A dozen years ago my mother flew to California to help my grandma pack up her tiny apartment and move into an assisted living home. Now, my grandma wasn’t the classic definition of a hoarder. There were no precarious stacks of yellowed newspapers or National Geographic magazines going back to the 1940s lying around. Grandma Flower was more of a pack rat: squirreling away slips of paper she’d scribbled on or pretty papers that caught her fancy, even if she never looked at them again.
During the visit, my mom and grandma sat on the couch watching television. My mom studied my grandma as she ripped a piece of Kleenex into tiny pieces and shoved them down the side of the couch. “Hey mom, why are you doing that, why are you tucking pieces of Kleenex into the sides of the couch?” My mom asked gently. Bewildered (and no doubt embarrassed about someone witnessing her little ritual) my grandma spat out “I just don’t know, Linda!” Now my brother and I yell it at each other when we catch each other doing something downright goofy.
In T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones, Mouse’s aging father asks her to clear out her deceased grandmother’s home in rural North Carolina. Mouse thinks, why not? She’s a freelance editor and can work anywhere. Plus, her father said whatever the house sells for she can keep. Mouse and her hound dog Bongo head to North Carolina. How bad could the old woman’s place be since the last two years of her life were spent in a retirement home?
Turns out, pretty damn bad. The house is crammed with the junk of a long life; a house of nonsense collections of items her grandmother couldn’t throw out. Had her grandmother been a kind and warm person, the task might have been a terrible emotional war, but Mouse’s grandmother was nothing but mean with a cruel streak ten miles wide. Instead of taking only a few days, Mouse realizes it’s going to take weeks to clear the house out, especially when she finds a room dedicated solely to her grandma’s creepy doll collection.
She picks out the most livable looking room to stay in and finds a journal written by her step-grandfather. She barely remembers the man. He was mostly a quiet person who read the newspaper all day. As Mouse reads through the journal, she starts to wonder if he had been in the active stages of dementia. He mentions marrying Mouse’s grandmother because ‘They’ steer clear of her. There was something about her that ‘They’ despised and avoided.
He mentions his birthplace in Wales and wonders if ‘They’ crossed the ocean with him. Because really, the old gods and creatures, whose only joy lies within darkness, like to follow humans wherever they go. They’re like ancient pop stars who fear being left behind and made irrelevant. Cotgrave, her step-grandfather, had a mantra he repeated to himself to keep ‘Them’ away: I made faces like the faces in the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones.
Mouse finds the sing-song chant creepy but chalks it up to an old man whose mind was beginning to sour. In the following days making trips to the dump (bye bye terrifying dolls) the chant begins to roam through her mind more and more. One night she’s awoken by her dog Bongo who is growling at the window. Mouse looks out to see deer crossing the front lawn except one of them seems disfigured, its legs bent at odd angles. Pretty weird but nothing to be afraid of.
Taking a break from cleaning one afternoon, she takes Bongo for a walk in the woods. The house itself is out in the boonies with a couple of neighbors down the road. Mouse and Bongo follow a trail only to discover something grotesque hanging from a tree. It looks like a deer, but the skull is upside down and pieces of it seem to be held together with wires and strips of cloth. Is it alive in that tree and watching her? It makes a clicking sound: rocks hanging in its chest knock against rib bones, like wind chimes from the deepest reaches of hell.
Mouse and Bongo almost break a land speed record running back to the house. After a fright, humans are good at rationalization, our brains making excuses for what has been seen. But that night she’s woken again by Bongo’s growl. The thing she saw hanging from a tree is at her window and looking at her. There’s no explaining that one. Mouse fears she might be losing her mind.
She’s made friends with people down the road, people her grandmother labeled sneeringly as hippies. Foxy is head of the household, a woman in her late fifties and far from a hippie. More like Annie Oakley, target shooting over her shoulder using only a mirror. Mouse tells her everything that’s been happening and Foxy’s not surprised. She says there has always been spooky happenings in the woods and even more remote places. People don’t talk about it much and treat it like a biting insect: if we don’t bother it, it won’t bother us.
Not really relieved to hear that otherworldly creatures exist and people just accept it, Mouse is ready to pack up her dog and go back home. Her father gave her an easy out. If cleaning out the house was unimaginable, then it could be bulldozed and the land cleared. But before Mouse can make her getaway, Bongo disappears. There’s no way Mouse will leave without him. Foxy invites herself along on the search, because what lies on the edge of their known world is a different and uninviting world.
This was a unique book that brought old customs and beliefs into this century, along with a compulsively relatable friendship between a woman and her dog. Great. Now I can’t see a deer without imaging its skull pressed against my window, watching me. I’d better twist myself about like the twisted ones. Maybe that will help.