Wednesday 10 July 2019

Carnivorous hotels - Michelle Lovric

Until very late in its pre-publication life, The Wishing Bones was called The Hotel of What You Want. Naturally, that’s because it’s about a hotel where exactly what you don’t want is what befalls you. Indeed your worst nightmares would be pleasant daydreams compared to the evil operations of ‘The Hotel of What You Want’.

There was always going to be a hotel novel. I love hotels. I am a child of hotels and a grandchild of hotels. Hotels are in my blood. Up until my twelfth year, my grandparents ran and lived in a grand hotel called the Carrington in the genteel Blue Mountains resort of Katoomba, a few hours by train from my home-town of Sydney, and several decades behind the city that was even then an edgy combination of chic and brash. Katoomba was my first experience of time-travel, and I loved it.

The Carrington Hotel , perched above Katoomba railway station,
Blue Mountains, in 1890: City Library and Wikimedia Commons. 
The air up in Katoomba was dry and spicy with the scent of Eucalyptus; the shops sold old-fashioned sweets and the world’s most grotesque dolls, known as ‘mountain devils’. These were complicated horned seed-pods of the wild honey flower, dried and mounted on pipe-cleaners and then dressed in dreamy ball-dresses. I collected mountain devil ladies of fashion and created auto-ethnographies for them - sadly, none extant.
Katoomba Street was almost as sleepy as this when I used to frequent it.
 State Library of New South Wales, Wikimedia Commons.
But the best thing about Katoomba was the Carrington, and I adored almost every inch of it. I was a child who hated growing up in Australia. I craved Europe and the old world. The Carrington delivered every possible old world trope: fluted columns, a suit of armour in the hall, a grandfather clock, stained glass windows, conservatories, the billiard room.
The entrance to the Carrington -  Sardaka and Wikimedia Commons

Even then I had a passion for architectural detail
In the dining room of my memory stood stalwart Chinese vases, far taller than a child. Behind them was a good place to hide from the cook who was known to hate and rumoured to eat children. A magnolia tree bent over the swimming pool, casting its blooms into the water like waterlilies. Romantically, it even snowed occasionally in Katoomba. The railway station was next door to the hotel; trains chuckled quietly to themselves all night.

My favourite place was probably the little minstrels’ gallery above the ballroom. There was a sad dearth of minstrels. So that eyrie became the den for myself, my sisters and a cousin. Being the spoilt grand-spawn of the bosses, we were served an almost fatally sweet cherry cordial that the staff called ‘Dragon’s Blood’. (Orange juice would have probably tasted better, but we were not going to pass on Dragon’s Blood.)

There was even an element of Gothic horror. The Carrington’s plumbing was terrifyingly percussive in the night. Click, howls and growls emerged from the radiators. The bedrooms were reached via endless corridors clad in vivid Turkey carpet, thick enough to mask creeping footsteps. I was terrified of the black lioness sculptures that lurked in unexpected corners up there. I felt their eyes swivelling to watch me. I felt their breath on my neck. I used to run past them as fast as I could, my heart beating fit to burst. And yes, in The Wishing Bones, those black lionesses stalk The Hotel of What You Want, one of those screamingly obvious warnings that guests in haunted houses never ever heed, making them almost complicit in their own murders.

The Carrington was in my mind when I started writing The Wishing Bones, though by this time both my writing and my life had transferred to Venice. In Venice, I found a shabby building that seemed to be melting into a quiet canal. It had the appropriate hidden entrances and a water-gate convenient for the disposing of bodies. So this was the building I chose when elaborating on an idea for keeping English tourists both entertained and detained in Venice: pink window awnings containing dioramas with mechanical models inside to represent all those exciting cities in Europe that it would, in truth, be uncomfortable, hot and dusty to visit.

In my dioramas, I was initially inspired by lantern-box shows or mondi nuovi, as the Venetians called them, could be seen on the streets in the eighteenth century, providing magical-seeming glimpses of other worlds and wild creatures, apparent ghosts and devils. In fact, it is thought that the magic lantern or ‘lantern of fear’ was invented by Giovanni Fontana, a Venetian, in the fifteenth century. In the time when this book is set, an era before movies, televisions or computer screens, the dioramas of the Hotel of What You Want would have seemed like magic. The fresco below by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo shows crowds clustering around a Mondo Novo. It comes from the frescoes of the Villa di Zianigo, courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.

But I am not the first person to think of miniature tableaux of moving parts inside an eyelid-shaped awning. The artist Mariano Fortuny Marsal (1871–1949) made his home near San Samuele in Venice in the late nineteenth century. This dashing portrait of him comes from Wikimedia Commons.

In 1899, Fortuny began to experiment with lighting and scenery engineering for the theatre. In April 2012, when I was starting to think about the Wishing Bones, his theatrical models were on display in the Venetian palazzo that now bears his name. They included a structure like a delicately pleated eyelid that could open and close. Fortuny also made ‘cloud machinery’ of painted glass on tilting frames. In his time, electric light was available to illuminate the ‘moving clouds’. In the world of my novel, there are only lanterns, plus small wind-up automatons and delicate toys that could be powered by the warmth of a candle.

I’d written the second draft by the time I found out I was also not the first person to think of a hotel as a useful place to kill guests and harvest their body parts for money. Researching the history of hotels, I came across the 19th century case of Herman Webster Mudgett, whose establishment in Chicago had more in common with an abattoir than a hotel. I found a 2003 book by Erik Larsen The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.

a reliquary box of tiny bone fragments
from different saints
Science Museum, courtesy of Wellcome Images
At first I was a little crestfallen But my book’s set in 1740, and in Venice. It has other elements: a cruel convent where children are worked as slaves. fake saints’ relics, mermaids, vampire eels and prophecies. So I decided that Mudgett was a suitable research resource. After all, the task of the fantasy novelist is to create a believable scenario. Mudgett’s grisly techniques actually worked, so I prepared myself to read and learn. Larsen’s book is fascinating, twinning the story of the psychopath Mudgett with that of the decent people who battled against all odds to create a stunning World Fair.

 One of the first known serial killers in America, Herman Webster Mudgett, trained as a doctor – and went by the name of Dr Henry Howard Holmes. However he discovered that murder could be more lucrative than medicine and better suited to his chilling talents for seduction. Mudgett was well-groomed, exquisitely dressed, well-spoken and the owner of a pair of hypnotic blue eyes plus the classic villain’s droopy moustache. He looked good in a hat. Like many psychopaths, he possessed an ability to make women fall hopelessly in love with him and to believe everything he told them – right up until the moment when he murdered them. Also in keeping with his psychopath trope, even as a child he’d had a morbid interest in the killing and dissecting of animals. His lack of squeamishness around corpses led him to a scam even when still a medical student: stealing and mutilating teaching cadavers to try to claim insurance pay-outs in faked names.

In Mudgett’s time, Chicago was home to the Union Stock Yards, the great abattoir of its day – a fact that was probably not lost on him. The city was also about to host the World’s Fair, which would bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city. So it was there that Mudgett opened a three-storey maze of a hotel in 1893. Its official name was ‘The World's Fair Hotel’ but its grandiose size led locals to call it ‘The Castle’ . It was not a welcoming place, being gloomy and dark. The layout was illogical and unfriendly. The room rates were not expensive. But that was because Mudgett made his real profits from selling the corpses of the guests and employees he murdered.

Mudgett had changed builders several times during its construction so that no one but himself knew all its secrets. Those included airtight rooms set up as gas chambers, a soundproof vault and a greased chute for discreetly dropping the bodies of his victims down to the basement so that he wouldn’t have to drag them through the corridors and down the stairs. In the basement were an operating table for dissecting the bodies and a special kiln for incineration. Mudgett sent some remains to an ‘articulator’ who prepared the skeletons for sale to medical schools.

Over several years, Mudgett got away with uncountable crimes. He may well have kept his victims alive in their sealed rooms for long periods before he killed them. Suspicion was eventually aroused by the large quantities of chloroform he bought and the number of missing girls who had at one time or another stayed or worked at the hotel. It was also discovered that all employees had been obliged take out a life-insurance policy in Mudgett’s name.

Mudgett eventually confessed to 27 murders but he may have killed ten times that number. He persuaded some victims to take out life insurance policies that named him as the beneficiary. So he earned from their deaths twice over. Mudgett, who had three wives at the same time, was eventually arrested and tried after he kidnapped three children and killed them in different cities in America. His dissecting chamber was discovered in the subsequent investigation.

A fire conveniently destroyed much of his carnivorous hotel before the full story could be uncovered. However, detectives had already located a vat of acid containing eight human ribs and a skull, his incineration kiln and his dissection table, human hair in a stovepipe, blood-stained overalls, high heeled shoes, a dress and substantial quantities of quicklime. Also found were a shoulder blade, a hip socket, a foot bone and more ribs.

While in prison, Mudgett wrote three different sets of confessions and a memoir, all full of lies. Some of the people he claimed to have killed were still alive. But many more missing people seemed to have crossed his path. Of himself, he said, ‘I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing -- I was born with the "Evil One" standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since.’

 The Chicago Times-Herald wrote: ‘He is a prodigy of wickedness, a human demon, a being so unthinkable that no novelist would dare to invent such a character.’

He was hanged in Philadelphia on May 7th, 1896, leaving elaborate instructions for his own burial to ensure that no one would ever dismember or dissect his corpse. His coffin, he insisted, had to be encased in concrete and buried ten feet deep. Mudgett of course knew better than anyone what kind of disrespect could befall a dead body.

Some of Mudgett’s diabolical ideas turned out to answer problems I had set myself in my plot. My dark fantasy was more than equalled by his reality. Mudgett had added baroque curlicues I could not have dreamt up.

Not surprisingly there's any amount of lurid and tasteless material online about Mudgett. If you’d like to see images of the hotel, this is one of the least offensive videos. I earnestly suggest you avoid the others.

The Wishing Bones has had a long gestation and it changed more than its title along the way to publication. A year after I started it, the wonderfully shabby Venetian building I'd chosen for it had a makeover and was painted a crisp russet red. Its romance died. So did its loucheness and decadence. It looked almost suburban. If I didn't live in Venice, I would have felt the need to find a new Hotel of What You Want. But I do. That meant I knew that humidity would reclaim those walls within a few years. And so it has. By the time The Wishing Bones is year old, that building in the Calle Racheta will look pretty much as it did before the owners spent all those euros on it.

A few years ago I went back to the Carrington. It had been ‘done up’. To me, it seemed as if it had been ‘done over’. It felt corporate, unwelcoming. Even if I’d been allowed to do so, I would not have wanted to go upstairs to inspect the black lionesses or put my ear against the ululating radiators. I feared both lionesses and antique plumbing been purged. I did not check on the minstrels' gallery or the tall vases in the dining room. Being in prosaic company at the time, poetic memories were not evoked: the modern Carrington did not dent the porous old container in which I keep them.

And perhaps that’s for the best. They're still safe where they are.

Michelle Lovric’s website

The Wishing Bones is published on July 25th

New website pages about the book can be seen here.

A shorter version of this story has appeared in COLLECTED, writings from Royal Literary Fund Fellows on the RLF website.


Susan Price said...

Loved all ofn this -- but especially the account of your hotel childhood.

Joan Lennon said...

So evocative - thanks for this, Michelle! Well, maybe not so much for the image of sealed chambers, which I will work hard to get out of my head, but for the background to the new book!

Sue Purkiss said...

I love the sound of the Carrington. Mudgett's hotel, not so much.