Matthew Cole Levine
Unsolicited Press ($18)

by Joseph Houlihan

Hollow, the new horror novel by Matthew Cole Levine, lives in the tenuous space between the safety of the hearth and the darkest parts of the Wisconsin woods, where the wind screams like a howl. It tells the story of a small town, Grange, where all is not well. When Ben, a punch-drunk cop from Milwaukee, encounters a woman sprinting through a clearing across a forest highway, he is brought into a mystery that spans a century and crosses between this life and the next.

Quick and smart. Hollow draws on the traditions of tough cop noir and American folk horror, thereby setting up a classic trope: There is something in the woods, and it preys on the innocent. The novel contains spooky descriptions of cursed places:

He was drifting over a barren terrain, an endless canyon with towering cliffs of red sand, its basin littered with jagged rocks and a narrow, bubbling river. The light here was different, specked with clouds of dust and ash, and the sun did not emit warmth.

And hardboiled action as well:

The second devastating swing of the bat came a moment later, plummeting into the pit of Ben’s stomach as he collapsed. His gut lunged upward into his throat. A flood of water washed over him, turning everything into a liquid blur.

Levine follows that simple dictum from Raymond Chandler—“down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean”—to produce a genre novel with literary flair. As Ben interrogates small town characters (a shifty sheriff, a hotel clerk, the local minister) in a race against time, Levine does a great job of moving through other kinds of heartbreak: the disappointment of moving away from loved ones, the resentments that smother our lives of best intention, the suffering through grief and addiction.

One of the most compelling scenes involves an improbable small-town library. Amid a vast, uncatalogued archive of pioneer materials in the basement, Ben finds old diaries and geological surveys, revealing a horror hidden in plain sight. Levine nods towards the possibility of ancient horror and devils on unceded lands, giving the novel a tenor that’s tongue in cheek enough to be scary and fun at the same time.

Smart, sad, and genuinely scary—as well as lyrical and heartbreakingly familiar—Hollow will make for dangerous company on long nights in the Upper Midwest.

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