Review: The Hollow City, by Dan Wells

>>Published: July 2012

“How much do you know about me?” I demand. “What’s really going on here?”

“I…,” she stumbles over her words, brow furrowed in confusion. “I don’t know anything, why? Are you a member of the Children?”

“The Children of the Earth are a murder cult,” I say. “They kidnapped my mother while she was pregnant, and when I was born they killed her. I wouldn’t associate with them for anything. I’d kill them first.”

Her face goes white. “You did not just say that.”

“What do the Children of the Earth have to do with the Red Line Killer?”

She sucks in a breath. “Almost all of the victims have been members.”

I curse.

“Someone is hunting down the Children of the Earth and cutting off their faces,” she says. “Someone who hates them as much as you do.”

***

Michael Shipman is a paranoid schizophrenic accused of being a serial killer in Dan Well’s newest work, The Hollow City. Suspected of being the cult member-mutilating Red Line Killer (a name that, once revealed, will give any hockey lover reason to grin), Michael is fighting to understand the nature of his illness, and, more importantly, the division between what is real in his life and what is fiction. With doctors, nurses, FBI agents, and faceless men and women stalking him, tormenting him, and threatening his very existence, Michael is backed into a series of corners with an ever-increasing dosage of medication tight-roping his mind between clarity—seeing the hallucinations for what they are and learning to parse them from the physical world—and confusion.

Told from the first-person, Wells does an admirable job placing the reader in a mind not entirely whole. Michael’s confusion isn’t played for cheap tricks and slights of hand. Instead, Wells uses cascading tactics, layering the possibilities of Michael’s psychosis—are his reactions to cell phones and television signals psychosomatic? Or does he actually have something foreign implanted in his brain triggering vicious nosebleeds and violent outbursts whenever a cell phone so much as vibrates in his vicinity?—on top of one another to upset any sense of narrative stability. We keep guessing alongside him, not because of loose threads or unnecessary red herrings, but because, deprived of his medication and thwarted with repeated troublesome stimulus, Michael, too, is kept guessing. He is continuously unsure of even the antagonists in his life, as his mind works to both enforce and destroy the illusions it has crafted.

The Hollow City is a fast-paced mystery with an unconventional perspective that, more often than not, works. Michael is a great sympathetic character; his relationships—both real and hallucinatory—are tragic, their true natures unknowable and without ground to stand on. The further his layers of psychosis are peeled back, the more unfortunate his life becomes, until there is seemingly very little left to salvage.

Though thoroughly enjoyable, not everything is right and rosy in The Hollow City. While I won’t spoil anything here, I was somewhat disappointed by the final series of events. Michael remains an interesting character right until the end, but the reasons… the machinations behind his psychosis, felt too far removed from what had been previously established. As the story turns away from chemical imbalances in the brain to a straight-up science fiction/supernatural conclusion, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been cheated. While there are a few narrative hooks along the way to give purpose and premeditation to the Deus Ex Machina finale, the end result feels a bit too mundane and simplistic for all that came before. When all is said and done, the push and pull of Michael’s mental and emotional journey feels too readily abandoned for what amounts to an X-Files-style U-turn that, unfortunately, does not feel as if it has been earned.

I still recommend The Hollow City. My problems with its ending aside, Michael Shipman is an intriguing, original character, and Wells does an excellent job of constructing a narrative around Michael’s schizophrenia, offering a point-of-view not often seen. The Hollow City is a fun page-turner, perfect for the beach.

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