The Twisted Ones: A Dark Fantasy that Leaves You in Knots

The_Twisted_Ones
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 PlacesIn 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.

Penny Dreadful: The Exquisite Pain of the “Exceptional”

Penny DreadfulI recently finished the second season of Penny Dreadful and can’t stop thinking about it. I will admit – I was reticent to invest my time in this series. The first season didn’t get the best reviews (not that this has ever stopped me before), and I think that it’s entirely possible that the name of the series itself put me off a little. After all, a “penny dreadful” was a less than favorable slang name during the 19th century for serials of sensational fiction. So, basically, the name itself advertises as “cheap thrills” for the masses. But while the series does use many familiar monsters and horror tropes, it manages to do so in an often surprisingly insightful and quality way.

PLEASE NOTE: SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW.

The series has a variety of familiar names and creatures. There is Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), his monster (a.k.a. John Clare played by Rory Kinnear), Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney), a Western side-show star/werewolf (Ethan Chandler played by Josh Harnett), an African explorer (Sir Malcolm Murray played by Timothy Dalton), and a possible voodoo priest (Sembene played by Danny Sapani). At the center of it all is Miss Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), the doomed spiritualist who is possessed by demons. It all sounds far too fabulous to be put together in any manner that could work – but it does.

During the first season, a sort of team is formed by Vanessa, Victor, Ethan, Sir Malcolm, and Sembene. Together they face a variety of supernatural threats: the majority of which are vampires in the first season, and witches in the second. The first season begins their friendship and the second cements it, since now that the characters are familiar both to each other and the audience, there is opportunity to work in more development. And, the second season is definitely worth waiting for.

Victor pretty much nails the theme when he is discussing his new love with Vanessa. He explains to her that he had given up hope of being loved and thought that it was only for other people – he had resigned himself to the fate of the “exceptional”. This choice of wording is apt in describing the suffering he has undergone throughout his life due to his focus on, and success in, the realm of the mind rather than that of the heart. However, it also fits the singularity of each of these main characters, and the loneliness that plagues them. They may fight monsters together, but they are each very alone when it comes to fighting their own personal demons.

Throughout the second season, they each manage to catch a glimpse of that love that seemed so out of reach, touch it, be warmed by it – only to watch it slip from their hands. There is true torture here where love is concerned: Victor loses his love, Lily (Billie Piper) – a love that he himself created – to the more seductive Dorian Grey; Sir Malcolm is spellbound by Mrs. Poole simply as a means to her nefarious ends; and Ethan and Vanessa come together just long enough to see the other for who they are, grow to love them, and then be so devastated by the blackness within themselves that they cannot find a way to share the path going forward. Perhaps the saddest fate is that of the monster, John Clare, who is shunned by the “love” created for him by Frankenstein, betrayed by the blind girl who pretended to befriend him, and – most tragically – finally seen and loved by Vanessa, only to have her refuse to share her path with him for fear of him falling victim to the black curse that surrounds her life. The weaving together of these story lines is elegant, clever, and tragic.

In addition to the substance of the series, the cinematography is gorgeous and dark. The casting is spot on, as is the dialogue and acting. The exchanges between Josh Hartnett’s character, Ethan Chandler, and the investigator Bartholomew Rusk (Douglas Hodge) are some of my favorite, with Hartnett quickly volleying back Hodge’s questions and digs with short, terse responses.

However, all this is not to say that the series isn’t over the top in places – it definitely is. But the balance between the sensational and deep is interesting and well done. This series has the bitterness and bite of dark chocolate with the sweetest black cherry filling. I can’t wait for Season 3.