Then I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones…
This is the quote, taken originally from Arthur Machen’s “The White People” and used frequently in The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher, that has wormed its way into my brain. There is something haunting about it. Rocks don’t have faces, or at least they shouldn’t. Twisting oneself about is not a typical behavior, and just who are the “twisted ones” that are referred to here, since rocks, also, are not something typically considered to be “twisted”? T. Kingfisher tackles these questions and comes up with some answers that you may find you wish you didn’t know. The protagonist, Mouse, is highly relatable and in a situation that many of a certain age might be familiar with – she has been called home to clean out her deceased grandmother’s house. The job is going to take longer than expected, since her grandmother was a hoarder. Mouse, and her coonhound Bongo, are up for the task and only a little creeped out by the condition of the house and the contents (a whole room full of dolls in itself is a horror story), including a journal from her step-grandfather that includes long passages of quotes from a strange green book he used to possess. This is where she first encounters the information on “the twisted ones” and as she reads further through the journal she begins to question the sanity of the former occupants of the house. (WARNING: Many spoilers ahead.)
Mouse and Bongo spend their first days making friends with the “hippies” across the road, hanging out a lot at the coffee shop in town, and taking some rambling walks in the woods – which is where things start to get strange. On one walk, they encounter an “effigy” hanging from a tree – something that has been constructed partially of deer bones and skin, and partially of other things like sticks and stones. The construct has clearly been hung in the trees by someone (or something). The effigy was terrifying enough as a depraved ornament in the woods, but later that night Mouse is horrified to hear it, somehow enlivened, on the porch and attempting to get into the house. This attack by something so unreal is terrifying, but it doesn’t end there – it proceeds to continue on a nightly basis.
When walking on the other side of the property, Mouse and Bongo come across a path through bushes and branches that form a tunnel, which leads them to the top of a hill – only there shouldn’t be any hills anywhere nearby. The top of this hill is where we really get started learning more about the stones and the twisted ones. The hilltop is filled with a variety of carved white stones, similar to one that Mouse had previously seen near the house, and the atmosphere of the place seems to have a strange effect on her. The further she walks away from the entrance, the less realistic things become, and she finds herself thinking more and more about the strange entries in the journal. She begins to feel like maybe she should make the faces on the rocks, and twist herself like the twisted ones…until Bongo helps snap her out of it and escape back down the hill into safety.
Things just continue to go “downhill” from there. Bongo disappears and Mouse must engage the help of her new neighbors to track him down before she can leave grandmother’s house firmly in the rearview. The journey that is required in order to do this, though, includes returning to that strange hilltop – and beyond – and is one of the most original explorations of dark fantasy that I have read in a very long time.
In addition to the creepiness of the quotes from the green book, I found the idea of the effigies in this novel to be terrifying. The hodgepodging together of dead animal and found materials into something that could locomote and menace was terrifying. It brought to mind the Estonian film November, where a similar concept of “krafts”, constructs made of tools and other materials and then infused with a spirit, was used. In this film, as in Kingfisher’s book, the constructs also function as servants, but they are something sought out by humans and mostly subservient to them. For this reason, the overall effect is not nearly as terrifying as what T. Kingfisher has done with the effigies in her book, which are most definitely not something that humans have requested.
Kingfisher’s use of Machen’s work as a basis for her story works well. I went back and read “The White People” and while it is a disturbing piece of fiction, the expansion that Kingfisher provides for the concepts that Machen is discussing lends them more weight and reality. She effectively constructs history and rationale and detail that incorporates his ideas in what I found to be a more approachable fashion, which also serves to increase the dread and horror. There is a definite reason why this book has been celebrated and anyone with a love of dark fantasy will likely find something here to love.
More from T. Kingfisher
If you’re a fan of this type of literature, you may also want to check out The Hollow Places. In this book, Kingfisher uses a similar technique of inspiration from Ambrose Bierce’s classic “The Willows” to create another dark fantasy adventure. While I found this book to be a little less effective than The Twisted Ones, it’s still a fun read, and you will find a similarly voiced protagonist – and their pet – to love in this book.