Laura van den Berg’s second novel, The Third Hotel, piques our interest on the basis of setting alone: Cuba just after the easing of US restrictions. That’s only the first exotic touch. The protagonist, Clare, has come to Havana for a movie festival featuring an edgy new horror flick, and swiftly finds herself in a horror trope, coming upon her own private zombie: her dead husband Richard. In spite of these genre trappings, The Third Hotel amounts to more than thrills and chills. Van den Berg has swapped out the stages of grief for an alternative recovery process, one that refreshes old notions of female power and identity.
In the opening pages, van den Berg twice deploys the phrase “dislocation of reality,” and Clare proves far from clear. “Third Hotel” is the name she gives to where she’s staying; in the airport she had it so wrong the cabdriver first tried two other places. More than that, she was supposed be in Havana as a tagalong. Her husband was the film scholar, specializing in gore-fests. But Richard was “struck by a car and killed . . . five weeks ago,” and now his widow spends her first hours on the island as “an imposter,” borrowing names like “Ripley,” the heroine of Alien. Yet even in near-delirium, Clare reveals smarts and a quirky integrity:
No one had asked her age, but if they did she would’ve told them the truth, thirty-seven. She understood that some women would want to do the opposite: actual name, fake age.
Van den Berg’s knack for turning expectation on its head is one of the novel’s many pleasures. Clare, in her struggle to stay grounded, keeps striking odd balances. The opening chapter concludes with her in pursuit of the reanimated Richard, or whatever he is. First spotted “outside the Museum of the Revolution,” he’s real enough—she can finger his linen suit-jacket—but skittish, and somehow he knows his way around the old capital.
The chase is on. This central action never loses its connection to horror, making regular reference to critical concepts like the “Terrible Place” (the monster’s cave or slasher’s trailer) and the “Final Girl” (the survivor who defeats the Nemesis). But the novel proves flexible enough for other sorts of drama, as when Clare, playing detective, discovers Richard’s train ticket out to the jungle highlands and hops onboard herself. Soon she and Richard are sharing a room at the “Cure Hotel,” a therapeutic spa that recalls Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Indeed, magic’s afoot, starting with a remarkable, intimate encounter:
A molten ache announced itself between her legs. Her eyelashes thickened. Her shoulders shook . . . Every nerve was exposed, alight.
At the same time, another naked confrontation is taking place in this “mountaintop dormitory,” this one within Clare. Feeling her marriage is “unfinished,” she must confront where she fell short: what she calls a “second, secret self,” one “she didn’t know how to share.” As Mann put it in his essay on The Magic Mountain, Clare must seek “a higher sanity” through “an experience of sickness and death.”
A weighty forebear, and timeless themes, but van den Berg handles both with lighthearted verve. She’s got a sure hand with stinging images, often built around a lively verb: “Richard’s voice sliced through the thunder of her own thoughts.” Her humor is never extinguished by the grim circumstances, either—even at the Cure, where a man (possibly imaginary) tells Clare she’s too old for him.
Sir, she thought, don’t make me murder you.
She eyed the fork someone had left on the bar.
The Third Hotel seems a serious step up from van den Berg’s debut novel, Find Me (2015; she also has two collections of stories), primarily because of this finely textured combination of fun and eeriness. A more ordinary fiction would’ve spent far more time on Clare’s psychology, running the forensics on her “secret self” CSI-style. Indeed the scenes from Clare’s history, from her road-warrior job and her parents’ shaky marriage, hold the book’s few flaws. The parents’ marriage, for instance, makes a poor model for intimacy, and would’ve created conflicts around sex, but the protagonist tumbles happily, implausibly, into college flings and then marriage. But then, the flashbacks aren’t intended as deep analysis. They’re blackout sketches, such as you’d see in a horror movie—especially Clare’s brief nightmare in a stuck elevator.
So too, the closing rapprochement with the family, back in the US, pegs her as the Final Girl. Onscreen, such a heroine presents a complex figure, a superwoman but also a sex object. The prurient appeal is inescapable, and it prompts one Havana festivalgoer to dismiss horror as a “commodity—fake and disposable.” A similar complaint might be made against the novel, treating Cuba’s harsh reality as a mere backdrop for this sad but comfy gringa, but this criticism doesn’t take into account van den Berg’s concern with the harsh reality of life as a woman.
Clare, in grief, winds up abandoned by the networks—family, church, and employer—that had previously provided support. Meantime, a second ghost enters the story, an actress, the star of the movie having its premier. This figure haunts Clare almost as much as Richard, though the film debases her: “kneeling on a concrete floor . . . in cut-off shorts and a tight white T-shirt.” This getup is the sort of thing Clare’s parents warned her about, yet eventually she learns that the actress wielded decisive power behind the camera.
Such details, leavened with the same wit as everything else, firmly underscore how this story, adapting horror tropes to new ends, releases “the widow thrashing within.” By catching and seducing her zombie—and then finally letting him go—Clare’s stages of grief deliver her not to Zen-like acceptance, but to a place of potent new monsters:
Behind every death lay a set of questions. To move on was to agree not to disturb these questions, to let them settle with the body under the earth. Yet some questions so thoroughly dismantled the terms of your own life . . . So she would not be moving on. She would keep disturbing and disturbing. She imagined herself standing over a grave with a shovel and hacking away at the soil.