Deadfall Hotel begins after the death of Abigail Carter, wife to Richard and mother to Serena, who perished in the fire that also claimed the family's home. Richard, haunted by memories of his wife, ends up taking the position of hotel manager at the remote and darkling Deadfall: a hotel with few staff, guests strange and rarely seen, and internal systems and an institutional history not fully understood even by Jacob, the former proprietor who, with Richard's arrival, stays on as caretaker. The Deadfall Hotel is one of those magical, liminal spaces that—like the Castle Gormenghast or the bug-city of Tainaron—inhabit a weird nook of speculative fiction, and through which normal people can pass though they might not exit quite the same.
Serena spoke excessively 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 . . . She asked her father if the Deadfall and its grounds contained more of these invisible lives than most places, and he had no idea how to answer her. (p. 88)
Richard and Serena are not alone with the strange atmosphere and mysterious inhabitants of the Deadfall, though: Abigail goes with them, and throughout the novel her apparition floats through the halls, haunting Richard even as he comes to suspect that he is, conversely, haunting his dead wife. As the peculiar magic of the Deadfall takes hold of the Carters and they encounter ever more dangerous and fearful events—an old werewolf seeking Serena's blood, a horde of cats with supernatural ferocity and cunning, a vampire that wishes to become Richard's lover—Richard must come to terms with his grief and discover what it means to be the single parent of a young girl growing up in a world that constantly threatens death and destruction to everything—and especially the lives—within it.
It is tempting to describe Deadfall Hotel as a book that uses supernatural events as metaphors; to assume that, as we are led through its myriad and ever-changing corridors, as we meet its twisted and inhuman denizens, as its protagonists are thrown into deeper and darker conundrums as the hotel morphs around them, we are seeing nothing more than surface metaphors for deeper permutations of emotion. Although this interpretation is in many ways technically correct, it is not fully accurate and misses a great deal of the subtlety of Tem's art. Not just the protagonists, but the monsters that inhabit the Deadfall also have full and rich emotional lives. They are not metaphorical veneer for story, but characters, and through dwelling in this place with them, the Carters learn lessons that are not pure self-reflected psychology, but earned through hard living. The reader learns not just that grief is a long and complex process, but that everyone grieves differently.
Of course, this also means that, although the blurbs might make Deadfall Hotel sound like a horror novel, it is most definitely not that simple. The hotel's "horrors" ultimately cannot be so, because Rasnic Tem makes them active beings and not just creeping terrors. This is not a weakness, but a strength, casting the hotel as a place of a grief open to all beings who might need to resolve some emotional turmoil, rather than a backdrop against which the Carters' particular grief plays out. When a vampire comes to the Deadfall and tries to seduce Richard, it is at first frightening, and then saddening to watch her desperation mount, her hunger take over her, her regality become bestiality as she struggles to stay alive.
[Richard] put his hand on her arm, and she looked at him. Her pupils darkened the whites of her eyes. Dried blood still caked her mouth and part of her chin. She resembled a child not old enough to eat cleanly. He started away. 'Please,' she moaned . . . 'I'm sorry,' he said. (p. 190)
At the Deadfall, the darkest things are dark because of their inner lives or even their fates, and not some necessary status or beingness that makes them wilfully evil. If it were not for this strong sense of personality that all the characters in Deadfall Hotel possess, it would be just another book that teaches us emotional truths by making fanciful images out of our hearts' darker reaches. Instead, it shows how people of wildly different natures can suffer in eerily similar ways.
That said, Deadfall Hotel is not always terribly serious. At times, it is even slightly cartoonish. For example, the ferocious, mutant felines that at one point attempt to take over the hotel are so outlandish, so numerous, their exploits so gory and insane, and the chapter devoted to them so radically visual compared to the sober emotionalism of the previous ones, that I felt like I had stepped into another book entirely. The action scenes are definitely not Rasnic Tem's forte, and in general this section felt weaker than the rest. Nonetheless, it still managed to skillfully explore, with many interesting images and interactions, the challenge and fear that comes with being a father. Before the cats mutate into their supernatural form, Serena takes one as a pet, and this becomes a metaphor not for the grief of losing his wife, but for the grief of losing his daughter as she grows up and deals with the loss of her mother in a way of her own—one that is different from her father's coping. This in itself is difficult for Richard to accept.
Sometimes when he came into her room at night to check on her (which was every night, had been every night since Abby died), he'd find Serena asleep and the cat curled around the top of her head. That should have been a touching, a comforting portrait of his daughter, but it was not. There was a peculiar sort of tension evident in the cat's body, a coiling so unlike the image of the plush toy he appeared to be emulating. As if he might explode at any moment, ramming his claws into her scalp. As if he were simply biding his time. (p. 106)
It must be admitted that there is also a slight onerousness to the dialogue at times, owing to the fact that it is Jacob, the former hotel manager and, with Richard's ascension, the caretaker, who possesses all the knowledge necessary to run the Deadfall, and yet never explicitly shares it with Richard. The rituals of cleaning, of maintenance, and of hospitality at the Deadfall are forever mysteries, being explained by way of mysterious utterances on Jacob's part. This makes Deadfall Hotel at times feel a little too much like a portal quest fantasy, where the fantastic new world into which the Carters have stepped is filtered to them in digestible format through the knowledge-bearer Jacob. I found that this ultimately diluted the emotive power that the hotel—as a building that is, throughout the course of the novel, obviously meant to have a life of its own—could bring to bear on me: although the stories of those who live within it are powerful, I constantly felt as if the hotel itself had a story that would be worth learning. We can never really learn this story, though, because Jacob—as, presumably, the voice of Rasnic Tem—never really wants to commit to any definite assertions about it. Near the end of the book, we are presented with a scene that is, I think, meant to finally explain the old edifice, but it is so vague and omnipotent-sounding compared with the rest of the book that it is utterly meaningless. By giving the hotel itself more life, Deadfall Hotel could without doubt have been a stronger read, even though the character stories are strong enough on their own.
Deadfall Hotel ends rather suddenly, and it is a book without what we might call a proper ending; or, rather, it has a sort of "literary" ending, since the resolution is ultimately an emotional one and not one reached through action or any particularly theoretical enlightenment. The Deadfall Hotel is a place filled with grieving bodies, and Richard must decide—for both himself and Serena—whether to remain there and become one with them—to live forever with others among grief—or to move on into a world that is wild, unknown, and in which he cannot protect his daughter any more than he could protect his wife. This inadequacy is, in the final measure, all he can hope for.
Deadfall Hotel seems to be a novel about death. But, on reflection, it feels more like a novel about life forever lived beneath the spectre of that final curtain, and how, from so many different shades of grief, people still try to live their lives with clarity.
Ben Godby writes mysteriously thrilling pseudo-scientific weird western adventure fantasy tales. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario with a girl, two dogs, and a cat, and blogs at www.bengodby.com.