Sometimes it takes me forever to get words on “paper”. I sit down to make an attempt and then clip my nails or pluck wayward hairs instead. Or I finally go read all the articles that are taking up tab space on the top of my screen. Meanwhile, the germ of what I want to write spins lazy phantasmal circles around me. It lacks a definite shape but I can feel it, gently begging to be exorcised into writing or let go into whatever ether unrealized ideas disappear. But generally, eventually–mostly–I get it done. Sometimes, while I’m shuffling my feet and realphabetizing my books, the world shifts into the perfect environment for what I’m trying to write. As now.
Many people around the world, myself included, are quarantined. Even those without the means or opportunity to shelter in place have seen the world shift into a strange new reality where people avoid touch, wear face masks and gloves in public, and glare suspiciously at anyone who so much as coughs. An insidious virus, a very real fear that lacks shape or any characteristic that would allow us to see it coming, is burrowing into our collective hearts, into some of our very real, very vulnerable bodies, and reshaping the world into something currently unidentifiable. Many of our daily lives have shrunk drastically, our actions dictated by a paranoiac fear of contagion–not in the sense that our fear is baseless, but in the sense that we have such limited information that it’s hard to know if what we are doing will save us. This is what fear does. When we are afraid of sharks, we stay away from deep water. When we are afraid of being hurt, we hide our hearts away. When we are afraid of being attacked–or infected–, we walk around poised to defend ourselves, or we don’t walk around at all. But the ghosts, the manifestations of those fears, are harder to avoid.
Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel is largely about grief transmogrifying into ghosts, fear metastasizing into isolation. It’s the story of Clare, a woman whose husband, a horror film scholar, has recently been killed in an unsolved hit and run. The couple had intended to travel together to Havana, Cuba, to attend a film festival where the first ever Cuban horror movie was to be screened. Clare decides to go on her own, “to do the things her husband had planned on doing himself but was in no position to do any longer” (4). Semi-delirious from the reality of life post-husband, Clare gets drunk, talks to strangers, wanders around Havana, and begins seeing her husband. When she calls to him, he ignores her. When he walks away, she follows. Is he real? Is she losing her mind? Could both be true or maybe neither? Below and beyond the plot, however, this story is about the way women struggle to exist in a world bent in many ways on their annihilation.
One of the things I was most intrigued by in this book was the way in which van den Berg uses film theory to parallel the deepening alienation Clare feels to the world around her. Van den Berg references tropes in horror films such as the Final Girl, the lone female who survives in most horror movies, and the Terrible Place, where “the killer and the Final Girl [are] forced into their ultimate confrontation” (18). Horror movies are arguably excessively hyperbolic representations of the trauma of female experience. Laura Westengard, author of Gothic Queer Culture: Marginalized Communities and the Ghosts of Insidious Trauma, states that gothic novels, which I would argue The Third Hotel is, “circulate around the pain of female characters as a kind of repetition compulsion to work through the trauma of feminine socialization” (220). Westengard further defines trauma as “unspeakable”, an unhealed wound constantly reopened by its social invalidation. Like the heroines of these stories, women in real life are often targeted by men more powerful than themselves and then disbelieved when they’re brave enough to tell someone about it. Examples of this in the real world are legion. I myself have often considered whether I am Final Girl material, how long I might survive in a zombie apocalypse or the Hunger Games. Clare ponders this as well, when at one point she compares herself to the two women in the Cuban horror film she came to see.
There were two women in the film: a prostitute, whose death occurred within the first ten minutes and was treated like a joke, and the hero’s estranged daughter…. She was an elegant beauty, lithe and damp-eyed, and implied to still be a virgin. Clare herself had simple, pleasant looks–the kind of woman people might call pretty, never beautiful–and was certainly not a virgin but also not having sex all the time. In the average horror movie, she estimated her time of death would arrive approximately halfway through (28).
In my own ruminations, I’ve always thought that I might be the person who dies towards the end, a contender for the Final Girl, but never quite Her. For one thing, feminine virtuousity has never been interesting to me and once I made it to college and lived on my own, I got rid of my virginity as expediently as possible. But on the other hand, I think my success in an apocalypse world would hinge upon who the enemy was. In the book, Clare recalls her husband telling her what it took to be a Final Girl: “…many Final Girls had androgynous names—Laurie, Ripley, Sidney—because to be less feminine than the other women, the ones who stupidly wandered into clammy basements and shadowed alleys and got gruesomely murdered, was crucial to their survival…. To survive, it sounded like, the Final Girls had to be willing to transform into the men pursuing them” (29). In order to emerge alive, we must embody the very patriarchal violence that so threatens us. If I had to kill others like myself, others also caught within the homicidal/suicidal patriarchal structure, in order to emerge victorious, like in the world of The Hunger Games or The Walking Dead, I don’t think I’d make it. But in horror movies, especially ones in which the killer is a man, I think I’d have a better chance. Why? Because I, like many women, have a lot of experience with men who threaten me. Moreover, the ghosts of what could have been or what still might be, the ever-present threat of patriarchal violation, haunt me constantly.
In a world in which violence against women remains routine, pardonable even, where men who assault women can still become president, where would-be writers gush over acknowledged and unapologetic misogynists like Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, and Ernest Hemingway as literary heroes (the latter who once said you might as well shoot a woman if you’re going to leave her), where our most famous film directors–Hitchcock, Kubrick, Hooper (of Texas Chainsaw Massacre)–all recommend torturing the women to get the best effect… in such a world, how can women do anything but try to conceptualize the probabilities of their own survival?
Okay. So I’ve gotten away from the plot of The Third Hotel, but if you’re looking for reviews, there are plenty of places to find them. Here I chose to focus on what themes the book brought forward for me. While Clare wandered around Havana in pursuit of her dead(?) husband, I couldn’t help but focus on the men around her, who watched her, laughed at her, ignored her. We bring our own experiences to the things we read and The Third Hotel’s underlying tones of uncanny horror reverberated through me. And as I procrastinated on writing this by plucking chin hairs and binge-reading other things, the world around me took on an uncanny horror of its own.
The time we are living in now resembles a horror movie that might be screened at an independent film festival. The fear of contagion, which is, as far as I can tell, well-founded, is keeping us apart from one another, relegating us to the crypts of our own homes. Unlike a horror movie, we cannot fast forward to the end in order to assure ourselves it will all turn out okay. People are dying and, like in horror movies, those dead and suffering are disproportionately made up of people of color. When it’s over, those of us who are privileged under white supremacist patriarchy will probably be able to return to normal. I hope we don’t. I hope we listen to this fear, pay attention to the ways this cataclysmic event is making clear the structural inequality our privilege is built on and examine the ways we are complicit in that. But also I hope that we as a society might recognize that this fear is the same one that women feel every day. Women fear violence in the same way that we have all come to fear COVID-19. We can’t see it, we don’t know who might infect us, but what we do know is that we are susceptible, vulnerable. And it might kill us.