Michael Shipman is crazy. A diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, Michael sees Faceless Men and gets splitting migraines whenever a cellphone rings. So when we see the world through Michael’s eyes in Dan Wells’ The Hollow City, we know not to take it at face value.
It takes great talent for an author to get into the mind of someone who’s had a psychotic break from reality. Wells takes this to a whole different level by having readers mistrust his narrator from the beginning, yet slowly begin to question this mistrust. Some authors are able to make psychologically disturbed characters sympathetic and their views understandable, usually through eloquence (Lolita, A Clockwork Orange) or through comparison with a villainous “sane” world (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Wells however offers actual clues and details that make us wonder if Michael is, in reality, seeing Faceless Men, and if there is some rational, physiological reason for his adverse reaction to electronic devices.
Hollow City begins as a tragic depiction of an unbalanced mind. Michael’s hallucinations are as real to him as reality is to us, and the intensity of his fear at things we view as ordinary (cellphones, TVs, hot water faucets) inspires sympathy. His condition, particularly his obsession with Faceless Men, makes him a prime suspect in the investigation of serial murderer The Red Line Killer, whose trademark is slicing his victims’ faces off. Worse, Michael has lost two weeks’ worth of memory and is himself unsure if he is the Red Line Killer. I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it must be not to be able to trust yourself, and when Michael begins to doubt the reality of people around him, some of whom he loves and depends on, he becomes even more isolated.
Then the story takes a completely different turn when Michael’s hallucinations start making more sense. We’re never quite sure if Michael’s perceptions are turning out to be real or if we too have been sucked into his mind. But this does open up a science fiction/horror story angle to the plot. It’s a thrilling ride to the end, and I was as desperate as Michael to find out what, exactly, is going on. Wells never gets as complex as China Mieville or as seductive as Vladimir Nabokov, which he could have done given his premise, and this is perhaps the reason Hollow City didn’t blow me away. The murder mystery that drove the plot started out compelling, but wasn’t really developed, and the big reveal regarding the murderer was fairly obvious and anti-climactic. That being said, I was definitely taken by surprise by the other big reveal, the reason behind Michael’s hallucinations. I love that Wells took a big, unexpected leap with that, and while the ending seemed a bit rushed, given the build up, it made sense. After all the uncertainty, and all the wondering about where Wells could possibly be taking this story, the ending satisfies. A good, solid, fast-paced read.