Multigenre author Dan Wells has been attracted to unstable main characters who worry about the world around them since his John Wayne Cleaver trilogy featuring a young man obsessed with serial killers who fears he might be one himself (launched with the appropriately titled I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER). Wells continues this attraction with THE HOLLOW CITY, his latest novel. Unfortunately, Wells pushes things to an extreme that greatly damages his overall intention.
Michael Shipman wakes up in a Chicago hospital bed surrounded by people he doesn’t know. He learns that he fell out a window and that, while his injuries are minor, he has been declared a schizophrenic paranoid due to his hallucinations and horrific visions of persecution.
Yet Michael swears the voices he hears, and the people who suddenly appear at his bedside, are real. Additionally, he is convinced that a group of murders with no faces are out to kill him.
Complicating everything is the fact that Michael has no memory of the past few weeks, and during this time a serial killer, dubbed the “Red Line Killer,” has murdered and mutilated the faces of several individuals. A team of FBI investigators question and quietly suspect Michael for the killings, especially due to his ravings about faceless killers.
Michael decides to take matters into his own hands and sets out to discover the real identity of the Red Line victims, their connection to a strange cult living outside of the city, and that missing period of time that he vaguely recalls spent inside a group of empty buildings he calls the Hollow City.
Following a third-person prologue introducing the latest victim of the Red Line Killer, the perspective switches and remains with Michael’s first-person narration. Wells immediately and effectively thrusts us in the midst of Michael’s disorienting world of strangers he doubts he can trust, along with familiar people who he fears may be projections of his damaged psyche.
Sadly, these moments are replaced with long passages of exposition, coming mainly from Michael’s psychiatrist, about the nature of schizophrenia and the various drug treatments that allow patients to respond to psychotherapy. By the time the narrative finds itself again, we come very close to losing interest in Michael and his desire to learn the truth.
Wells evokes the ghost of the late Philip K. Dick and his science-fiction tales of solipsism in this latest work; and Wells even acknowledges Dick’s inspiration in his opening acknowledgment. But whereas Dick’s characters often find that the reality they once believed in is potentially false, Wells’ character here is convinced from the very start that his reality is an illusion.
The resulting difference is a debilitating lack of suspense in Wells’ story, stemming from the early conclusion that almost everything Michael experiences may prove unreal. So when in the concluding chapters, Wells races to pull all the pieces of Michael’s past together, the inventiveness of the story is dulled by the threat that everything revealed may be proven false in the very next paragraph.
There is an undeniable fascination with characters in fiction that come to doubt what they previously trusted as true and real. The trick is to first win the reader’s sympathy and trust in this character before his world falls apart. This is where Wells, an otherwise very capable storyteller, stumbles in THE HOLLOW CITY. —Alan Cranis