Book Review: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher is a compelling and white-knuckled horror novel about a young woman who discovers a strange portal in her uncle’s house, leading to madness and terror.
After Kara’s marriage ends, she has no idea what to do next. A freelance graphic designer, she can barely make ends meet on her own and is dreading the idea of moving back in with her combative mother. So when her Uncle Earl offers her a place to stay, she leaps at the idea—even if it means a somewhat unorthodox living situation.
Uncle Earl runs the Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities and Taxidermy out of a storefront in Hog Chapel, North Carolina, a building Kara practically grew up in. The museum boasts an eccentric collection as weird and wonderful as its owner, and though Kara has had her fair share of arguments with Uncle Earl about things like evolution and Bigfoot, there’s no denying his belief in being kind, even when confronted with the gaps in his logic otherwise:
“But you’ve got a sign in the case with the prairie dogs that says the earth is four thousand years old.”
“It’s a quote from the Reverend James Smiley. It’s attributed down at the bottom. If it’s wrong, it’s on him. I’m not here to judge. The visitors can decide for themselves what they want to believe.”
“What if they decide wrong, though?”
“God forgives a lot,” said Uncle Earl. “He has to. We all do a lot that needs forgiving.”
Claiming to need help with the museum due to his own failing health, Uncle Earl has cleared out a storage room and turned it into a little apartment for Kara, though he lives elsewhere himself. Kara plans to finally catalog all the exhibits as well as update their internet presence while he mans the front desk, but a month after her arrival, his bad knees finally give out on him, necessitating surgery down in Charlotte. Kara assures him that she can run the place just fine while he recuperates, and at first, everything goes smoothly enough—until she discovers a hole in the wall upstairs that leads to a corridor that can’t possibly exist.
Recruiting her neighbor and closest friend Simon to help her figure out the corridor, the duo unexpectedly stumbles upon a series of extremely creepy things that culminates in them exploring a bizarre world filled with horrors. But then, they realize that they’ve lost track of the stick marking their way back to the corridor and, thus, the museum and the real world.
I tried to clamp that thought down before it could get much further. “Let’s think about this logically.”
“I’d like to panic for a minute, if it’s all the same to you!” snapped Simon. “There were things in that bus! Ghosts or—or something! I don’t know! And the stick’s gone and now we don’t know how to get back and we’re going to be stuck here with that bus full of whatever the hell it was!”
I waited. Honestly, I was rather glad he was panicking, because if he hadn’t, I was going to. Panic was definitely called for right now, but for some reason, if there’s two people, only one of you panics at a time.
As Kara and Simon struggle to find their way home, they must also escape the notice of the terrifying creatures that inhabit the realm they’ve unwittingly stumbled into, creatures that could do much worse than merely eat them alive. But the greater question remains: even if they can find a way back, what can they do to make sure the monstrosities don’t follow them home?
The Hollow Places is a truly scary page-turner that had me quietly freaking out even as I devoured the tale as avidly as the nightmare creatures in its pages consume their prey. Based on the Algernon Blackwood story The Willows, it expands upon the premise of a mostly intrepid duo trapped in an inexplicable realm to tell a very modern, very funny, and very psychologically acute tale of finding family, kindness, and perspective in the unexpected. Character-wise, I found it very refreshing that Simon was an out-and-proud, high-camp gay man—especially in contrast with the smothered sexuality of Mr. Blackwood’s original protagonists. Kara and Earl are also wonderful creations—complex, caring, and resourceful—and I was rooting for all three of them throughout.
Despite being based on a classic work, this was one of the most original and warm-hearted horror novels I’ve read in a long time. Touching just as easily on the metaphysical and quasi-scientific as it does on matters of the heart and lizard mind, this is another triumph for T. Kingfisher’s remarkably versatile writing career.