Deadfall Hotel
Steve Rasnic Tem

Solaris
Trade Paper, 304 pages, $9.99
Review by Sheila M. Merritt

“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?” This is a rhetorical question asked in Deadfall Hotel by Steve Rasnic Tem. Our fears certainly contribute in defining who we are. And Tem expertly explores the degree and the damage. Writing with profound insight and sensitivity, the author probes the unnerving and enervating baggage of fear. Each chapter in the novel delves into well known horror images: the werewolf, vampire, funhouse, etc. and makes them intensely personal. Tem’s great gift for using fantasy imagery to evoke intrinsic emotion makes this book deeply moving and thought provoking.

The Deadfall Hotel harbors a rather unique clientele. This means that the manager of the hostelry must satisfy certain requirements. Richard Carter, recently widowed, is in training for the position. Aided by Jacob Ascher, the hotel’s caretaker, Carter and his adolescent daughter Serena are put through some arduous paces. The auberge exacerbates existing psychic conditions. Aberrations can become abominations in the blink of an eye.

When, for example, Serena takes in a cat the feline morphs into the kitty from hell – with mewing minions. Scat doesn’t apply when a beloved animal ceases being a pet and becomes a petty tyrant. Playing with prey takes on fearful implications when humans are next in line to be toyed with and slowly slaughtered. While all may be feral in love and war, Serena soon finds that purring can be a horrific sound. The sequences in this chapter entitled King of the Cats (based on an English fairy tale) are extremely scary. They are a creepy reminder of the wildness that exists just beneath the surface of what appears complacent and domesticated: “The great mass of cats still on the staircase sat motionless, heads butting forward, peering. Then, one by one, they stretched themselves – there was a final chorus of popping as they freed their claws, shreds of carpet flying like flowers under a mower. Then one by one they grinned and began to move from the stairs.”

The threats that Richard and Serena face are tempered by the wisdom of Jacob, who has seen much and understands even more. He serves as a sort of spiritual guide to the protective father and his daughter, helping them navigate the complicated course of the shifting terrain of the hotel. Ultimately though, the discoveries parent and child make come from within. The lodging is merely a catalyst for dormant awareness of self. Richard, haunted by his dead wife, ponders how well one person can know another: “A life was a secret thing, even between a husband and wife. Your secret life was completely your own, and because it was unknown, would never be mourned. The secret life of each individual went unhonored through eternity.”

At once clear-eyed and sentimental, Deadfall Hotel reaches into those intimate places of the heart and mind. Steve Rasnic Tem eloquently embraces the tender and the terrifying, and brilliantly reminds that often they walk hand in hand.

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