by Helen Patterson
Set in 2015 Havana, Laura van den Berg’s new novel, The Third Hotel, draws on film theory and criticism, zombie folklore and film, and the clash of the past and the present. Clare, an elevator salesperson, goes to Havana because she and her recently deceased husband, Richard, a prominent horror film professor, had tickets to attend the Festival of New Latin American Cinema and meet Yuniel Mata, the director of Revolución Zombi, the first horror film made in Cuba. Before Richard was killed in a hit-and-run, Clare’s relationship with him was strained, and she sees this trip as a means to retroactively connect with him, to find out why he acted so strangely before his death. As Clare wanders through Havana and Cuba, she grows increasingly displaced from reality.
The title is a reference to Clare’s difficulty locating where she is supposed to be staying when she first arrives in Havana: she ends up at the wrong hotel twice before reaching the correct place, “the third hotel”. This sense of displacement and of being trapped in a liminal space resonates throughout the novel. Clare is constantly uneasy. She cannot stop thinking about Richard’s death, and she also cannot stop thinking about her father, who is slowly dying of dementia.
If the novel took place in America, Clare would already be displaced as a woman experiencing a mid-life crisis. But as this is all happening in a foreign country, Cuba, where Clare is a tourist and alone, adding a second layer of displacement. In addition, Cuba itself is rapidly modernizing, changing, and displacing the old with the new. This means that Clare is displaced and alienated a third time, trapped between two different versions of Cuba, the past and the future, colliding in her present. These layered displacements create a dreamlike atmosphere of unreality throughout the text.
Clare is not a stranger to traveling. In her former life as a salesperson, she spent over 200 days away from home a year. She “believed that if she just kept moving she could elude the most painful parts of life” (34). But Clare learns she cannot escape the memory of her husband. In Cuba, she sees Richard, alive and well—unless he is just a ghost, a zombie, or a figment of her imagination. The atmosphere of the uncanny that van den Berg builds never allows readers to quite make up their minds.
Relentless as a zombie herself, Clare follows Richard, even speaks to him. The question of whether Richard is an undead monster or some different, alternate version of himself, brought to life by her will and set loose into a different reality, is never fully resolved. The crucial thing is that Clare alters dramatically as she realizes that it was she, not Richard, who changed. Earlier she had interpreted Richard’s actions before his death as an inexplicable change that he instigated, but it turns out he was changing in response to her, to her strangeness.
Overwhelmed, Clare begins to witness reality itself as if she were Richard critiquing a film. The weight of an invisible camera lens, of a voyeuristic unseen other, makes Clare feel that she is both the subject/protagonist and the passive viewer of the film of her life.
Clare eventually returns to the States (minus her job), but she is so altered by her long immersion in a liminal state that it is doubtful she will ever again become the person she thought she was. Moreover, the last disturbing line of the novel, “That night the moon looked like it was going to kill them all” (209), pulls the whole world into Clare’s liminal nightmare, including the reader. The Third Hotel is a rich, disquieting novel, and highly recommended reading.
Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.
Image: Laura van den Berg with Jeff Martin at Magic City Books on October 28th, 2018.