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Drink Me: The Horror Hotel Story, and Where Ideas Come From

The questions I never want to hear again: what are your influences? Where do your ideas come from?

I'm staying at a horror hotel here in Cleveland tonight while attending an ad writing conference. Oh, it's not a horror hotel on purpose. The first sign of trouble was when I pulled up to the front of the hotel to find six valets ready to whisk away the car. Who needs six valets? When I walked into the polished reception area I saw nearly a dozen people hanging out behind the front desk, many of them staring intently at the screens in front of them while just four or five guests seemed to be taking an awfully long time to get checked in.

I glanced at the sitting area near the front desk and realized the artfully arranged stack of books wasn't actual books but just replicas of books all glued together in a stack. They were just decorations. Like someone's idea of what would be on the table at a fancy hotel. When I finally made it to one of the dozen people behind the front desk, I was told I couldn't charge my corporate card, which I'd entered online, because the system hadn't retained the number, and they couldn't give me my key because they had to "go upstairs to make it," as if they were going up to forge it in Mount Doom.

I knew, then, exactly what I was getting myself into. I burst out laughing.

I had entered hotel hell.

BxC9CzqCcAAsU8u.jpgThe weirdness piled up. I waited twenty minutes for a key they never showed up, and used that time to explore my creepy hotel room, which had an empty glass bottle that said "drink me," a bizarre pencil-sharpener-looking decoration sitting alone on a shelf that turned out to be a bookend, of all things, and three eerie paintings of nude, headless women with waves of blood emanating from their creepy headless bodies. One of them was right next to the toilet, so you could watch these blood beads of sweat rolling down a disembodied naked back while you took a crap. It was the choice of art, even more than the dark colors, the too-tall sinks, the red plush chair with the footrest, and the halls that looked like something out of a Kubrick film, that made me realize this was likely the pet project of some rich privileged guy who had never run a hotel before. It was like a hotel built for the protagonist of American Psycho. It was the most incredibly out of touch hotel to have adjacent a convention center that I've ever seen. Contrary to popular belief, not all business people are dudes from American Psycho.

But the absurdity of it was so grand it made me laugh. I noticed all the weird little details. I delighted in the absurd horror of it. I returned to my room after dinner to find the door ajar and nothing stolen, per se, but the contents of the mini bar had been totally removed. All the drinks, the snacks, everything, like someone downstairs had suddenly realized that they hadn't put any prices on anything. The poor bellhop had the guts to ask me what I thought of the hotel "so far." And I haven't even told you about the elevators.

The truth is that I will remember this hotel experience more than any other generic hotel experience because it forced my brain into the surreal dream like state where everything becomes new again. We run through the routines of our lives so often that the brain often runs on auto pilot. Yes, I've been to a hotel a million times, swipe the key, give me the card, say the little pleasantries, I retire. That's it. That's the end of the story.

But there was that thrilling moment when the hotel desk clerk said, "I'm going to go upstairs and have this key made for you," and then discretely led me over to the bellhop and showed him the room number so he could escort  me up that my brain woke up. It said, "Oh, this is something different. I need to pay attention." And suddenly I entered a heightened state of awareness.

This is pretty basic survival 101 stuff, and I understand why it happens. We don't need to be hyper aware of everything all the time. We move through much of our lives, especially as we get older, incredibly quickly. Hours bleed into days bleed into weeks bleed into seasons, and suddenly summer is over and we wonder where the time went. As children, time feels much slower because everything we experience is new. Our brains are constantly working to absorb and categorize new information. As adults, there is less and less new information, and with less new information to take in, the brain doesn't have to work as hard. Time flies by.

When we speak about creativity, or coming up with creative ideas, I often think of it like I'm trying to force myself into this state of increased awareness. I'm trying to wake myself up from the routine, the mundane, the "yeah, I've seen that all before." I want to force my brain out of its comfortable notion of what the world is and explore what it could be.  

What if nothing is at all what we expect it to be? What if cats gave birth to rats and we used viruses to power cars, and what if a "family" had a minimum of six spouses and what if it was a grave crime to touch someone without consent?

I'll hear folks, often, saying they have an inherent resistance to some of the ideas in my books. Like, bug magic? Vegetarian cannibals? Parallel universes in an epic fantasy? But I've found that much of that resistance is the simple resistance we encounter when we haven't seen a thing before.  When we have gone so long seeing particular types of technologies (warp drive! Teleporter!) that we accept them whole cloth, however impractical, because they are familiar, then it seems odd to point and say that merely being unfamiliar makes something less plausible.  Funny enough, it is the unfamiliar, even in science fiction and fantasy novels, that gives us greatest pause, even when we say that's what we really want. Our minds have a resistance to it, a moment of pushback. "But wait! I don't have a box for this! It's a new thing! It can't be real!" We wake up. We interrogate. We fear.

Yet this is what I do all day as both a novelist and an ad copywriter - I look for ways to bust down preconceptions. To cut through noise. To disturb routines just a little bit so that people look at the world in new ways. Sometimes it's funny. Sometimes horrifying. Sometimes delightful.

When I look out at the world, I'm looking for ideas that disturb, delight, amuse. And I bring all those back with me and recombine them into something else. That's why asking what my influences are, or where my ideas come from, is such a meaningless question.  Where does thought come from?

It all comes from the same place: it comes from the weird hotel, the out of place object, the ill-timed phone call, the story of a grandmother's war time exploits, the canary that ended up in the baked beans and made you wonder... holy hell how did that happen? It's about constantly working to make sense of the world, even and especially when it is absurd.

About Kameron Hurley 

Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God's War Trilogy, comprising the books God's WarInfidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed MagazineYear's Best SFEscapePodThe Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.



I saw your story on Twitter, and now it's in one lump, and it goes way beyond artistic difference (like the "Drink Me" bottle or the way the pillows were arranged on the bed) into the territory of dangerous incompetence (The room key).

Here in the UK we have a lot of business directory websites, poorly updated with info scraped from each other. Some have review options, some don't. I'd certainly be tempted to pass on the story about the room key as a review.

After I was safely elsewhere.

This is ringing alarm bells for me, especially after seeing so much on Twitter about the routine treatment of women in the USA. It would be scary in my country. "Making the key" does sort of make sense with the tech I have seen, something like a keycard system and a hardware failure at the front desk, but it all goes way beyond awkward.

No wonder some people in the USA make John Moses Browning their hero. What else can you trust but yourself and what you bring with you?


Iain Banks in Raw Spirit devotes one of his rants to The Question. But then also gives a pretty good anecdote of how he came up with an idea. I guess the issue with asking an author where they get their ideas is just that it is such a cliche question.


Ah, you found an attempted boutique hotel chain that's Doing It Wrong!

All the clues are present. Too many staff in inappropriate roles (check), clueless front desk indicative of excessive employee turnover because working conditions are shit (check), hopelessly botched provisioning of guest room consumables -- the minibar: the bottle that would have made perfect sense if it was full of mineral water (check), decor and artwork buying outsourced to a design agency that despised the client (check), misplaced prioritization of design aesthetics over practicality, viz. showers that leak, non-functioning wall sockets (check) ...

Am I right in guessing that the hotel is (a) relatively new, and (b) a subsidiary of a larger, more conservative chain?


I had some seriously surreal thoughts whilst reading this. I've also never "not had a key" although some of them have been more "key-shped objects that didn't actually open the door".

Antonia (#1 para 4) hauled me back to Earth with a thump. Check with Charlie first, but if he's agreeable, I'd say it's time to name and shame.


Reading that had an effect I would almost call trompe l'oeil: It doesn't have the formal markers of fiction, so I'm left wondering if everything after the first sentence is rather surreal fiction or if it's all factual autobiography. It keeps flipping back and forth in my mind, like one of those optical illusion drawings that can be seen two different ways.


Interesting. And yet, if you lived in that hotel for a year, or a lifetime, you would find it normal. You'd have produced adaptive behaviors to compensate, pride yourself on clever hacks and end-runs around the incompetencies, inconsistencies, and inadequacies. Possibly have found beauty in the shitty designs, or at least changed them to suit your own sense of the grotesque.

In short, that hotel is life outside of the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, etc). That hotel is the the other side of the Iron Curtain in the 80s, or post-Reagan/Thatcher America or England living below the Harvest Line in the Zone of Extraction (my term for that unfortunate socio-ecomomic circumstance of not being a pampered white person, border of which consists of median income, skin color, and/or origin of birth), or Lagos, for that matter. You've entered the world of shitty design, which consists of - at the the start at least - 90% of all products and processes. Now, transfer all that to ten years from now to the Internet of Things, and synthetic organisms, and there's your cornucopia of creativity!


I kept expecting Gordon Ramsay to jump out of a closet going "Boo!" Yep, I watch too much TV. Ramsay has a current show called "Hotel Hell" (imagine that), where he fixes these sort of places, most fit Charlie's description, though not owned by chains, just clueless people who thought it would be cool to own an inn. You wouldn't think a TV chef knows too much about running hotels, but of course he always succeeds, with lots of yelling, in less than 60 minutes.

Still, that wasn't as bad as a hotel my brother and his then girlfriend found in Morocco several years ago. I don't remember the whole story, but the pictures of the room made you think you might not get out alive. The bedsheets had black and brown stains and spots all over, and probably plenty of bugs. Needless to say they left right after taking pictures. The perils of booking online.

(Maybe I should get the rest of that tale from him and work it into a story. Though knowing him he'll claim not to remember it. Or I can just make it up.)


Strange hotel rooms are more fun in retrospect. I stayed at a hotel in Chicago that also looked like a Kubrick film. The doors didn't fit properly and so there was light coming into the room from the external hallway. They also shook like someone had struck them a sharp blow every time someone nearby let their door slam. The bathroom door was so close to the toilet that you couldn't close the door without scraping against the bowl and yet they had enough room for an oversized tub and a large fancy sink.

But I remember that hotel, and that trip, better than most others. Better, even, than my stay at a supposedly haunted hotel in Dallas with an elevator so rickety and shambling that I willingly took the stairs every day until I had to haul my luggage away. It's the different-than-normal that wakes us up and inspires us. And it is a glorious feeling.


YES on the newness. Opened on Friday. No idea if they are owned by larger chain


It gets exhausting when you get it over and over. Where does air come from? Like answering that over and over


It's actually all true!! I have pics of the bloody women art on twitter.


I immediately thought of Ramsey as well. Like "help long before they call him?"


I think your image could use some margin or padding there; it's right up against the text. Something like 'margin: 1em 1em 1em 0;'


That's enough to nail it. Not many hotels have opened in Cleveland in September 2014, but Google knew. The building was some sort of office block, looking empty in the 2011 Streetview pics, and the company responsible seems a mix of both ownership and management of hotels, established in 2009. They do management for most of the big names in the business, and not just running hotels.

It may well be, apart from some of the design choices, that the staff are generally more than a bit lost at the moment.


There are times I feel like I don't know art at all, but I am disinclined to look at both sides of this one. The phrase misogynistic crap seems quite sufficient when I see the pic you posted to Twitter.

There can be far too many old assumptions in art, even recent images, but I prefer something less viewer-hostile, whatever the assumptions. If I need an instruction manual to get anything from an image, there's something wrong.


The newness makes a lot of it make more sense, in context: nobody there has much of a clue about what they're doing, they're all still on their first week on the job handling real customers. Oh, and they're opening with a bang: weekend shakedown then a great big trade conference!


Just looked at the pics on twitter. WRT the bad art, perhaps someone there has a thing for the opening credits of Bond films? Doesn't explain the random fake industrial objects though. And did you ever find out what the odd device was? (looked like a magic marker with a small ice scraper.)



One big question: what was the name of the hotel? I'd like to informally pass it along to con commitees, so that fandom doesn't get stuck in this place....

Feel free to contact me offline.

mark "CapClave and Balticon have their hotels, thank you"

Reminds me of my recent travels.

In one hotel I was shown to my room without having completed check-in as the computer was apparently down. I was asked to complete registration later. On returning to reception they denied all knowledge of my existence and suggested that, had I actually checked in earlier, I would have been assigned to a different room. The makings of a great farce since they continued to try to check me into the room where I was not but should have been.

In a second hotel, 5 star mark you, I checked in rather late at night and was shown to my room. I used the bathroom and then noticed a rather nice presentation plate with wine, mineral water and some chocolates, together with a note. The note was not addressed to me but at least welcomed me to the hotel.

Very nice I thought, 5 star and all that, pity they got my name wrong. Then I noticed the handbag.

The odd thing was that the reception staff didn't seem to care. They assigned me to a new room and asked me to return the handbag to the previous (I had bought it to reception to demonstrated rather than moving my complete luggage). I wonder what the original inhabitant thought on discovering that her handbag had been moved.

Good thing I hadn't gone straight to bed.

My favourite room, somewhat less Kafkaesque than yours, was a glassed-in courtyard of a Ducal place (not my room but a common area for the hotel). It was great - they even bought me coffee. I would be there still if I could afford it.


glassed-in courtyard of a Ducal place

That reminds me of one of the neatest places I've stayed in. In the late 80s the Art Club of my high school went on a couple trips to Taos, New Mexico where we stayed at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, though back then they called it Las Palomas. One time I stayed in the top room (visible in some of the pictures on the wikipedia page) where all four walls were windows, the stairs came up on the side through the floor, and had four beds in it. That was fairly exposed, but at the bottom of the stairs was a bathroom which had three walls that were all glass, with the tub in the middle of the room. The story about that goes that D.H. Lawrence (a friend of the Luhans, as was Georgia O'Keefe) was scandalized by the possibility of being seen going about his business, so he painted each of the panes with different designs, which were still there and gave a measure of privacy--provided no one went on the roof through the door next to the stairs.

I could go on about the coolest US Army housing I lived in for a year at the Walter Reed Forest Glen Annex, but I've gone on too much already, besides that wasn't a hotel, so even further off-topic. (We lived in the library building across the street from the pagoda.)


Charlie- if you don't mind (and if Kameron is game) I would really like to read about Bob Howard's stay in that hotel. Perhaps with the wife? On a weekend getaway between assignments the other side of the pond? That goes really bad? Only it turns out to be incompetence and bad luck instead of malice? Or maybe it isn't really?


This just make me think about hotelspace. I think I first read about the term in something written by Charlie. It is quite possible that this hotel is so new that it isn't yet connected to hotelspace, which makes everything feel a bit unusual. On the plus side, you know that if you walk down the corridor, turn left, and find an exit, you'll still be in the same town. My most memorable hotelspace experience was a few years back. I had been travelling a fair bit for work and was quite disorientated. I woke up, early and jetlagged, thinking I was in Budapest. Opened the curtains, saw a seagull flying backwards, and then it hit me. I was in the Falklands, I had a week to go, and there was no broadband.


No, but I'm tempted to reminisce about the hotel I stayed at in Poznan, Poland, during Pyrkon this spring. It was a Communist Era hotel with some lovely art deco touches, but it had been privatized in the early 1990s with no funding to bring it up to modern spec. So stuff was going on in a desultory ad-hoc kind of way. Brand new elevators (good), but rooms with bare wires sticking out of the walls (bad: but, I was informed, they were disconnected left-overs from the re-wiring, so conditionally a good thing). But then the first room I was given had a lobby light that flickered, all night long, while it was switched off. Add signs of water damage in the ceiling, and ... well, let's just say I got moved to another room. The staff were fine; the building was a classic: but it costs real money and takes serious effort to maintain a hotel, and there was no easy way a smallish (roughly 50 room) Communist-era hotel could compete with the new Sheratons and Hiltons springing up in downtown. The only long-term answer is for someone to throw a bucketload of money at it and turn it into an up-market boutique.


Charlie - you clearly stay at a better class of hotel than I do.


My husband wants me to bring that thing home, so he can try and figure it out. I'm still flummoxed.


The staff has been super nice. Just.. you know, nothing seems to work. Very poor management, very much the feel of a place run by someone who has never run a hotel.


...or nobody in charge at all.

Have the employment agency send a bunch of people, have them follow the procedures on their computer terminals. No need to training or supervision when you have ISO-9000 workflow documentation!

Some fast-food chains in the USA very nearly operate that way - the terminals even tell them when to drop baskets into the deep fryer and when to acknowledge a car at the drive-through window. It's like watching a business-size game of "Simon Says."


I'm reminded of a convention I'll not name. We got used to the hotel's architectural quirks - floors should come in integer numbers, and hallways are traditionally inside buildings rather than outside parallel to them, that sort of thing. The staff could occasionally be arsed to notice that other people were present, if not to deliver many services; I eventually heard this laissez-faire patron treatment was better than what the committee was getting. We discovered afterwards that not only was the hotel an unwanted appendage to a larger non-hospitality organization but that it was closing shortly and the staff knew it.

I prefer incompetence. On the other hand, I've also been at the very last event at another hotel and the staff was wonderful; I was sorry to see them and the venue go.


So Kameron gets her blogs in nice Calibri, but OGH, Tricia and us comment writers still have to do with Arial?


Learn more HTML. Oh and I actually prefer Arial to Calibri.


I see from Twitter that the mini-bar question is still all too alive.

William Tare Fox and similar exclamatory remarks.


Surely 'Whisk(e)y Tango Foxtrot' would be more appropriate for a minibar?


Or Whiskey Tequila Frangelico?

(only F liqueur I could think of)


I'm a little old-fashioned.


You get whatever you chose as your serif and sans serif fonts in your browser. That's all the CSS does, rather than picking specific typefaces. I recommend you go choose some you like.


...but what about the elevators?


Fascinating story. I think part of the reason hotel issues unsettle us is the implicit pact of trust we make with the hotel; we provide money for what we anticipate to be a safe and (for widely varying values) comfortable experience.

The spouse and I just returned from a week's vacation in Paris and London for our 20th wedding anniversary. The Paris hotel was on the chic side but very well run; the London accomodation was a somewhat shabby conversion from a 19th century townhouse. In both cases, though, we had a good description from some discerning reading of their web sites and parsing the comments, so both experiences squared with our expectations.

I've fortunately had few really off-putting hotel experiences, but they really can put a damper on a trip. I like adventure, but not the kind that wakes you out of a sound sleep in a strange place. For hotels, I'll pick competence over excitement.


"And I haven't even told you about the elevators."

Well? What are you waiting for?



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This page contains a single entry by Kameron Hurley published on September 9, 2014 10:00 AM.

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