Steve Rasnic Tem’s Deadfall Hotel has been keenly anticipated by weird fiction geeks for more than two decades, ever since horror icon Charles L. Grant published the story “Bloodwolf” in his anthology Shadows 9 (1986). Tem, a winner of the World Fantasy Award and British Fantasy Award, noted that the story was the seed for a much longer work — which has been published, finally, in a beautiful, gift-worthy limited edition by Centipede Press, to be followed by a mass market from Solaris next year.
What is Deadfall Hotel about? A haunted hotel with a long pedigree that has fallen into disrepair. To this afflicted place comes a widower who takes over the job of managing the hotel, accompanied by his daughter and the ghost of his wife. The hotel isn’t exactly promising real estate: “A curtain of gnarled, skeletal oak and pine hides it from the rest of the world. The hotel is not well-lit, there is no sign, and night comes early here …the hotel appears to follow the jumbled line of a train wreck, carts thrown out at all angles and yet still attached in sequence.”
In addition to some affinities of place with Peake’s work, Deadfall Hotel reminds the reader of Ray Bradbury, Edward Gorey, and Shirley Jackson without being derivative. Far from it — indeed, the novel provides a smorgasbord of sweet spots for the weird fiction connoisseur. Nightmares, supernatural creatures, cults, eccentric characters, and the atmosphere of the titular hotel all combine for a fascinating read. With the popularity of TV shows like American Horror Story, the timing seems right, as well (although we think Deadfall is much more interesting.)
We’re pleased to bring WFR.com readers a long self-contained excerpt from the novel, “The King of the Cats,” which we will run in four parts, every Thursday between now and Christmas. Many thanks to Tem, Solaris, and Centipede Press. – Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
“And death shall have no dominion,” at least that was his hope, that Dylan Thomas who drank and sang and insulted and roared and made immortal poetry. We write, we sing, we have our children and have our way, all in an attempt to defeat that fatal king. Perhaps the famous succeed – I can’t really say. But certainly it isn’t their true selves the people remember, but rather the great and interesting lies they told about themselves. And whose children remember them as they really were? Your children remember you too harshly, too well, or seemingly not at all.
The dead should be grateful that we live our lives so poorly, that we have so much trouble actually being where we are and when we are. It is the dead who fill in the blanks, who occupy the empty spaces in our minds and hearts. If you see someone living their life as if their life were living them, if the most remarkable aspect of their day is their lack of participation in it, then I wager if you look closely enough you will find one or more of the dead buried waist-deep in that life, gazing about in wonder as the poor soul wanders from event to event.
It is the dead who benefit from our lack of care. And they fully understand on what side of the bread their butter lies. I must admit that I was so taken by Richard Carter’s daughter Serena I was compelled to discuss their situation with Abigail Carter, the dead wife and mother who tagged along for the ride. I attempted to explain to her that a dead mother was no help for such a child, and that whatever she might be feeling about her recent demise (and, yes, the dead have feelings – in fact emotion is the sum total of most of them), she was doing her daughter no favors by lingering about.
Mine was a futile endeavor, of course, as the dead are remarkably self-centered and narrow-minded.
My own dead wife and children have never appeared here. I cannot honestly say whether I am relieved or disappointed. I wonder if I may have so expunged them from my growing list of heartbreaks that they feel no need to make an appearance. Does that make me a terrible husband and father? I have no answer for that.
We carry our fears with us wherever we go. We pack them neatly, holding them close because if we lost them where would we be? Lost in some foreign land without proper clothing I suppose. Our current and past guests have brought their fears to the Deadfall, and so many of them have left theirs behind. I sometimes wonder if these missing items are mourned, or if the visitors are aware of an unburdening, a lightening of attitude due to a mysterious cause they cannot quite put their finger on. This hotel has become a warehouse of such items, and we take our duties as conservators quite seriously. From time to time some group which does not understand attempts to rent the Deadfall for parties, particularly around the season of Halloween, as if this establishment might function as some sort of funhouse. Such applications are, without exception, denied.
The strongest presence is so often an absence. Life here underscores this point almost daily. Yesterday I was up on the third floor when I became aware of the odor coming from #302. I had almost forgotten – it has been almost a decade since I thought of the tenant residing there. I stood outside the door and breathed in the stray wisps of perfume, that particular tobacco-and-fried-food aroma. No actual physical being resides in that room, but it has long been occupied by a lingering after smell of the man who lived there in the forties and fifties. The room is sealed so that a sufficient quantity of the smell may be preserved. We do not rent the room, nor do we enter to clean.
After the summer break I intend to intensify Serena’s home-schooling. I had originally been reluctant to take on the job, hoping eventually to replace myself with a tutor lured away from some institute of higher learning. But I have been surprised to discover an unexpected enthusiasm in myself for the project. Since the beginning of the summer I have read a number of volumes of educational theory, and made hundreds of pages of notes concerning strategies and exercises I intend to try out in the fall. I believe there is much I can teach her in a relatively short span of time. In the meantime I have filled her Summer with books taken from our magnificent Deadfall library. I feel confident that Richard Carter will be satisfied with the richness this educational mixture has to offer.
There is a seasonal aspect to learning, I believe, and we do our best when we respect this. Now is her season to explore, to let her fancies guide her to whatever knowledge she might find.
This spring the Deadfall revived from its long winter sleep. By the end of summer we will see exactly what has been awakened.
– from the diary of Jacob Ascher, proprietor, Deadfall Hotel, 1969 – 2000
Life in the hotel was a bumpy ride. Each arrival brought some new story. Each checkout left yet another narrative incomplete, demanding that Richard’s imagination supply some sort of conclusion or at least a few seconds of summation. His and Serena’s time here felt splintered, jiggered by rising and falling excitements and stray, inconclusive climaxes. Only their consistent presence, and that of the hotel with its minimal staff, provided some sort of stability. But that was human life, wasn’t it? The sadness and the thrill of it. If people did their jobs properly, they would never outlive their own homes, the places they met and studied in, made love in, sculpted their destinies in. It was all a collection of incomplete, yet meaningful tales.
Abby, of course, would have loved it here. It was an attitude and an interpretation so much in sympathy with her own. She would have loved the excitement and the anticipation, even the strangeness of it all. Richard thought she belonged in this setting much more than he.
Not that she wasn’t here, of course. There was this remnant, this reminder, pale simulacrum of what his wife had been walking these halls, peering into things, taking the air.
Perhaps he had no business thinking that way. Even the living changed, went their separate ways, disappointed. And what bigger change than that turning from life into death. It wasn’t her fault. But still, he found that he harbored resentment. He saw her often in the halls, particularly around bedtime, looking under and around things, testing chairs, sometimes lying down on a step or underneath a table as if to test the comfort of a rug, measuring windows and doors with her pale, transparent and near-to-transparent hands. Always smiling. Always using those intelligent eyes which burned with their own, independent light it seemed. There was a sadness in it, but there had always been a beautiful sadness in Abby. Death seemed not to have changed her that much in this regard.
What he felt when he saw her, besides his own sadness, was a certain irretrievable disconnection. It must be the way divorced couples must view each other, he thought, if the divorce has been relatively amicable. She was no longer part of his life, really. He might wave to her in the hall; she might smile his way. But she was no longer part of his life. She had moved on. He needed to move on as well.
If only there hadn’t been Serena to consider. As far as he could tell, Abby made little contact with their daughter. Maybe Abby thought that best; maybe it was for Serena’s benefit. Did Abby think now? Richard understood none of it.
The hotel and surrounding wood had baked for two months. Each day the heat built without leveling, before night or the rare downpour discouraged it until the following morning, when the climb started all over again. Guests and the occasional delivery driver sat with their heads lowered. Small animals made noises like babies calling for their lost mothers, and Richard stayed awake nights trying to make sure in his own mind that they were not, indeed, babies. Insects danced madly in silence. Richard spent his days worrying over Serena, who filled her mornings with imaginary playmates – but wasn’t she too old for that sort of thing? – and in any case who might say that an invisible Deadfall playmate was truly, irrevocably, imaginary?
“Here, we’ll provide these gentlemen with some lemonade and send them on their way,” Jacob said, gesturing to the row of uniformed men sitting on chairs on the Deadfall porch. Bus drivers: staring out at the wide lawn, their faces dripping sweat. Jacob had told him how large numbers of these bus drivers had shown up at the Deadfall over the years, in uniform, with their empty buses, having just walked off – or driven off – their jobs. “This year, well I believe this year will be a good year for bus drivers,” Jacob had said a few weeks earlier. And he had been right. They’d been showing up all week.
There’d been fewer official check-ins than usual, however. Jacob didn’t appear surprised. A few guests had shipped themselves to the hotel in crates and barrels, and Jacob had wheeled these containers up to their reserved rooms without fuss. A family had checked in: short people in tight brown coats, the parents no bigger than the small children. And then there was the naked man covered in bite marks and sutures, who’d wandered in from the woods without baggage and Jacob had taken him up to a room immediately. Richard was glad Serena hadn’t been down in the lobby for that one.
During the afternoons Serena spoke obsessively of babies and of more than babies – of embryos and fetuses and how there might be hundreds of thousands of them hidden in the world around us, so tiny we can’t see them, floating into our open mouths and gathering into our soup spoons and crushing under our bodies when we rolled sleepless in bed, and how angry they all must be at not having a chance to be born. Of course, it made him uneasy. She was his baby, after all. She asked her father if maybe the Deadfall and its grounds contained more of these invisible lives than most places, and he had no idea how to answer her.
Then after dark there was the Serena of mercurial mood. She’d suddenly be angry at him with no reason, talking so loudly, so rapidly she was in fact spitting. Over nothing. Over things Richard couldn’t even recall having said. Over things Serena said he would have said, if she’d only given him half a chance.
And still the heat intensified. What had begun as a warm welcome to the sunniest part of the year had exaggerated itself without relief, until the sun was an eye in flames and breathing became a miserable chore. Then came an afternoon when the season collapsed suddenly, parched and exhausted, falling hard into what Richard’s grandmother had always inexplicably called the dog days of summer.
“The expression comes from Sirius, the dog star,” Jacob offered. Providing explanations was second nature to him. Whether his explanations actually explained anything was another matter entirely. “The brightest star in the night sky. The Romans thought Sirius rose with the sun this time of year and added its heat to the sun’s heat. Thereby making the dog days the hottest time of the year.”
From the sound of it you might think this was supposed to be the best time for dogs. But mid-July through August had always been unbearably, impossibly hot where he’d grown up, and he remembered rarely seeing dogs during this time, and wondering if maybe they’d retreated below ground, into vast underground dog runs and chambers where they had their own government, queens, dukes, and kings.
Every now and then through the years his interest would bubble over when he spied a dog digging in an out-of-the-way patch of ground, so that he could hardly contain himself. He would wait for hours sometimes, hoping that dog might suddenly disappear into the earth.
He’d also wondered if there might be special times of the year for other animals, which had heretofore gone unrecognized by the human world. Cat days and mouse days. And maybe they had places of their own, lives human beings knew nothing about, seasons and cycles and natural rhythms that affected humans, even though humans took no notice of their effects. Maybe there were realms of birds, empires of ants, counties of rabbits, kingdoms of cats. Bat weeks and months for deer. Who could know? Sometimes it seemed only human beings, with their all too unfocused lives, their chronic social awkwardness, had no calendrical dominion they might call their own.
These were the thoughts of a man suffering from too much heat, he supposed. No new guests had arrived the past few days, and those who were already buried within the walls of the Deadfall appeared to have become more deeply buried still. He imagined them sitting naked in their rooms, their usually hidden deformities at home in the shadows, occasionally getting up to gulp cool air down by the grates in the floor.
The Deadfall’s cooling system did appear to work well enough. Despite the heat outside it was possible to sleep the night through, if that’s what you wanted to do. Jacob had told him that sections of the upper level lacked air conditioning, but that these rooms were by special request only this time of year. He couldn’t imagine it. Even the relatively cool Deadfall interior held pockets of cooked, pressurized air. Sometimes he would be sitting, thinking idly, and it was as if the ideas adhered to the stale air around him – for hours he might watch their afterimages float languidly about his head.
A few weeks earlier Jacob had informed him that the time was fast approaching for the Deadfall’s more or less comprehensive biannual cleaning.
“Now, please remain calm. There is no need for panic,” Jacob had told him. “We’ll be hiring what local crew we can obtain, and I have a list of past laborers who will travel this far out just for the money we will be paying them. All you have to do is provide a little supervision, and keep them out of those rooms, and floors, where they do not belong, or for some reason we do not wish to be cleaned.” Richard understood there was a fund available for such work, but Jacob had never bothered to reveal its source.
Richard hadn’t thought any more about it – maybe because it seemed too much to think about, a cleaning task beyond any he could imagine, particularly during the hottest, most miserable time of the year – and why choose this time of year in any case? – until one morning, when Jacob off-handedly informed him he’d already made all the arrangements, and that the workers would be arriving that afternoon. Well, let the old man do what he wanted. He couldn’t be responsible for the consequences. He couldn’t even think clearly. If things continued like this, soon he’d be seeing Serena’s invisible fetuses and embryos himself.
At lunch time Richard went into the kitchens to ask Enid if she would make him a sandwich. Serena liked making her own (no self-respecting cook would serve up such unattractive combinations), and part of the fun for her was taking the sandwich somewhere she didn’t belong and curling up with a book to read and eat, dripping unidentifiable juices on book, clothing, carpeting and furniture. He’d decided not to stop her – you had to choose your battles, and Jacob didn’t seem to mind. Besides, the secret army of housekeepers always had things spotless by the next morning, and he had never received any notes of complaint.
He really should learn to make his own sandwiches, he thought, but he wouldn’t be able to top Enid’s wonderful lunches in a hundred years, so why bother? And she obviously thought fixing him lunch was just part of her job.
He walked in to find Enid packing utensils and gear into two large canvas bags. Her son stood impassively nearby, two suitcases hanging from each hand. He blinked acknowledgement in Richard’s direction, but said nothing.
“You’re not leaving us are you?” he asked her, unsuccessfully trying to keep alarm out of his voice.
“I always leave during The Big Cleaning,” she replied, “go down to spend some time with my sister. Besides, I just can’t abide this heat! I’ll be back by the first snow. This is the slow season, didn’t Jacob tell you?”
Richard thought that the hotel always seemed to be a bit on the slow side, but he said nothing. It wasn’t his place. “I would have thought you’d want to stick around, make sure they didn’t mess up your kitchens.”
“Hmpf. They do what Jacob says. It’s all down on that list of his, been done the same way for decades, way before he came. He never asks for my input. He probably can’t – asking for my input isn’t on the list, I bet.”
“What about the housekeepers? Do they help out, or do they go away as well?”
“The housekeepers – do what they do, that’s all anybody can say. We don’t interact. Now, you have a good couple of months, and take good care of that sweet child of yours.”
She nodded at her son, picked up the bags, and they left. Her saying “sweet child” had been an unexpected, and endearing gift.
When the workers pulled up to the hotel in assorted pickups, vans, rusted Volkswagen Bugs, and stripped-down and sloppily-puttied old Cadillacs, Richard was ready for them. He’d prepared a rough map of the hotel, breaking it down into areas and assigning so many workers to each area, accompanied by a specific list of tasks. That had required some occasionally puzzling input from Jacob. The full meaning of such tasks as “wrap the yellow vase at the end of the hall in #14 copper wire” and “dip the fringe of the triangular area rug with the red cat pattern into a solution of 3 parts graphite and 1 part lemon juice, but under no circumstances do the same to the similar rug with the green cat pattern” was not immediately apparent.
“So what does this one mean? ‘Stand with your back to the closet door while rubbing two ounces of butter on the back side of the lower right-hand door frame.’”
Jacob studied the note on the map, hastily scribbled in his own handwriting and said, “You had best obtain someone unusually limber for this particular task. I saw a couple of tall young men; perhaps one of them will do.”
“So what does it mean?”
“I have no idea, Richard.”
“That is simply the way it has always been done. I received those instructions from the manager before me; now I’m giving them to you. There are rituals about these things, precautions to take, restrictions to be respected. It has all been passed down.”
“I just wonder how I’m going to remember all this when you aren’t here anymore.”
“You just will. I did. You find you have to.”
But the nature of the Deadfall seemed increasingly unreal and arbitrary, something to be memorized, to deal with ritualistically, to be accepted as a matter of faith. Working on that map made it clear how confused Richard’s sense of the hotel’s structure actually was. He thought he knew where most of the rooms were by now, and their relationship to various central architectural features such as halls, chimneys, and staircases, but once he started diagramming them, the pieces didn’t all fit.
It appeared impossible to capture the hotel on paper. Rooms were either larger or smaller than they should have been, and the separate pieces of the hotel seemed incapable of forming a coherent whole. Chimneys did not flow unbroken from floor to floor as they should have. Tracing one such chimney all the way up from the basement Richard discovered that it took several impossible jogs, changing its position a full ten feet from floor two to floor three (as well as the type of brick from which it had been constructed) and in no way matching the apparently corresponding chimney leaning precariously from one side of the Deadfall’s roof. He had similar problems making sense of the construction of staircases, and the arrangement of pipes and ductwork moving between rooms and floors was an impossible tangle.
“We have to clean all the ducts somehow,” Jacob muttered in passing. “I shudder to imagine all that might be growing inside them.”
Richard got the bright idea of attaching a long cord to the heavy, detached wheel of a toy wagon, and tossing that down the ducts to see where it might lead. He could hear it clanging in the metal shafts for a long time, bouncing off walls, taking long drops. Then silence. Then the cord burned its entire length through his hands, the whole of it disappearing into the dark mouth of the duct. Every few hours he would hear it in some distant wall, or rattling the boards under his feet, or making a brief appearance at the bottom of a toilet bowl before disappearing again.
He and Jacob tried to pay the smaller workers to climb into the ducts with a sponge, a bucket, and a net, but they got no takers at any price. Finally they decided to clean the best they could with mop heads attached to long limber poles, and leave it at that.
The used mop heads were dumped into a pile by the driveway. Now and then Richard would prod it with one of the long poles. There was always some arousal of movement, and tiny things scuttled or slithered out of the pile into the tall grass. Once Richard had read a book all about house mites, how they fed on tiny flakes of human skin, how millions of them lived in even the cleanest of houses. He imagined those mites nourished in the perfect environment, and magnified hundreds of times. Deadfall mites.
House mites were not something he could ever have talked to Abby about. Someone looking into their house from the outside might have called her a meticulous housekeeper. But the word he would have used was “frightened.” She was frightened of dirt, not just because she was afraid that people would judge her on the basis of her housecleaning, or that she would be a bad mother if she didn’t maintain a filth-free environment for her child (although she believed both of these things), but because of what she couldn’t see, and of what she didn’t know.
“There are things in dirt,” was all she would say about it. And the vigor with which she wiped everything down before the baby Serena was permitted into a room, and the way she studied newspaper stories having to do with disease and freak accidents as if they were biblical text, and the constant journeys she made to the doctors, and how she tried every new remedy on the market until cautioning newspaper stories kept her away from medicines and chemicals of any kind for a while.
Chemicals, molecules, microbes – all bits of the unseen world were like ghosts to her. They haunted her to distraction.
He’d sometimes wondered if it had something to do with the baby – not Serena, but the one who hadn’t made it. The one she’d been told was dying in her womb after six months, and then was dead, and had to be pulled out like a bad tooth. Abby had been a woman who couldn’t even say the words fetus, or embryo. Early in her pregnancy she’d sat up in bed one night and said, “There’s a secret growing inside me.” He’d switched on the light, expecting to see a silly smile on her face, but she hadn’t been smiling at all.
He didn’t think she should see it, but she’d insisted, and she said it looked like a dark doll, like an unfinished sculpture, and she had been right. But then she had said it couldn’t be human, its fingers weren’t right and she was sure there had been claws, and that the doctors had planted this thing inside her, and she’d never been pregnant at all. They’d had to sedate her, and he’d gone home alone to drink and cry all night.
Embryos and fetuses. For the past two years Serena’s interest in babies had remained constant. She clipped their pictures from magazines and hung them on her wall. When she tired of talking about babies, then she talked about animal babies instead, which she might always have access to, which she could hold. So unlike her mother, she had no fear of small, hidden things, even the things that smelled, crawled, and bit. But Richard had never told her about the older brother she’d almost had.
Jacob assigned Richard the task of inspecting the cleaned areas of the hotel.
“Don’t you think you should do that? I mean, I’d like to make the rounds with you to see what I can learn, but that’s my point – I don’t know enough about what’s right, what’s wrong. Christ, I hardly know what’s up or down, left or right in the Deadfall yet.”
Jacob looked harried, his normally neatly-combed hair sticking up in all directions, his belt askew, cuffs spotted with black dust. “I appreciate that,” he said, distractedly, “but I can’t really take the time right now, and I do believe it might be beneficial if you were to examine the hotel with new eyes, without the influence of my observations.”
“So you’re teaching me to swim by just throwing me into the water.”
“A bit of an exaggeration, but if you wish. Necessity is the great teacher, and all that.”
In Richard’s experience there had always been some buildings that looked huge on the outside but proved cramped and impossible to navigate inside. Other, smaller looking structures, appeared to go on forever for those taking a first-time tour. He’d noticed it from the beginning, but today underscored the impression: the Deadfall managed to be huge both outside and in. From the outside the central section resembled one of those grand old mansions from the South, with large white columns framing the enormous hard-carved front doors. The columns supported an elaborately carved porch roof two stories off the ground, and small windows like peepholes had been carved out of the wall above the doors in an arcing arrangement. On either side of the columns were the great front windows, four to a floor, each running practically floor to ceiling to maximize light and impressiveness. Out of this central portion the wings spread, but instead of running parallel to the porch line they were composed of segments which stepped back from the main building at random angles, following the slope and irregularities of the hillside, so that the farther from the front doors the more chaotic (and less elegant) the structure became as it groped for stability, and the natural stresses of gravity pulled walls and framing out of alignment, until you arrived at the last segment which should have been condemned. In fact, many sections were boarded up and isolated from the rest of the hotel.
Richard thought the Deadfall looked not so much constructed as landed, the body of some great creature fallen to ground and into its final resting place.
He had been assembling a rough interior map of the hotel since his first few days here, surprised that one didn’t already exist. (“Every new manager starts one,” Jacob explained. “But all eventually quit the enterprise. You will, too, I assure you.”) Richard’s map was now several sheets taped together, walls drawn with pencil, erased, and redrawn, arrows used to indicate geometry which made no logical sense.
He did the main structure first, which was straight forward enough, although he did have trouble in the southeast corner of the third floor, where one room featured closet within closet within closet, the final closet leading him out to the middle of the second floor hall, with no sensation of having descended. He entered a number on the sheet for each room or hall, described its location as best he could, added notations regarding closets, private baths, and similar utility spaces, and attempted some critique of the cleanliness (“Floors spotless, ceiling could use some work, mirror over the fireplace filthy, or severely corroded.”). Sometimes he caught a glimpse of residents (gray flesh, curled claw, balding, rash-eaten head) as they quickly entered a closet or hid behind a curtain while he made his inspections. This always embarrassed him, even made him feel slightly ashamed of himself. Many residents didn’t let him in at all, of course, and these he duly noted and went on his way. Jacob had told him that a number of them chose to travel during the annual cleaning period, and in their rooms Richard often found personal possessions awaiting their owners’ return: odd, unshapely garments, twisted bits of toy, elaborate wrappings, ornate brushes and combs, scissors, and accompanying tools of unimaginable purpose he assumed to be grooming devices. There were also pets in covered cages whose plaintive, ominous cries he decided it best to ignore.
The wings proved more difficult, as he had expected. The halls seldom followed straight lines, and the twists, turns, and doublings back made him abandon his descriptions of location in favor of relative descriptions (“eighteen steps down the hall from the previous door”). Ceiling heights were unpredictable so that sometimes he had to crouch and other times there was insufficient light to tell him the ceiling’s height, but he knew it was some distance because he could hear things flying up there.
Furnishings also varied greatly in the wings. In some rooms he had to walk over the tops of a series of beds and sideboards just to reach the other side. Others were completely bare of furniture even though the room was still occupied (“coughs and throat clearings from the closet suggesting more than one guest”).
At the end of three days Richard had gotten up to 232 on his numbered list, and couldn’t really tell how much more he had to do. This confusion of scope was further complicated when he discovered he had somehow skipped a series of rooms – as many as twenty doors – from the first day’s inspections. His map was falling apart from pencil corrections and arrowed notations, indecipherable worn and smudged sections, torn bits from anxious handling.
After a week with no clear end in sight Jacob stopped him in the hall. “Perhaps it’s time for a rest. Do the rooms appear to be getting cleaned, or at least dealt with?”
Richard nodded wearily.
“Then so be it. Go spend some time with your daughter.”
One of the cleaning crew found the thing…
To be continued, next Thursday…