Dan Wells instantly became one of my favorite authors with his quirky debut novel I Am Not A Serial Killer, and further established himself as a writer to respect with its sequels. After indulging a side-jaunt into post-apocalyptic territory with his Partials novel, Wells returns with The Hollow City. After the psychopathy of John Cleaver (of I Am Not A Serial Killer), this latest novel delves into the confused mind of a suffering schizophrenic. With the same touches of dark humor as have become associated with him, Wells introduces us to a engaging character, and through him, to unique narrative perspective. Coupled with conspiracy-thriller and science-fiction overtones, The Hollow City emerges as a stand-out novel.
Michael Shipman has paranoid schizophrenia; he suffers from hallucinations, delusions, and complex, horrific fantasies of persecution. They are as real to him as your peaceful life is to you. He is haunted by sounds and voices, stalked by faceless men, and endlessly pursued by something even deeper and darker--something he doesn't dare think about.The Hollow City kicks off with a brief introduction to the Red Line Killer – a mysterious, much wanted serial killer with a particularly gruesome methodology. Indeed, the Red Line Killer has been making headlines for his practice of surgically removing the face (skin + muscles) of his victims. FBI agents are on the case but can seem to find no credible suspect, that is until they hear of Michael, a long-depressed chronic paranoid who has been brought into the psych ward of a hospital remembering nothing of the last two weeks, and spouting what appears to be nonsense about ‘Faceless Men’. Exhibiting violent tendencies, he quickly falls onto the radar of the FBI agents charged with the Red Line case.
Soon the authorities are linking him to a string of gruesome serial killings, and naturally no one believes them himself. Hounded on every side, Michael contemplates a terrifying possibility: that some of the monsters he sees are real.
Who can you trust if you can't even trust yourself?
As he did in his John Cleaver books, Wells opts for a first person narration. It was John’s voice which really set Wells’ first series apart, due to the pervading uneasiness to being inside of a psychopath’s mind – and for the tendency for this to often be strangely comic. It’s easy to draw comparisons between John and Michael (though Michael is an older character), yet there are some significant differences between a psychopath and a schizophrenic, and Wells seems to have done his research. Providing context of the disease for the reader – and dispelling common misconceptions (split-personalities, we’re looking at you) – he builds a solid portrait of Michael and the difficulties incurred by his condition.
With his perception of events consistently twisted by his schizophrenia, not to mention the rampant hallucinations, Michael falls undoubtedly in the ‘unreliable narrator’ category. As such, Wells keeps us guessing at the validity of events that unfold – what is real and what isn’t becomes increasingly difficult to separate both for us and Michael. This type of storytelling is gripping, provoking a constant reflection and thought-process about the narrative which isn’t present in most novels.
By being first-hand witnesses to his ordeal, Wells makes us empathize with Michael while everyone around him dismisses him as crazy, or attempts to manipulate him ‘for his own good’. Because of this, The Hollow City is incredibly refreshing, a novel which attempts something a bit new. The mood is certainly dark as some elements of Michael’s condition are troubling, but there are always instances of spontaneous humor of a dark, sardonic sort.
As much as I would enjoy discussing the particularities of the plot beyond my brief introduction above, the nature of The Hollow City makes it difficult to do so without being over-spoilerish. It is enough to say that after Michael is entered into a psychiatric facility for treatment, he must learn to either accept and resolve the mysteries of his delusions, or accept that they are fabrications of his mind. Needless to say also Wells’ executes the story excellently.
Genre fans who also possess an affinity for the thriller-genre will definitely find something to like in The Hollow City, as will fans of the John Cleaver books. This is a novel very much in the same vein as those, though perhaps with the darker approach of an older audience in mind. Claustrophobic yet intriguing, this fast read should please many others also. Credit must go to Wells for his audacity and skill for broaching a complex and sensitive mental condition with enthusiasm and tact. The Hollow City has been available from Tor Books in both the US and UK since early July.
Dan Well's Website: http://www.thedanwells.com
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