Five Degrees of Latitude, the debut collection from Michael Reynier is, in many ways, a thing of beauty — from the simple but elegantly designed physical book produced by Tartarus Press to the five intricate and highy-polished tales contained within, there is much to admire here.
All of the stories have a European (or British) antiquarian slant and display a predisposition for nested stories and male narrators with male companions, starting with “Le Loup-Garou,” wherein a string of disappearances in a secluded French village are investigated by the esteemed Professor Hortholary, whose deductive powers unravel the mystery, leading to a dark denouement. “Sika Tarn” likewise features a remote locale, as two hikers make their way through an overgrown forest to reach a deserted lake, where they find some unexpected abandoned machinery and hear some inexplicable sounds. The tale, which reminded me of Sarban’s work in some indefinable way, features an unexpected and unique supernatural entity.
The British countryside is the setting for “No. 3 Hobbes Lane,” wherein an occasional passenger on a train is intrigued by the sight of one house on a bluff that is seemingly facing the wrong direction, with no windows on the side of the house with the wonderful views. As with most of the stories, there is a strong sense of mystery here, and an (ultimately successful) investigation of the mystery — involving, in this case, tracking down the story of the architect who built the house and the supernatural causation for the way the house is situated.
“The Rumour Mill” is to my mind the weakest story here, although an ingenious idea lies at its heart, concerning some rather unusual experiments on the nature of rumors, the documentation of which is discovered by a Victorian academic rummaging through the papers of his vanished predecessor.
Much stronger is the final story, “The Visions of Lazaro,” which is particularly interesting for the way in which its true setting is effectively masked, with the initial appearance being that of sixteenth century Spain, while later events reveal a second narrative in a very different place — and time.
Nestled in “The Visions of Lazaro” and other stories are countless examples of simple yet elegant writing, replete with keen observations, such as the following:
“Vider sat down and placed his bag carefully on the table between us. He had lost the top joint of his finger in a mining accident; we had all lost something, I suppose.”
In spite of all the preceding praise, I have to offer a caveat — in my reviews, I’m known to frequently offer the qualifier that a particular book “is not for everyone,” and that observation is particularly true here. The same thing that distinguishes the stories — the leisurely yet effective and stylistic recreation of other places and times — is the same thing that may limits appeal somewhat, as readers more enamored of contemporary milieus and styles may well find this collection to not be their cup of tea.
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“A curtain of gnarled skeleton oak and pine hides it from the rest of the world. The hotel is not well-lit, there is no sign, and night comes early here. The main highway bypassed its access road nearly half a century ago. From the air…the hotel appears to follow the jumbled lines of a train wreck, cars thrown out at all angles and yet still attached in sequence.”
Excerpted from the opening paragraph of Steve Rasnic Tem’s Deadfall Hotel, the preceding is an apt and vivid description of the establishment that lies at the heart, literally and figuratively, of this fine novel from Centipede Press.
The novel’s jacket copy bills the book as “reminiscent of Ray Bradbury and combining the atmosphere of Edward Gorey with the phantasmagoric richness of setting found in Mervyn Peake.” Personally, I see much more Gorey and Peake than I do Bradbury, with a strong helping of Charlie Grant, to whom Tem dedicates the book. But you can make up your own mind, since I will be quoting Tem extensively in this review.
Deadfall Hotel is ostensibly the story of Richard Carter and his daughter Serena, who are still trying to regain their equilibrium following the relatively recent death of wife and mother Abby, whose ghost has accompanied them to the Hotel. But the real star here is the Hotel itself, which via Tem’s lush descriptions comes to halting, shambling life:
“Richard wasn’t listening to him. There were other sounds to hear. There was the soft inner breath that drifted through the Deadfall, higher pitched in the halls, dropping lower in the stairs and secret passages. There was the light tapping of guests who never left their rooms, their frenetic thoughts in tune with that breath. There was the distant crying of a white wolf with dying eyes. And there was the nearly inaudible laughter of his wife, his beautiful wife Abby, growing madder with every passing day of her death.”
Richard and Serena’s tale is interspersed with pithy observations from the journal of Jacob Ascher, the prior manager of the Deadfall, who recruited and hired Richard as his replacement, and has stayed on to provide prolonged training for Richard. An example from Jacob’s journal:
“We cannot escape our fears. Ultimately we must deal with them. We are but momentary blips of consciousness on the sea of time — we have but a limited time to do those things we are willing to do, to say those things we are willing to say. Our greatest challenge may be to face the sadness that knowledge entails. I’m afraid it is a test most of us will fail.”
“I never imagined that training a replacement would prove to be so difficult. I find I have increased respect for what my own predecessors must have gone through. It is a delicate balance managing a new member of our family — we want him to be able to act independently, and yet we also want him to do what we want. Prospective managers are selected from a pool of the traumatized, the wounded and damaged. And yet we expect them to be brave…
“When I look at Richard Carter, I see a frozen man, stilled by grief and impossible dilemma. How can he protect his daughter? How can he leave his wife behind a second time? …. Perhaps we expect too much.”
If there’s a complaint to be had with Deadfall Hotel, it’s that, at the end of the day, precious little actually happens. The book is more a character study — of Richard, Serena, Jacob and, of course, the Hotel — than anything else, and while the events that do occur help to shape the trajectory of Richard and Serena’s lives post-Abby, those events are somewhat few and far between. The major plot points involve Serena’s adoption of a stray kitten, which turns out to be far more than just a cat; the arrival of a shape-shifting guest who, in the twilight days of his life has lost the fine-grained control he formerly held over his nature; and the annual foray by a large religious-revival group, the head of whom has some rather dire personal problems that he refuses to face. Each of these makes for an interesting sub-plot, although at least one seems drawn out beyond comfortably-sustainable levels.
The book is rounded out by the novelette “Blood Wolf,” the original, stand-alone version of one section of the novel, and the short story “Skullbees,” also set in the Deadfall universe. All in all, I can heartily recommend an extended stay in the dark and distinctive confines of the Deadfall Hotel.