18 February 2020 – Berkley
ARC received in exchange for an honest review – thank you!
One rainy, overcast day, I was in the mood for a touch of mystery and ghostliness, so I dug this ARC up on my Kindle and dusted it off.
While it delivered ghostliness in spades, it was remarkably clichéd, and I saw the answer to the mystery from miles away. It’s a shame that while James is great at creating a suitable atmosphere for the novel, she’s not so great at delivering on it.
Fell, upstate New York. 1982. Twenty-year-old Vivian Delaney has just run away from her stifling existence at home, with an overprotective mother and perfect younger sister. She hitchhikes a ride (nearly ending up as just another statistic in the process) and is set down in front of the Sun Down Motel. It’s a crumbling, barely profitable business from the 1950s-60s, whose main source of revenue is from prostitutes, drug dealers, and adulterers. But Viv is desperate, and the motel owner Janice is willing to pay her in cash if she becomes the night clerk. All she has to do is stay in the office overnight and give people the keys when they come to check in.
But Viv quickly discovers there’s a reason why Janice was so eager to offload all the responsibility onto her. She can smell the cigarette of an invisible smoker, see a boy run away from her when the motel should be empty, hear the screams of a woman who tells her to run. Doors open and shut on their own. The motel is clearly haunted – and Viv exerts herself to find out what happened there.
Then she disappears.
35 years later in 2017, her twenty-year-old niece Carly is haunted by the mystery of what happened to the aunt her mother always refused to discuss, even before her death. She drops out of college and on impulse decides to travel to Fell herself. She’s going to retrace her aunt’s last known footsteps in an effort to discover what happened to Viv. In the process, she becomes a night clerk at the Sun Down Motel herself, meeting a mysterious guest by the name of Nick Harkness. And history starts repeating itself…
Okay, so the bad first: James SUCKS at drawing out suspense.
Like really, really sucks at it. Her approach is the Disney style: villains are villains because they give our heroines ‘bad feelings’, our heroines ‘instinctively distrust’ them, and so their villainy is telegraphed from the MOMENT we encounter them. No tension or drama whatsoever, no plot twists – these aren’t red herrings; they really do turn out to be the villains their exteriors proclaim them to be.
Even when James does try to have red herrings, she’s half-hearted about it. There’s a tiny subplot where she tries to introduce suspicion as to Nick’s motivations, but she gives up on it basically before she even starts and it fizzles out like a damp candlewick. I’d rather she hadn’t bothered with that subplot, than give so little effort to it.
Also… her visualisations of ghosts are cliched as hell. I suppose I’ve been spoilt by having read Stephen King’s The Shining, which is of course a masterpiece of hotel-based ghost literature. In comparison, James’s slamming doors and random smells didn’t even raise goosebumps. There was no sense of sustained creepiness.
I liked how chapters from Viv’s story (third person) are interspersed with Carly’s first-person narrative. It was probably the best thing to draw out the suspense James did. The ending also isn’t as rushed and overdramatic as it could’ve been, though it certainly did its best to tip over into ridiculousness.
I say this a lot, but… good premise, meh execution. Great attempt at a spooky atmosphere in places but it never really gets off the ground.