“The entrance to the hotel was on one of the city’s less attractive side-streets. Although just a couple of hundred yards from the bohemian quarter in one direction, and a hop, skip and jump from shiny glass coffee shops in the other, the fingerprint-dappled revolving doors themselves sat on an alleyway that was little more than an eight-foot-wide gutter. Underneath the neon blue sign – declaring the hotel’s name in swooping, handwriting-style letters – blank glass windows and brass-effect fittings tried hard to deny the budget accommodation within. Marble flooring inside the doors continued this valiant effort, but was immediately betrayed by the empty space of a torn-out wheelchair lift and a cleaner wiping something sticky off the steps up to reception.
The hotel had three things to recommend it. Firstly, it was located right in the centre of the city and only a couple of minutes’ walk from the station. Secondly, it had a cheap room available at short notice. As she pushed herself through the doors and walked past the ear-budded cleaner on the stairs, Sarah couldn’t for the life of her remember what the third thing was.”
(from my story ‘Great Rates, Central Location’ in Impossible Spaces)
As I’m hosting a few guest posts from the Impossible Spaces writers this month, I thought I should write a little something about my story in the collection and the inspiration behind it.
My story is called ‘Great Rates, Central Location’, and it’s set in a city-centre budget hotel (NB: it is absolutely, positively not based on a real hotel). A young woman checks in to stay at this (not based on a real place) hotel while in town for a business meeting and… well… weird stuff happens. According to one reader, it’s the sort of story that gives you ‘vertigo’.
So: why did I choose to set my story in a budget hotel? There’s a short answer and a long answer to this.
For the short answer, I have to credit horror author Simon Bestwick for the inspiration. In 2012, I was involved in running an event in Manchester that was, with the best will in the world, the stuff of nightmares. Imagine an event where (almost) everything goes wrong, to the point where things are so ludicrous you think you might be hallucinating. And the venue I had (foolishly) chosen was a budget hotel in Manchester. Our list of complaints about the hotel ranged from lack of wheelchair access to clocks that showed 6pm for most of the day before spinning their hands like they were possessed. It was horrific.
But one of the few good things about the event was the group of writers who took part – all of whom dealt with the nightmarish chaos with amazing professionalism. One of these writers was Simon Bestwick, and I’ve been fortunate to keep in contact with him since. He also has a story (the fantastic ‘Trading Flesh’) in Impossible Spaces, as does Richard Freeman who also spoke at the convention. Anyway, a couple of months ago, Simon and I were reminiscing about the horrors of that event and about the venue in particular. Simon suggested that, crap as it was as an event venue, it would make a wonderful setting for a horror story. This made complete sense to me, and kicked off the train of ideas that led to ‘Great Rates, Central Location’ (though my story is not set in that particular hotel, no sir, not at all).
To explain why Simon’s joking comment resonated so strongly with me, I have to give the long answer to the original question.
I love hotels. I think a lot of people do. They’re not just convenient, comfortable, homely (sometimes) places to stay: they’re food for the imagination. I adore TV programmes like Four in a Bed and The Hotel Inspector, and am just as intrigued by the nice places as the only-picked-because-they-make-good-telly establishments. I have to admit: I also love reading reviews on Tripadvisor – even of places I’ll never actually visit. And some of these helped me select details to include in my story (which is not based in a real hotel, so I couldn’t have used reviews of any specific establishment, scout’s honour).
Fiction writers and the tales they weave have a weird relationship with hotels. Take Agatha Christie, for instance. Her detective novels are often set in hotels – this choice of setting is really appropriate for murder mysteries, as it allows a large group of people, who may or may not have a connection to one another, to be brought together and forced into close proximity. Unlike at home, guests at a hotel can hide their identities and their secrets, arrive under assumed names and conduct clandestine affairs. But Christie has another, more personal, connection to hotels – her mysterious disappearance in 1926 culminated in her being discovered at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel (beautiful name) in Harrogate, where she’d registered under an assumed name. What she was doing there remains the only Agatha Christie mystery that has never been solved.
Hotels aren’t just mysterious, though. They can also be horrific. Obviously, no post about hotels and fiction would be complete without mention of Stephen King’s wonderful Overlook Hotel (brought to the screen by Stanley Kubrick), the place where Jack Torrance learned that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. And tried to kill his family with an axe. Probably shouldn’t forget the axe part.
The Shining is an almost perfect capturing of the two sides of hotels (certainly as far as writers are concerned). On the one hand, a hotel (especially a closed hotel with no other guests) is a retreat, and we romantically envisage ourselves locked away from the world, with home comforts but no distractions. We imagine sitting at the window (because, in this fantasy, all rooms have views), tapping away at our keyboards, having successfully blocked out our daily lives and mundanity. If we do venture out of the room, we hope it will be to a quirky dining room, filled with a cast of characters we can observe and recreate later in fictional form.
But The Shining reminds us of the fear that lies behind that fantasy. That if we spend too long locked away from our daily lives and mundanity, we might just go absolutely bonkers. Jack’s descent into maniacal rage is wonderfully contrasted with the splendour of the Overlook Hotel, and, in a way, this just seems to add to the wildness of his story.
Of course, my story isn’t set in a grand old hotel like the ones you find in Agatha Christie or Stephen King. It’s set in a slightly shoddy, slightly grimy budget hotel, where some of the rooms don’t have windows and the staff don’t really care. The sort of place where you’re not completely comfortable using the bathroom and there are strange yells during the night. (Not that it’s based on any real hotel, of course.)
I travel a lot at the moment, mostly to attend conferences and events, and I don’t have enough money to stay in places like the Overlook Hotel or the Old Swan in Harrogate every time I go away. I stay in B & Bs or budget hotels. And I’ve had a range of experiences, from the sublime to the ridiculous, as a result.
One place I stayed in – an establishment that smelt, it has to be said, entirely of egg – was run by a strange man who shuffled around in a dirty jumper and tatty slippers, and who kept talking about his mother. But there was no mother to be seen. It was like staying at a cross between the Bates Motel and a house that smelt entirely of egg.
Another place offered a ‘colour television’ in all rooms (as though a less luxurious black-and-white option might be offered elsewhere). There was indeed a TV in my room, but the batteries in the remote control had long since corroded so I couldn’t switch it on.
And I stayed in one budget hotel in London where my room had no number, and only fit a bed that looked to have been hastily squeezed in there. I think the room had been a cupboard up until I arrived. Everything at that hotel was filthy, and the staff all looked so hopelessly forlorn it broke my heart. The ‘continental breakfast’ was a plate with two slices of white bread, two slices of ham and a Dairylea triangle (covered over with cling-film).
I might sound like I’m complaining about these places, but I actually love them. Okay… I did feel a little scared at the eggy Bates Motel place, and I once spent a morning vomiting after eating the cooked breakfast at a budget (chain) hotel. But when it comes to creative inspiration, I find these places utterly enthralling. Forget big rambling grand old houses with waistcoated bellhops and aloof receptionists. Getting lost in a seven-storey chain hotel while looking for a vending machine is the stuff of genuine nightmares.
I have stayed in some lovely places. I stayed in a wonderful B & B in Cork once that was one of the warmest, friendliest places I’ve ever been. And my other half and I love the little B & B we stay in when we make our annual trips to Whitby.
But it’s the blank-eyed, don’t-care, bad-breakfast, curtains-that-don’t-shut-properly aura of the budget hotel that inspires my writing. This isn’t horror in the overblown, Gothic sense, but a more banal, insidious claustrophobia. Some people might describe budget hotels as soulless – I disagree. These places definitely have a soul, but that soul is worn down, broken and twisted. And I love them for that.
So, that’s the inspiration for ‘Great Rates, Central Location’. I hope you’ll check my story out, along with the other fab stories in Impossible Spaces. And I hope you think I’ve done justice to my grotty little budget muses.