Michael Shipman, the main character of Dan Wells’ newest novel The Hollow City, suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and lives with horrible hallucinations and delusions. He is convinced that Faceless men are following him everywhere. They can monitor him through any electronic device: televisions, mobile phones, even alarm clocks. It’s all part of a Plan that’s been going on for years. Michael doesn’t take the medication his personal psychiatrist prescribes because he isn’t convinced that the doctor isn’t part of the Faceless men’s Plan himself.
But then Michael wakes up in a hospital, with only scattered fragments of the past two weeks’ worth of memories. He soon learns that, in that time, several people have been murdered by a serial killer called the Red Line killer, whose macabre calling card is the way he leaves his victims: he removes all the skin on their faces, making them… Faceless.
So begins The Hollow City, the newest novel by Dan Wells, who seems to be on an incredible run of productivity after his well-received trilogy about teenage sociopath John Cleaver (read Britt Mandelo’s review of the first novel I Am Not a Serial Killer here) and Partials, the post-apocalyptic novel (released just a few months ago) about the remnants of the human race huddling together on Long Island in a desperate attempt to stave off extinction. Together with his “farcical vampire novel” A Night of Blacker Darkness (written under pseudonym) and now The Hollow City, that’s six novels in about three years. Even though the tone of the average Dan Wells novel is obviously a bit darker, he seems to maintain a level of production reminiscent of fellow Utah native Brandon Sanderson. (Is it something in the water there in Utah? And if so, can we bottle and ship some to a few authors?)
One of the most interesting aspects of The Hollow City is that, if not for its prologue, most of it wouldn’t feel like a speculative novel at all. More than two thirds of the story focuses on Michael’s life in the mental institution he’s confined to and the painful struggles within his own damaged psyche. It’s gripping reading, but there’s not much SF or fantasy about it. However, the prologue (which you can read here in its entirety) shows two FBI agents looking for clues after one of the Red Line killer’s murders, and this section offers a solid indication that there’s more going on than meets the eye.
After the prologue, we’re confined to Michael Shipman’s tight first person, present tense narration for the rest of the novel. In other words, 95% of The Hollow City is narrated by a paranoid schizoprenic, convincingly I might add, in his own voice. This leads to some heart-rending scenes showing Michael’s inability to control his own fate once he’s confined in the psychiatric system. Despite being a bit heavy on psychology jargon early on and a few dialogues that sound like lectures, the novel delivers an intense, even visceral reading experience: Michael is powerless, pleading for freedom while locked in his own damaged mind. Eventually even he begins to doubt his sanity, adding a whole new spin to the concept of the “unreliable narrator.” Maybe even worse, he eventually turns into a numb wreck due to the various medications he’s forced to take:
“I sit in the commons room, waiting for Lucy, watching the patients and the nurses and the doctors and wondering who they are. I watch them walk around, all stiff limbs and floppy joints and bodies so solid they block the world right out. I’m surrounded by water and meat, by dead hair and slow, shuffling circuits. I listen to them talk and the words make no sense: tile. Tile tile tile tile tile. Words lose all meaning. I wonder how these creatures communicate at all.
And then I’m back, and I wonder what it was that bothered me so much.”
Despite the tight first person narration, the novel manages to convey both angles: Michael’s crazy thoughts make perfect sense to him but sound completely insane to everyone else. It’s hard to convey how uncomfortable it is to read some of these sections. Michael washes with cold water because he’s convinced They filled the hot water tank with cyanide. He pours water on his alarm clock so They can’t use it to monitor him. He has conversations with people who may or may not be imaginary. Sometimes you don’t know. Sometimes he doesn’t know. It makes you pity him as well as sympathize with him—and when the novel finally turns the corner and shows what’s really going on, it’s doubly poignant.
As for the ending: I’m sure it’ll have its fans and detractors. Some of it you may see coming from a mile away, given some details of Michael’s history that are mentioned throughout the novel. Other parts are so wonderful and, well, weird that I was genuinely surprised. My main issue was that it all wraps up too quickly: the buildup takes up a huge chunk of the novel, and even though most of it is great, it’s occasionally still a bit repetitive. This is followed by an ending that crams everything into just a few chapters. It feels rushed. It’s hard to go into detail without giving spoilers, so I’ll just say that I would have liked to learn much more about the amazing revelations in that final section, while some of the early and middle chapters could have been tightened up a bit.
Still, that doesn’t take away from the fact that Dan Wells has delivered a highly compulsive read. I ended up reading most of this novel in one sitting, simply because Michael’s uncomfortable narration was so gripping. In the end, despite some qualms, the novel is a winner because Michael Shipman is a character I’ll never forget. The Hollow City was my first novel by Dan Wells, but it definitely won’t be my last.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on July 3rd, 2012.