Recent reading: The Twisted Ones by T Kingfisher

Okay, so, it’s not like I’ve read through the entire backlist available for T Kingfisher / Ursula Vernon. I’ve got several of hers on my TBR pile and a vague notion she’s got a lot of others out there. But I’ve really enjoyed all of her books or stories that I’ve read so far, so when I noticed The Twisted Ones, I was interested and also ready to trust her to write a horror story I could stand to read. I was in the mood for horror because hey, Halloween. I didn’t actually read this book in time for Halloween, but I think I might have ordered it on Halloween, so that counts, right?

So, The Twisted Ones.

When Mouse’s dad asks her to clean out her dead grandmother’s house, she says yes. After all, how bad could it be?

Answer: pretty bad. Grandma was a hoarder, and her house is stuffed with useless rubbish. That would be horrific enough, but there’s more—Mouse stumbles across her step-grandfather’s journal, which at first seems to be filled with nonsensical rants…until Mouse encounters some of the terrifying things he described for herself.

What I expected:

Good characterization. I didn’t expect a first-person narrative, but that’s what this story offers, and with a distinctive, engaging voice, too. Mouse is a freelance editor, by the way. On the second page she describes her job this way: “I turn decent books into decently readable books and hopeless books into hopeless books with better grammar.” I did laugh, yes.

This is a contemporary setting – apart from the dark fantasy / horror aspects — and Mouse sounds just right for a contemporary protagonist, but she is definitely not a cookie-cutter Modernday Plucky Female Protagonist or anything like that. She’s herself. I easily believed in her.

What I didn’t expect:

The dog. I don’t know why I didn’t expect the dog to be this important because I did see a review that assured me the dog didn’t die, but I thought the dog would be a minor character. Nope. He is quite central all the way through. When Ursula Vernon refers to her Hound on Twitter, I guess it’s a literal hound; that is, a scenthound and not “hound” being used as a generic term for “dog.” She sure knows hounds, and she brings this one to life.

In The Twisted Ones, Bongo is a redbone coonhound, and his name bothered me a bit because I know what color Bongo antelope are, but I also know what shape they are, and I kept feeling like a dog named Bongo might have a terribly roached back.

This is a bongo antelope. This is not the way a dog’s back should look.

If a dog’s roached back is extreme enough to remind you at all of a bongo’s back, that would be a dire fault with serious fitness consequences. I had to specifically stop myself at first and visualize a correctly structured redbone coonhound every time I saw his name. Like this one:

This is a really nice coonhound from Grand River Redbones. A grand champion, many other titles. I’m linking their site because I hope they don’t mind I borrowed their picture to illustrate this post. Now you have an image for the dog in The Twisted Ones, though that was an older male and this is a younger female.

Anyway, I did get used to the name eventually, but as a personal request, if any of you ever name a fictional dog, please do not name him after an antelope with seriously undoglike conformation. For example, “Klipspringer” would be a bad name in exactly the same way that “Bongo” is a bad name, plus of course a bit too long to spit out in a hurry if you are frantically calling for your dog to come back when he has jerked the leash out of your hand.

Well, yes, that was a digression.

So, despite his name, Bongo is a fantastic character and the relationship between him and Mouse is actually by far the most important relationship in the story, so if you are keeping an eye out for a book that doesn’t have even a trace of romance, here you go. Naturally I found this a highly appealing focus for a story. Also, if I hadn’t known the dog lived through the story, I might not have been able to tolerate the part where he gets lost in monster-haunted woods. I mean, this is actually a literal nightmare for me. Not the monster-haunted part, obviously, but the lost in the woods part. The fear of a dog getting out and lost is  both a (fortunately occasional) nightmare and a source of a constant low-grade paranoia during my waking hours. Losing a dog is about the worst thing ever, as far as I’m concerned – and as far as Mouse is concerned, too. Why do you stay in a terrible house surrounded by monster-haunted woods? Well, because your dog is out there in the woods and he might come back, so obviously you can’t leave.

What I expected:

Clever plotting.

What I didn’t expect:

Such great reasons for the protagonist not to run away like a bunny, the way any sensible person obviously would. At first Mouse doesn’t run away because her dog is so blasé about the house and not nervous about the woods and just does not seem weirded out (most of the time). I loved this. The oh-so-sensitive psychic dog is kind of a cliché. Bongo is not one bit like that. Eerie supernatural things have to really whap him upside the head before he notices them.

Then, when things get scary, Mouse would very much love to run away like a very fast bunny, but she can’t, because Bongo is lost in the woods. And then there’s another great reason for her to stay even after he reappears. T Kingfisher makes those decisions almost believable, though I don’t know about that last part, I might have said – probably would have said – the hell with this, my dog and I are outa here.

What I expected:

A gothic-ish horror novel with good atmosphere, without too much death and gore, and with the good guys coming out all right at the end of some clever plotting. This just seemed pretty likely given the other books I’ve read by T Kingfisher / Ursula Vernon.

What I didn’t expect:

This is really more dark fantasy than horror.

There’s this neat creepy passage, central to the story and often repeated, which I will now share with you:

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.

There, that is genuinely creepy, especially the way it gets into Mouse’s mind. I like poems and stuff in fantasy novels and this may not be a poem, but it is the same basic idea. It was used very effectively to provide an eerie feel to a setting that seems mostly normal at first.

The plotting is indeed pretty clever. No surprises there.

What carries the book:

Mouse, Bongo, and a handful of well-drawn secondary characters. Very nice writing. A brisk pace that neither lags nor rushes. Tension, but not tension that is wound up so tight you can’t stand it. Knowing from the start that the protagonist and her dog are all right at the end reduces the tension to just about the ideal level as far as I’m concerned. I don’t like horror that is too horrific. This isn’t. As I said, it’s perhaps more dark fantasy than horror.

Who should read this book:

If you like a creepy, atmospheric, faerie-adjacent dark fantasy/horror story that isn’t very gory or too incredibly grim and doesn’t have a high body count, then here you go. If you also like dogs, especially scenthounds, then this is definitely a must-read. Anybody who loves Robin McKinley’s books, most particularly anyone who liked her Shadows, should absolutely read this book. The Twisted Ones also did remind me of Sunshine, but this is a smaller, more intimate story. The world beyond the immediate setting is basically ordinary and unimportant; the cast is smaller, with fewer important secondary characters; there is no broad slow-motion war between Evil Supernatural Creatures and the rest of us; none of that. But the style is not dissimilar, Mouse has very much the feel of one of McKinley’s protagonists, and of course there is the dog.

I haven’t been keeping track of the books I’ve read this year – a ton of re-reads and relatively few new-to-me books – but if I had, this would wind up near the top. Highly recommended.

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6 thoughts on “Recent reading: <em>The Twisted Ones</em> by T Kingfisher”

  1. I am oddly charmed by the idea of a dog in a dark fantasy novel with no sensitivity to the supernatural at all.

  2. So was I … of course!

    I have this one in paper, so if you’d like to borrow it, I can bring it with me to Chicago in a couple of weeks.

  3. I just finished this book this week, and actually thought to myself at one point “I wonder if Rachel likes this dog,” because it did seem to me an excellent depiction of a thoroughly dog-like dog, with a nose much more powerful than his brain. And you do!

    I also found the twisted ones incantation particularly creepy — it was running through my mind when I got ready for bed that night, and I might’ve had to look behind the shower curtain just to make SURE no effigies were lurking there. But I stayed up late enough to finish the book, and everything turned out okay enough that I didn’t have nightmares! So thoroughly satisfying as a horror/dark fantasy read, I’d say.

    I saw in the afterword that the core idea was a retelling of a Lovecraft story — it’s one I’m not familiar with, and I thought the story was perfectly strong on its own without any need for context.

  4. Mary Beth, I agree, no need to relate this story to anything else — it works great on its own.

    Yep, great dog. Scenthounds aren’t my favorite group, but I now have a very soft spot for this particular coonhound.

    If I’d hear anything go tap — tap tap — tock — tap any time soon, I will certainly look quickly around for an effigy!

  5. “The Twisted Ones” is actually drawn from a collection of horror stories by the author Arthur Machen-specifically the story “The White People”. That’s where the “…I twisted myself about like the twisted ones…” quote comes from, as well as the character of Cotgrave. I read an article that claimed that H.P. Lovecraft considered that story (or maybe the collection of 4) by Machen to be the most frightening work of horror he’d read. It’s truly terrifying in a less-is-more way that the older gothic horror tales seem to have. I think it would enhance Kingfisher’s novel-hers is based on that older story after all; it’s sets up a rich, truly creepy backstory.

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