Dynamic writing duo Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan are back with The Hollow Ones, a chilling paranormal thriller that brings together the worlds of suspense, the paranormal and literary horror.
Rookie FBI agent Odessa Hardwicke’s life is derailed when she’s forced to turn her gun on her partner, who turns suddenly, inexplicably violent while apprehending a rampaging murderer.
The shooting, justified by self-defence, shakes Odessa to her core and she is placed on desk leave pending a full investigation. But what haunts Odessa is the shadowy presence she saw fleeing her partner’s body after his death.
Determined to uncover the secrets of her partner’s death, Hardwicke finds herself on the trail of a mysterious figure named Hugo Blackwood: a man who claims to have been alive for centuries, and who is either an unhinged lunatic, or humanity’s best and only defence against an unspeakable evil.
We spoke to co-author Chuck Hogan about working with Guillermo del Toro, blending genres and possible adaptations (warning: this interview contains spoilers on The Hollow Ones – not to worry, we’ll wait right here while you read it. Well go on…).
Where did the idea begin for The Hollow Ones?
It begins with Guillermo, he always loved the idea of an occult detective; he had a very specific vision for The Hollow Ones – the creatures that were neither alive nor dead that loved to joyride inside of humans. I’m talking like ten years ago he had this idea. It just took us this long to get together (he got very busy as you know!) and clear our plates and go for it.
How did the relationship between you and Guillermo start?
I got a call from my literary agent who had just come out of a meeting very excitedly with Guillermo (this was back in 2006 or so) and he said Guillermo has all these ideas and I think you’d want to do a book together. I’m like “okay but I’m not really a horror writer…” but it turns out Guillermo had this great idea (I think it’s a great idea) to marry a crime procedural with horror supernatural elements. So we met for breakfast. He’d sent over this treatment for The Strain which was like 12 pages and I literally got a page and a half in and I was: “This is incredible! I would love to be involved!” It turned out he was looking for a real co-author, not a ghostwriter. He really wanted to get into the creative aspect of it with me. It was a few months of making sure that what we had was good and we were clicking, and we were off and running from there.
How do you both plan a novel together?
It usually starts with a series of breakfasts where we meet. He talks about his idea and I say: “Okay how about this?” and if he likes it, he takes it and goes another way, and we just sort of go back and forth, growing out the story. But it really starts with ideas first; what have we seen? What haven’t we seen? Let’s not do something that’s been done before…
I’ll make notes, then put them down on paper, then we’ll talk again and just grow conversation into an outline. The outline becomes a treatment and once we hit that level – that critical mass of excitement – we start work on putting words to paper.
It’s funny how it goes, it starts very creatively and we’re very blue sky and then we sort of grow it into an outline treatment. But as we’re growing it, we’re kind of narrowing it too because we’re making a decision about the story. So that’s a lot of the hard work, then the writing starts. But it’s super fluid. I generally start it, I send him a batch of chapters, he’ll come back to me with changes and be much improved. That will make me think of something and we’ll just keep growing and adding. We always meet in person at the start and then he’s, you know, in New Zealand or in Budapest, whatever but he’s always checking in and exchanging pages via email.
It’s kind of incredible how at some point you have a finished product. That’s just how it goes. It’s really fun. The key is who you collaborate with and obviously who wouldn’t want to collaborate with Guillermo. He has a fountain of creativity, he always has an interesting idea and somehow always finds enthusiasm to keep the creative endeavour moving forward.
You both previously worked on The Strain series. Was writing The Hollow Ones together easier seeing as you’ve written together before?
That whole initial ‘getting to know you’ stage is done; we’ve written books together so we know what the process is and we know how it works. At the same time, every book is different, every experience is different, every blank page is terrifying so there’s still freshness and newness, it’s just that there’s trust baked in. I know he’s going to bring great ideas. I think he trusts that I’m going to do my best to carry my end of the bargain also!
What are your inspirations?
I consider myself a crime novelist but I’ve always been a huge horror fan – that’s why my agent contacted me and not someone else. I mean, I was a little surprised, I thought Guillermo was going to be looking for a horror author but he had a much smarter and bigger plan in mind.
But I’ve always been a horror fan. Horror movies, be they Italian horror movies, traditional VHS horror (video nasties I think they called them in the UK?) – the more gruesome the better when I was a teenager! And a lot of horror reading too. So I’m fairly well versed in the horror element. But the great thing about, when people talk about genre writing, I think they think that that means it’s a small, contained niche world; but really genre opens up everything. Be it horror, be it crime – you can go anywhere and do anything with it and putting the two together really compounds that.
With crime writing you want the reader to trust the procedural aspect. Whereas horror you can introduce any sort of supernatural element, so long as you’ve established the world. So putting those two together really opens up the canvas for me. It’s really fun to explore that canvas and to work on a giant mural instead of maybe a smaller portrait so to speak.
The novel is set over numerous time periods (1582, 1962 and present day) – did you do much research beforehand?
I didn’t know anything about [the spiritualist] John Dee – which is the 1582 section of the book. Guillermo did, so I had a lot of catching up to do there! [He’s a] fascinating guy and just perfect to fictionalise him and put him into our narrative. So that was a lot of reading and research but you know there’s boring research and there’s incredibly fun research – and it was incredibly fun. It’s funny, when we started writing The Hollow Ones, I’ve researched FBI agents but [not] rookie female FBI agents and for the 1962 section of the book – a rookie black American FBI agent. I didn’t want to just go in blind so [there was] a lot very interesting, very eye-opening research about that.
So John Dee was a real person?!
Oh yeah, most of what we wrote about him is very true, his entire backstory is very true and his assistant whose ears were cut off – also real!
Why choose the time periods you did?
One thing we spoke about early on was structure – we wanted to do something different with structure. There’d be a case in the past and a case in the present – we didn’t necessarily want the two to come together in a neat package but we wanted them to have some sort of intersection that made sense for the story. I think Guillermo had this idea or the image of this young boy being possessed in 1962 and that being the first Hugo Blackwood case on tape. We knew that we wanted to do something really interesting because Blackwood has existed through a lot of time, so we wanted to jump the story around from time period to time period but not in a random way.
We really wanted the stories to overlap. It was really interesting writing that he partners up with one of the first four black American FBI agents in 1962 and then becomes coupled up with a rookie female agent. Then bringing those two FBI agents together in the present, really, creatively, got me going. There’s so much potential in those relationships and it was one of those things that really excited us the most.
In the novel, a lot of evil takes place at slave gravesites – why did you include this element?
It was something that interested to us. This occurred in The Strain too. We tried to think about the source of evil emanating from this place of terrific pain. What blows my mind is, as I said, we were talking about the story ten years ago, we did a tour of African American slave sites in New York and these botanical places in Newark and now here in 2020 all this stuff is really bubbling up in a weird way [with the Black Lives Matter movement] – it’s completely coincidental and yet there it is.
Speaking of the Black Lives Matter movement, we thought the line in regards to the gravesites: “If past wrongs are not addressed, and dealt with honestly, dark spirits will erupt through the unhealed seam” in the novel was very apt right now…
It’s really more shocking to us than anything that this has become so relevant because, two-three years ago, it wasn’t at the forefront. My fear is people think they wrote this in the last ten minutes and then just spit it out into the world but it’s absolutely not true haha! I love that you pulled that line! We have to embrace it in the sense that we have to accept that that’s part of who we are and how we got here and then figure out how to deal with it. It seems simple and it seems basic but it’s still a message that a lot of people need to hear.
Was the slave gravesite in New York real as well?
The location is different but absolutely! A couple of times over the past decade, they’ve uncovered these really old, slave cemeteries, crypts and things [in Manhatten]. Again I think it’s something that a lot of people aren’t really aware of and don’t know. When we think of slavery, we think of the American south, but absolutely it completely existed in the north.
The novel begins with a box that is used to communicate with a strange force. Where did that idea come from?
I believe that was probably Guillermo’s first dream image of this story that was there at the very beginning of what we talked about. He would talk about this mailbox without an address and you put a letter in and this man shows up. At first I thought that’s kind of cool and then we went down to Wall Street [where the box in the novel is located] and learned more about its history. It’s a great way to start each story – with someone essentially mailing a letter and asking for help.
On every project, there are always a few sections that Guillermo gets really excited about. It’s like ‘let me have that one, that’s the one that I want to write’, and that very first opening chapter is a great example of that. Because he’s been seeing this for years and years in his head, so to get it out on paper I’m sure was fun and maybe a great relief for him!
What was your favourite part of the novel to write?
I remember pitching him the idea of someone in an aeroplane flying around and shooting out of it and causing all this chaos around New York. Something similar like that happened here in Boston many years ago and I never forgot it. How weird it was that somebody could get into an aeroplane and cause all this chaos – you walk around the city and you never think that someone’s going to fly over you and shoot stuff! Especially post 9/11 New York obviously. It seemed like a really good piece for our opening.
The Hollow Ones creatures are terrifying – as you said they go for ‘joyrides’ in people’s bodies to kill them and cause havoc…
You read news stories about people who suddenly seem to lose their mind and go crazy, do these horrible things and it seemed an interesting way to explain that. But I think that [Guillermo’s] real focus initially was the Blackwood character. Having this man who popped up at different times throughout the world and have a job to do that’s very strange and very unusual.
With Guillermo, especially with the creature work and the evil – it’s like he has the book in his head already. He’s like “yeah, they’re small, they have giant mouths, they’re afraid chickens…” I’m like “okay, I’m just taking it down, I love it, let’s go with that!”.
In the story they exist all over time and Blackwood’s been chasing them but they seem like apt metaphors for this sense of rage and avarice that seems to be prevailing these days. That’s what they are – greedy little monsters who love to take people for rides and then discard the corpse and jump onto the next one. It seemed, even ten years ago very creepy, and also an apt metaphor for what we’re seeing in the world.
We were tempted to follow them even more; just go on these joyrides and jump into people and do something terrible but that was just for our amusement, it really wouldn’t add to the story!
How do you plan characterisation?
It’s very different to do when it’s two people [writing a novel]. Guillermo will seize on a character aspect that he likes and I’ll seize on one that I like, and then we build them from that. We were really taken with pairing Blackwood – who has live 400 years – with this relatively young female FBI agent; that dynamic seemed really interesting.
Then we went into her backstory, we actually have a lot more of it and there’s more to come in subsequent books. She’s actually led a really interesting life over her relatively short number of years. With [the character of] Solomon, I was fascinated by that relationship – Blackwood’s and Solomon’s 40 year [relationship] – what it would be like to meet this guy and to try to understand what he’s doing and then eventually start to grow old yourself, grow to the end of your days and see this man who hasn’t changed and is still living and what that would mean to a person. That dynamic really interested me.
I think the toughest one was Blackwood himself because he’s lived so long we had to really think about his creation story and his motivation throughout the years. As I’m talking about it, it sounds like a rather dry endeavour but it’s actually pretty exciting when you come upon something that that feels really real for that character and makes them pop even more. When I’m writing alone there’s no one to share that with but when it’s Guillermo we can bounce that off each other and keep tuning it up a level.
Will there be more The Hollow Ones books?
It’s not a trilogy which is actually nice, we have a little bit more of a loose structure. I think we’d like to keep the time aspect structure but we’re definitely planning more Hugo Blackwood [stories], more tapes, not more Hollow Ones necessarily but more Blackwood tapes. Yeah more to come…
The novel seems ripe for a screen adaptation…
We literally haven’t talked about it, which I know seems totally unbelievable but with The Strain [which was made into a TV series in 2017] it was the exact same thing. When we first started working on The Strain he was a movie director and I thought ‘this would make a great movie, maybe that’ll happen’. He said to me – this is 2006 – ‘this needs to be a TV show’ [but] back in 2006, TV was not what it is today. I’m like ‘alright whatever’, that seemed like a terrible idea. Of course he saw it all, but we never even talked about what that might look like or who we might go to until we finished writing the books. When the books were done, we pitched it and worked on the television show.
I’m not even going to ask him what he thinks or how he thinks this might go. It does seem like it would make a really fun, really good TV show but I don’t know. We’re going to write our books and see what we want to do after that.
You’ve written both novels and screenplays – what element of writing do you prefer?
The process is so different. Honestly, if I couldn’t do both I’d feel like something would be lacking. The great thing about writing books – even with Guillermo or by myself – is we don’t have to collaborate, we don’t have to worry about budgets or weather or anything, you have it all. And that’s great.
At the same time it’s fun to work in movies or in television where you’re responsible for 100-150 people who are waiting on your decisions and you’ve got more of a dramatic company and that’s fun too. So to be able to do both is really exciting. If I had to choose one just to write it would probably be a script, just because, after having written a novel, scripts feel easier. They’re not easy but they feel easy because in a novel you have so much research and you have to do so much work. Whereas a script you have to really think about the dramatic aspects; you don’t have to explain who John Dee was, you don’t have to go into 1582 London unless you want to. That’s the advantage of the scriptwriting!
What are you writing right now?
Actually I haven’t written a novel on my own for I don’t know how many years, could be as many as ten – so I have a crime novel that I’m writing that will be out next year and I’ve been writing scripts. I’ve been developing some television [though] everything is a little bit uncertain right now. I certainly managed to stay busy during this time which is really a blessing. I’m excited about this book and I’m excited about more adventures with Guillermo!
The Hollow Ones by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro is out now.