BOOK REVIEW: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

The Hollow PlacesThe Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: November 3, 2020

 

I’m a sucker for down-the-rabbit-hole alternative world fiction. Kingfisher’s version is eerie and dark, as opposed to the more whimsical and fantastical versions of Lewis Carroll or Neil Gaiman. [While the latter have their share of tense moments, an adventurous person would still chase those experiences, but through Kingfisher’s looking glass is a world that everyone who wanders in immediately wants to escape.]

The book is set in and around a museum in a tourist trap town in the southern US. This museum is what would have been called a “cabinet of curiosities” back in the day, which is to say it combines natural history displays with a bit of a freak show aspect to spice things up. This setting contributes nicely to the story, offering both a suitably weird environment to lend credulity to the anomalous happenings and a suitably creepy environment to make the climax a harrowing experience.

The story revolves around a recently divorced woman named Kara (nickname: Carrot) who goes to live and work at Wonder Museum, her uncle’s cabinet of curiosities. She does this because she’s a gig-economy graphic designer without enough gigs to put her in a home of her own, because she wishes to avoid moving in with a mother who can be overbearing, and because her beloved Uncle Earl could use a hand as he’s getting up in years. When Uncle Earl has to get knee surgery and must leave the museum in Kara’s hands, all hell breaks loose by way of the opening of a portal to a parallel universe.

I should point out that the book isn’t dark and foreboding throughout, the main character and her sidekick / barista-next-door, Simon, provide plenty of comic relief, and we do get a good bit of character development for Kara in early chapters. I think the story benefits from what some might find a slow-burn opening. It’s intriguing to see how Kara is in emotional turmoil in the beginning over her failed marriage and lack of stable income, but then the trials of the story put matters into perspective for her.

Like the Algernon Blackwood novella (i.e. “The Willows”) that influenced it, this story manages to be a chilling and visceral experience without at all being gratuitously graphic or wantonly murderous. While some would classify it “horror,” it might better be considered a tale of the weird. The author does a fine job of creating atmosphere. In one sense, this concision of gruesomeness might be seen as a more impressive than in Blackwood’s story because Kingfisher’s characters are set in their everyday lives and thus the story has to shift between lighthearted and grim – whereas, Blackwood’s story about a couple of guys canoeing a remote stretch of the Danube River was able to be starker throughout. (As I recall, it’s been a while since I read “The Willows.”)

I found this book to be gripping. It kept my attention throughout with a mix of humor, gallows humor, and bleak moments. My most intense criticism involves the description of events leading up to, as well as during, the climax. There were moments where my attention was drawn from the story to asking questions (e.g. why was that so easy? Why was that so hard? Or, why didn’t she do X?) It might just be me, but I felt that in the attempt to maintain a fast pace, the author may have glossed over some challenges. That said, it’s fair to point out that the character is sleep-deprived and terrified at this point, so maybe this approach was (consciously or un-) an attempt to capture Kara’s disjointed state of mind, and maybe I was simply overreading. At any rate, I thought the book resolved strongly and was plotted smartly.

If you like alternative worlds fiction – and don’t mind it being a visceral experience – this would be a great book to check out.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Weird ed. by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark StoriesThe Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

For a book themed by such a niche genre, stories of the weird, this book covers a huge amount of ground. Over 1100+ pages, the book includes more than a hundred stories. While the book mostly consists of short stories, it does include several novellas and a novel excerpt. Not only does the book cover temporal ground (from the 19th century through writers of today), it includes works by authors from India, Japan, Nigeria, Benin, Iran, the Czech Republic, and many other nations besides the numerous British and American entries. It includes names you’ll know from mainstream literature, such as Haruki Murakami, Ben Okri, and Ray Bradbury, as well as a few of the best-selling authors of all time such as Stephen King and George R.R. Martin. However, it also includes names that you probably won’t have heard of unless you are a huge fan or an amateur historian of this cross-cutting subgenre (more on that descriptor to come.) It’s telling that only one author has more than one piece in the anthology, and that seems to represent an attempt to gather the very best pieces from each. I won’t say every great author of weirdness was included, but a whole lot of them were — whether the weird was a momentary diversion for him or it was the whole of his writing career.

The organization is chronological, and the book stands a single-volume education on stories with weirdness, bizarreness, or surreality at their heart. I used the term “cross-cutting subgenre” to describe the theme, and, I’m not sure I even understand what I meant, but these stories have a super-genre – e.g. horror or literary – but they necessarily have this element of strangeness. In other words, while some of the stories might be labeled “horror,” that genre classification is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for inclusion. Many of the stories aren’t particularly dark, and just because a story horror doesn’t mean that it’s weird enough to be included. The stories generally take place in a world that is recognizable, but with a hint of the surreal and with some level of strategic ambiguity as to the nature of that surreal element. This allows the collection to include examples as dark and visceral as “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” by Brian Evenson or as quirky and amusing as “The Sea Was Wet as Wet Could Be” by Gahan Wilson.

I couldn’t possibly go through all 110-ish of these stories, but will say that it’s a phenomenal collection. If I had to make my own personal top ten list it would be (in no order but the one in which the stories came in)

1.) “The Spider” by Hanns Heinz Ewers: A man moves into a room under the pretext of investigating a string of suicides only linked by residence within the apartment.

2.) “The Night Wire” by H.F. Arnold: A man in a newspaper office with a gift for simultaneously transcribing from two wires receives incoming reports of an ominous fog.

3.) “The Mainz Psalter” by Jean Ray: A mysterious ship journey ventures into bizarre territory and the crew starts disappearing one-by-one, leaving nothing more than gruesome stains.

4.) “The Crowd” by Ray Bradbury: A man tries to understand how a crowd seem to form almost instantaneously at the site of a car accident that he survived.

5.) “Sand Kings” by George R.R. Martin: A nasty little man buys some otherworldly pets that prove difficult to maintain.

6.) “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler: In a recurring theme for Butler, she writes about an alien species that appears to be beneficent toward humans, but shows that where a power disparity exists beneficence is an illusion.

7.) “Shades” by Lucius Shepard: A Vietnam vet turned journalist returns to Vietnam on a story about one of the men who died in his unit.

8.) “The Diane Arbus Suicide Portfolio” by Marc Laidlaw: A renown photographer somehow has her own suicide photographed and this leads to questions of the nature of art and the degree of passion it evokes in people.

9.) “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” by Brian Evenson: A man who self-cauterized his own amputation in order to kill the man who cut his hand off is drawn into the shadowy world of a bizarre cult who honor voluntary (and unnecessary) amputations.

10.) “Flat Diane” by Daniel Abraham: A father helps his daughter send out a picture cutout of herself for a school project. His daughter inexplicably starts experiencing PTSD like symptoms around the same time the father starts getting disturbing anonymous photos through the mail.

I don’t know how representative my top ten list is, but hopefully it gives one an idea of the nature of stories included. Though, as I said, it’s hard to give nutshell commentary on such a diverse work. It was even hard to come up with a top thirty, there were so many great inclusions.

I’d highly recommend this book if you at all enjoy weird tales. I got a copy on Amazon at a bargain price, especially considering that this is about four books worth of great stories.

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