“T. KINGFISHER” (Ursula VERNON), The Twisted Ones, Titan Books/Titan Publishing Group Ltd., London, 2020.
Octavo; paperback; 405pp. Mild wear; covers a little rubbed; spine lightly creased. Very good.
When Ursula Vernon writes horror for grown-up readers, she does so under the pseudonym “T. Kingfisher”. This is my first encounter with her work, and I have to say that I’m quite impressed. This book is a helter-skelter ride: it begins with a rather engaging narrative based in the real world and then rapidly drags the reader on its wild hunt towards the conclusion. A colleague loaned me this book to read saying he “couldn’t put it down”; I have to say that I had the same experience.
Lovecraftian devotees might wonder what this work has to offer their particular niche of the horror genre. Well, hang on to your hats, because Lovecraft is the reason that this book exists in the first place. The author has taken Arthur Machen’s “The White People” and has written a sequel of sorts to that narrative, compelled by a remark lifted from Lovecraft’s copious correspondence to a friend about certain unspoken aspects of that initial work. Vernon observes that “books exist in dialogue with other books” in her Afterword and outlines how Lovecraft’s musings upon certain glossed-over aspects of Machen’s tale inspired her to create a new extension of the dialogue, from Machen to HPL to herself. And she has succeeded immensely.
Lovecraft always said that Machen was one of his ‘Precursor’ storytellers; those writers who inspired him to put pen to paper and who typified the sort of horror he was trying to create. I’ve always felt that – after reading Machen’s work myself – Lovecraft’s attempts to shoehorn aspects of Machen’s stories into his own work were a little forced. In “The Dunwich Horror”, Whateley notes that he has to wrestle with the Aklo tongue and that his incantations were “answered from the hills”; these are all concepts taken directly from Machen. Unfortunately, while they work in Machen’s pieces, they ring somewhat hollow in Lovecraft’s, coming off as a little contrived. Fortunately for the current piece, Vernon takes us back to Machen’s world and retails a narrative using its logic and rules – with the epistolary observations of Lovecraft worked in – and the whole sits much better as a result.
The novel involves the musings of Mouse, a free-lance editor and dog-owner, who faces the unlovely task of clearing-out her grandmother’s house after her death. The deceased woman was a harridan and a hoarder, and Mouse faces a Sisyphean task, along with the effort of trying to come to terms with her feelings about the woman and also the man who was her reluctant husband, Frederick Cotgrave. Cotgrave, it transpires, has more than a few secrets, most of which devolve from his having been born with the genetic stamp of the White People.
Mouse’s undertaking of the task, along with the maniac diversions of her dog Bongo and the various local people she encounters, help make the novel instantly appealing and absorbing. Before you know it, it’s 3.00am, and you still want to see what happens on the next page. I don’t really want to get into the substance of what happens here – any elaboration will involve spoilers – but take my word for it that this is captivating and ‘hooky’ writing at its best.
If I have a complaint, it’s that by the time we get hip-deep in the horror, we get treated to a lot of wisecracking internal monologue from the narrator, which undercuts the fearful revelations. There are some great, horribly disturbing moments to be experienced here, but all of them get cut off at the knees by the author’s need to make the narrator come out with some smart-aleck observational comment. I could have done without these and would have liked to wallow undistracted in the terrifying moment instead.
That’s a minor quibble on balance. As for the rest, if you’re a Machen fan, if you’re a Lovecraft fan, or if you like your horror of the swampy-Gothic kind, then this is a book for you. Just be prepared for a late night!
Four Tentacled Horrors.