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The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher4 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsA cabin in the woods. That’s how so many tales of terror begin. A remote location in which the peace and calm of nature plays host to dark secrets and nightmarish evils. But horror is a genre that enjoys reinventing and recontextualizing its tropes, and The Twisted Ones is a wonderfully twisty story that takes us on a journey far beyond what the setup might lead us to expect.

For one thing, the novel — written by Ursula Vernon under her pseudonym T. Kingfisher — is an homage/sequel to a genuine horror classic, the 1904 story “The White People” by Arthur Machen. Machen’s story — which you do not have to have read in order to enjoy this book (but you can if you like) — describes a young girl’s diary, called the Green Book, in which she relates a series of frightening encounters with sinister cultish activities deep in the Welsh countryside. Supposedly, if you can pronounce the names of any five Welsh towns correctly, you will in fact summon a demon. (← Joke.)

The Twisted Ones takes us to rural North Carolina, where Melissa — a thirty-something freelance editor who goes by the nickname Mouse — arrives with her very good dog Bongo at the cabin of her late grandmother, a hateful old shrew who became a bit of a hoarder late in life. Doing her best to tidy up the house in the forlorn hope the property might be saleable, Melissa digs up a musty notebook from her long-suffering step-grandfather, Frederick Cotgrove, whom readers of “The White People” will recognize as that story’s principal narrator. As in the Machen story, Cotgrove’s notes describe his discovery of the Green Book and the disturbing secrets it holds. There are clues that what happened in Wales may be linked to similar paranormal activity right there in North Carolina.

As we settle into Kingfisher’s easygoing narrative, we’re always alive to clues in the small details. Experienced horror readers will know that when we hear the strange knocking sounds of what may be a woodpecker deep among the trees, well, that’s no woodpecker.

Stories within stories are a difficult juggling act to pull off, but The Twisted Ones does it expertly, embedding Machen’s ideas into Kingfisher’s own mise-en-scène in such a way that it all feels like natural backstory. But an even more impressive feat is the way Kingfisher gives Melissa such a convincing first-person voice. She tells her story with abundant personality and a sense of humor that manages to steer well clear of the level of phony, performative snark that many lesser writers might have resorted to, and which would have robbed the entire tale of any suspense. As disturbing manifestations begin, Kingfisher never loses focus, and one or two moments are truly goosebump-inducing, mainly because we’ve followed Melissa so willingly into her adventure that when the shocks come, they have the power to hit us just as hard as they hit her.

But this is no mere haunted woods saga. As the sheer scope of what Melissa is truly faced with becomes apparent, The Twisted Ones grows into an epic of folk horror and dark fantasy that does Arthur Machen proud. Add to that some marvelous supporting players — like Foxy, the irresistibly salty hippie neighbor lady — who offer Melissa a sense of found family to make up for the real family she never felt connected to, so that she won’t have to endure what’s out there alone. The Twisted Ones is the ideal folkloric chiller to curl up with on a cold autumn night. Just as long as you can ignore all those little noises in the trees just outside your window.