April 16th, 2008


The Hollower

I read a lot of books written by friends. It's almost inevitable in this industry. You get to know a lot of people through conferences and writers' organizations and all the subsequent emails, and they all write books or stories you want to read. Before you know it, more than half the books you read in a year are by people you consider friends, which is both a cool feeling and a source of frustration, since it means a lot of other books you want to read stay untouched on the shelf for longer than anticipated (I'm looking at you, Houses Without Doors!). Anyway, all this is my preamble to saying that marysang is a friend of mine, but despite that fact, I will review her novel The Hollower in as fair and honest a manner as I can, as always. I know you expect nothing less of me, and neither would she.

At their heart, the best horror novels, much like the best fantasy or science fiction novels, are about trying to understand the complexities of the world through metaphor. And in truth, there are very few emotions or aspects of life left untapped by horror writers, so immediate kudos are to be given to SanGiovanni for finding one that hasn't been given monstrous shape before: suicide.

Previous reviews have mentioned that The Hollower is about despair, but I disagree. The creature at the center of the novel, the Hollower itself, doesn't give its victims reason to despair. That comes from their own lives, their own fuck-ups and misfortunes. Instead, the Hollower merely reminds them of those pre-existing reasons and drives them to want to die. It may be doing a psychological disservice to place blame for suicide outside of the victim's control when suicide is often used as the ultimate form of control over one's life, but as metaphors go, creating a monster whose goal is to drive you to kill yourself is scary, effective stuff.

Or at least it would be if it weren't so confusing. The Hollower, while an engaging story, gives us almost nothing logical or consistent about the Hollower itself, and that weakens the novel considerably. What are the Hollower's motivations? There seems to be a hint that it feeds off of the dark emotions it coaxes from its victims, but I get that more from the back cover copy and other reviews than from the text itself. Why does the Hollower appear as a faceless man in a trenchcoat and fedora in order to strike fear in its victims' hearts when its true form is so much more frightening? (To be honest, the revelation of its true form is where I felt the book start to slip -- it was far scarier as a faceless man than a CGI Hollywood beastie.) Why is the Hollower even in our world? The book hints that the Hollower accidentally slipped through dimensions from its world and landed in ours, and it was so disgusted by everything it saw it grew hateful of our world and started stalking its denizens, not just for emotional food but because of its immense hate for all things fleshy. Sounds good, except that in the climax (which is strongly reminiscent of the climax of Predator 2, oddly enough) it is revealed the Hollower can travel between dimensions seemingly at will. So if it hates our world so much, why did it stay here? Why didn't it just go back home? I presume these questions will be answered in SanGiovanni's sequel, Found You, which is coming out this fall, but I would have preferred them now.

As I mentioned, it's an engaging read, and SanGiovanni has a firm grip on language and character. As a first novel, though, it shares many of the weaknesses one sees in first novels, such as overwriting (one scene has our hero pulling out a cell phone to call someone, and we get an entire paragraph on the history of his cell phone -- who gave it to him, what became of that person, why he carries it, etc. -- as if in this day and age people don't simply own and carry cell phones as a fact of life), forced realism (there's an almost interminable scene of small talk between a police detective and a D.A., where they talk about characters who are never mentioned again) and frayed plot threads (a secret weapon against the Hollower is mentioned, revealed and then abandoned in favor of just shooting and stabbing the thing).

The Hollower may not shake up your world the way the best literature can, but it's a pleasant enough diversion. As an author, SanGiovanni has both chops and potential, even if The Hollower isn't the novel she will most likely be remembered for. I'm looking forward to seeing where she goes with the sequel, and even more so to seeing where she goes from there.