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Deadfall Hotel
Steve Rasnic Tem
Solaris paperback £7.99

review by Maureen Kincaid Speller

There is a line early in Deadfall Hotel, in a discussion of household pests, when the narrator talks of "their occasional forays into the realm of human anxiety." The reader understands this to refer to insects and small mammals that find their way into Deadfall Hotel, but it is not so bad a way of describing the hotel itself. While one might not be able to precisely put a finger on what - if anything - is wrong with the hotel, nonetheless, it is not quite like other places. Hidden away in the mountains, far off the beaten track, the Deadfall Hotel is, according to Jacob Ascher, its most recent proprietor, "the embodiment of generations of agreements, understandings, pacts, covenant, promises, traditions enforced or simply encouraged, specific and nonspecific contractual negotiations, religious partnerships, spiritual compromises." In practice, this means that many of its mysterious patrons don't quite fit into modern society any more and the Deadfall provides them with a haven from contemporary life.

As Jacob also notes, in one of the diary entries that top and tail each chapter, the job of proprietor is not without risk. Those who take on the job "come haunted by loss, perhaps some terrible deed perpetrated either by them or upon them, and they carry these traumas around with them like fantastic creatures perched on their shoulders who alter the very way they see the outer world." One such is Richard Carter, selected by Jacob to be his successor. Richard lost his wife, Abby, in a house fire, a fire from which he rescued his daughter, Serena, since when they have wandered aimlessly from rented property to rented property, never quite settling but with no clear idea of what the future holds. Richard is all too acutely aware of his responsibility towards Serena but is has no idea how to be the sole parent of an only child. On the one hand, he tries to keep his daughter close, knowing that she is fast growing into a teenager; on the other hand, he knows he cannot hold her forever and must sooner or later give her the freedom she needs. He comes to the Deadfall reluctantly, knowing that something must change but unsure how to go about it.

The novel takes us through the year the Carters spend at the Deadfall, as Richard deals first with his fierce attachment to Serena, gradually coming to accept that he cannot protect her forever. Richard has always been disturbed by the fact that children seem to grow up too quickly but, at the Deadfall, Jacob shows him that there is a difference between protecting a child from actual danger and from his own anxiety, and he needs to understand what that difference feels like. The presence of the mysterious Mr Lovelace, more than human, suspiciously like a wolf, contributes to this. Serena, herself, we come to realise, is clever and resourceful, able to take good care of herself, and adept at making friends, with Enid the cook and her son, and with Jacob, whose strong attachment to her hints at the tragedy in his own life. All of them stand ready to protect her.

After Serena, Richard must take care of himself. His sleeping and waking hours are still haunted by the belief that Abby's ghost has accompanied the Carters to the hotel. This leaves Richard open to the attentions of some of the hotel's guests, those who prey on the bodies and the minds of the weary. Gradually, however, he comes to realise that death or oblivion are not the way to deal with his own grief, and armed with this knowledge he is able to find his way back to some sort of equilibrium, and to address the true nature of his relationship with Abby.

And yet at the Deadfall Hotel, all is not doom, gloom and opportunities to learn important lessons. Jacob, having assumed the role of caretaker, is constantly on hand to instruct Richard in the vagaries of tending a hotel whose floors and corridors do not all seem to belong in the same plane of existence, whose guests are rarely seen, whose staff are even more reticent. There are mysterious rituals to be observed, including the removal of those guests who have died during the long, harsh winter, the summer cleaning programme which seem to be magical as much as it is practical and occasional visitors who make themselves visible.

The Deadfall itself is an astonishing building, riddled with secret passages, possessed of an infrastructure that if not sentient then is certainly not entirely inanimate. Its true nature is never revealed but it becomes a nexus for extraordinary happenings, some of them horrific, others more life-affirming. Presiding over this is Jacob Ascher, ageless yet childlike, a good friend to both Richard and Serena, perceptive, aware of their metaphysical needs. It is to Jacob that Richard finally confesses his own deepest secret when, having witnessed the horror of another guest's inability to let go of the past, he realises it is now time to move on.

It is tempting then to read the Deadfall Hotel as a physical embodiment of Richard's anxieties, an actualised palace of memory in which he relives his hopes and fears, or perhaps a place imagined so vividly it inevitably springs to life. However, I prefer to believe that the Deadfall Hotel exists in its own right, drawing to it those who need its particular qualities, permanently or for a short while. Richard casts it at one point as a Funhouse, a hall of mirrors, a place he goes into "to see what I could see, and believe me, I saw plenty." But, in seeing that plenty, Richard is able to make the necessary choices. As Jacob notes, "Some are not meant to live in the Funhouse" and it is clear that Richard is among their number.

Whether or not the Deadfall Hotel is real or imagined within the terms of the novel, Steve Rasnic Tem has created a strange and wonderful world, filled with the curious and the marvellous. What is striking throughout is the compassion shown to his characters. Few if any of the more peculiar residents of the hotel are downright evil; instead, they are caught up in their own needs and desires, driven to behave in certain ways, not easily understood by the world at large. The Deadfall, presided over by Jacob and Richard, is a home away from home for those lost in a world they can no longer make sense of. For some of them it is the end of the journey, for others it is a staging post. For everyone the Deadfall Hotel is as much a place of joy as it is of sorrow, something Steve Rasnic Tem captures brilliantly in this extraordinary novel.

Deadfall Hotel by Steve Rasnic Tem

copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press