Man, this book was a massive disappointment. I have a strange fascination with stories about serial killers, both real and fictional. I ate up the first two books in Dan Wells previous series, the John Cleaver trilogy–which revolved around a sociopathic teenager who is trying to suppress his murderous tendencies by hunting down an actual serial killer within his hometown. I also love stories with an unreliable narrator and how much more unreliable can we get than a paranoid schizophrenic who can’t differentiate between his hallucinations and reality? Needless to say, my expectations going into The Hollow City were pretty high.
Michael Shipman is a young man in his early twenties who police find on the side of the road, sitting in his own filth, sink faucets in his pockets and no clear memory as to what happened over the past two weeks. While at the hospital, it becomes apparent to the medical advisers that Michael is suffering from some kind of psychosis. He is paranoid to absurd levels, believing he doctors conspiring with agents as part of the Plan relating to him. They are trying to get at him through technology, through a person’s cell phone, through the medical equipment monitoring his heart rate, even though the desk clock. Faceless men are following him, agents of The Plan. Michael is diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic and sent to a psychiatric ward to receive treatment until such a time that he is lucid enough to answer police questions because, during the same time that Michael can’ remember, someone known as the Red Line Killer has been exacting a horrific murder spree cutting off people’s faces. Rendering them faceless men, if you will.
We started off great! The entire book is told from Michael’s perspective and we really get to go on a journey with him as he works through his psychosis. You’re just as confused as he is as to whether or not things he’s reacting to and people he’s interacting with are actually real. Is that reporter lady he’s talking to real? Well, she conveniently “hid” in the bathroom as soon as the doctors were returning. Was she actually there hiding or did Michael’s brain come up with a reasonable explanation as to why the doctors wouldn’t have seen her? What about Michael’s girlfriend? He’s apparently been in a relationship with her for about a year and would have met Michael’s dad but what if his brain is just making up past memories of her? And all the while there’s that nagging suspicion that Michael might actually be the Red Line Killer. He doesn’t want to be the killer, and is horrified by the crime scene photos but more evidence starts to cast doubt in his mind. The Red Line Killer removes the faces of his victims. Michael’s primary psychosis involves men whose faces are blurred out. All of the victims were somehow connected to a cult named the Children of the Earth. When Michael was a baby he was kidnapped by the cult and his mothered murdered by them, a clear revenge motive. As hard as he tried he cannot remember what he did in the two weeks the Red Line Killer was most active in, only vague memories of a “hollow city” empty and abandoned, come to him.
And so the majority of the book continues with Michael in the psychiatric hospital, working through his paranoid delusions one at a time. One of the highlights of the John Cleaver books was seeing John’s reactions to certain scenarios and you as the non-sociopathic (assumedly) reader recognizing his behavior and thought processes as unhealthy. John would be getting ready for a social outing and explaining away why he should carry knives with him. You completely understood his thought process but also understood its true purpose, that John was coming up with reasons to have knives simply because he enjoys hurting people. This same reader/character disconnect is present in The Hollow City, but with much less subtlety. Once identified, Michael’s hallucinations start outright talking about what is and isn’t real and how is brain might be interpreting different stimuli. It’s still engaging and interesting, but much less rewarding than in the John Cleaver books.
Unfortunately this is where I need to put up the spoiler warning. As my entire opinion of the book is heavily affected by the last 1/3rd, properly explaining my feelings requires me spoiling the entire ending of the book. If you want to stop here, know that the ending takes a dramatic shift in tone that came out of nowhere and left me very dissatisfied with the book. If you want to know why, keep reading…
It was aliens all along and Michael’s magical paranoid schizophrenic powers save the planet.
Oh, I’m sorry, are you wondering how we suddenly got to aliens? Well then, allow me to explain
So Michael is undergoing treatment and responding well. The hallucinations have stopped, he no longer thinks people are after him, he’s making progress with his phobia of technology, things are going great. The FBI agents start interviewing him more intensely about his possible connection to the Red Line Killer and I’m sitting over here thinking we’re going to move into a Memento style mystery trying to piece together who is the Red Line Killer, be it Michael or someone else. But then that night Michael is confronted by one of the faceless men again. Panicking, Michael kills him (turns out to be a janitor) and flees the psychiatric ward. Don’t bother asking how he got out, there was an explanation, it isn’t important. One of Michael’s doctors, Dr. Vanek, turns out not to be real. He tells a relapsing Michael that the faceless men are trying to help him and he needs to return to the Children of the Earth cult. Michael kills a drug dealer, interacts with his dad who’s always hated him, takes dad’s car. Cue police chase. Michael flees to the cult, who informs the police that if they want to continue their search for Michael, they’ll need a warrant. We then learn The Truth.
A long time ago, back before the dinosaurs roamed, there were these underground entities of immense wisdom. For millions of years said entities lived in peace with the surface dwellers until the 1950s when radio waves began traveling in the air and humans developed more and more technology. The emissions caused by technology hurts these entities, whom I’m just going to call aliens from here on out. Technology is killing the aliens. So the aliens come up to the surface and take over the minds and bodies of an Ambrose Vanek and his wife Ellie who found the Children of the Earth cult. Throughout the decades, members of the cult were brought to this pit and had the alien entities put inside them, but the aliens figured out that it’s much easier to imprint and take control of babies than it is adults. And so the main alien, going as Dr. Vanek comes up with a plan to start having the women of the cult pop out babies as fast as possible and imprinting onto them. Dr. Vanek is imprinted onto baby Michael, promising to return to the cult once he’s gained complete control (normally around early adolescence).
Unfortunately for the aliens, Michael turned out to have paranoid schizophrenia, making it near impossible for Dr. Vanek to gain full control. And so he’s been pretending to be Michael’s doctor, having him work through his pyschosis to further his own goals. But it doesn’t matter, the cult has poisoned the water supply and are planning on doing an invasion of the body snatchers on the whole world, eventually killing all humans and getting rid of technology. Michael, having taken control back from Dr. Vanek, jumps into the pit of alien minds and takes them all into his consciousness because his paranoid schizophrenia means that he is just more insane now. The world is saved the end!
This ending was bad and confusing on multiple levels. First of all, is the ending real? Maybe Michael just had an intense adverse reaction to the treatment and his hallucinations ramped up to 11? The whole “aliens and Michael is the only one to save the world” plot certainly plays into the level of self-importance his illness was giving him. But since this is all from Michael’s perspective, we as the reader have no clues to determine if the ending really did happen or not. If it didn’t happen, then what did? Michael certainly thinks it happened so that’s all the information the reader gets. Okay, what if it was real? If it is then I am very uncomfortable with the underlying message. Getting treatment literally made Michael more weak, as it let Dr. Vanek control him easier, embracing his illness made him special enough to save the world. His phobias of technology were real because the alien presence in him was in literal pain. People were after him the whole time, the FBI did have a file on him, all of his previously thought paranoid delusions were real and no one was listening to him. It at best seems enabling of unhealthy thinking processes and at worst implies that getting treatment for a mental illness is a bad course of action and your disease makes you special.
Oh, and the Red Line Killer ended up being his dad. No big deal.
My disdain for The Hollow City’s ending keeps growing with time. The more I think back on how little the ending worked the more frustrated I get. Dan Wells is a good author, and his John Cleaver books are evidence of that. I don’t like the feeling I get when I like an author but dislike one of their works. But I cannot recommend The Hollow City. There are plenty of better unreliable narrator with potential serial killer tendencies books out there. Ones that don’t boil it down to “Aliens!”
Artwork illustration done by Jen Koudelka