A stand-alone adult novel from author Dan Wells, The Hollow City is a thriller that thematically and tonally follows closely in the footsteps of Wells’ own I Am Not a Serial Killer trilogy, but branches off into new territory for the author in terms of content.
The Hollow City follows Michael Shipman, a man who wakes up in the hospital having lost two weeks of memory. He is quickly diagnosed with schizophrenia and moved to a psychiatric hospital, where he is stalked by monsters and the mysterious Faceless Men—literally, men without faces. All the while, the threat of a vicious serial killer known as the Red Line Killer hangs over his head—a serial killer that seems to have an agenda eerily similar to Michael’s own. Trapped within the psychiatric hospital, Michael soon becomes focused on unraveling the mysteries that surround him, but cannot rely on his own mind to tell him what is real and what is not.
Unreliable narration at its best
Upon reading The Hollow City, you will quickly learn to distrust viewpoint character Michael Shipman. Wells keeps the book’s narration down to a tight present tense first person viewpoint, taking great care to filter everything through Michael’s eyes. Michael sees things both natural and supernatural, with nothing to indicate what is real and what is not, often leaving the reader as disoriented as he is. Shipman’s unreliable narration is The Hollow City’s greatest strength, and often the only thing to keep the book’s momentum from grinding to a halt in the slower sections.
Michael’s paranoia is also strangely infectious, a testament to the strength of Wells’ writing in The Hollow City. Michael obsesses over electronic devices, which he believes are being used by the Faceless Men to monitor him at all times—he avoids TVs, dumps water on clocks to short them out, and panics at the sight of a cell phone. Before long, I found myself reading The Hollow City with the same sort of obsessiveness that Michael exhibited; I was scanning dialogue and passages of description, picking apart and analyzing each sentence and paragraph in a constant search for clues or subtle hints as to the truth behind Michael’s situation. In the end, The Hollow City didn’t turn out to be a book that was layered with that much complexity, but I still found this to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the reading experience.
A disappointing third act
With supernatural elements and an unreliable narrator forming the core of its story, it’s no surprise that The Hollow City lends itself to twists and turns. But when these twists and turns started coming into play in the third act, they shocked me—and not in a good way. They fit within the context of the story, but they quickly became so ludicrous that I nearly put the book down. After two acts of fascinating internal struggle for Michael Shipman, the transition is so jarring that I couldn’t help but get the feeling that Wells chose to abandon the subtlety of everything he had written up to that point simply for the sake of making his ending as wild and ridiculous as possible. Wells begins his book as one type of story and ends it as a completely different type, and nothing he writes in between warrants the change. The Hollow City’s final segment could have been powerful and completely appropriate at the end of a different book, but it simply didn’t line up with the rest of the story Wells was telling, and every aspect of the book suffers for it. I finished the book feeling cheated; I wanted the story that The Hollow City began as, not how it ended. This is a book that is unequivocally and unnecessarily broken by its third act, and the ending tainted my entire reading experience.
Why should you read this book?
Ending aside, there’s a lot to like about The Hollow City. The book’s first two acts are filled with an intense personal conflict and wonderful little moments where Wells’ maturation as a writer shows through. Putting aside my dislike of the third act, I do believe Wells should be commended for the boldness and ambition of a story that never feels like it should be bold or ambitious—at the very least, the ending is anything but generic. If you enjoyed Wells’ I Am Not a Serial Killer trilogy, I recommend considering The Hollow City.