I was introduced to the work of T. Kingfisher (the pen-name for chiefly children’s author Ursula Vernon) last year, with her horror book The Twisted Ones. That quickly became one of my favourite books of 2019, and I adored the way that she was able to draw from older horror themes (in that case the work of Arthur Machen), and create something so thoroughly chilling. When this book was announced I was excited to see what they’d do next; and I wasn’t disappointed at all.
The Hollow Places follows Kara, nicknamed Carrot, just after she divorces her husband. With work being slim and little savings she’s facing the prospect of having to move back home with her mother; something she dearly wants to avoid. Salvation comes when her uncle invites her to stay with him. Her uncle runs a small museum of oddities and ‘wonders’ that Kara grew up loving, and she jumps at the chance to spend some time with her beloved uncle, and the museum she grew up with. Everything is going great for her there, she’s staying in the back room, helping her uncle with tourists, and even getting around to cataloguing his stuffed animals and bizarre finds.
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When her uncle has to take some time off to recover from knee surgery Kara is left to take care of the place alone, and is immediately met with problems when a hole gets knocked in the wall. Upset that a tourist broke the museum on her watch she asks her neighbour Simon to help with the repairs, but it’s then that they notice something strange about the hole. Instead of being just a normal hole there’s a hallway on the other side, one that shouldn’t be there, one that’s impossible. Crossing into the hole they discover that it leads to a strange bunker, one of just many in a place that shouldn’t exist. Delving deeper into this impossible world the two of them find horrors that will haunt them forever – if they live long enough to escape, that is.
If Kingfisher’s first book was inspired by the dark horror of Machen, this book feels like it would be at home in the catalogue of writers like H.P. Lovecraft, something that she confirms in the book’s afterword, also referencing Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows as an inspiration (you can read this for free online and definitely should). Like those stories The Hollow Places sets its stock in creeping atmosphere and cosmic horror that’s too alien to be able to perceive.
The world that Kara and Simon discover through the hole is one that itself is enough to unsettle and disturb; something so impossible and bizarre that its existence could cause nightmares, but it’s the hints of the things that inhabit this world that are the worst. I don’t want to talk too much about what’s on the other side of the hole, but what I will say is that the brief glimpses of things, the possible rationale and explanation that characters try to come up with, and the effects these creatures have, is so disturbing, so other, that I can’t help but think that experiencing these things would leave you traumatised forever.
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The story does things that I can confidently say no one would expect, because some of the stuff here is so reality bending that there’s just no way you’re going to see everything coming. It will have you holding your breath in tense moments, wanting to put the book down because of how frightening it is, yet desperate to read more to find out what happens next. I read the book in just over a day because I found this story and its characters so utterly addictive and enthralling. Even though the scenes on the other side of the hole are some of the most disturbing I’ve read in a book, and left me feeling creeped out, I would have read so much more of it because of how much it entertained me.
This book might not be for everyone (probably because it’s going to be too scary for some) but if you enjoy horror this is an absolute must read. It left me glad that the experience was over, but so desperate for more. I wanted to know what was going on, I wanted answers because the not knowing was driving me crazy; but then that’s the mark of truly great cosmic horror.
The Hollow Places is out now from Titan Books.