Simone St. James: The Sun Down Motel

Simone St. James is one of the best of all modern gothic novelists, and importantly, the ghosts in her books are real, they’re not actually mysterious human strangers hanging around in vacant buildings for nefarious reasons.  She combines her ghost stories with cracking good mysteries, an irresistible combination, and unlike practically any other mystery novelist, the characters are pretty much exclusively female.  There are a few male characters for sure, but they are more on the window dressing side of things.  It’s the ladies that carry the narrative.

This novel is set both in 1981 and in the present, in Fell, New York, where two young women take on the night shift at the mostly empty Sun Down Motel.  Either 1981 seems like an incredibly far away place, or it seems like yesterday.   St. James nails the details of the 80’s, or at least enough of them to convince someone who graduated from college in 1982 that she knows what she’s talking about.

The 1981 woman, Viv, has left home and jumped out of a car because the guy she was hitching a ride from tried to put his hand up her skirt.  She ends up in Fell by default, and somehow ends up working the night shift at the Sun Down and rooming with another night shift denizen.  Viv is creeped out by happenings at the motel – doors that open and close, lights that go off even though there’s no electrical outage, and sights and smells that are otherworldly.

She makes friends with the night shift cop, Alma, the only woman on the force (and the reason Alma works the night shift), and a photographer who’s taking photos of an illicit affair going on at the motel.  Viv becomes obsessed with the deaths of three young women in the Fell area, a few scant months apart, and is sure they are connected.  She goes off on the most amateur of amateur detective hunts for whoever killed them, despite being repeatedly told by Alma to lay off.

In the present, Viv’s niece, Carly, has left college and come to Fell to try and figure out what happened to her aunt Viv, who seemingly fell off the edge of the earth back in 1981.  She quickly meets a kindred spirit, Heather, also obsessed with true crime (making the girls very of the moment) and the killings so many years ago.  Together the girls try to piece together what happened both to Viv and to the three dead women.

Both Viv and Carly are smart, brave, yet naïve girls who are trying to figure out what happened for all the right reasons.  The Sun Down literally drips with atmosphere – even the vending machine room (called “Amenities”) is creepy.  And both of them are pretty good detectives.  St. James draws the narrative threads tighter and tighter even as she ramps up the appearances of the Sun Down’s resident ghosts – not ghosts who are enjoying the afterlife, I might add.

While the story could certainly be defined as scary – it’s about scary topics and you’re often worried for the young girls in the novel (one armed with mace, one with a knife), one reading old Stephen King books, one reading Ann Rule’s classic, The Stranger Beside Me – the threads that draw them to one another so many years apart are strong ones.  But what I mostly felt and remembered was what it was like to be in my twenties and taking on and figuring out the world for the first time. In it’s own way, the pure, sheer enthusiasm of youth is captured beautifully in this ghost story.  This is a resonant, well written, emotionally memorable novel with a great hook and a creepy landscape that will not doubt get under your skin.