place. They live here. Don't think too loudly. If you think about Them, it draws Them in…."
I didn't want to look away from Sturdivant, but I looked over my shoulder just in case. Nothing but sunlight and willows.
"Where is this place?" I said. "What is it?"
Sturdivant's bony shoulders rose out of the water in a shrug. "A place. Just a place. Old. Touching many places. But eventually the willows found it and got their roots in…."
"They live in the willows?"
"From them. Of them."
"We saw… err… spirits," I said. "In the willows last night. And something bigger."
"Yesss…." He lifted one hand. Hair or waterweed stuck to it as he made a vague gesture, then dropped it back into the water. "The light of the willows brings things alive. Then not alive. You understand?"
We didn't. Sturdivant shook his head, the wet, sticky hair wrapping around his cheekbones. "Things come alive in the willowlight. Not Them. Just things. Then the light goes and they're not alive anymore. But the willows serve Them… never doubt it… gck!"
"Is the boatman one of Them?" asked Simon.
That was a good question, and one I hadn't thought to ask. "Oh, him." Sturdivant shrugged again. "Don't let him catch you. Or do let him, maybe. He's always hungry." He opened his eyes. "You asked what They do… if They aren't hungry…" He smiled, baring teeth in black, swollen gums. I had to look away. "Then They play with you… take you apart to see what makes you tick… change you…"
My skin was already crawling, but it crawled harder, as if it wanted to leave my body completely and go try to find the way home by itself.
"There was a woman," said Sturdivant abruptly. "I met her. She came through before me. A different way. She'd been here for days. A researcher." He tried to shake his head again, but the thick weight of wet hair prevented him. "They got her a few days later. But They weren't hungry. They came for us and we ran…. When I found her again, she was all twisted up and They'd stacked her bones up next to her, all very neat, from small to large… all the little hand bones lined up like beads." The water shivered around him. "She was still alive. It took ages to kill her. She was like jelly…."
My mind had gone completely blank. It felt like the black water at our feet, each awful word falling into it and leaving ripples.
"They don't come down here…," Sturdivant said wearily. "Too much… concrete. The willows can't… get their roots in." He laughed softly. "Though that's… changing. Water and muck and dead leaves… turns to dirt in the dark… and then they'll start sending their roots down." He had sunk so deep into the water now that it lapped against his chin when he spoke.
"So They didn't make the bunkers, then?" said Simon. I marveled at his ability to concentrate on that. I was thinking of the school bus, of children and the driver changed in some way I could only barely comprehend because They hadn't been hungry. So They'd twisted their victims around, pulled them halfway out of reality, left them pressing against the skin of the world like hungry ghosts trying to get in.
Sturdivant shook his head, sending ripples through the water. "I don't think They could. I don't know who did. Someone… before… maybe. Before the willows. Or after. Bunkers to hide from Them. Maybe someone trying to… fix… this place." He closed his eyes. "But there's no fixing it. Gck! Gck!"
After a moment he said, "You came through here, on the river… yes?"
I nodded, then realized his eyes were closed. It didn't seem to matter, because he answered his own question. "Of course you did. You're alive. No one… lives… anywhere else."
"What do you mean?" Simon's voice was calm and polite, the customer-service, no-we-don't-serve-Frappuccinos-here voice, wildly out of place in this world.
Yet somehow, Sturdivant seemed to respond to it. "There was a woman. No… wait. I said that… already? Didn't I?"
"We tried to… get away. From the river. We went as far as we could. Three days." He shook his head slowly, fingers pulsing on the surface of the water, wrapping thick tendrils of his hair around his hands. "We had to turn back. There was no more water. Nothing but willows. Willows forever. The light… all the time, the light. All the shadows coming alive in the light. But we saw buildings… great concrete things. Like parking garages. That big. But you couldn't get near them. They were everywhere… the buzzing around the buildings… like… like wasps… we thought if we could get in one, it would be safe… but we couldn't get close. They were watching those buildings. They hated them. Wanted in. The river… seemed safer… somehow… gck!"
"The willows are making the light?" asked Simon carefully.
"Yes. Watch for it. Won't hurt you. Probably. But if you see the light, the willows have gotten their roots in."
I was sweating, despite the cold. I wiped the back of my neck, and it felt as clammy as a mushroom. "But we're safe in the bunkers?"
"Safe…?" Sturdivant's body shook with laughter. "Safe! None of us are… safe. They touched me and I fell down here. It stopped Them changing me more, for all the good it did me."
"I'm sorry," I said helplessly. "Can we do anything?"
"Safe…," said Sturdivant, and then he stood up in the water.
It wasn't hair.
Martin Sturdivant's skin stopped at the bottom of his ribs, and his lower half had been taken apart. His guts were black with algae and dirt and hung loose in the water, some of them floating, so that he was moving through a cloud of his own organs. I realized that when he had been stroking the surface of the water, he'd been stroking his own body dissected around him, fingers moving across intestine and bowel in a horrible, loving touch.
Simon and I let out twin screams and fled.
It was at this point in The Hollow Places (about halfway through the novel) that I concluded I was reading a sequel to "The Willows" by Algernon Blackwood. (I had not read the pre-publication author interviews).
Clues were plentiful: brassy sounds, cone-shaped depressions, islands overrun with willows. There was a boatman who went paddling by at one point, though Kara and Simon wisely chose to hide from him, as he appeared to be sprouting out of his skiff.
The willows, and the negative spaces between them, have a life of their own. A "willowglow" seems embedded, surrounding larger horrors.
At the climax of The Hollow Places' second half, as Kara nears the end of an epic barroom brawl that takes her from her Uncle's museum back to the willow-world, she gets a glimpse:
I half rolled on my side and saw one of Them overhead.
It was on the other side of reality, but They were coming through. It was tearing a hole in the sky to get to me, and for a moment I could see the hole and the shape that They made pushing against the skin of the world, like the children in the school bus but not remotely human.
They looked like nothing I understood, like an Old Testament angel, all wings and wheels and eyes. The sky billowed nauseatingly and the hole grew larger, edged with jittery migraine colors. What made the hole was a beak or a drill or a spike, pushing through the back of the sky. The sort of thing that might make a funnel-shaped hole in the water or reality or someone's body.
Seeing Them did not make me more afraid. There was nothing I could hook my fear onto. It was not a shape that my body understood enough to fear. But the sound They made was a hunting sound, a train whistle of hunger, and that I understood.
As The Hollow Places begins rolling, Kara thinks of the experience as a nastier version of a Narnia portal fantasy.
Portal fantasy The Hollow Places is not.
In "The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror" (in the 2014 collection Stay) John Clute defines the mode in fictions like The Hollow Places as CLOACA:
....what is defined as Portal in Fantasy does not exist in Horror: so the term Cloaca is applied here to semblances of Portal when such are uncovered. If entering a Portal can be likened to swimming with the tide as upon a quest, then entering a Cloaca can be likened to swimming upstream like a gaffed fish: HOOKED . The Cloaca is a Parody of the Portal: an extremely bad joke (such being common in tales of Horror) about the true nature of the world. The term is visceral, it allows a strong inference of deep unpleasantness ahead. Almost always, Cloacas are lesions in the Thickening of the world towards the moment of truth, when the rind of things is peeled. They are indentations in the rind which hint falsely of egress. then sully. They are indistinguishable from the Bad Place: the house built with cavities beneath the cellar, or the bottomless swamp, or some labyrinth which strangles Ariadne: the omphalos that leads to the blank stone exitless stair to the underworld.
In The Hollow Places concrete corridor stairs, aswim in bilge water, stained with rust and algae, lead to an archipelago of other cloacal doorways. The landscape swarms with invisible damned things, guided to the kill by thoughts from their prey.
In the end Kara lures the otter carving to the willow world. With Simon's help, the wall opening in Uncle Earl's museum is properly repaired, the danger eliminated. The cozy calamity ceases.
03 March 2021