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…– “The White People,” Arthur Machen
The first thing I need to tell you about The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher (Hugo Award-winning author Ursula Vernon, writing pseudonymously) is that the dog lives. That’s not a spoiler, by the way – Mouse, our narrator and protagonist, will tell you this herself in the first chapter. She and Bongo, her sweet-natured, stupid hound, come out the other side of the story physically unharmed. That doesn’t make what you’re about to read any less terrifying.
The second thing I need to tell you about The Twisted Ones is that you don’t need to have read Arthur Machen’s 1904 horror short “The White People” in order to understand or enjoy it, but it does enrich the experience if you have. (You can read “The White People” for free via Project Gutenberg, by the by.) It’s a classic of the genre, and lays the groundwork for the events of Kingfisher’s novel.
The setup is thus: Mouse’s grandmother, a cruel and vindictive woman, has died. No one in the family is particularly upset about this, though it does leave the question of what to do with her house, which is hoarder-level cluttered. So Mouse volunteers to spend a few weeks at the house, clearing it out room by room with Bongo and her pickup truck. As you might be able to guess, the house is in the absolute middle of nowhere, North Carolina, with no cell service, no internet, and thick forest on all sides.
Mouse immediately realizes the job of clearing out the house is going to be much more difficult than she expected – she can’t even get into some of the rooms – so she retreats to the one clear space in the house: the bedroom belonging to her late step-grandfather, Frederick Cotgrave. But when she starts reading Cotgrave’s journal, things go from unpleasant to downright scary. When a walk in the woods turns into a disorienting sojourn on top of a hill that shouldn’t be there, amidst a field of stones that almost look like they’re moving, Mouse knows something is wrong. When she sees a vivisected deer carcass hung from a tree like a warning, she knows something is watching her. And when she sees a pale skeletal face staring in through her bedroom window, she knows she needs to get out. Now.
What’s remarkable about this book, for me, is that in addition to being incredibly creepy, there’s immense wit and charm at work, which is so refreshing – it’s so easy for writers to fall into the trap of thinking the only way to make a narrative scary is to be as grim as possible, 110% of the time. Mouse is terrified by the things in the woods and the tap-tap-tapping outside her grandmother’s house and by the possibility of any harm coming to Bongo, yes, but she’s also funny, sympathetic, and relatable. (Her muttered editorial notes on the style and grammar of Cotgrave’s journal are particularly funny.) And the cast of supporting characters lend real warmth and color, especially Foxy, Mouse’s neighbor, a sixtysomething hippie with a full face of makeup and a spine of steel.
I read two-thirds of The Twisted Ones over the course of a single evening, staying up past midnight because it’s the first book in ages that has had me too scared to stop reading, and then I finished it the next day after work. Kingfisher has a remarkable clarity of voice and that too-rare natural storyteller’s ability to draw you in before you realize what’s happening. She’s written quite a few books for children and adults, but this is her first horror novel – I can only hope it won’t be her last.