The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August 7, 2018
224 pages / Amazon
Longtime fans of Laura van den Berg will find it no surprise that with The Third Hotel she has now written a vigorously unnerving “horror novel.” Her previous work, even when ostensibly “realistic,” has always contained a creeping sense of the strange and surreal. Whether it is the Loch Ness Monster hunters in What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us’ “Inverness,” the child private-eyes in Isle of Youth’s “Opa-Locka,” or the memory-erasing pandemic in Find Me, van den Berg has shown herself to occasionally embrace genre—the Siren-call that supposedly wrecks the ships of “literary fiction”—borrowing its best elements to structure otherworldly narrative frameworks for her psychologically complex characters. The Third Hotel is no exception in this regard, yet it also critically examines its chosen genre—horror—in a way that I think is wholly unique. It is a meditation on horror films—and this is why I initially put the label “horror novel” in scare (pun intended) quotes—that expropriates many of their tropes and reimagines them in a way that is genuinely discomforting and truly like nothing I have read before.
This is not to suggest that such self-conscious literary-genre hybrids are in and of themselves unique. For example, just this past year, Eugene Lim’s excellent Dear Cyborgs used the lens of superheroes and comic books to examine art’s attempts to wriggle free from the stranglehold of neoliberalism. Such books may not be entirely unique, but very often they are exceptional examples. For every novel like Dear Cyborgs, there are several like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, one so committed to clinically deconstructing the tropes of middle-grade fantasy that it neglects to have a thumping pulse of its own. What I think sets The Third Hotel apart from these kinds of cold deconstructions is how seamlessly it integrates form and content. In telling the story of Clare, a recently widowed woman who travels to Havana to attend the premier of Cuba’s first full-length horror film in the stead of her late husband who she mysteriously and improbably sees standing outside a museum before he flees, van den Berg uses the nightmarish logic of the horror genre and the critical insights of film theory—especially in the feminist mode—to weave a narrative that is continually interrogating and re-shaping itself, daring us to uncover what is lurking beneath the people we purport to know, the things we say, and how we view ourselves.
While van den Berg is clearly excited by and fluent in the language of horror, it is an awkward second tongue for her protagonist, albeit one she needs in order to bridge the gap between her and her professor of film studies husband, even before he becomes an ostensible specter. Early on in the novel, Clara reflects on the hours spent reading Richard’s papers aloud prior to his sending them out for publication: “She tried to concentrate on every word, feel the shape of each syllable in her mouth. Clare understood this tradition might have appeared strange or even sinister to outsiders, but she prized the chance to build together a sublanguage that ran, invisible and untranslatable, under the surface of the world.” Much of the conflict in their marriage seems to have stemmed from the silences that yawned between them, the inability to adequately put thought to word. It makes sense then that Clare would try to understand her husband, even posthumously, through the world he so deeply immersed himself in. And while the language they were co-constructing may have been felt rather than stated, its remnants can be seen in the way that Clare processes her fears and anxieties through the visual language of horror; she imagines a masked killer chasing her through a cornfield, a Norman Bates-like knifeman poised behind the shower curtains, an eel undulating beneath her skin Night of the Creeps style. Van den Berg understands the way these memetic images and tropes both give an identifiable shape to our fears and help fuel them.
One such trope Clare increasingly internalizes over the course of the novel is that of the “Final Girl,” the sole female survivor who inevitably meets the killer in his cursed home terrain, the “Terrible Place.” Is Clare a Final Girl or must she make herself into one in order to survive? She herself estimates that she would make it about halfway through the average horror film, due in large part to her attractiveness and the fact that she is neither a virgin nor particularly promiscuous—the former awarded in these films and the latter swiftly punished. As Richard once explained to her, Final Girls are donned with androgynous names like Ripley and Laurie because femininity is detrimental to their survival. Clare surmises that they have to be “willing to transform into the men pursuing them.” But Richard corrects her: “More like susceptible.” I was reminded of this exchange when Clare later pursues her fleeing husband to a hotel in the Escambray Mountains. Having finally caught up with and confronted him in his hotel room, Clare stands with him in front of the bathroom mirror; she is inspecting the details of his body, finding no traces of the car that killed him; and, cutting his hair close to his scalp, she hands over the scissors and asks him to do the same for her, “to make her look less like herself.” Is this a desire for the destruction of identity, an effort to be one with the husband she thought she lost, or the de-feminization necessary to her survival?
To van den Berg’s credit, the novel doesn’t provide easy answers to these or really any of its questions surrounding intrapersonal relationships, conception of the self, or art’s warped mirror to reality. Which isn’t to say that her writing is unsatisfying or evasive, but rather that it operates according to the dream—or nightmare—logic of, say, the best David Lynch movies. In this way, the reader can follow Clare from impersonating a British tourist in Havana to being swept violently down a mountainside river to surviving a train crash, without questioning the plausibility of the journey from A to Z.
An added benefit of this fluid, associative sequencing is that it allows van den Berg to easily eschew the genre tropes and expectations she has no interest in or real use for. We see this most tellingly in the aforementioned hotel room confrontation between Clare and the beyond-the-grave-Richard. She has finally cornered him after days of chasing him through Havana, after thinking she had lost him forever, after observing a silent shift within him in the months prior to his death. She asks him where he’s running to; he says he’s being chased by her; she reminds him she’s his wife; he tells her she’s been acting strangely; she counters that he’s been the strange one. In lesser hands, this back-and-forth could have been played as some sort of Shyamalanian twist, where Clare has been the one losing her mind this whole time, or perhaps an Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenario, where it’s unclear who is their authentic self and whose human form has been co-opted by an extraterrestrial Other. Instead, they agree he is being followed and barricade the door; they perform the aforementioned haircuts; they have sex that ends in her sobbing and him spooning her (something the living Richard never did); they fall asleep; and when she awakes panicked and certain she is lying next to “an abomination, a delusion of grief,” she strangles him until he kicks her off and “they lay panting—husband and wife, assailant and victim, living and not-quite-dead—in the same room, until she felt the heat of morning rise up through the wood floor.” Never does Clare confront Richard with the fact of his death; never does she utter the word “ghost” (though she does think it). He does not explain himself, and thankfully neither does van den Berg. It is up to us to decide what his presence might mean.
Much of my excitement for the novel came from the connections van den Berg might make between Cuba and its cultural output. For one of the revolutionary government’s first cultural acts was to establish the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC); in this way, cinema became a national, decolonial project with both aesthetic and political aims. The resulting films found and continue to find themselves situated within a long arc of the nation’s history that includes the severing of the bloodied shackles of colonization; a war waged for independence; the ground-breaking of a U.S. torture site that persists to this day; the toppling of a US-backed, far-right, military dictatorship; the establishing of one of the most successful national healthcare programs in the world; et al., and these films have responded to these rhetorical situations in exciting ways. What then might a Cuban horror film look like? In the film at the center of the novel, Revolución Zombi (based off the real film Juan de los Muertos), the arrival of zombies on the island are explained away by the government as a U.S. invasion (an occupation that would not be without precedent); but soon these officials themselves are eaten, and the hero of the film plans to videotape the zombies, smuggle it off the island, and sell it to the highest bidder (“Their country had lied to them and had no plans to change. Why should they do anything to save it?”). There is a not-so-sub anti-government subtext here, but I also think it lends itself to a more complicated reading. What does it mean that the paranoia of U.S. occupation isn’t so paranoid after all, that, for example, the CIA tried and failed to assassinate Castro 638 times? What does it mean that the hero of the film is fighting not for his fellow citizens’ survival but to commodify their grisly deaths? It should not be read as a knock against van den Berg that I wanted more—more reflections on Zombi, more synopses of other Cuban films—but rather a testament to the acuity with which she writes about the medium.
Speaking of more, I wish I could tell you how all of this ends. I wish I could share with you the last line, which saw me letting the galley fall to my chest, gasping for breath, and mad-man-muttering, “Holy shit holy shit holy shit . . .” It’s not just a due diligence to avoid spoilers that has me so hesitant, it’s that so much of the novel defies description and is underserved by the pedestrian mode of summary. For even now, I realize I’ve neglected to mention Clare’s dying and possibly dementia-ailed father and how the horror of his slow death contrasts with Richard’s sudden one or how the book surprised me with the force with which it could make laugh, e.g. this observation: “There were three sides to a marriage: public and private and who-fucking-knows . . .” or even why it’s called “The Third Hotel” (which is because, upon landing, Clare had mixed up the address and gone to two wrong hotels before finding the right one). This is only a fraction of what I have left unsaid, and now that I have called attention to it, I want to be so brazen as to suggest that such a porous conclusion might in some way complement the novel’s project itself. I see this reflected in an early moment when the narrator is describing Clare’s inability to finish Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January: “It was not so much the story that unsettled her, but the hidden things she sensed quivering under the surface. Subtext, she supposed this was called, and she did not care for it.” Subtext is everything in this novel (and in much of van den Berg’s work); it’s what can lurk beneath a marriage, shape the exchanges between tourist and local, and power the art we consume. This is especially true of horror, where we can populate this void with our most debilitating fears. Van den Berg repeatedly calls attention to these covert spaces, dares us to lift the rock and see what squirms underneath. But she also knows when to step back and let us fill in the blanks ourselves, that there’s an inimitable power to what we leave unspoken. It is only fitting then that I try to do the same.
Douglas Koziol is a PhD candidate in English at Oklahoma State University. His writing has appeared in The Millions, Lunch Ticket, and CounterPunch, among other venues. He is at work on his first novel.