Impersonal and unknown, surrounded by strangers and desperately lonely – these are the most unsettling characteristics of hotel rooms and while hotels sometimes carry connotations of holidays and pampering, they also lend themselves very easily to horror. Voices is an indie anthology of horror stories set in a sinister old hotel. The authors have imagined what you might hear in those rooms, and behind the locked doors are voices that whisper, plead, threaten and scream. Some reveal dark secrets; some are the ramblings of insane minds; some might be the voices of ghosts or other paranormal beings. Hotel rooms are so impersonal and alienating and yet, as this anthology often suggests, they bring out deeply personal, often deeply disturbing aspects of the people who occupy them.
The stories play around with the various characteristics and uses of hotel rooms. One of the most common uses is as a space for lovers. Several of the stories use this theme, although in this case the relationships are stained by obsession, loneliness, tragedy and violence. In “His Only Company, the Walls” by Brad C. Hodson (one of the collection’s best stories), a man waits with demented tenacity for the arrival of his lover, Julia. The narrative is composed of the voicemail messages he leaves on her cellphone. The days and weeks go by and he becomes increasingly unhinged, missing Julia then hating her, while worrying about the thing lurking in the hallway. He’s managed to puzzle out the language in which the walls are talking, he tells Julia: “I wish they would shut the hell up. I don’t believe a thing they’re saying about you.”
In “Paris” by Todd C. Edwards, a junkie ODs in the hotel room she shares with her drug dealer boyfriend. She can hear and see but is completely paralyzed and has to watch, helpless, as the lover who promised to take her to Paris deals with the body in his hotel room.
Hotels can often provide an escape from normal life, but since this is a horror anthology, the characters in Voices aren’t having happy holidays. In “Mirror” by K.V. Taylor, Max and Luca are hiding out in a hotel room after some unknown crime that Max committed. He stares constantly at the mirror in the room, while his mind is warped by the loud, chaotic music only he can hear. The unnamed woman in “Sanctuary” by Carol Johnston is trying to find some relief after a failed relationship and the last of a long series of hospital stays, but instead of finding comfort she’s ravaged by nightmares, the tortures of her own dysfunctional body and the otherworldly nature of the room itself.
Hotel rooms offer more permanent escapes too. According to author Paul Kane, anonymous hotel rooms are favoured places to commit suicide, so in his story “The Suicide Room”, a man who has been lonely all his life checks in with a suitcase full of things with which to kill himself; he just has to decide which method to use. Anonymity presents a different kind of suicide in “The Man Who Wasn’t There” by Rodney J. Smith. Ash, a man whose job has turned his life into a miserable journey from one lonely hotel room to the next, one day hears a voice that tells him that if he wants to escape his life he can give up his name, his existence and simply cease to be.
The privacy of hotel rooms allows for another common theme – murder. “Just Us” by Pete Kempshall is my favourite in the anthology – a police procedural that begins with a brutally hacked body in a hotel room and goes back a few hours to witness the murder. Another police procedural – “A Picture of Death” by Shane Jiraiya Cummings – also begins with a body in a hotel room, this time hanging from the ceiling. It seems that this killing had something to do with witchcraft, and no matter where the detective stands in the room, the corpse turns to stare at him with dead, bulging eyes.
Cleanliness is a worrying issue in dodgier hotel rooms and “Bedbugs” by Martin Livings takes a psychological and supernatural approach to the idea of a bed swarming with disgusting, biting bugs. “Sentinel” by Sonia Marcon has a surprisingly optimistic approach to the idea of something living inside the walls, watching the people who come and go from the rooms. Another room haunted by a paranormal presence is found in “Faking it” by Siobhan Byford, where a con artist who pretends to be psychic finds her act being taken over by the real thing.
The anthology also contains a series of six shorter stories by Robert Hood that act as an overarching structure for the theme of the collection. The idea is that the narratives are all set in the same hotel, and Hood’s tales (which include the prologue and epilogue) give us glimpses of the hotel across the decades, from 1928 to 2008. Unlike the other stories, which are all set in rooms, Hood’s take place in the lobby and corridors, the public spaces of the hotel. Each story features a creepy porter – possibly the same porter, a man who’s just as much a part of the hotel as the masonry.
I like the premise that all the stories take place in the same hotel and the implication that there is something sinister about the building itself. The creepy, haunted building is a standard horror trope and it’s one of my favourites. Unfortunately this presents a flaw in the anthology, as the stories don’t feel like they’re taking place in the same building. Of course, you could argue that the specifics of the hotel change over time and some differences and contradictions could be explained by the supernatural nature of the building, but that’s a very weak explanation. It may have been better if the editors presented the authors with specifics about the structure of the hotel for the sake of thematic consistency.
On the whole it’s a nice collection, if not great. Quality varies from very good to average to dull, but it’s an enjoyable, easy read – a bit of light horror for a quiet evening. At its worst the stories are forgettable (as opposed to being badly written or schlocky, which is much worse), while at its best it’s punchy and unsettling. Many of the narratives are deliberately ambiguous about their supernatural elements (is the character insane or is there really something weird going on?) but there’s a very fine line between being mysterious and being vague. Some authors find that sweet spot of creepy intrigue; others feel like there’s something missing.
I’d looked forward to Gary McMahon’s story simply because he was the only writer whose name I was familiar with, but his piece, “Constance Craving” was boring. It’s about a therapist who tries to treat a young girl who’s convinced she’s a vampire (they meet in a hotel room, in keeping with the theme). The story doesn’t tell you whether or not the girl is really a vampire, but instead of being mysterious it was melodramatic and dull. Which also goes to show that you shouldn’t judge a story on the name of its author; chances are you will not have heard of the authors in this collection, but that’s no reason not to read it because there a few gems.
Among those are a few features that scored points with me. Each story is accompanied by a bio of the author and a personal note about their writing process. I particularly like the latter, and it makes the anthology that much more interesting for writers and anyone else who enjoys hearing about the creative process.
I also appreciate is that the collection favours more subtle psychological horror over blood and broken bodies. Gore and other gross things are often a major part of the horror but do not overwhelm the far more interesting things that make these stories disturbing – insanity, cruelty, revenge, misery, loneliness and of course, the paranormal. I’m glad I got the opportunity to read this little collection, and although I’ve never felt weird about hotel rooms, I certainly will now.