By David Dent
Kara is 34, newly divorced from Mark (they married young; no kids) and, faced with the prospect of moving back in with her parents until she can sort things out (a prospect which fills her with dread) salvation arrives in the shape of her uncle Earl.
Earl, a fully paid up but kindly ‘I want to believe’ conspiracy nut, owns a sort of folk-art museum in a small town called Hog Chapel in North Carolina, where Carrot (Kara’s nickname, which everyone uses) used to help out when she was younger. Earl invites Carrot to stay with him and help him run the museum; turns out he had a vested interest as Earl’s knees aren’t that great and he needs more help in the place than he used to.
The shop’s title gives an indication of the kinds of things he sells: the ‘Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities and Taxidermy.’ Carrot moves in and is happy to help, even beginning the tricky job of cataloguing the collection, difficult because Earl isn’t sure what he has, and she’s not sure what half the things actually are.
When Earl’s knees get so bad that he needs surgery, Carrot agrees to manage the museum on her own; it’s not busy and she spends her time between customers bumming off the next door ‘Black Hen’ coffee shop’s wi-fi, or hanging out with its Barista, Simon; they have a likeable but strictly platonic friendship; Simon’s gay.
This cosy amiability changes when one of the customers reports that someone seems to have kicked in some drywall in the upstairs part of the museum. When Carrot investigates, she finds the resultant hole leads on to a corridor she never knew was there, in a space that seems almost impossible to exist. She and Simon investigate and find out that the corridor leads to a bunker which in turn opens onto…another world.
It’s a place not entirely alien, but is broken into individual islands, all of which seem to have their own bunker door. The only vegetation seems to be willow trees, which appear to move. But there are more frightening occupants of this new world; strange things that seem to live behind reality, and a vast invisible force that makes its presence known by sound and shadow. Simon and Carrot eventually manage to find their way back to the museum, but the forces in the other world exert a pull that stretches from their dimension into this one.
T.Kingfisher is the adult pseudonym of YA and children’s writer Ursula Vernon, and despite the relatively mature age of Kara, much of this book reads in the style of teen fiction, with the lead character stuck between childish wonder and more adult considerations. Vernon has confessed that the book is a meditation on, and extension of, Algernon Blackwood’s famous (and famously terrifying) short story ‘The Willows,’ which despite being nearly 120 years old is hands down one of the scariest things I’ve ever read. There’s also a nod in the hole in the wall theme to the CS Lewis’s Narnia, a fact that Carrot refers to a lot, but any suggestion that this is YA fiction is knocked on the head by the incredibly scary set pieces and nightmarish imagery she serves up.
The Hollow Places isn’t a fast-paced book, and not a massive amount happens over its 350 pages. But what it does is create a credible and frightening world next to ours; not everything is explained, simply because much of what Carrot and Simon experience is inexplicable: but it’s a mesmerising read.
The Hollow Places is available from Titan Books.