The Twisted Ones: Nostalgia and Repetition in the Heart of the Woods
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
I've just finished reading T. Kingfisher's buzzy horror novel The Twisted Ones. Plenty of reviewers have called it terrifying, which is fair - some sections were so frightening I physically recoiled - although it could maybe have done with a tighter edit.
It's the rare example of a book that's at best 'above average' being redeemed by a few sequences so good as to leave the reader feeling deeply satisfied. I enjoyed it enormously, although when I recommend it, it'll always be with some caveats about the style.
At the novel's heart lies a brilliantly conceived image - the significance of which I'm going to discuss below, so be warned that SPOILERS FOLLOW.
Towards the end of The Twisted Ones, when its mysteries have nearly all been revealed, the narrator sees a sight that fills her with horror:
The pit was filled with material, a mound of junk, of twigs and bone and discarded wire, skulls and pebbles, feathers and dead leaves. And it was alive. The surface rippled like a pregnant animal’s sides, heaving with contractions. Effigies picked their way across the mound like water bugs skating on the surface of a pond, tugging bits loose, binding them together. I watched two creatures like praying mantises with cow skulls for heads, working on a pile of clay that moved and squirmed under their claws, as they wrenched it into a shape I couldn’t begin to fathom, then jabbed sticks into it, sticks and stones and broken bones, while it writhed in what looked like pain. We’d wondered who made them, and suddenly it was obvious. They were making themselves.
It's a description of a world endlessly remaking itself: when Kingfisher reveals this process, it's as though she's pulling back a Lovecraftian veil. She wants us to be horrified by this process - the twisted ones are warped, deformed, at best a poor simulacrum of reality - but the image is doubly powerful as a vision of our banal modern world.
I was reminded of Mark Fisher's comments on Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men, where he argued "the theme of sterility must be read metaphorically, as the displacement of another kind of anxiety." Fisher sees the movie as an image of a world without a future: there will be no more children, no value in creating anything new, so humanity is doomed to reuse what came before, gradually repurposing objects until they wear away, almost exactly like the effigies above. Fisher would have liked The Twisted Ones, I think, for its reflection on "how long a culture can persist without the new" - the perils of living in a world of perpetual nostalgia, resurfacing things from our history with no hope of anything new.
Sadly, Kingfisher doesn't give much in the way of solutions: the novel ends with her characters escaping their Lovecraftian captors, returning to the real world and killing the remaining effigies (built out of pieces of her grandmother's house, no less). But doing so solves almost nothing - the memory of their experience will still remain, and the effigies are still out there somewhere, beyond the tunnel in the woods, waiting.
In its conclusion, The Twisted Ones proposes sealing off the route to nostalgia, burning down the remnants of your old life. Starting over. Doing so is impossible: in our current system, we can't escape the artefacts that define us, the stuff we've accumulated on the way. Arguably the only solution is to craft our own effigies, rather than letting them construct themselves.
Because those artefacts are already defining us: each of them comes with connotations baked in, identity labels carefully crafted by marketers. True, we can identify those for ourselves and repurpose them, or else reclaim them for a different goal. But doing so requires a change of perspective - a creative mindset rather than a survival one.