My forthcoming novel He Has Many Namesshould be arriving just in time for Halloween. It’s the story of a ghostwriter sequestered in a haunted hotel with one month to pen a novel. The hero, Noelle Blackwood, is a horror writer who knows her way around a scary story. Her imagination has explored every haunted hotel in pop culture. She has run a black light over the tropes and clichés residing in every room.
I’ve armed Noelle with all of my influences and she is proud to wear them on her sleeve, name-dropping the films, books, and paintings that inspired He Has Many Names. This way I could pay homage to my influences while promising to take the story someplace different.
Over the next few months I’m going to take those influences to show and tell. Let’s start by talking about the films that inspired He Has Many Names.
Mike Enslin has spent his career trying to prove there’s an afterlife, searching for ghoulies and ghosties in the hope of proving his daughter is in a better place. His quest has turned him into cynical critic of haunted hotspots. At book readings he tells his audience he’s never seen a ghost and it wasn’t for lack of trying. One day he receives a postcard that says, “DON’T STAY IN ROOM 1408 OF THE DOLPHIN HOTEL.” Mike adds the numbers together and gets 13. It’s a cute dare.
Mike reserves the room, much to the dismay of the hotel owner who warms him of all the natural and unnatural deaths that have occurred in there.
What happens in room 1408 of The Dolphin Hotel and room 1901 of The Oralia in He Has Many Namesare very different. Still the heroes of both tales have quite a few things in common. Both characters are fascinated with the paranormal and yet they’re both intrinsically skeptical.
Mike Enslin, John Cusack’s character in 1408, has spent years seeking proof of life after death. It’s left him jaded. He sees how people deceive themselves.
Noelle Blackwood, the hero of He Has Many Names, was diagnosed with a fantasy prone personality at a young age. She had to learn to differentiate between a set of complex maladaptive daydreams and reality. She developed her skepticism as a coping mechanism.
As for the rooms themselves 1408 and 1901 have little else in common. Once the digital clock starts counting down from 59:99 1408 has a clear mission: kill its guest in under an hour. Room 1901 of The Oralia, a forest themed fantasy suite, has a far more mysterious purpose.
The fifth season of FX’s hit series takes place in an art deco dump called The Cortez. This setting inspired by a real hotel called The Cecil. The Cecil was a historic Hollywood fixture, but it was plagued with violence, suicides, and unexplained happenings.
In the first chapter of He Has Many NamesI wanted readers to think they were walking into a similar situation.
Upon entering The Oralia Noelle is certain it is one of the last bastions of elegance and class from an era when there was still tinsel in tinsel town.
Then she scans a plaque on the front desk to find The Oralia was founded in 2008.
Most haunted hotel stories depend on the hotel’s history to build tension. American Horror Story made the Cortez’s founder a serial killer like H.H. Holmes the dreaded devil in the white city. I wanted to subvert this expectation by making The Oralia a new building with an art deco design, a forgery of an era none of its guests had ever lived to see.
As an anthology show every season of American Horror Story explores a different subgenre. These twelve episodes were packed with a greatest hits mix of the haunted hotel genre. People are trapped in the walls. The mattresses are possessed. There are ghosts, vampires, witches, and a killer with multiple personalities. It has everything and the kitchen sink.
SinceHe Has Many Namesis all about toying with expectations this season was a great refresher on what’s been done and how to take that in a different direction.
Heidi hosts a late radio show where her experimental tastes are uninhabited by advertisers. She receives a mysterious seven-inch in the mail, a single by The Lords of Salem. Shortly after putting the record on she has visions of the town’s past. She sees silhouettes in the vacant apartment down the hall and finds herself sleepwalking in that direction later on. Is Heidi dreaming or are her landlords grooming her to be sacrificed? Are these visions of witch hangings hallucinations or memories? Is that apartment empty or is it a portal into the grand halls of hall?
This is Rob Zombie’s detour from directing slashers to something avant-garde. It’s slow-burning thriller. While it isn’t a complex story on paper, Zombie pulls viewers in with long patient takes through atmospheric set pieces, and twisted psychedelic visuals. Sheri Moon Zombie’s turn as Heidi is equally mesmerizing. All and all I think it’s an underrated work of pure paranormal paranoia.
I tried to capture the same hypnotizing tone throughout the nightmare sequences ofHe Has Many Names.
(SPOILER WARNING: the next few paragraphs contains spoilers for both The Sentineland the ABC drama Lost.)
Of all the pieces of media that directly inspired the TV show LostI’d say The Sentinelis one of the biggest. On Losta group of castaways crash land on an island where they meet Jacob the island’s mysterious protector. It takes seven seasons for Jacob to reveal the island’s true purpose. It’s a cork that prevents the chaos of hell from spilling out onto the world. That chaos has seeped out onto the island in the form of a smoke monster; a monster with the ability to assume the form of anyone who has died. The castaways learn that it’s no accident they crash landed on the island. They are candidates, carefully selected to take over Jacob’s duties as the island’s protector.
That’s the plot of 1977’s The Sentinelif you swap the island for an apartment building and Jacob for a blind priest. Alison Parker is a young fashion model that moves into the building only to be dogged by the hordes of hell. She’s given the same choice the castaways on Lostgot: take up permanent residence and keep the legions of hell from bleeding through.
FromDante’s Infernoto Buffy the Vampire SlayerI’ve always liked the idea that there are Hellmouths hidden throughout the world.
A Hellmout may or may not feature prominently in He Has Many Names.
The tagline on the poster is You think you know the story. There have been so many cabin in the woods horror movies fans ought to know the trappings of the subgenre by now: a group of spring-breakers venture into the wilderness, enter a cabin with no modern convenience, explore the cellar, and watch the wrong film reel, or play with the wrong puzzle sphere, or read from the wrong diary. They wake the legions of the undead and get picked off one at a time. First goes the slut, then the burnout, then the jock, then the nerd, and ultimately the virgin.
Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard add depth to these deaths by giving them a greater purpose. It turns out every character who has ever died on screen was an offering to elder gods slumbering deep beneath the earth. They spare us from an annual apocalypse so long as their appetites have been satiated.
When I wrote He Has Many NamesI pretty much wanted to make Cabin in the Woods in a hotel, to play with the audience’s expectation and I spin them all around. You think you know this haunted hotel. You think you recognize this deal with the devil, but there’s another element at play.
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is tasked with adapting a popular bestseller. Instead he pens a film about his own existential crisis trying to adapt it, blurring the line between autobiography and fantasy.
This is one of the best examples of a story where the writer breaks the fourth wall to reveal the process that went into what we’re watching. The hero criticizes the cheap emotional manipulation techniques in western storytelling right before embracing them.
He Has Many Namesis filled with meta moments just like this, including a scene where a peeved publisher criticizes half of the story that we’ve just read.
Bear with me here. When I was a kid the scene where Bastion realizes that the book he’s reading just referred to him, the reader, as a pivotal character in the story blew my young mind. It was then when I realized how meta-storytelling could bridge the gap between fantasy and reality, making the imagination seem important.
I try to capture that feeling in all my writing.
Can you believe I wrote an entire story about an author writing in a haunted hotel and I never once had her type: All work and no play make Jill a dull girl? (Is it too late to add that in?)
Just how does The Shiningrelate to He Has Many Names? Both stories feature writers as central characters, and if there was ever a condition that would make a person receptive to paranormal visitations it’s writers block.
There is one Psycho joke in He Has Many Nameswhen Noelle pitches ideas to her benefactor Barkley Carver. Carver wants her to write a serial killer thriller, a genre she detests. Worse still he wants her to make the killer’s victims unsympathetic so that the audience can relish in the torture porn.
Annoyed, Noelle says, “What if the victim stole a large deposit from her office? Let’s say she checks into the motel thinking Hunter is the owner. Maybe she overhears him arguing with… I want to say his mother. Perhaps something terrible could happen to her in the shower?”
These films lent an aura of unease to He Has Many Names. I can’t pin what I lifted from them, but I love them all the same. Add them to your watch list.
He Has Many Names is coming out soon.