Another spooky story! This was a book that I had been wanting to read for quite some time. I had read The Broken Girls by the same author and really enjoyed it so I was very excited to see that she had a new book due for release. If I’m being completely honest I would have to say that it was the cover that first caught my eye – it’s just gorgeous! It really appeals to my aesthetic tastes. So imagine my delight when I read the plot synopsis and found out it was a ghost story. When done well, this genre is one of the most engaging there is.
I guess The Sun Down Motel could be described as a tale of two women.
Vivian (Viv) Delany, by accident, ends up in Fell, New York in 1982 after escaping an unhappy life in Grisham, Illinois. She gets a job working the night shift at the Sun Down Motel, a shady and out of the way stop which hardly anyone actually stays at. But that doesn’t mean that there are no people there. It’s not long before she becomes aware of the other inhabitants, those who have never left for one reason or another. Soon Viv is somewhat obsessed by them, or should I say, their stories – what happened to them and why they are there.
And then Viv disappears and is never heard from again.
Jump forward to 2017 when Viv’s niece, Carly Kirk, takes a break from her college studies to travel to Fell to find out what became of her aunt. Her mother has recently died and Carly feels that the time has come to resolve this part of her family’s past. The Sun Down Motel is still there, eerily unchanged, and Carly takes up the same position that Viv held, night clerk. She follows on behind her, sometimes literally walking in her footsteps, which of course brings her into contact with all manner of folk including those who still reside at the Sun Down Motel.
I’m gonna start with the statement that parts of this book are perhaps the scariest chapters I have read in a very long time. When I was younger I was prone to having nightmares whenever I read anything that was to do with ghosts or ghostly events. My imagination didn’t need much prompting or feeding to start creating havoc but as I have gotten older nothing in that vein has had the same effect … until certain moments in this book. I actually seriously considered not reading it at night because the moment I turned the light out, some of the passages started replaying themselves in my head and I had to make a conscious effort to think about something else. I felt it was at these moments, when the supernatural was at play, that the book was at its most effective and successful. Not simply because the events being described were of a frightening nature, but the successful sense of isolation and loneliness that the author had created to support them, especially with Viv and her experiences. The first time that she has a full on encounter with the ghostly tenants of the Sun Down is chilling and terrifying. I could easily put myself in her shoes and feel all that she felt. Now I do have to point out that if this aspect of the book had not worked, meaning not been scary, then the book would have completely fallen over but I am very happy that it did … for me at least.
But that doesn’t mean that there are no issues elsewhere.
As I said earlier, the story takes place in duel timelines – 1982 and 2017 – 35 years apart. This is a narrative technique that the author has used in the past, to very good effect in her earlier work, The Broken Girls. Here though, it sometimes caused a bit of confusion. Many of the same characters appeared in both timestreams and some events were repeated as Carly and Viv experienced the same things. On more than one occasion I had to stop and go back to check and clarify when I was in the chronology because I got a bit muddled and ended up thinking to myself ‘I’m sure I’ve read this before’. Now as you read on through the book you realise that this relatively short time gap is integral to the plot but it still excuse the fact things get blurred. I’m not sure how the author could have made things a bit clearer but it would have been helpful if she had.
Another aspect of the book that I found puzzling was the character of Nick Harkness. He appears in Carly’s part of the story. He was given a complex and interesting backstory which I thought was going to tie him intimately into events but once we met him, he seemed to go nowhere. Yes, he pops up to aid Carly every now and then, but it is nothing that another character couldn’t have done – Carly’s roommate Heather for instance (I liked her). I didn’t really see his purpose. To me it appeared as though he was supposed to act a sort of love interest but even that was very underwritten. I almost felt as though he was there because the author thought she should have a male character of his type which I felt did him an injustice. And this underuse also applies to another male in the story. He is introduced, we are given a little time to become familiar with him and then he disappears for a vast chuck of the book, only to reappear near the end as the plot lines converge and reach their climax. I thought each of these characters were interesting in and of themselves and I was waiting for more to be made of them and their contribution but it just never happened which was disappointing.
I also wasn’t super keen on the ending. I felt it fizzled out a little and didn’t really match the build up.
But one thing about this book that was pretty awesome was that the vast majority of the characters were female. A cop, photographer, the two main protagonists, various roommates, the principal ghost, were all women. They were the movers and shakers of the plot, those that drove things forward and I really enjoyed this aspect. The men of the book all seemed to operate on the periphery, being involved but not being the beating heart of the story. I would almost argue that bar one, you could have discarded most of the male characters and it wouldn’t have been detrimental to the story at all.
Despite the book’s issues, I enjoyed reading The Sun Down Motel. As a ghost story it has to be considered a success, not perfect but spooky stories rarely are. It inspired chills, fear and a few heart stopping moments, and ultimately that makes a book worth reading. But be warned … reading after dark by a single dull light might induce some sleepless nights!
Rating: 3 Stars
(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)