Like so many writers flailing around in the sandbox of horror and genre fiction generally, I was a very anxious kid. There was lots to be nervous about; there were the usual things, of course – acne, grades, negotiation of friendships, navigation through crushes, and passage over the tricky terrain of adolescence. Then there were the inner circles of childhood hell, of which parents’ divorces and subsequent remarriages, one’s own failure to adhere to certain parents’ notion of success, and a veritable litany of unrequited “loves” are the examples that spring to mind.
But these are fairly prosaic examples of teen anxiety. But at 11 years old, I added my own invention. I spent a long year obsessing quietly over the possibility that I was the Biblical Anti-Christ.
I look back at it with something like humor, now. It seems outrageous that I could be so self-absorbed, really, to think that I was the late arrival of a character prophesied in the Book of Revelations. But at the time I experienced it as a kind of continuous low-grade terror. Before the year of the Anti-Christ, I had already experienced years of fearing that I could never get into heaven because I had already committed an unforgivable sin without even realizing it. It was not, then, that I thought that I really exhibited Anti-Christ-like traits (like compelling nannies to hang themselves or riding around a mansion in a kid’s trike), but that my over-anxious mind had thought of the ultimate scenario in which I would be consigned to hell rather than heaven.
This irrational, solipsistic fear reached its apex over several days, starting with a visit to Father Green at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Havre, Montana. I asked him whether he thought I might be the Anti-Christ, and he bore the question like a true professional by seeming to consider it seriously though I might have preferred him to laugh in my face.
“I think it’s very unlikely,” he said after an appropriate period of examination and review.
“Impossible, even,” I pressed.
“I wouldn’t say impossible,” he said.
Thus, the meeting did not immediately improve my anxiety. In fact, having heard that it was a bona fide possibility, I began to see evidence of my satanic destiny everywhere. I never exactly thought that I was being contacted or communicated with by the devil, but several nights later I sensed him sitting on the edge of my bed.
You have to understand that at this time I hadn’t consumed a lot of horror fiction (Goosebumps notwithstanding) yet. In fact, the first time I remember encountering the abject was in a picture book of medieval atrocities. While waiting for my mother to finish her genealogical research at a library in Missouri, I picked up the book and paged through, stopping at a leaf showing a crazed, rangy-looking man in filthy rags tearing at the flesh of his own right arm with his teeth, pieces of skin caught in his long and unkempt beard. The caption, to the extent that I remember it, was that some inmates of dungeons in those times resorted to self-cannibalizing to quench their terrible hunger. The feeling that the picture provoked was electric, a combination of shock and thrill that I have not forgotten since. But the feeling that Satan was sitting on my bed was far worse.
All I could do was hide, immobile, under my covers, thinking that if he didn’t realize I was awake I could escape his notice. For all of my fear of him, my conception of Satan must have been pretty polite, as he would not deign to wake a boy who needed his sleep.
I lay that way for a couple of hours, praying and hoping that the feeling would pass. With the imperfect hindsight of memory, I imagine him sitting with his back to me, his head inclining towards me slightly like Goya’s etching of the colossus, included here for the sake of picturing it exactly.
When the feeling passed in the early morning, it marked a sort of major advance for me. I no longer feared Satan like I used to. I also began to lose my faith, but that’s another story.
If I have sought out a lot of Satanic horror films and novels since, from J.K. Huysman’s decadent fin-de-siècle novel La-Bas to stuff like Glen Duncan’s I, Lucifer, from Benjamin Christenson’s silent masterpiece Der Haxanto the grievously stupid Adam Sandler turd Little Nicky, it is to chase that child around, to both provoke and comfort him. It is to tell him that he is not as alone as he thinks he is; Satan, or something like him, sits on the edge of almost everyone’s bed.
You may consider this my very long-winded introduction to my review of Deadfall Hotel, a 2012 novel by Steve Rasnic Tems, and a brilliant invocation of the potential powers of horror literature.
Tem’s novel concerns Richard Carter (whose name recalls, at least for me, Lovecraft’s protagonist Randolph Carter), a father and recent widower who answers a mysterious ad and becomes the caretaker of the titular hotel (shades also of The Shining). The hotel itself is a curious, Edward Gorey-esque edifice that provides a safe and quiet spot for its “guests”, who are hinted to be monstrous oddballs, but never exactly described in the terms that would traditionally be applied to them. One chapter revolves around the eerie figure of Arthur Lovelace, a large and vital red-haired man of advancing years who seems to be able to smell blood and who has a strongly bestial side, but who is never directly referred to as a werewolf. Another focuses on a woman who clearly has a thing for blood, but is not quite ever called a vampire.
This oblique subtlety produces strange effects on the reader; though the story regularly dips into the uncanny, it always stays curiously prosaic. For though life and death are the wages of the plot, the story’s real stakes involve Richard’s emotional health and his connection to his daughter, who is rapidly becoming a young woman. So when a storm of feral cats overtakes the hotel, we are not so much concerned that our main characters will be clawed to death, but are more worried what it will mean for Richard’s daughter Serena that her own pet has been revealed to be the King of Cats, and how she will bear the loss of her pet when she has so recently lost her mother. Thus, the emotional orientation of the novel is more intimate and humane than the typical horror story, which tend to threaten bodily harm or shattered psyches. One heartbreaking and strange passage tells of how every spring, amidst the renewal associated with that season, the caretaker and the handyman must check all the rooms and clearr out the detritus of the monsters and creatures who have died, forgotten, over the winter. Deadfall Hotel more closely resembles a family drama or coming of age story than a horror story. Accepting that horror boogeymen are already psychological archetypes, the novel carries that out to its logical, or perhaps illogical, conclusion.
If I may put words into Mr. Tem’s pen, I think that a hotel of monsters is the perfect metaphor for the genre itself. It allows monsters to congregate in a place of relative safety, both for them and for those of us who care to give them a place to stay – we who are “caretakers”, if you will. If it is not exactly original for me to suggest that the horror genre lets us examine our anxieties up close from a sheltered vantage, it is no less self-evidently true. But the novel’s true innovation is in producing such a sense of genuine warmth from such gothic environs; it demonstrates that we can, and perhaps must, learn to love our monsters.
Somehow I’ve gone this long just praising the ideas behind Deadfall Hotel, and in so doing given a very short shrift to Tem’s evocative, textured prose. The novel’s descriptions are redolent with beauty and decay, like the eponymous setting. Rather than prattle on for another 1300 words about how great the novel is, I will allow the book to sum up, perfectly, what I have been trying, inelegantly, to express:
I wish I could go back and hand Steve Rasnic Tem’s novel to that poor boy huddled under his sheets in fear of what might be sitting at the edge of his bed. I would have told him to read and savor it, and to try as best he can to savor that 3 AM fear too. And to make friends with it, because someday it would be lodged in one of the many hotel rooms, perhaps dank and scary but also somehow cozy and familiar, that made me who I am. After all, what are we but the sum of the strange creatures that pass through our own dim hallways in the early hours of the night?