Years ago, when I still worked as a file clerk at a law office, I tried listening to the first audiobook of The Strain trilogy. This was a few years before there was a TV series, and the audiobook was narrated by Ron Perlman. I got through the first book, I think, but was left with the unshakable conviction that it felt more like a treatment for a TV series than a book. When the TV series came out a few years later, I found that I wasn’t a huge fan of it in that form, either. So, why did I agree to read a copy of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s newest collaboration The Hollow Ones?
There are lots of reasons. I’m a fan of the works of Del Toro, and generally find them interesting even when they’re not my thing. The premise sounded at least a little more capital-W weird than The Strain’s (admittedly somewhat weirded-up, in grand GdT fashion) vampires. And then there was that subtitle, “The Blackwood Tapes.”
This wasn’t the first time that Del Toro had toyed with the Blackwood name. It’s there in the opening scenes of the Del Toro written-and-produced-but-not-directed Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark from 2010, and there even more in the (much better, actually) prequel book that was released to tie in with the film. It’s there in the name of the auction house in Hellboy 2.
Of course, Blackwood is a name almost as inextricably linked to the weird tale as Lovecraft, and Guillermo del Toro has gone on record more than once that Algernon Blackwood is one of his favorite writers of the supernatural. Though I’ve never delved more deeply into his work than reading a handful of the sort of “canonical” classics such as “The Willows” and “The Wendigo,” many of my friends in the field are great admirers – some of my earliest writing was published in a fanzine called The Willows, put out by a gent whose current publishing endeavor goes by the name House Blackwood – and I was hopeful that invoking the name here meant I might be in for something a bit more in that vein.
I won’t say that my hopes were dashed, precisely. The backstory of the Hugo Blackwood character certainly feels like something that would have been right at home in Guillermo del Toro’s version of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense from the Hellboy movies. But any ties, overt or otherwise, to Blackwood’s fiction or to classic weird tales are largely absent here, in favor of a police procedural overlaid with elements from a boilerplate supernatural thriller and spiced with details meticulously researched from real-life religious practices including hoodoo and Palo.
The Hollow Ones is the kind of book that gets called a “page-turner,” or, less kindly, a “potboiler.” It’s an easy read, with sentences of relatively uniform length and little enough in the way of stylistic flourishes. You will find no Lovecraftian purple prose here. The writing is what you might expect from a book that you picked up at a newsstand in an airport, for good or ill.
In this regard, it is in some ways the exact opposite of a Guillermo del Toro flick, where every shape and color is chosen with utmost care, so that the style gives the film most of the substance that it will ever possess. In The Hollow Ones, the style is unobtrusive, meant to get out of the way and not draw attention to itself. This isn’t always a bad thing – as I said, it makes the book easy and quick to read, and pleasant enough going down.
At the end of the day, your patience for The Hollow Ones – and, certainly, your interest in future installments of “The Blackwood Tapes” – will hinge upon your investment in the eponymous Hugo Blackwood, an immortal paranormal investigator who is more Sherlock Holmes than Van Helsing.
Like Holmes, Blackwood has a habit of not sharing vital information with his would-be partners for no good reason except to keep the reader in suspense. It works, absolutely, but if you find such contrivances annoying, this one is bound to get under your skin before the book’s numerous parallel storylines resolve themselves. If, on the other hand, such characters are your thing, you will certainly find Blackwood, whom the back cover copy describes as a “hero unlike any other,” to your liking. The Hollow Ones is out now from Grand Central Publishing.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.