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… Continue reading