Melissa (Mouse to her friends) is tasked with clearing out the North Carolina cottage that once belonged to her grandmother, a woman known for her cruelty to all those around her – including her husband Cotgrave, Mouse’s “step-grandfather”. Once Mouse temporarily moves into the woodland cottage, her main companions are her dog Bongo and her memories of her grandparents: warm recollections of Cotgrave, and altogether more bitter memories of her grandmother.
Mouse’s grandmother was a dedicated hoarder, and so the house is filled with oddities and curiosities that range from dolls resembling dead babies to enigmatic old books. One of the strangest objects that Mouse comes across is a journal kept by Cotgrave, filled with arcane statements, one of which is repeated over and over again: “I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones.” From here, Mouse learns that her kindly old step-grandfather had problems that went beyond his choice of wife.
Then, while exploring the surrounding countryside, she reaches a bizarre place that seems to have no geographic connection with the rest of the area. It is here that Mouse finds an array of large stones carved into weird images:
The carved face glared at me. It had bulging eyes and an almost nonexistent nose. Its lower lip was pulled down to reveal broad, flat teeth that went most of the way to the ears. It wasn’t the most pleasant thing I’ve ever seen.
All the carvings were like that. They weren’t all faces. Some of them were animals, like the deer-stone, but even the animals were messed up. Their hind legs curled up into their bellies and over their backs, or their mouths were open like they were screaming or panting or laughing. They were elongated and earless, like snakes.
A couple had swollen bellies and long breasts that wrapped around their bodies like their legs. I put an involuntary arm across my chest. It was painful just to look at that.
There is a connection between these stones and the fate of Cotgrave, but before she can find more clues, Mouse must recover a second manuscript left by her grandfather somewhere in the cluttered old cottage. During her investigations she makes three new friends – Tomas, Foxy and Slip – all of whom end up embroiled in the strange saga of the otherworldly beings known as the twisted ones.
Written by Ursula Vernon under her adult-fiction pseudonym of T. Kingfisher, The Twisted Ones is a modern sequel to a classic piece of weird fiction: Arthur Machen’s 1904 short story “The White People”.
Machen’s tale opens with a framing scene in which Cotgrave – the same character appropriated by The Twisted Ones as Mouse’s step-grandfather – visits an eccentric recluse named Ambrose, the latter giving him a small green book. This was written by a teenage girl with a history of strange experiences: she describes seeing white faces while lying in her cradle as an infant, and hearing them talk to her, teaching her their language and describing the white hills, grass and trees of their homeland. At the age of five, her nurse took her into the woods where she caught sight of the otherworldly white people once more.
The main body of the narrative takes place when the unnamed girl is thirteen years old. While out walking in the country, she came to a strange area filled with curious stones that had a disturbing psychological effect on her:
I went on into the dreadful rocks. There were hundreds and hundreds of them. Some were like horrid grinning men; I could see their faces as if they would jump at me out of the stone, and catch hold of me, and drag me with them back into the rock, so that I should always be there. And there were other rocks that were like animals creeping, horrible animals, putting out their tongues, and others were like words that I could not say, and others like dead people lying on the grass.
I went on among them, though they frightened me, and my heart was full of wicked songs that they put into it; and I wanted to make faces and twist myself about in the way till at last I liked the rocks, and they didn’t frighten me any more. I sang the songs I thought of; songs full of words that must not be spoken or written down. Then I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones…
While narrating her own story, Machen’s protagonist recounts tales told to her by her nurse. One is about a girl who travels to a place with yellow flowers, green grass, and red and white stones, which she uses to make beautiful jewellery; her adornments win her the attention of the royal court and she marries a prince, only to be spirited away by a dark stranger who claims her as his own bride (remembering this tale, the author of the green book avoids taking any grass, flowers or stones home with her). The next story is about a hunter who pursues a white stag until he comes to a hill with a door; going through, he meets the queen of the fairies and marries her, only to eventually return to the mundane world.
More stories follow, all involving the central motif of a mysterious land populated by strange people. At the same time, the girl describes more memories of her childhood nurse, who emerges as the central supernatural character in the narrative – the White Rabbit to the narrator’s Alice. Often, these anecdotes involve the nurse exhibiting magical powers, which the girl interprets as her playing a game:
So she did all sorts of queer things with the little clay man, and I noticed she was all streaming with perspiration, though we had walked so slowly, and then she told me to ‘pay my respects,’ and I did everything she did because I liked her, and it was such an odd game. And she said that if one loved very much, the clay man was very good, if one did certain things with it, and if one hated very much, it was just as good, only one had to do different things, and we played with it a long time, and pretended all sorts of things. Nurse said her great-grandmother had told her all about these images, but what we did was no harm at all, only a game.
Machen concludes this narrative with the girl taking another trip to see the strange stones, this time noticing a depiction of two figures mentioned in one of her nurse’s stories (“in the story the two figures are called Adam and Eve, and only those who know the story understand what they mean”). She carries on exploring, and after performing a ritual that involves blindfolding herself and walking around three times, she gains access to the secret place of the white people. The final sentence in the green book is enigmatic: “The dark nymph, Alanna, came, and she turned the pool of water into a pool of fire…”
“The White People” then returns to the framing device of the conversation between Cotgrove and Ambrose. The girl went missing, Ambrose explains, and he found her lying dead on the ground “in the place she described with so much dread”. Next to her was a carved image, originally Roman but later adopted in the Middle Ages by “followers of a very old tradition” and “incorporated into the monstrous mythology of the Sabbath.” Ambrose’s reaction was to destroy the statue, the details of which are left undescribed.
Machen’s use of a nested-story structure is an important aspect of “The White People”. The girl who wrote the green book interprets the supernatural through fairy tales and childhood games, while Ambrose discusses it in in terms of alchemical initiations; either way, there is ample room left for the reader to imagine the exact nature of the white people, their mysterious realm and the fatal effect they had on the girl.
Amongst the readers to fill in the story’s gaps was H. P. Loveacraft, whose own fiction was influenced by the works of Arthur Machen. According to Lovecraft’s interpretation, “The White People” is a story of monstrous pregnancy, as he explained in a letter to an acquaintance (included in volume 3 of Lovecraft’s Selected Letters, published in 1971):
The image found in the woods was that of two entities locked in a monstrous & obscene embrace—from which, had they been living things, would have been born a Thing of non-human horror […] On account of a sympathetic action like that described in the prologue, the now-adolescent child—though without contact with any creative element—became pregnant with a Horror, to whose birth (knowing what she did of dark tradition) she could not look forward without a stark frenzy far beyond the fear of mere disgrace. Thus she killed herself. If she had not, a nameless hybrid abnormality of daemonic paternity would have been loosed upon the world.
“This kind of plot was what the 1890’s regarded as the acme of horror” observed Lovecraft, noting that Machen used similar themes in The Great God Pan and “The Novel of the Black Seal”.
The Twisted Ones incorporates the supernatural pregnancy interpretation of “The White People” into its plot. At one point Mouse dreams of an erotic encounter with one of the stones: “I saw the carvings and understood what they were supposed to be. I went up to the stone and pressed myself against it, wrapping my legs around it, trying to touch the stone as much as I could, cheek and breast and belly and thigh, and the stone was cold and no matter how closely I held it, I couldn’t warm it at all.” In a later passage we are told that none other than Ambrose – the eccentric recluse of Machen’s framing device – confirmed that the statue he destroyed depicted two copulating beings.
But ultimately, the novel is interested less in positing explanations for the mysteries at the centre of “The White People” and more in expanding upon the story structure used by Machen. “The White People” has Cotgrave describing the contents of the green book, in which the unnamed girl not only tells her own story but shares stories told by her nurse. The Twisted Ones takes this further: the contents of the green book are described across two separate manuscripts by Cotgrave – one written after his mind had become affected – and these are, in turn, presented to the reader via Mouse’s first-person narration. Each perspective to the story adds a new distorting lens through which we glimpse the supernatural forces at play.
Compared to the two Victorian gentlemen who act as hosts through “The White People” Mouse turns out to be a very different sort of narrator. She is a product of an era in which Cthulhu is readily available as a cuddly toy: a time in which the realm of the fantastic and the weird has, thanks to audio-visual mass media, been left as cluttered as the cottage of Mouse’s dead grandmother. When confronted with supernatural phenomena, Mouse’s intrigue is coated with a thick layer of sarcasm.
“Cotgrave had seen changelings in Wales?” she asks in one chapter. “Well, I’d never been, but it seemed like the sort of place you’d get them. Perhaps Welsh fairies stole children and confiscated their vowels.”
As well as snarky, Mouse is analytical – she is a professional editor, after all – and her running commentary on Cotgrave’s manuscripts (and, by extension, Machen’s “The White People”) serves to bridge the gap between turn-of-the-century weird fiction and its modern counterpart. Like many a reader of the present day when faced with vintage literature of the uncanny, she must overcome initial scepticism and a touch of seen-it-all-before jadedness before she can enter the right mindset to appreciate just how strange the story is.
For all of her snarkiness, Mouse’s observations are not necessarily light-hearted: after reading a description of the girl playing “a secret game with her nurse, she remarks that if I heard this from a modern narrator, I would have Child Protection Services on the line so fast it would have your head spin.” Her wry humour also serves as a coping mechanism. At various points in the story a sarcastic barb will come only after Mouse has a near-breakdown during a particularly tense moment of supernatural dread.
Other than Mouse and her modern perspective, the novel’s main addition to the mythos established by Arthur Machen is the “poppets”: weird animated effigies made from animal bones, ragged cloth, stones and other detritus. Once the allure of the mysterious stones has worn off, the poppets become the central image of the novel – and a most appropriate image they are.
As well as echoing Machen’s references to magical clay dolls, they tap into themes found throughout The Twisted Ones of clutter and the hoarding of strange objects. Their strung-together nature is also appropriate for a novel that takes a tale of Welsh fairies and relocates it to a landscape of rural American folklore. Above all, they are imitations – distorted representations –ultimately constructed by the still-elusive supernatural force behind both “The White People” and The Twisted Ones. What monster could be more fitting for a mythos that layers one subjective viewpoint upon another, the reality always just out of reach?
As a full-length novel, of course, The Twisted Ones faces an issue that was less of a problem for Machen when writing his original short story: how to keep the atmosphere of weirdness sustained. The novel eventually reaches a point at which much of the mystery has dissipated and the main concern is for Mouse – who remains as sarcastic as ever – to survive her ordeal with the animated effigies. This is where just about any resemblance to Machen’s story has faded, and the novel enters the realm of modern bizarro fiction: the weirdness and horror are still present, but so is comedy and even cartoonishness, these elements all so thoroughly mixed together that it is hard to see where one ends and the other begins.
Yet while The Twisted Ones is not a novel that Arthur Machen himself would have written, it never betrays its source material. It celebrates a classic of weird fiction, re-interpreting Machen’s work for a new era without purporting to offer the last word. Perspectives change, the novel shows us, but the stories remain.
Call them the twisted ones, call them the white people – whatever name we use, they still haunt the hills of our imagination