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Review of Hollow

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

Set in sixteenth century Europe, Hollow tells the supernatural tale of the journey to deliver an oracle to the Monastery of the Eastern Gate in Das Kagel to keep otherworldly forces in check. One third of the novel follows Follett and his crew of mercenaries as they escort the non-mobile Oracle across dangerous terrain. These violent men are also tasked with nourishing the Oracle, requiring them to confess their crimes into a box of human bones, letting the sins seep into them, and feeding the marrow to the Oracle. At the Monastery of the Eastern Gate, Benedict and Dominic become alarmed about the circumstances of the previous Oracle’s demise and the increase of strange creatures named Woebegots appearing in the area. The monks begin to suspect Abbott Clementine may have murdered the previous Oracle for his own occult ends and that the occurrences of these strange, new creatures might be the result of an artist’s imagination bringing them to life. In the town of Das Kagel, Meg, sometimes called Dull Gret, despairs her life as Woebegots appear, her husband continues to mistreat her, and her son is detained by the authorities. She begins to desire revenge, and is approached by Woebegots who may be willing to help.

Polyptych called Visions of the Hereafter, a work of Hieronymus Bosch; his art factors into the novel Hollow.

Polyptych called Visions of the Hereafter, a work of Hieronymus Bosch; his art factors into the novel Hollow.

These Violent Delights

The novel is written in a heightened, lyrical style that befits the nature of much of the novel as reality slides into phantasmagoria. The dangers don’t only come from without as is the case with the Woebegots, giants, and destructive weather. Barry Follett’s crew of bad men often seem ready to turn on each other, the monks at the monastery discover they have competing goals regarding the incoming Oracle, and Meg finds herself the victim of the people and authorities who are supposed to help and protect her. Each part of the novel carries its own kind of danger, and the writing renders it all as a nightmarish fever dream of late medieval Europe in much the same way that Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian does for the American West. The chapters with the monks and their theological and occult arguments sometimes also have the flavor akin to Umberto Eco’s work like The Name of the Rose. Despite the density of the writing style, the chapters are often short, so it reads more quickly than one might expect.

It is difficult to call Hollow a historical novel, however. While there are historical details, they exist alongside imps, giants, the collapsed Towel of Babel, witches, marrow-slurping oracles, werewolves, and eternally clashing ghastly armies in the Glandula Misericordia. Often the novel reads closer to something from Warhammer than strict historical fiction, but the real-world aspects of the Carnival-Lent deadline, the Inquisition, and the art of Hieronymus Bosch all factor into the story.

The Haywain Triptych by Hieronymus Bosch.

The Haywain Triptych by Hieronymus Bosch.

Missed Opportunities

While the goals of the characters in the different storylines become clear fairly early, the novel sometimes feels as though it lacks structure. Follett’s crew gets stalled for what seems like a painfully long time, and they often don’t come across like men with distinct temperaments, even though the confessions provide the perfect opportunity for each of them to showcase their personality, possibly provide backstory, and set the stage for character growth. Similarly, Benedict and Dominic have an interesting investigation into the nature of the Woebegots, but their journey, which sounds incredible in its own right, is summarized in a single paragraph, only hinting at their adventures that included “a three-quarter werewolf of blurred origin and gender” (137). All of that sounds far more interesting and worthier of attention that the pages spent describing a single painting (147-50). Meg’s chapters suffer the most from this sense of stalling out. Almost right away, readers understand her desire to get “revenge for her son with what was left of her life and for everything that had been stolen from her” (29). Unfortunately, she takes almost no action toward this goal chapter after chapter. Even when Woebegots offer to help, it isn’t clear why she does not accept. Meg has no love of the authorities—religious or otherwise—no love for her drunken clown of a husband, and points out repeatedly that women generally have miserable lives. There is no reason given why she is at all hesitant to engage in any action to assault the status quo especially since she has almost nothing to lose in doing so. Her dithering becomes nonsensical and boring, which is a shame because she’s also the most normal character and the easiest with which to be sympathetic.

The Last Wonder

Readers looking for a strange, lyrical novel, or fans of historical fiction who don’t mind a lot of supernatural happenings will want to give Hollow a try.

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Catling, B. Hollow. Vintage Books, 2021.

© 2022 Seth Tomko

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