by Steve Rasnic Tem
Cover Artist: John Kenn Mortensen
Review by Benjamin Wald
Solaris Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781907992834
Date: 17 April 2012 List Price $9.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Deadfall Hotel is an episodic novel that follows the recently widowed Richard Carter who agrees to become the manager of the eponymous Deadfall Hotel, moving with his young daughter Serena to the isolated hotel at the request of the retired hotel manager and now caretaker Jacob Asher. In fine horror tradition, the hotel is not what it seems; it caters almost exclusively to supernatural clientele, who travel to the hotel to be themselves without fear of discovery. The novel is divided into six chapters, which read like interconnected short stories.
Each of the stories explores a challenge that Richard faces in managing the hotel, along with Richard's own emotional struggle to deal with the death of his wife and his efforts to raise his daughter in the strange environs he finds himself in. Steve Resnic Tem has an engaging style, and he is especially adept at evoking the emotions of his characters in his writing. However, the supporting characters are surprisingly thin, and the separate stories don't seem to build on each other in developing the relationships between Richard and the other characters, leaving the whole of the novel less than the sum of its parts.
Resnic Tem has a beautiful prose style. His writing is relatively sparse, and he has a good sense for what to say and what to leave to the imagination. He is particularly good at evoking Richard's conflicted emotions towards his daughter and his recently deceased wife. Unfortunately, the other characters are less well developed. I never really got a sense of what his daughter was like. Part of this is because she is seen through Richard's eyes, and he doesn't understand her all that well. Still, it prevents the reader from understanding the relationship between Richard and Serena in much detail.
Jacob Asher is not just somewhat underdeveloped, but also frustrating. As a former manager of the hotel, he tends to have most of the answers for Richard, except when he holds back information for his own reasons. This tends to strip Richard of agency; when a crisis occurs, Jacob is the one who tells him what needs to be done. This also tends to reduce the tension of the stories, because the reader can trust that Jacob will know some remedy to whatever the challenge is. I would have preferred to see Richard thrown more into the midst of things and left to sink or swim on his own, the presence of Jacob as a life vest strikes me as a mistake.
We get to see relatively few of the residents of the Deadfall hotel. Most of the guests either stay concealed, or are seen only in passing. The few we do get to know better are those that are central to the plots of various chapters, but even then we never really see a guest reappear after the story in which they play a part. This leaves the novel feeling a bit under populated at times.
Each chapter tells its own story, mostly separate from the other stories. Some of these chapters are more successful than others. In particular, I loved the fourth and sixth chapters. Not coincidentally, these are the chapters that deal most directly with Richard's relationship to his dead wife, and how he struggles with the grief and guilt of the loss. Both stories use the supernatural elements to good effect to literalize some element of Richard's grief.
Chapter four, "The Craving", has Richard become enamored of a vampiric guest. The symbolism of love than drains one's life away slowly over time is masterfully handled, and Resnic Tem also manages to evoke real sympathy for the vampire herself.
However, several of the other chapters feel over long and less interesting. "The King of Cats", for instance, takes a long time to set up a rather uninteresting climax, and doesn't seem to relate to the general exploration of loss and grief that the novel as a whole is concerned with.
"In Memory of Heaven" mixes an interesting story about letting go of the dead, and the consequences of refusing to do so, with a dull and by the numbers criticism of cults and the abdication of responsibility for one's own life, making a story that feels unfocused and overly long.
Overall, Deadfall Hotel is an interesting novel, with some magnificent scenes that will stick with the reader for a long time. However, it also has stretches that are much less interesting, and there is a sense of missed opportunities. It is a good book, but some sections show the great book that it might have been.