Our Dead Man in Havana
By Matt E. LewisSeptember 23, 2018
The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg
The Third Hotel, her new novel from FSG Originals, seems to fall into its own unique category — it is a noir mystery that heavily references horror pop culture and melts itself into a surrealist bent. The main character, Clare, is not a detective and doesn’t have a gun, and there is no gory resurrection of purifying flesh. There is her husband, Richard, a professor who specializes in horror movies. There is the city of Havana, gearing up for a horror film festival that will bring in many foreign travelers. Clare is not the kind of person to ignore details and coincidences. Her observant nature has lead her to look for meaning in the strangest of places: hotel rooms, which by design are meant to be aesthetically invisible. When she finds unique things about them, from her childhood growing up in a hotel in Florida to her on-the-road elevator repair career, she speaks in awed terms. The discovery of a fingernail in a drawer, clean and perfect, leads her to wonder “what kind of person would abandon to a hotel room drawer such a perfect specimen of their existence.” Nearly from the beginning of the novel, the reader is able to pick up on something else stirring in Clare — a silent rage, the fuel of which is complicated and their consequences, uncertain. All we know is that “the fury that had left Clare wanting to feel as little as possible, to press an ice cube against her heart.” But Clare’s trip to Havana will become a tipping point for her journey into the unknown — her life is about to crack and realign in a fusion of the new.
When the reader is introduced to Clare, it is in the aftermath of a tragedy — her husband has been killed in a car accident. Clare decides to visit the horror film festival he planned to attend in his stead, as if staying close to the subject of her husband’s studies keeps a part of him alive. When she checks into the “third hotel,” so called because it was the third option available to her, she can’t help but draw connections between the life she lead and her present reality: the broken elevator, calling back to her career in elevator repair at Thyssenkrupp; the business trips she took for that career, nights spent in Nebraska, feeling almost like a purgatory; the strange thread of the impersonal woven between all hotel rooms, calling back to her childhood growing up in the Florida hotel her parents operated; her parents, raising Bobtail cats while her father slowly sinks into dementia, a father who kept himself nearly as impersonal as the hotel rooms; her husband, so distant toward the time of his death, seemingly disconnecting himself from her. These events exist in Clare’s mind not as a chronological finality but as a long string, one that can be pulled forward and back, perhaps even tied to a cyclical end. “She imagined the suspension transforming into a warm flood of inevitability as the gate swung open and she stepped into whatever new dislocation of reality lay ahead.” As time becomes even more frayed throughout the events of the book, nights melt into days, and the true nature of Clare’s narration fades in and out of clarity.
She contemplates these events as she participates in the festival, drinking too much and waiting for the premiere of Yuniel Mata’s Revolución Zombi, the first horror movie in Cuba’s (fictional) cinematic history. In the midst of socializing, she sometimes lies and sometimes tells the truth, relishing the opportunity to carve out a different narrative for herself. In a way, she is weakening her already loose grip on reality, compounding the heady feeling of absence that someone can either ride like a wave or sink like a stone. The landscape of Havana is very much what you’d expect — classic cars parked along baked sidewalks, stray cats lounging in the spots of greenery dotting the concrete, the air alive with the noise of the people of a nation facing the future. But for Clare, the landscape itself becomes a road map for her own disordered mind: “Ahead she couldn’t see anything beyond the flat gloss of the ocean, and the longer she stayed, the more it looked like the rising sun was setting the water on fire and so she stood there, in a blaze fierce enough to remind any person that they were never not at the raw mercy of the earth, and waited to be burned up.” At the center of it all is the third hotel, with its jungle forest wallpaper hinting at a tangled mystery within, a false backdrop in more ways than one — the white cardboard box found with her husband’s effects, a literally sealed enigma she carries with her; the star of Revolución Zombi, Agata Alonso, who may or may not be attending the festival in disguise. If that wasn’t enough of a bombardment of mysteries, the culminating moment that kick-starts the novel in a new direction: Clare spots her husband in busy Havana cafe, not as a zombie but a new version of him, “as if he had not just died in a car accident five weeks ago.”
What, exactly, is happening here? On paper, The Third Hotel has all the makings of a horror movie itself. But much like Twin Peaks: The Return, van den Berg only allows us slight glimpses of terror before yanking us back, insinuating a greater meaning, a deeper connection than just fear itself. Maybe Clare’s entire ordeal is presented as a red herring — she mentions the Alfred Hitchcock quote in which he claimed you had to “torture the women” to make a good horror movie. Are the strange events befalling Clare to our benefit, an innocent character trapped in the circumstance of entertainment? It stands to reason that this is why The Third Hotel features an ever-present horror movie in the background — to point out to us that real life is often stranger than plot formulas. The anxiety of our daily lives, the lack of closure to our emotional wounds, and the simple unknowing of what will come next trumps any movie-magic gore or jump scare. In this way, The Third Hotel isn’t a horror story, in the way that Under the Skin wasn’t science fiction. To be more accurate, both these stories contain elements of the cut-and-dry genre definition, but also explore different aspects, allowing the reader the mental breathing room to feel both confusion and unease.
The Third Hotel begs for an update of the old adage of “good artists copy, great artists steal.” Specifically, in the noir genre, the standout quality among the good examples is the transportation of the reader not just to a landscape but a feeling, tapping into an area in our minds where places become as familiar as smells. From the smoky intensity of dusk in Chandler’s Los Angeles to the neon-lit rain puddles of Gibson’s Chiba, noir can defy genre expectations and become a flavor that heightens the senses. But the truly great noir writer isn’t finished yet, not until they subvert those expectations we’ve already created and reshape them to their liking. As a reader, it often imbues the flavor into us and challenges what we consider real or not, how things — both physical and mental — are not always as they appear to be. In other words, good noir creates an iconic backdrop, but great noir isn’t afraid to push the backdrop down and reveal the concrete soundstage behind it. In the spirit of true noir, with all of Clare’s effort focused on finding her husband, how can we know that he wants to be found? Or whether the reader can trust her motivations at all?
The twisting landscape and disengagement of self-narration is similar in feeling to Catherine Lacey’s 2014 novel Nobody Is Ever Missing, in which a woman named Elyria abruptly leaves her life in the United States to travel aimlessly around New Zealand. Despite being an excellent portrait of atmosphere and dread, there was criticism that Elyria was not given enough motivation to leave her life this way, that she had no reason to. Ironically, this proves the very point that the author was trying to make — that when men disconnect from reality, it signifies deep thought and reflection, while a women behaving similarly must be having some kind of breakdown. It could also be interpreted as a sign of the times, in that applying the story of The Third Hotel to a male character in a different time period would be considered his artful way of processing his grief. One could even draw parallels to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, with Clare’s mission becoming no less important when it presents itself. The tinges of surrealism are just enough to keep the reader on their toes — a touch of Lynch without the violence, or Cronenberg without the gore. At its heart, The Third Hotel is a novel about precarity — the fragile nature of memory, sanity, and how the reality we perceive constantly changes. Clare’s unease in Havana bears striking resemblance to the political state of our world now, where reality changes almost daily, twisting to fit new logic, new thought, new flesh. Financially, politically, socially, environmentally — we live in precarious times, walking along the edge of a knife. Like Clare, we must try to reaffirm the realities we can, lest we fall prey to the uncertainty that waits patiently for doubt to weaken us. Is it only a matter of time before we become like her — chasing her husband down unfamiliar streets, her thoughts aflame with the certainty of the thought: “You are dead. How could you have forgotten?”
Matt E. Lewis is the editor of Ayahuasca Publishing and co-editor of the horror anthology series States of Terror.
Matt E. Lewis is the editor of Ayahuasca Publishing & co-editor of the horror anthology series States of Terror. He lives in San Diego.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Lauren Sarazen finds Laura van den Berg’s powerful, atmospheric “The Third Hotel” a haunting descent into grief and the mysteries we can’t quite solve....
Matt E. Lewis reviews “The Changeling” by Victor LaValle....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.