Small-sized reviews, raves, and recommendations.
Lena Haze and her husband Lucas find themselvesdealing with the financial windfall after they inherit a Hong Kong hotel in the gentrifying neighborhood of Wan Chai. Inhospitable by Marshall Moore is a ghost story where history, family, and murder converge. Lena, a Southern expat new to Hong Kong, has to deal with the twin challenges of culture shock and turning a rundown hotel into a boutique establishment pleasing to her investors. In addition Lena is a bit of a “ghost magnet.” Since childhood she has been able to communicate with the other side, or at least notice the after-effects of those haunting the realm in whatever comes after life. These can manifest themselves in cold spots in hallways, darkened hotel rooms during sunny days with the shades open, and voices invading her mind.
After an initial meeting with investors Jessica and Roger Lo, Lucas returns back to the US to tie up loose ends. Lena, overwhelmed with the tasks ahead, recruits the son of Jessica and Roger, Isaac, as her assistant. Like Lena, he is also a ghost magnet. He shows her to a restaurant with a particularly hungry ghost. Prior to all this, Lena witnesses a double suicide with a brother and sister plummeting to the street. In the chaos she meets a fellow expat – and fellow Southerner – Claire.
As the novel progresses, we plumb deeper and deeper into family trauma, moral flexibility, and ghosts seeking revenge for past political crimes. Moore gives Inhospitable a delicious literary polish, elevating it beyond the usual genre fare. But what does “literary” mean in the context of a Hong Kong ghost story? In the Acknowledgments, he explains how the novel was part of the requirements for a PhD. in Creative Writing. Luckily the novel doesn’t come across as an over-workshopped piece of literary preciousness. In the realm of genre fiction, it means avoiding cliché and convention. The narrative chugs along and characters possess arcs both believable and organic to the storytelling. I’m not a reader of ghost stories and horror, but Moore created a plausible supernatural world. He filled in the gaps to things that could chalked up as unexplained or peculiar. Beyond constructing a plausible world, every so often the prose popped with a quality bon mot.
The writing is smart, not showboating cleverness for its own sake (see Whedon, Joss, and Sorkin, Aaron). Lena’s critique of her architecture firm: “All right angles and smooth surfaces. His ideas for the exterior of the building were similarly austere: variations on a generic Holiday Inn in Antarctica.” Glad I’m not the only one who finds coolhunter minimalism incredibly boring. When she has to tell her husband about the hauntings in the hotel, “What did a supernatural warning matter when this much money was at stake? What else were they supposed to do, stay in America and join the rest of the middle class on its downward spiral into articulate, self-aware poverty?” Probably the best sentence I’ve read in years, almost Cioran-esque in its acid-edged ferocity.
Beyond the rapier wit and worldbuilding, Moore’s Hong Kong feels real and live-in. The sounds and smells and feel of the place makes reading the novel an act of virtual travel. From posh districts to dangerous back-alleys, Inhospitable is an adventure involving this life and the next. But like any good ghost story it goes from the supernatural guests being nuisances to realms dark and dangerous. Lena has to contend with visitors who pose an inconvenience to a confrontation with evil. This is less about jump scares than the thing you might have saw out of the corner of your eye or the unexplained bangs and bumps happening in the night when you’re the only one in bed.