After reading and loving A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, I resolved to read more of T. Kingfisher (an alias of Ursula Vernon), a remarkably versatile writer with acclaimed children’s books, horror novels, fantasy romances, and fairy tale retellings. The Hollow Places may mark the first time I’ve ever read a novel primarily marketed as horror, but Kingfisher has ensured that it will not be the last.
The Hollow Places is an atmospheric and horrifying portal fantasy, in which a 34 year-old divorcée finds a passage to another universe in her uncle’s Wonder Museum in rural North Carolina. The lead, Kara (affectionately known as “Carrot”), is genre-savvy and about as relatable as they come–at least for me as a mid-30s reader who lived nearly a decade in North Carolina–a part-time graphic designer who invested too long in a bad relationship and who can’t seem to talk her older family members out of believing conspiracy theories. Will she be as relatable in ten years? Probably not. But in the early 2020s, she’s a character who could walk off the page and into a coffee shop and no one would even notice.
Because she’s genre-savvy, Kara doesn’t investigate the portal without the assistance of a friend, a 40 year-old gay barista who lives next door. But despite both of them taking measures to avoid finding themselves trapped in a horror plot, the world on the other side of the portal seems to thwart their every precaution, and they find themselves in a bizarre and unsettling world that is probably trying to kill them, and possibly worse.
I don’t tend to go in for a lot of gore or body horror, which is one of the reasons I don’t read much horror, but while there is certainly some of each present here, it feels like those elements are not present for their own sake but rather in service of creating an atmosphere of the terrifying and ineffable. I go in heavily for atmosphere in my portal fantasies, and the horrifying and ineffable serves just as well as the magical and wondrous. Kingfisher does punctuate the story with enough humor to break the tension, providing more relatable moments for the main characters while also keeping the atmosphere from getting unbearably thick.
There is one plot element that readers immediately recognize as integral to the plot, and given the genre-savvy bona fides of the main characters, it is disorienting to see them go so long without realizing its importance. And that was enough to pull me out of the story a couple times. But otherwise, there’s not much to criticize here. Each individual reader is going to have a different preference for the balance between atmospheric tension and moments of levity and relatability, and I might’ve preferred a hair more on the side of tension, but there’s plenty of both, and it’s all expertly done. I will absolutely be reading more Kingfisher, and likely more horror as well.
Recommended if you like: weird and terrifying portal fantasies with relatable leads.
Can I use it for Bingo? I’m not sure if I can fit it into my hard mode or sequel-themed cards, but it’s certainly First Person POV.
Overall rating: 16 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.