PROS: A real mind bending thriller that may or may not be the mental construction of an unstable man.
CONS: The ending is weak in comparison to the rest of the story.
BOTTOM LINE: This thriller will keep you guessing until the very end. Wells will tap into a fear you probably didn’t even realize that you harbored.
Michael Shipman is a paranoid schizophrenic. Or is he? The doctors say that Michael’s paranoia is the result of hallucinations and delusions brought on by mental illness. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you…right? After all, the doctors could all be part of the Plan of the Faceless Men. If Michael could regain two weeks of his memory he might be able to stop the Faceless Men and whatever sinister scheme they have cooked up. But there are a few obstacles, including two FBI agents who consider Michael a suspect in a string of serial murders.
Dan Wells is a rising star in the fiction world. First came his highly acclaimed John Wayne Cleaver trilogy, a series of books about a young man that must fight his very own nature to combat dark forces at work in his small town. Next came Partials, the start of a new dystopian Young Adult series that is quickly garnering attention. Now Wells presents us with The Hollow City, a standalone thriller unlike any you have ever read. The Hollow City is to schizophrenia, what the John Wayne Cleaver trilogy is to sociopathy. That is to say, Wells takes an improbable hero with a very serious mental dysfunction and respectfully and accurately crafts an engaging tale of suspense.
Michael’s perspective is immediately arresting and absorbing. This is the ultimate underdog, it is impossible not to root for this poor guy with the entire world set against him. Anyone Michael tries to tell the “truth” is bound to think that he is crazy. Faceless Men and conspiracies are the talk of crazy folk after all. It doesn’t help Michael’s case that his doctors have diagnosed him with depression, anxiety, and most recently schizophrenia. My knowledge of schizophrenia was minimal before reading The Hollow City. There’s a common misconception that schizophrenia is multiple personality syndrome and it turns out that they are entirely separate conditions. Schizophrenia is chilling in its effects; a mix of real stimuli and fabricated mental constructions that leave victims unable to separate reality from their own imagination. Essentially it is an official stamp that invalidates everything Michael has to say. And really that is the scariest thing of all about The Hollow City. Wells was able to tap into this greatest fear that I never even knew I had. What if you were labeled as crazy and no one would believe a word you had to say? Nobody will listen to you but everything you experience is still real to you. It’s a frightening consideration.
So Michael sees things that no one else can and this lands him in a mental hospital. No one believes that the Faceless Men exist and as the story goes on readers won’t be able to help but wonder whether or not Michael is a credible narrator. Eventually Michael loses confidence and begins to doubt himself. It’s the vaunted Triple Threat and it makes for a transfixing read. Every action he takes and every conversation he engages in need be closely scrutinized. Readers will likely change their mind fluidly as the plot progresses and things become even more twisted. Imagine if M. Night Shyamalan in his prime, directed the 2010 crime drama Shutter Island. It’s sort of like that and will leave you guessing until the very end.
The other characters aren’t quite so developed as Michael but I find it difficult to blame Wells when any member of the supporting cast could really be a figment of Michael’s imagination. Doctor Vanek is probably the psychiatrist with the single worst bedside manner of any health care professional ever. And it is hilarious. Michael’s father is a hardcore jerk. Doctor Little is irritatingly condescending to an extreme degree and Lucy is sweet and supportive in ways that Michael drastically needs. As little effort as is put into fleshing out the characters, they do come across as real (or not so real) people.
The plot is white knuckle and full of complexity. It can’t be a cake-walk to write from the perspective of a man with schizophrenia (maybe) but Wells pulls it off. To delve too deeply into the story would ruin the sneaky surprises you have in store but I will say that there are Faceless Men, giant maggots, cultists, electronic surveillance, and dark conspiracies. The only question is whether or not any of it is real…Wells is able to keep up the startling revelations and addictive insanity all the way till the end. It is the ending though that had me knocking off a half star for what would have otherwise been a solid 5-star rating. After all the build-up the ending felt rushed and contrived. To be fair, it isn’t the silly sort of ending you would get from some of M. Night Shyamalan’s more recent work but it still isn’t quite on par with the rest of the novel.
One thing is for certain. The Hollow City will haunt you in a way that ghosts and demons and alien abductions will never be able to. Your own mind may just be your very worst enemy and Michael’s journey will leave you feeling a little bit crazy yourself. But in a good way!