April 2021

The Hollow Places

The other day I was looking for something dark and spooky to add to my TBR pile. I came across The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher. The cover was creepy and the blurb had a hell of a hook, but when I read that the story was inspired by Algernon Blackwood’s novella The Willows, I clicked the buy button.

And am I glad I did because The Hollow Places is nothing less than  a horror tour-de-force.

Like a lot of horror novels, this one opens with a woman in trouble, in this case thirty-something Kara, who is about to get divorced. When her quirky Uncle Earl  invites her to stay with him at his Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities, and Taxidermy, she accepts. Not long after, Kara discovers a portal in a wall leading to a nightmare world that can’t exist, but does. 

The story is told from Kara’s point of view, and I can’t recall when I’ve encountered a more relatable or likeable narrator. The other characters are equally engaging, and the imaginative plot reads a little like an LSD trip. But where Kingfisher excels is in her creation of atmosphere. 

The strange museum is a chicken-fried homage to the Cabinets of Curiosities from earlier days. With her loving descriptions of jackalope and taxidermied mice dressed like soldiers, Kingfisher brings the quirky museum alive–literally and figuratively.  But she really shines with her chilling portrayal of the nightmare world beyond the portal. All too often, horror writers fail to describe the Big Bad, but  Kingfisher delivers, including some very nasty bits that.

In the end credit, Kingfisher credits Algernon Blackwood’s novella The Willows as inspiration for her story. Curious, I went back and reread Blackwood’s tale. Despite the difference in tone–THP is infused with a snarky attitude that would have shocked Blackwood–it is a legitimate and worthy offspring to Blackwood’s nineteenth-century horror classic.

Each story creates a nightmare world that is both familiar and strange, which is the essence of the uncanny. Travelers in these dark realms learn that the world is neither safe nor sane, but a dangerous place where nightmares roam.  A place of terror, but also of wonder.

I loved it.

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Boston Marathon

Patriot’s Day, 2021

Boston Marathon

“Get going. Get up and walk if you have to, but finish the damned race.”

-Ron Hill to Jerome Drayton during the 1970 Boston Marathon

If it’s April, it must be Boston!

If this were a normal April, Boston would be getting ready for its annual marathon. New flash—this isn’t a normal April, and the race will be run in October instead of on Patriot’s Day. Even so, I’ve caught myself looking at photos of past marathons.

My husband Steve and I have gone to the Marathon many times—he as a runner and me as cheerleader. I have so many memories that they clump together like fistfuls of wet sand. Though there is one Boston Marathon that stands apart.

That year we stayed in a small cozy hotel on Beacon Street, within walking distance of the finish. As usual, Steve left in the predawn chill so that he and the other runners could be bussed to the starting point in Hopkinton.

In previous marathons, I would have amused myself for a few hours. One year I went to a baseball game at Fenway; another I walked Freedom Trail, past the Old North Church and the USS Constitution. When I was done sightseeing, I’d join the other spectators on Boylston Street to cheer my husband and the other racers home.

All work and no play?

On this particular marathon day, I was in my small hotel room, tapping away on my laptop. The copy edits to my first published novel Murder in Mystic Cove were due the next morning. Once I finished with the edits, I’d be able to enjoy the rest of my vacation, starting with hoisting a couple of brews at Doyle’s Irish Pub later than night.

Doyle’s Irish Pub

I finished my edits around 3 o’clock, which was also around the time my husband expected to finish. But before that, I needed coffee. I’d prefer Starbucks, but the complimentary hotel coffee was downstairs—and it was, you know, free.

The tired guy behind the front desk opened an eye and nodded. I nodded back and made a beeline for the urn, which had just enough coffee for a decent cup. I was squeezing out the dregs when a couple burst through the door like two refugees from War of the Worlds. The woman wore jeans and a jacket; the man cocooned inside a silver warming cloak used by the runners. I smiled in the way strangers do, but she was having none of that.

“There’s been an explosion—just now!”

“Whaaat?” the clerk asked.

Her words tumbled out. They’d been walking back to the hotel when something boomed, a deep-throated roar that roiled Boylston Street and beyond. “First one blast, then another! Someone said it was a bomb.”

“Where was it?” I asked, though I had a pretty clear idea where.

She glanced at her companion, who held his silence. “We didn’t see, but it had to be near the finish line. That’s the direction people are running from.“

People were running? I thought crazily.

The world seemed to drop away. From someplace far away, the clerk and the woman went back-and-forth. I took the stairs, coffee slurping over my hand. My mind a jumble of thought and raw emotion.

It was three o’clock—around the time when my husband expected to finish. So there was a more than even chance he’d been near the explosion. Was he hurt? Possibly. Was he worse than hurt? Also possible. Was I stranded alone in a city far from my home—my previous life amputated in one fell stroke?

In the room, I remembered that my husband’s cell was with his belongings. I tried the number. After several rings, the recording answered. “Shit,” I muttered, then told myself it was okay. Steve hadn’t picked up his bag yet, that’s all. I was about to dial again when the phone in my hand rang.

“It’s okay,” my husband said. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

With the sound of Steve’s voice, my own personal nightmare vanished. Yet with one tweak in the timeline, that bad day could have been much, much worse for my husband and I. As bad as it was for so many other. My husband was safe because he’d left the runner’s area just before the first bomb went off. And because of my deadline, I was also safe.

While I’d long thought of writing as a lifesaver, on this day, writing had literally saved my life.

So what’s the moral of my story?

Maybe that life turns on a dime. At some point, everybody’s ticket comes due, and nobody knows when that day will come. So what’s the use in stressing out? Just run your race to the finish, and don’t be too concerned about that dark shadow on your heels. He’ll catch up with you eventually.

And you’ll probably never even see him coming.

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