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The Hollow City

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The Hollow City

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Author: Dan Wells
Publisher: Tor, 2012

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Horror
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Dan Wells won instant acclaim for his three-novel debut about the adventures of John Wayne Cleaver, a heroic young man who is a potential serial killer. All who read the trilogy were struck by the distinctive and believable voice Wells created for John.

Now he returns with another innovative thriller told in a very different, equally unique voice. A voice that comes to us from the realm of madness.

Michael Shipman is paranoid schizophrenic; he suffers from hallucinations, delusions, and complex fantasies of persecution and horror. That's bad enough. But what can he do if some of the monsters he sees turn out to be real?

Who can you trust if you can't even trust yourself? The Hollow City is a mesmerizing journey into madness, where the greatest enemy of all is your own mind.




I'm in a hospital bed; I can tell by the rails on the sides, and by the white coats on the people gathered around me. Their heads are haloed by bright fluorescent lights, still indistinct as I struggle to wake up. There's a needle in my elbow, an IV tube reaching out behind me. I feel nauseous and slow, and the light burns my eyes. How did I get here? Where's Lucy?

"You're awake," says one of the men, "good, good. You gave us quite a scare, Mr. Shipman."

He knows my name. I stare at the man, forcing my eyes to focus. He's older, sixties maybe, in a long, white hospital coat. Two other men and one woman stand by him, probably also doctors, pressed around my bed. There's a guard by the door--a guard? Or just an orderly? I don't know what's going on.

My throat is dry and I struggle to talk. "Why don't I remember coming here?"

"My name is Dr. Murray," he says. "You had a fall--do you remember falling?"

Do I remember anything? I remember hiding out, and then ... a chase? Someone found me. Yes, I'm sure of it; I remember running. And there was an empty city, full of empty houses, and a deep, dark hole, like a well or a mine shaft.

The people I was running from were bad--that much I know. Did they catch me? Are these doctors part of it? I slow down and try to think.

"Where's Lucy?"


"Lucy, my girlfriend, she was with me in the ... where was I?"

"What do you remember?"

"I remember a pit," I say slowly, watching their faces. "I fell down a pit."

Dr. Murray frowns; he thinks I'm wrong. Am I? But I remember a pit, and he said I had fallen, and ... My head aches--not just my head, my mind aches. Dr. Murray leafs through a slim folder, holding up a page to read the one below it. "You fell, or jumped, out of a window. Do you remember that?"

I say nothing, trying to remember. Think, Michael, think!

"We were worried you'd hurt yourself," says one of the other doctors, "but nothing's broken."

"If he's lost his memory," says the woman, "he might have hit his head harder than we thought."

I scan my eyes around the room, trying to get a better sense of where I am--a regular hospital room, with cabinets and curtains and hand sanitizers lining the walls. No computers that I can see. Good.

"We would have seen more damage to his head," says another doctor. "The abrasions were grouped on his legs and arms--he landed about as well as you could hope to."

"Mr. Shipman," says Dr. Murray, catching my eye and smiling. "Michael. Can you tell us where you've been for the past two weeks?"

I frown, my suspicions rising. I'd been trying to disappear, and I think I thought I had, but now I'm in here, surrounded by prying eyes and equipment. I shift my legs imperceptibly, testing for restraints under the covers. It doesn't feel like they've tied me down. They might just be normal doctors--they might not be part of the Plan. Just helpful doctors who don't know who I am or who's after me. Maybe I can still get away.

Maybe I can, but not with five people between me and the door. I need to take my time.

"We're only trying to help you, Michael." The doctor smiles again. They always smile too much. "Once we knew who you were and we looked up your file, well, you can imagine that we started to wonder."

I stare at him, my eyes cold. So they do know who I am, or at least part of it. I start to tense up, but I force myself to calm down. Just because they know who I am, that still doesn't mean they know about the Plan. "No," I say firmly, "I can't imagine." The men I was running from had been watching me for years--if they gave the doctors their file, they'll know everything about me. I shift my legs again, bracing myself to bolt for the door if I have to make a move. "What does the file say?"

He raises the folder in his hands, an old manila folder with a curling green sticker on the tab. "Standard things," he says. "Medical history, hospital stays, psychological evaluations--"

"Wait," I say. "Is that it? It's just a medical history?"

Dr. Murray nods. "What else would it be?"

"Nothing." So they don't have the real file, just the fake one from the state. That's good, but it could cause problems of its own. "None of that stuff matters."

The doctor glances at the man beside him. "We're doctors, Michael, it matters a great deal to us."

"Except that it's all false," I say. I know I can trust them now, but how can I explain what's going on? "The state file was created..." It was created by Them, by the people who've been following me. Except I'm too smart to tell the doctors a truth they'll never believe. I shake my head. "It was created as a joke," I say. "It doesn't mean anything."

Dr. Murray nods again. "I see." He flips to a page in the file. "Ongoing treatment for depression and generalized anxiety disorder." He turns the page. "Two weeks in Powell Psychiatric Hospital, fourteen months ago." He turns the page. "Multiple prescriptions for Klonopin, paid for by state welfare." He looks up. "You say this is all part of a joke?"

How am I supposed to explain this to him without looking crazy? I close my eyes, feeling the early flutters of a nervous panic. I roll my hands into fists and take a deep breath: it's okay. They're not part of the Plan. They don't even have me tied down. I can probably walk right out of here if I can just find a way to defuse their suspicions. I glance around again; no computers, and the TV's off. I might be okay.

"It's just the ... state doctors," I say. "You need to talk to my personal doctor, my family practitioner. Dr. Ambrose Vanek. He can straighten this out."

"We'll contact him right away," says Murray. He nods to one of the other doctors, who makes a note on his pad and steps out of the room. "I'm afraid his information wasn't included in your report or we would have called him already. We've called the only number on here, someone named L. Briggs, but we haven't been able to reach her. Is that your friend Lucy?"

"She's my girlfriend," I say again, trying to look helpful. Have They gotten to her yet? Do I even dare drag her into this? "I'm afraid I don't know her number."

Dr. Murray raises an eyebrow. "You don't know your girlfriend's phone number?"

"I don't use phones."

"Ah." He nods and makes a note. "Is there anyone else we can contact?"


He waves the folder slightly. "This says you live with your father."

"Yeah, but don't call him."

"His son is in the hospital; I'm sure he'd appreciate a call."

I clench my fist tighter, trying to breathe evenly. "Just ... please."

Dr. Murray pauses, then nods. "If that's what you want." He looks at another sheet in his folder. "It says here that your Klonopin was prescribed by Dr. Little, after your stay at Powell last year. Have you been taking your pills, Michael?"

I nod. "Of course, Doctor." It's a lie--I fill my prescription every few weeks, just so no one asks questions, but I haven't taken it in months. I'm not convinced the pills are part of the Plan, but I'm not taking any chances.

"Excellent," says Murray again, but I can see his smile falter. He doesn't believe me. I scramble to find something else to soothe him--what's in that file? It probably mentions my job at Mueller's; the state got me that job. Maybe I can convince him I'm nothing to worry about.

"You said I wasn't injured in the fall, right?" I smile, trying to look normal. "Because I really need to get back to work soon--Mr. Mueller really relies on me." There's no response, so I keep going. "You know Mueller's Bakery, on Lawrence? Best doughnuts in the city, you know. I'd be happy to send you a box once I get back there." I liked working at Mueller's: no punch-card machine, and no computers.

"Yes," says Dr. Murray, flipping to another page of the file, "it was Mr. Mueller who reported you missing." He looks up. "It seems you didn't show up for work for nearly two weeks and he got worried. Tell me, Michael, can you tell us where you've been during the last two weeks?"

They got to Mueller. I'm nervous now, and I glance around again. No machines; the room might be clean.

"I need to go, please."

"Do you remember where you've been?"

I don't. I rack my brain, trying to remember anything I can. Empty houses. A dark hole. I can't remember. I still feel nauseous, like I'm thinking through syrup. Did they drug me? I look around again, trying to see what's behind the bed.

"Is everything okay, Michael?"

I raise up on my arms, craning my neck around the edge of the bed, and recoil almost instantly, like I've been struck. An IV stand looms over my shoulder, with a small black box just inches behind my head. Red digital lines turn in circles as clear liquid...

Copyright © 2012 by Dan Wells


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