When I was at the library and saw acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan were partnering for another trilogy — I enjoyed the first book of The Strain trilogy from them in 2009 and admittedly, I’m not sure if I ever finished the trilogy, not because of a lack of interest, but due to getting sidetracked — I was all about it. This one from 2020 is called, The Hollow Ones and it’s subtitled, The Blackwood Tapes Vol. 1. So, again, obviously it’s a planned trilogy.
The premise of the book is that Odessa Hardwicke is a rookie FBI agent, partnered with a veteran FBI agent, Walt Leppo. While trying to stop a rampaging spree killer, Leppo inexplicably tries to kill an innocent child, forcing Hardwicke to shoot him dead. In a moment she can’t shake, Hardwicke saw something undefinable leave Leppo’s body after she killed him. Cue the supernatural music!
Hardwicke is placed on desk duty, pending the internal investigation, and as part of her “busy work,” she’s asked to empty out the desk of former FBI agent Earl Solomon, who recently suffered a stroke and is around 86-years-old. But it’s no coincidence. Call it God, fate or hell, Hardwicke was meant to meet Solomon.
We learn more about Solomon as a rookie FBI agent in 1962, who was brought in as one of the first black FBI agents to graduate from the FBI academy as part of an integration effort. He’s assigned to the Mississippi Delta to investigate a series of lynchings, with the latest actually being the lynching of a white man. Race tensions are high in the town, as a racist sheriff and the Ku Klux Klan are pushing things over the edge.
Solomon points Hardwicke to Hugo Blackwood, a British man, who we later learn is more or less an immortal being and has been around since the 1500s trying to capture the “hollow ones.” The hollow ones go by different names depending on the religion, but the idea is that the are essentially addicted demons, who hop from human body to human body causing carnage and chaos because they get off on it. The moment of death while inside the host body is like the ultimate addiction high for them. The more powerful the host person, the more carnage and chaos that can be caused.
So far, Blackwood has caught three of the four hollow ones and now needs to catch the one who possessed Leppo’s body.
All of that jumping between present New Jersey with Hardwicke, Blackwood and 86-year-old Solomon, to the 1962 Delta with a younger Solomon, to the 1500s with Blackwood, I thought made for a well-paced and interesting world-building, table-setting, mythos-defining book, much of it hinting at an even larger universe.
Solomon was the most interesting character, as someone who just wants to be the best darn cop he can be, but is first, caught up in the 1960s race issue and secondly, caught up in something bigger than any human, with these supernatural beings. I also enjoyed Solomon as the straight-laced, detached British man trying to do his duty he’s been cursed to. There was one funny scene where he accosts Hardwicke for heating up her water in the microwave to make tea.
That said, if you’re trying to catch these things, you would think you’d lay all your cards out on the table right away to someone, like Hardwicke, who could help you. But he’s vague a lot!
Hardwicke could have been better written, if I’m being honest. She’s the least fleshed out and gets a backstory shoehorned in toward the end (the backstory is that her dad was a POS who defrauded old people out of money and then killed himself in prison over the guilt). I also get that she’s in a position of trying to believe the unbelievable, but I think her disbelief gets dragged out too long. Worse, she makes the weirdest decision at the climax. So, these hollow beings can project what they want to you. In Hardwicke’s case, when encountering the hollow one, she sees her father. She knows her father is dead! Yet, she acts like it’s really him and has a real, emotional conversation with him! I thought that was stupid of her. When she then realizes it’s Solomon, who has been possessed by the hollow one, she kills Solomon. But she knows killing Solomon means that the hollow one will jump into her body! I thought that was another silly decision on her part. She should have tried to contain Solomon somehow.
I also thought younger Solomon was weirdly harsh toward Blackwood. What happens in the 1960s is that a black priest tries to raise the spirits of the slaves at a slave cemetery. It’s actually rather genius: Those spirits, having been tortured in life, will be the perfect vessels to enact vengeance and chaos, the thinking goes. A six-year-old black boy, Vernon, is possessed and is likely the one who lynched the white man. While trying to unravel all of that, Vernon, possessed by the hollow one, attacks Solomon. Saving his life, Blackwood kills Vernon. I get that it sucks for the host body, but in that particular moment, Blackwood saved Solomon’s life! Yet, Solomon thinks it’s murder and wants to arrest Blackwood.
In any event, at a little more than 300 pages and again, jumping from different time periods and myth-building, I thought this was an enthralling read, despite some of my criticisms. I like the idea that Blackwood, as was alluded to, has been around at nearly every major world historical event of the last near-five centuries, and that those world historical events were likely caused by the hollow ones.
Even more interesting, Blackwood alludes to the fact, as I interpret it, that the hollow ones, when all together at once, were akin to the Four Horseman of the apocalypse. That getting those four together would entail the end. Interestingly, the second book to come in the trilogy hints at exactly that in the epilogue of this book: A man drops off a letter at Blackwood’s mailbox, which is how people in trouble summon him, and the last sentence goes, “This letter had taken hundreds of years to reach its destination, and with it, it heralded The End.
The end is nigh!
I think that ending battle, which will surely build up and climax in the third book, could be made more interesting if more “angels” get involved to help Blackwood. So far, he has some tattooed guy, who is actually an angel, helping him to wrangle and jail the hollow ones. Maybe more angels will come?
Finally, one last thought, the metaphor of the series seems clear and most clear in this sentence given at the end by Blackwood, “If past wrongs are not addressed, and dealt with honestly, dark spirits will erupt through the unhealed seam. It is the same for cities and towns as it is for people.”
Given the race and slave issues brought up in the book, that sentence seems to clearly indicate that America needs to deal with the sins of its past in an honest way, lest the sins manifest as hollow ones today causing more strife. I’m down for that metaphor.
For a comparison, if you’re a fan of the television series, Supernatural, as I am, then this book is right in your wheelhouse, I promise you. Give it a chance!