Everybody has stayed at the Hyde Hotel. You too. Remember?
It was that nondescript, faded building that seemed to blend with the concrete surroundings. You almost walked right past. It was the one with the magnolia walls and laminated fire-drill posters. The window didn’t open properly, your view was a brick-walled alleyway, and a previous guest had left something disconcerting in a drawer.
Such is the setting of this themed anthology from Black Shuck Books. Proprietors James Everington and Dan Howarth welcome a selection of unfortunate guests to the Hyde: a plain but serviceable budget hotel geared towards the single traveller, just the same as any other. At least that’s how it appears at first. But whether the new guests are on personal jaunts, business, or up to no good, they’ll soon discover that it’s the last place you want to prop your toothbrush for the night.
This book succeeds on both premise and delivery. It plays on the fact that inner-city hotels are a functional if soulless segment of many people’s lives, and uses this familiarity as a canvas for horror. Anything could be hiding in all those empty rooms or behind the gaze of that waitress or obsequious manager. These kind of hotels are places where nobody feels at home, somehow faceless and entombed, sealed away from the hubbub of whatever city they inhabit. And as the anthology guidelines were clearly grounded in the urban mundane, there’s no picturesque castle retreats, breath-taking architecture or honeymooning couples to be found. Rather, we visit a range of Hyde Hotels that may be different buildings in varying locales, but all have interchangeable rooms with dreary views in which people drink alone with too much time to think.
But on to the individual stories. The first (and last) piece is by James Everington, bookending our stay with perfect use of 2nd person. “Checking In” is exactly that, using superb attention to detail to convey the accustomed banality, but also a playfully ominous tone that prepares us for what’s to come.
Next is “The View from the Basement” by Alison Littlewood. We meet Leslie, visiting his particular Hyde on a city break without his wife for reasons that are initially mysterious. But she seems to have followed him in spirit, and when suggestions of her start to materialise in situation and dialogue, the stage is set for an elegiac finale. The author is magnificent at this kind of haunting mood, commanding succinct observational skills and a keen eye for the subtly macabre.
Next, Iain Rowan introduces us to Wilson in “Night Porters”. He’s an unadventurous man working away for a week to meet clients, and this tale instantly nails the life of the travelling businessman. Wilson repeatedly props up the hotel bar with the night porter, but something isn’t quite right about the fellow. Or the manager, for the matter, whose lingering grin makes Wilson feel uneasy. This is a well-written, Twilight-Zone-esque short with some spine-tingling flourishes in the prose that really stick.
Things take a noir turn in “Tick Box” by Dan Howarth. Here we find Edwards, a hitman getting back into the game and checking in as part of a job. His return to work is meticulously planned, but things unravel when he gets drunk in the bar and starts a scene. The crime vibe makes for a nice change after the creepy horror thus far, and it’s a pleasingly gruesome story that concludes with a deft teaser.
“The Edifice of Dust” by Amelia Mangan stars Phaedra: an architect hiding from the world after a building she designed collapsed. While staying at the Hyde, the dust in the old building takes her on a historical journey, and the architectural theme ties in cleverly with the story’s structure. The ethereal dust becomes as much a character as Phaedra, and although the pace lagged slightly for me towards the end, there’s a beauty to this enjoyably brooding cosmic tale.
S.P. Miskowski presents the journal of an American tourist in “Lost and Found”. We learn that the author of the journal is a huge fan of Muriel Watson: a now-deceased writer who found limited success during her troubled life. The author plans to visit the school where Muriel taught, her beloved bookshop, and is sure to request the very same rooms at the hotel where Muriel did much of her writing. But these plans are interrupted by an unexplained exhaustion, and some kind of haunting essence in the building itself. Tackling the ephemeral nature of art, lost talent, and the repetition of history, this is an elegant and powerful piece cemented together with chills.
A scene of grim death has already occurred when we join “Housekeeping” by Ray Cluley. Debbie, a member of hotel staff, is cleaning rooms when she discovers a bloody suicide in a shower cubicle. But she’s lured by her ghoulish curiosity (Hurrah!) and instead of running for management, she decides to explore the grisly scene herself. A razor sharp short – the shortest in the book I think – it has more going on than meets the eye and begs to be re-read, which is easily done given the crisp length. It boasts a splendid double-reveal of a finale and is one of my two favourite stories in this collection.
A layered tale follows with “Something Like Blood” by Alex Davis. We find Michael – an apparently successful man – on the run for reasons which are saved until later. After checking in and deciding that the Hyde’s deep red and black colour scheme isn’t the warmest of welcomes, he’s also perturbed by the deserted bar and restaurant, not to mention the staff themselves. A young waitress starts to remind him of the woman he left behind, and blood becomes an uncomfortable reoccurring theme in his stay. This author has great voice and the metaphorical threads are particularly well-observed. I found that it got bogged down slightly towards the end, but concludes with a satisfying and nightmarish finale.
“Arthur Charles Manfred Edwards, resting against the hotel room door, handle poking into his back and fire emergency poster affixing itself to his bald patch, clutched the bomb to his chest.”
Thus begins “The Coyote Corporation’s Misplaced Song” by Cate Gardner, a very colourful experience about a suicide bomber who is irrationally terrified of children. Which is a big problem for him, because his bomb happens to be a six year old boy. Despite that pitch-perfect opener, I didn’t warm to this story at first. I think it was because I found it so unexpectedly surreal, it caught me off-guard. So I cleared my brain of any preconceptions, started again, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Well-crafted and intriguing, it’s a wild ride that keeps us guessing until the end.
The Hyde Hotels of this anthology attract plenty of ne’er-do-wells, and that is certainly the case with Simon Bestwick’s “Wrath of the Deep”. Here we meet Kellett – another hitman – who is lying low and dodging the police. He’s been promised a healthy retirement package from his boss, on one condition. He must carry out one last execution: a professor who has stolen an ancient amulet, and who happens to be the only other guest of the hotel. This is smooth and instantly enjoyable storytelling. Kellett is quite investable for a murderer and the plot has plenty of tricks, starting off as crime before turning outrageously weird when the amulet comes into play. So much so, that I found it alarmingly comical at first and this is quite effective, whether it was the intention of the author or not. There’s a Lovecraftian tinge as it teases with the inevitable kick-off, and well-scribed action builds to a spectacular finale. Full of nuance and muscular dialogue, this is a fine fantastique that tackles allegiance and the nature of the monster.
Bang on theme is “The Sealed Window” by Mark West which concerns a chap named Hoffman. He loathes the oppressive heat and crowds of the city, and his journey begins with him already hot and bothered as he travels to the Hyde. Once there, the weird corridor design messes with his head, his room is too stuffy, and the window won’t open. When his peace is wrecked by a couple noisily abusing the headboard next door, his irritation and claustrophobia boils over. Tackling how an environment can truly disorientate, this piece stands out in evocation. It’s littered with great dialogue and sidesteps any expectations of cliché before finishing with a cracking punchline.
The other of my two overall favourites is “The Blue Room” by V.H. Leslie. A spooky and lush tale, it tells of Gwen, away from home without her husband for reasons of which we aren’t yet aware. Keen to settle in, she discovers that her room – and everything single thing in it – is a beautiful shade of blue. But while this provides a relaxing ambience at first, focussing on a Picasso painting on the wall, it soon turns sour. Strangers stare at her at breakfast, the waiter makes cryptic references to hell, and Gwen sees a ghostly woman flit past the door whilst drifting in the bath. She’s a likeable, fully realised character and I wondered if she was becoming ill, or if the hotel or painting itself was the cause. The prose brings an exquisite melancholy through the blueness, weaved into the very fabric of the story, and a sobering and very clever pay-off puts everything in place. I also love the way it works in Picasso’s wonderful “blue period” and this story is a favourite of mine partly for the sublime, art-infused mood. But it’s also for the conclusion, which is the finest the anthology has to offer and makes it a faultless choice for the last regular piece.
After that, we just have James Everington’s “Checking Out” to neatly complete the whole experience. His unnerving voice guides us back out into the world following our time as a guest of the Hyde, alive but irretrievably altered, and a wry final paragraph ensures that we put the book down with a mischievous smile.
The Hyde Hotel is a solid mix of character-driven horror that captures the lot of the lone traveller. It’s one of the few situations in which we formally share breakfast with complete strangers – something that several of the stories here evoke with aplomb – and we’re often left skulking in our rooms, restless and out of sorts, yet simultaneously bestowed with a sense of freedom from domestic routine. But although a bland city hotel allows this liberation, it also forces reflection through the lack of much else to do. I think that’s the perfect time for something hellish to burst into anyone’s life.
I’ve seen themed compilations like this suffer from heavy overlap, but the fiction here is sufficiently varied. Even when there is repetition, this familiarity is part of the very concept so it doesn’t become a negative. In fact, it actually adds an overall insidious tone. The contributors create plenty of malevolence, sadness and terror through their thoughtful stories, and there’s something in this book for everyone.
So fill up your tiny kettle, open a complimentary sachet of instant coffee, and enjoy. Just don’t bother hanging the “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door.