In this new novel by Keith Morris, a former professor of both my husband and me, readers will find a haunting, mysterious tale of a rural town, a haunted hotel, a possible break in the space-time continuum, and the myriad of ways those forces effect one family. While it possesses elements of a ghost story (see the early similarities to The Shining), Morris’ tale never becomes overtly scary, rather he keeps the tension constant, never fully slackening the discomfort of the unknown, but never rushing the story either. The result is a book that, much like the hotel at its center, casts a spell over its readers, telling its story in dreamy, trance-like manner.
When an unexpected, blinding snowstorm strikes the Addison family as they drive from Washington State to South Carolina, they find themselves forced from the road into a small Idaho town, Good Night, where they seek shelter from the storm. Mrs. Julia Addison feels a sense of pull towards the town, “this place sounds familiar. I’ve heard of this place,” and so the car — containing her husband Tonio, her son Dewey, and her ne’er-do-well brother-in-law Robbie — pulls into Good Night.
Almost immediately things begin to unravel, and the travel party feels uneasy with their shabby room in the town’s only hotel, Travelers Rest, and with the sparsely populated town which is rapidly becoming buried in snow. The hotel begins to affect the family members emotionally: “something was desperately wrong.” They find themselves floating through the hotel and its surroundings, each experiencing their own unique series of events, their own version of the town and its place in space and time, even differing versions of their own selves. However, panic is slow to emerge, and the characters are too vague to be scared, acting with little thought to logic must less to consequences. No one is quite dreaming, nor are they exactly remembering repressed memories, nor are they quite living in the a parallel universe…but they are no longer present to themselves or the others.
Brother-in-law Robbie is the first to leave the hotel; he feels uneasy there but not overly haunted the way his brother and sister-in-law will soon be. This is most likely attributed to his immaturity and emotional emptiness from years of addiction. For most of the novel, he considers the unsettling events at a remove, something for the others to address. “It was probably not a good thing, was it, how much he depended on other people — always some other person to keep things straight, tell him when to go to work, what was his court date.” Rather than engage, Robbie holes up and drinks until it become impossible to stay out of the unfolding events.
Tonio is a staid, plodding anthropologist who, once he arrives, is stuck in place, hardly able to overcome the pull of the hotel: “not once in his life had Tonio wondered, while he was awake, if he were in fact dreaming. Until this point he would have doubted that any waking person, ever, had actually confused the two states.” None the less, he is unable to make sense of the events, and at each feeble attempt to escape the hotel, Tonio finds “there was a frozen moment, a kind of existential breakdown, an acquiescence to biological commands — seek warmth, go to sleep,” and he cannot complete his search for his missing family.
Dewey is Julia and Tonio’s son, an extremely intelligent and mature child who seems to be the least affected by the hotel; perhaps he has too few memories or too short of a past to be completely pulled under its spell. He is able to remain in the hotel and largely in the “present” and is able to interact with the town’s residents (which only Robbie is also able to do) and he is the most determined to survive. He cares less about solving the mystery of Good Night and Travelers Rest than he does about getting home.
Finally, there is Julia who emerges as the catalyst, the one initially most drawn to the town and the one most overwhelmingly affected by its charms. She is swept away almost immediately, unable to surface from her jumbled memories and experiences, and most of the time she is unwilling to break free of them. With a childlike acquiescence, Julia finds the experience “very interesting, the way these moments stretched out through all different times of her life, and come together in such a tactile, visceral way for this current Julia, the one here in this room like lily pads on still water, stepping stones along a path.”
The resulting novel is a beautifully written discussion about the definition of reality, personal choices versus fate, and the idea that the world is a fixed and completely understood place. Is the story about parallel universes? Alternate realities? Past lives and reincarnation? Perhaps all of those things, or perhaps none, but the story is a wonderful exploration of some of the large questions of the universe, even if the answers are not readily available. “There are many things scientists do not know. How is it that something stagnant, inert, fixed, dead, should give birth to to so many moving and living things. The earth gives us life, and a natural end to life is death, and death is nothing more than an extended kind of sleep and sleep is the gateway to dreaming and dreams are nothing more than disguised memories, and memories are all that we have left in the world. All these things are the nexus of the same thing. Why shouldn’t there be a place where they come together as one?”