A Postcard from Tour: Denver
AND a writing prompt!
It was the Trend That Went Poof!
Twenty years ago every grand old hotel had a ghost. In Portland, the Heathman Hotel had three haunted rooms. Three. As per the story, a guest had leapt from a high window, so not only did he haunt his room, but he haunted the two rooms below his because he’d look into those windows as he fell to his death. It was sold as the “Haunted Stack.” And I say “sold” because the hotel issued press releases about the ghost and held tours to find the ghost, and the result was that those three rooms were almost always booked. Guests reported a wide range of ghostly goings-on.
When I began writing the travel guide Fugitives and Refugees the manager of the Heathman showed me their famous haunted photograph. The picture showed the grand lobby, and near a floor lamp hovered a large, glowing orb. That photo hung for years in that same lobby, a local landmark.
Likewise, in Denver the Brown Palace featured its own ghost, and haunted room and ghost hunting tours. Not to sound too jaded, but a typical haunted room at most old luxury hotels was cramped and difficult to rent. But once those unwanted rooms were deemed haunted they had guests standing in line for the chance to share a bed with the dead.
Speaking of shared beds…. Another hotel gimmick of that era was the Authors Suite. Big Publishing was touring so many authors that hotels saw an unrealized income stream. Why not cobble together two ordinary rooms, over stock the minibar, and market the suite to traveling writers? As each author checked in they’d be asked to autograph their latest book, and that book would be shelved in the suite. Any visiting author could check the books and determine by their pub dates exactly who’d slept in the bed for every day of the room’s history.
David Foster Wallace Slept Here. Anne Rice Slept Here.
This knowledge is not universally appealing. But it includes movie stars on biography tours, famous chefs, fiction writers, the works. Still, it made good dinner conversation to say you’d shared a bed with Jane Fonda, Paula Deen, and Nicholas Sparks, bringing to mind a steaming orgy with rich, buttery food. In recent years as the stream of book tours has dwindled, the Authors Suite has steadily vanished.
For my part, room service servers don’t make a ton of money. A twenty or fifty dollar bribe roped in endless stories about the angry tirades and sexual habits of celebrities. A word to the wise, when Jane Fonda requests cucumber slices to place over her eyes, they can never be too thin. You’ve been warned.
The John Cusack stories I will take to my grave.
On my last tour through Denver, I asked a Brown Palace about their famous ghost. The tuxedoed staff person told me they had no ghost. He said they had no haunted room. They’d never had a ghost. I felt like Winston Smith in 1984. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. So it goes.
In Portland, it’s the same deal. The haunted Ghost Photograph is gone, and if you ask about it the staff will act like you’re a lunatic. It seems that not only has the Touring Author well run dry, but Ghost Hunter Tourism has also bottomed out. A sad sign of the times, indeed!
Still, I’m obsessed with systematized magic
By this I mean the nuts and bolts behind commercial ventures that purport to deliver a paranormal or supernatural experience. Read Mary Roach’s book Spook, in particular for the bits about how so-called mediums would yank incredible amounts of damp cheesecloth from their throats and vaginas — and other, less savory places — during seances and present it as ectoplasm. Lovely stuff.
Regarding haunted rooms, my imagination conjures up entry-level wage slaves who not only have to deliver room service meals and shine shoes, but also have to perform hourly “ghost” chores such as releasing noxious smells and moaning loudly outside the doors of certain rooms.
I’m not alone in my fascination with hired peons who must stay in character as they populate shabby theme parks and the like. George Saunders loves to juxtapose the gritty world of Dirty Realism with “magic,” in effect putting Raymond Carver’s characters to work in run-down fantasy settings.
As your writing prompt
Create a character in a minimum wage job that consists mostly of regular work — cleaning, stocking, delivery — but also includes the clockwork tasks required to “haunt” a room or series of rooms. This could include several of such workers bickering over their duties. “Hey, I shoved steaming ectoplasm under the door of room 217 for you yesterday. You owe me!”
How does the process escalate? Does the part-time ghost accidentally kill a guest? Thus creating a real ghost.
Think a low-rent The Cabin in the Woods. Think burnt-out drama majors phoning in their lame performances, perhaps until a Hollywood power broker rents the room in question. My big break! Above all, create a systematized process in which ordinary people — or one person — must create the supernatural on a grinding, day in day out basis.
Such jobs help you write the normally boring “What Does the Character Do for a Living” scene/chapter. And they’re a fun metaphor to suggest the character’s overall life. I did it in Choke, Saunders does it all the time. It works.
Now, happy haunting.