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’.
|The Carrington Hotel , perched above Katoomba railway station, |
Blue Mountains, in 1890: City Library and Wikimedia Commons.
|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|
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.
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.
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
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.