Review: 'The Twisted Ones,' By T. Kingfisher T. Kingfisher's new novel, inspired by a classic horror tale, follows a woman who has to clean out her late grandmother's cluttered house — a seemingly simple task that quickly becomes sinister.
NPR logo Stories Within Stories Keep 'The Twisted Ones' Turning

Review

Book Reviews

Stories Within Stories Keep 'The Twisted Ones' Turning

"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." So goes one of the most chilling lines from "The White People" by Arthur Machen, a 1904 short story that H. P. Lovecraft considered one of the greatest horror tales ever written. It's no coincidence that the title of The Twisted Ones — the new book by Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author T. Kingfisher, who also writes under her real name, Ursula Vernon — appears in that quote. Although a contemporary horror novel, The Twisted Ones ties itself to Machen's legendary story in ways that are both ominous and ingenious.

The setup of The Twisted Ones is deceptively straightforward. Melissa, who goes by the nickname Mouse, arrives in rural North Carolina to put her late grandmother's house in order. She comes across a notebook that belonged to her deceased step-grandfather, a quiet man named Frederick Cotgrave whom Mouse never particularly bonded with when she was growing up. She becomes fascinated with him, however, as she reads deeper into the notebook. In its pages, a mystery begins to unfold, even as odd people and even odder apparitions start to converge on Mouse as if she were a magnet.

From there, The Twisted Ones grows more tangled. Cotgrave is one of the main characters of Machen's "The White People," which itself is composed of a book within a story — specifically a notebook called The Green Book, which is filled with the writing of a young, unnamed woman who experiences wild and disturbing flights of fancy in the Welsh countryside. In The Twisted Ones, Cotgrave is a real person rather than a fictional character, and his notebook contains clues to the young woman's notebook he read years ago, including chilling observations that link the rolling hollows of Wales with the hilly hollers of North Carolina.

Stories within stories within stories: It's a conceit that could easily turn into a mess in lesser hands. But Kingfisher pulls off her complicated construction with both ease and charm. There's a wry, Southern-droll sense of humor underpinning The Twisted Ones, especially as Mouse — a book editor by trade — begins to deconstruct Cotgrave's text. It all unspools on the page, and it's a testament to Kingfisher's skill that an entire two chapters of literary examination and annotation are enough to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Kingfisher's literary juggling act is more than just a show of effortless virtuosity. Machen's views on philosophy, theology, science, sin, and superstition are on full display in "The White People," and The Twisted Ones toys with the many ways these topics have evolved over the past century — and how they haven't. Laden with cosmic fright, The Twisted Ones connects the foreboding of ancient folklore with the horrors of modern life. But it does so with a sharp, witty voice and a compelling first-person protagonist who finds herself precariously straddling worlds she never knew existed.

Do you have to be familiar with Machen's "The White People" to enjoy Kingfisher's The Twisted Ones? Not necessarily — but the latter will resonate a lot more deeply if you are. While The Twisted Ones does indeed stand alone as a wrenching, grotesque, charmingly eerie folk-horror yarn, there are Easter eggs, winking references, and atmospheric subtexts galore for those who take the time to indulge and immerse themselves in both tales. And in any case, what's wrong with a novel that comes with a little supplementary reading assignment, especially when said assignment comprises one of the greatest horror stories of all time?

Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the new book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded. He's on Twitter: @jason_m_heller