Dan Wells has been gradually making a name for himself as the author of dark and twisted fantasies. His debut trilogy of novels for young adults (parked in the adult section of my local public library, probably owing to the seemingly graphic subject matter) deals with a teenaged boy named John Wayne Cleaver (as American a name as they come) who is grappling with life as a potential sociopath. The title of the first book in the series? I Am Not a Serial Killer. I haven’t read that book, but it sounds to be something that is meant to be, at least one some level, deeply sensationalistic – the sort of thing that kids might gobble up (if they’re too young for Dexter) but adults would want to shield their offspring from for fear of turning them into maladjusted youth.
Well, Wells – who is turning out to be a prolific writer, as he now has at least five published novels (not counting an audio book) since 2010 – has turned his sights to a more adult one-off novel. It’s The Hollow City, and it is, in fact, a very headline-grabbing worthy book in that it deals with one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses out there – paranoid schizophrenia – and layers a somewhat supernatural suspense/serial killer story on top of it.
In a nutshell, The Hollow City centers around 20-year-old Michael Shipman, who, when we first met him, has been hospitalized for taking a bad fall after the police gave chase after finding him under an underpass. Shipman has no memory or recollection of what has happened to him in the previous two weeks. He does, however, harbor delusions and fantasies of being chased by men without faces who are out to kill him. He also harbours an extreme dislike of electronic devices, such as televisions and (especially) cell phones, convinced that they can get inside his mind and track him wherever he goes.
Naturally, all of these symptoms get him a schizophrenia diagnosis and a one-way ticket to the nearest psychiatric ward. However, what if Shipman’s delusions were actually real? What if someone, indeed, is out to poison him? (Shipman is found with a hot water faucet in his pocket, removed because he believed someone was lacing his water with cyanide.) Muddying the waters even further, there’s a serial killer on the loose who is killing members of a cult whom Shipman was a member of—as an infant. Could Shipman also be a revenge killer? After all, he is prone to fits of violence, usually whenever he’s threatened, so could he actually go over the edge and kill someone? Or multiple people for that matter? The police suspect this may be so. Or do they?
Let’s put it politely as possible: The Hollow City is not going to do for schizophrenia what Motherless Brooklyn did for Tourette’s – at least not on a literary level. The writing here is pure pulp, and the genre mined lies somewhere between horror, science fiction and the suspense thriller. On that level, the novel is a crackling read, at least for most of its page count, and readers may be glued to their seats, turning the pages, daring to finish the book in one or two sittings.
And there’s much to be taken in by, namely the thrills to be found by having a completely unreliable narrator trying to puzzle things out. Shipman is a bit of a dazzling creation: schizophrenia is a disease where people are typically demonized and treated with disdain or puzzlement by most that are unaffected by it, but he comes off as remarkably human and surprising affecting. You wind up siding with him, rooting for him, hoping that he’s able to figure his way out of his mess. A great deal of the novel’s suspense is derived from Shipman’s changing perspective, as he is placed on various medications and starts responding to them in different and somewhat dangerous ways. He also oscillates in the eyes of the police between murder suspect, potential witness and would-be victim and back again.
What’s more, the novel sets up a wonderful patient-psychiatrist dynamic: when Shipman describes one of his doctors as someone who “talks a little too slowly, his facial expression a little too broad, like he’s talking to a child,” it’s an honest and real feeling of disdain. If you know anyone who has had a bad experience with a particular psychiatrist in the past, who has viewed their patient as someone who is the deliberate source of their maladies, you’ll know that Wells nails the skewed power relationship between doctor and subject, and the feeling of helplessness that can overwhelm those who are merely trying to be treated. However, there’s also a touching moment where Shipman is forced to overcome his phobias when a councillor tries to get him to just sit in front of an unplugged TV. There’s a deft balance to be had here, for sure.
Still, as much as The Hollow City is an entertaining, enjoyable time killer, it unfortunately lapses into weak writing, plot holes you can fly a passenger jet through, and unanswered questions that are never truly resolved. The book is also, at times, very, incredibly, sophomorically silly. To give you an example of just how flimsy some of the narrative construction of the story is, consider the prologue. We’re introduced to two FBI agents, who go on to play a very minor role in the rest of the book’s plot, examining a murder victim at a crime scene. Upon seeing damage done to the body, one of the agents remarks, “Cool.” There’s a reason for this, which may seem valid to undiscerning readers, but most of us will groan and mutter, “Come on”, in great dismay at the interjection of the seemingly unrealistic dialogue. Any cop that makes a statement like that is bound to get suspended from the force for perceived insensitivity, or one would hope. Put another way: cops don’t talk like that about murder victims. Ever.
But then it gets worse and ridiculously even more unbelievable. When, a few pages later, the FBI agents wind up watching a surveillance video of the murder – of a chemical company warehouse janitor – something quite supernatural and unexpected happens: the killer gets knocked down by a crackle of lightning that comes out from his victim, who is fighting back. One of the Fibbies asks, “What was that?”, to which a security guard watching along with them candidly notes, “Obviously, it was a janitor shooting a serial killer with his mind.” Yeah. I wish I were only making this dialogue up. But I’m not.
There are other lapses. Shipman, at one point, makes an escape attempt from the psychiatric ward by being able to see someone punch in numbers onto a keypad by the door to the exit, and then replicates the sequence later on when no one’s around. I won’t tell you if Shipman succeeds in his escape or not, and I won’t go into having to bite my tongue with disbelief that someone so paranoid of electronics and gadgets would go near such a keypad (no matter how strong self preservation and the need to escape was weighing on the character), but you have to wonder, Did the author even try to visit a psychiatric hospital to do a little research? Does he not realize that there’s usually layer upon layer of security to prevent patients from getting out, and that there is probably no hospital for the mentally ill on the planet that would have a simple keypad that would allow access, when it would be so easy for someone to read the numbers over someone’s shoulder and potentially escape?
What’s more, and not to give anything away, the book’s ending is abrupt and a weird mutant cross between The X Files and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In actuality, it makes absolutely no sense. I felt that, for the last 50 or so pages of this novel, I was reading mere gobbledegook. The more I tried to care and figure out what was really happening to Shipman, the less and less coherent the narrative became. Which leads you to wonder, Did anyone actually edit this book, or force Wells to go back for more rewrites? It very much reads like a subconscious pre-draft – I’m not going to even call it a first draft.
This, alas, is the big disappointment with The Hollow City: the payoff is simply incomprehensible. Perhaps the effect was to have readers feel that they themselves were going crazy, and, if that was the case, Wells succeeded. It’s too bad, because – even with the plot lapses, along with the rather dumb dialogue – the book actually succeeds in creating a seemingly unlikable character who is acutally quite likeable, along with offering some really poignant moments and scenes.
Instead, what the reader is left with by the novel’s end is just a murk of a story that has some real howlers – the identity of the serial killer, for starters – and the feeling that this is just a squandered opportunity by a writer out to write a mere pot boiler in as little time as possible. The Hollow City had the potential and the concept to be something so much more; instead, it just turns out to be a very hollow novel.
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