This is not a spoiler: the dog lives. We know this at the start. We also know that the narrator lives. Mouse, our intrepid heroine, is definitely worse for the wear, but she’s still able to string sentences together. It is, after all, her profession: she’s a freelance editor. Which is partially to blame for all that follows: because freelance editors are not known for their limitless cash flow, Mouse agrees clear out her not-so-dearly departed grandmother’s house in order to split the sale with her father. Unfortunately, she comes to find that her grandmother was a hoarder. In the process of clearing out years of junk, she discovers her step-grandfather (her grandmother’s second husband) had a cache of his own. Only instead of old newspapers and china dolls, he had secrets: a complicated past with occult investigation, and with the entities he stumbled upon. Entities he calls “the twisted ones,” which Mouse is soon to encounter in this horror tour de force by T. Kingfisher.
This is a “found document” horror à la Lovecraft, with multiple layers of text nested in the narrative. There’s Mouse’s story, which she is writing in the present about events that she experienced before, including finding a journal and manuscript from her deceased grandfather, who was himself writing about an earlier document produced by a strange young woman in Wales, which he encountered in his youth. Each successive layer loses a bit of context, building maddening clues into huge swaths of speculation, ignorance, and ambiguous experiences. The balance of knowledge to guesswork to the genuine unknown is just right, full of tantalizing clues and reasonable leaps of logic, but also enough WTF-ery to make the normal world seem far, far away.
Though this is definitely cosmic horror, T. Kingfisher has taken some notes from the Stephen King school of writing. First, she doesn’t try to conceal information from the reader. We know the dog lives; we know a lot of other things, too, just as the narrator does. So when Mouse is afraid, or speculating, or upset, we believe her.
It helps that Mouse is generally a wonderful narrator and heroine, a normal person with normal responses I could genuinely identify with. She never did anything horror-movie stupid like split up from her companions or pretend she was some kind of ex-special forces juggernaut. She was also funny, not in the quippy way that makes for good movie taglines, but in a very human way, with plenty of snark at herself as much as the world. Infusing humor into horror is a delicate task: too much and the story won’t be as scary, but too little and the tension might overwhelm. Kingfisher gets it just right.
The secondary characters are also delightful in every particular, from Enid the helpful goth barista to Foxy, who dresses like a 90s scene kid, feeds everyone like an Italian grandmother, and is more prepared for danger than your crazy uncle who lives in the woods. Well, Foxy lives in the woods, too, but on a kind of commune across the way from Mouse’s grandmother’s house. Foxy is a local, and she knows a bit about the legends that surround the area. But until Mouse goes hunting around for answers, even Foxy doesn’t know the extent to which the area is mired in horrors.
There are a number of great scares and chilling entities throughout The Twisted Ones, but my favorite is truly innovative monster that I won’t spoil except to say that it had me completely frozen in place, except for the single finger with which I tremblingly turned the pages. It’s a masterpiece of creepiness, reminiscent of True Detective (season one) and a perfect amalgam of Southern Gothic and Lovecraftian horror.
T. Kingfisher isn’t typically a horror writer, but I’m so glad she made this foray into the genre. There are some first-rate frights and some deep unease to be savored here, and just some excellent writing besides. If you only read one book this Halloween season, it should be The Twisted Ones.