Humans, by nature, are communal animals. Comfort and safety exist within groups. When people share efforts to build instead of merely survive, humanity advances. Isolation is therefore the root of many fears: banishment was a punishment in early societies with often mortal consequences; in today’s prisons, solitary confinement is a horrific punishment that wreaks havoc on inmates’ psyches; depression creates lies within a person’s own mind to isolate them from friends and family. And the horror genre breaks down groups to individual members in order to create a sense of fear and to overwhelm characters. In the modern, hyper-connected world, isolation redoubles that primal fear: the unknown. With all this no doubt in mind, Daniel Church isolates a small town in England in a multitude of ways to explore humanity under dire circumstances in his new novel, The Hollows.
One December 19, Tony Harper is caught outside in a winter storm and freezes to death. Ellie Cheetham, one of the constables in the fictional town of Barsall, England, gets called to handle the scene. No foul play can be found; yet Tony died alone with the blade of his pocket knife drawn. Near the scene, a charcoal mark—a vertical line with three shorter horizontal lines pointing off to the left—is found. No one recognizes the symbol. With the body identified and no signs of foul play, Ellie is left with the task of informing Tony’s family, the infamous Harper clan.
The Harpers are a farm/crime family on the outskirts of Barsall. The town looks down on them, and they hold it and its people in contempt. The Harper clan is regularly at odds with the law. Tony’s brother, Paul, is a rapist, who, thanks to his family’s intimidation of his victims, has never been convicted of the crimes he’s committed. Dog fights, illegal firearms, and more are the Harpers’ stock and trade. Sitting at the head of the family is the matriarch, Liz, a woman powered by anger, cigarettes, and a devotion to protecting her family. She’s a hard woman. The whole family are hard people, living a rough life.
When Ellie goes to the Harpers’s home to report Tony’s death, she’s greeted with all the hatred a gang of criminals has for the police. Ellie tells Liz of her son’s demise and the symbol found by his body. The children erupt as the matriarch sits in stunned silence. Ellie barely escapes the Harper household; she resorts to violence in order to escape. Readers learn that Liz was stunned not by her son’s death, but by the symbol itself. That charcoal marking next to her son’s body is one that Liz’s own grandmother warned her about. Liz requests the family Bible, which isn’t like the Christian Bible. In it, she finds portents of the rise of an ancient evil, knowledge of which non-Harpers have lost to time. Yet this evil still exists in fairy tales and children’s rhymes. With the weather isolating the town, Liz Harper knows that death is coming. She prepares her family and homestead to survive the coming night, and she finds joy in the knowledge that the village of Barsall, who look down on her and her family, will soon be ravaged.
Amid all this, Jess Harper—the only daughter among Liz’s five children—lives in constant fear of her mother, her rapist brother, and her oldest brother’s wife, Keira. Jess has a son, Joel—a name Liz, the grandmother, refuses to use. The town believes that baby Joel is the product of incestual rape. Jess, though the sweetest of the Harpers, has the same inner strength as the rest of the clan.
These—Ellie, Liz, and Jess—are the three main points of view of the story. As the storm worsens and cuts off Barsall from the world, the reader follows these three women’s journeys. Cell service and soon phone lines are inoperable as the winter winds bring the cold to town. Those living on the outskirts of town are the first that the ancient evil goes after. Their silence means that the attacks happen without the townsfolk knowing what is happening. Neighbors just disappear with only the charcoal marking left behind to indicate what happened. Confrontation with monsters—both human and inhuman—are constant throughout this book. Church seeks to show the desperation and cold calculations that survival sometimes requires. The three main viewpoint characters must all make hard choices at different times. The reader may not agree with those choices, but it is understood that each is doing what they believe necessary to survive.
Isolation, though, is the constant theme throughout the novel, and Church explores it without judgment. Ellie’s tragic past is what brought her to Barsall in the first place, and it’s what has kept her from connecting to others in any relationship more than a simple friendship. Liz hates the townsfolk, and this was how she was raised. Naturally, it’s how she raises her children. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because she’s never friendly with the town or its people: the Harper attitude of us-versus-the-world may save them from the ancient evil, but it isolates them from their community. Inside the Harper household itself, Jess is isolated by Liz and her brothers. They see her as a liability. Liz and Kiera, her sister-in-law, at one point contemplate sacrificing Jess’s child to the ancient evil. Jess knows that for all Liz’s talk of family first, she’s on her own.
All three women know that the best survival chances lay in groups. Liz seeks to keep her family away from the town where the ancient evil is most likely to attack, but she requires the whole family to help defend their farm. Though it takes her time to figure out what’s happening, Ellie realizes that keeping the townspeople together and indoors is the way to survive. She must step up and lead. Jess slowly learns that her and Joel’s survival may require a community other than her family if she can only overcome years of Liz’s preaching that the townspeople hate Harpers.
Ellie Cheetham gets the most time of all the characters in the book. She’s a world-weary cop who fled from Manchester to Barsall because her child died, an event that led to the dissolution of her marriage and her need to escape all that reminded her of her kid. She’s a very capable constable and is constantly compared to the town’s bumbling police sergeant. It may take her a while to figure out what’s going on, but when she does, she steps up as a leader and as a protector. Ellie makes hard decisions, but readers see that they weigh upon her.
There are other point-of-view characters that have a few chapters each: the aging police sergeant, the town’s doctor, and a local pastor. These POVs help round out the character of the town and its inhabitants. The town’s doctor, Milly, is Ellie’s best friend and a devoted Christian. She and Ellie share extended ruminations on how and where God fits within their current crisis: Milly begins to wonder if God has turned His back on the community or if the ancient evil keeps him at bay during their attack; Ellie see the ancient attack as proof of the absence of God. When they discuss religion with each other, the conversation becomes tense. Readers can tell it’s a friction point for their friendship and has been in the past as well.
For his part, Church handles both the Christian and atheist positions with care, and he treats each belief and faith with the respect they deserve—because faith and belief are deeply personal, and to have believable characters, the writer has to respect that character’s choices. Milly’s faith in a Christian deity is part of what makes her Milly. Ellie’s atheism is strongly influenced by her past. Church withholds judgment on the characters. During the attack, both Ellie and Milly begin to doubt their beliefs. Fiction too often portrays doubt as a milestone in a journey to a stronger belief. That’s not always how it works. Their doubts don’t bring Ellie and Milly closer together because they suddenly understand the other a little better. No, their doubts cause them to question themselves. Church leaving these questions unresolved mirrors the larger uncertainties inherent in religion and belief. The reader never knows which way Church leans in their debate, and that makes it all the more powerful.
In addition to handling belief with care, Church also shines at portraying small town life. Readers don’t get to see much of Barsall under normal circumstances, but the various townsfolk we meet exemplify small-town life. Their little disagreements, knowledge of other families’ dynamics, and ability to come together during tragedy ring true. Church has made Barsall a community in The Hollows, not just a setting. Indeed, in order to survive, the town’s inhabitants must set aside their petty differences and coalesce as a community to protect and defend each other. The ancient evil must divide to conquer. In The Hollows, Daniel Church shows humanity is strongest when it works as a community.