Not Everyone Checks Out Of The Sun Down Motel.

The Sun Down Motel

I usually don’t like my mystery mixed with horror. If I’m in the mood for supernatural horror – which I will be a few times per year – I like it straightforward, the more gothic the better and with fairly traditional genre fiends: Witches, vampires, etc. My preferred mystery/crime fiction choices are normally dark enough without shape-changers, spellcasters or anything with fangs. But usually doesn’t mean always.

For a while, it seemed like Simone St. James’ 2020 The Sun Down Motel’s handsome cover (designed by Sarah Oberrender, based on a Tom Hogan photo) was everywhere I looked, including my own TBR list. As luck would have it, I got the book just as my day job headed into its annual late-winter/early-spring ‘crazy time’ – extra hours, arrive early/leave late, weekend time expected. Among the casualties of that schedule: reading time. I mention this only because I suspect I’d have burned through St. James’ novel in a weekend or a couple looooong evenings, but with leisure time scarce, it took several frustrating days instead (frustrated only by my reluctance to put the book down).

Back in 1982, twenty-year old Viv Delaney, armed with vague intentions of heading to NYC to become an actress, arrives in the small hamlet of Fell, New York. On an impulse, she decides to linger, taking a job as the night shift desk clerk at the Sun Down Motel on the outskirts of town. Working the graveyard shift way out on a desolate rural highway, all alone with only a handful of quirky guests for company sounds creepy enough. Encountering ‘things that go bump in the night’ – lights going on and off and room doors opening and closing on their own, unexplained odors, spectral figures appearing in the dark – ought to send her packing. Instead, she continues to show up for her nightly vigil, even after learning about the recent vicious murders of several young women…each still unsolved, and somehow tied back to the Sun Down Motel itself.

In 2017, Carly Kirk drops out of college after her mother’s death and shows up in Fell, hunting for clues to what happened to her aunt Vivian — presumed murdered, having vanished altogether from her night shift desk clerk job at the Sun Down Motel. Which is now even more desolate, run down and creepy than it was back in 1982, and whatever lurked inside its dark rooms and run-down corridors has been stirred up again by Carly’s arrival. Taking the same night shift job her Aunt Viv held 35 years earlier, Carly digs deep into Fell’s hidden secrets, apparently asking questions some people want to leave unanswered. Bad things happened in Fell and in the Sun Down Motel…and more are about to happen again.

Simone St. James arranges her novel with chapters alternating between 1982 and 2017 (mostly) and in different POV’s. There’s an unrelenting sense of bleak fatalism hovering all around Viv’s 1982 narrative, each event and discovery leading to what seems like an inevitable end. Carly’s dogged investigation is no less eerie, and in lesser hands this could all get unwieldly pretty quick. But RITA and Arthur Ellis award-winning author St. James keeps it under control, even if this reader occasionally mixed up a secondary character or two, briefly misplacing them in the wrong era. My bad. But then, there is a widening list of suspicious characters – alive and not so much – and everyone in Fell seems to be hiding a secret, all of this carefully parceled out in a steady and addictive stream of hints, clues, surprises and chapter-ending cliff-hangers that really, really work effectively.

I’ll take for granted that Simone St. James has already deposited fat checks for movie rights (or at least an option). If not, Hollywood better get on it. This story’s tailor made for the big screen, and the author paints one vividly dark scene after another like verbal storyboarding. I hadn’t read any of Simone St. James’ prior novels, though I see she has several. 2018’s Broken Girls looks interesting, and I think I can still do with some more of St. James’ eerie storytelling after devouring The Sun Down Motel.

The Broken Girls

Mark of The Vampire.

Inside Detective - Mark Of The Vampire April 1939 copy

Mark of The Vampire? No, it’s not a feature on MGM’s 1935 Todd Browning film with Bela Lugosi donning the black cape (only the second time onscreen, I think).

This “Mark of The Vampire” is from the 1939 issue of Inside Detective magazine with cover art by illustrator Albert Fisher, and is a lurid ‘all-true’ story about an Oakland, California ‘vampire killer’, his victim found in a lovers lane.

Mark 3

I’d been planning on something goofy for later Halloween evening, once the trick-or-treaters stop ringing the bell, that is. Instead of watching creepy classics (and I have a few on DVD), maybe just a horror comedy like Victoria Justice in The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (what, you don’t have any guilty pleasures?) or perhaps the first Elvira movie with…well, Elvira, of course.

mark 1

But I know I have MGM’s 1935 Mark of The Vampire lurking somewhere on my shelves. Bela Lugosi, ultra-creepy Carrol Borland as his vampire daughter Luna, the two Lionel’s – Barrymore and Atwill – as an investigator and police inspector in a mid-1930’s visual delight of gothic eeriness, despite Todd Browning’s insistence on inserting intrusive comedic bits that really…just…aren’t. Originally titled The Vampires of Prague, adapted from Browning’s silent era London After Midnight (the Holy Grail of lost silent era films) and based on a scenario by Guy Endore, the film deals with the death of a Bohemian nobleman, apparently a victim of Count Mora and his daughter Luna, the local vampires. But near the film’s end, it’s all revealed as an elaborate ruse to catch a very human murderer with his eye on the victim’s daughter. I’ve never decided if Todd Browning was a genius or a hack (most likely a little of both) but the man sure could set up some stunning visuals, and Mark of The Vampire, for all of its flaws, is classic horror eye candy.

Hmmm…I could go gloomy and gothic instead of ‘goofy’, couldn’t I?

mark 2


Blurred Lines.

The Leopard Man

The Leopard Man (1943)

Crime Reads may not be the first place you’d turn to for talk about horror, even at Halloween time. But it’s definitely worth a visit to read Zach Vasquez’ look at 20 essential films which blur the line between horror and noir (link below). Myself, I’ve always been surprised that more films do don’t do precisely that, the two ‘genres’ sharing some common roots and any number of familiar tropes and stylistic cues. Want to quibble with some of Vasquez’ choices, or toss in your own instead? Go right ahead. I fully concur with several of the article’s selections.

Crime Reads

After all, anything produced by Val Lewton might qualify, and Vasquez’ chooses 1943’s The Leopard Man. Similarly, while the article singles out David Lynch’s 1997 Lost Highway, most anything in Lynch’s body of work will likely merge something horrific with the vaguely noirish, the possibly anachronistically retro, and certainly the just-plain-weird. Vasquez also points to The Eyes of Laura Mars from 1978, that Helmut Newton fashion-kink photo suite brought to life on the big screen, its screenplay adapted from a spec script penned by John Carpenter (Halloween). Or there’s Mickey Rourke and Robert DeNiro in Angel Heart from 1987, and of course, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 dark classic Les Diaboliques.

Les Diaboliques

Les Diaboliques (1955)

Some can argue that many films billed as horror are really just particularly gruesome serial killer thrillers. And others might assert that the moment a film (or story or novel) includes anything remotely supernatural, it no longer qualifies as ‘noir’. But then some people get too hung up on genres and classifications, and I’m not getting into those arguments. Rather, I’ll just encourage you to read Zach Vasquez’ 10.29.19 Crime Reads article “20 Essential Films That Blur The Line Between Horror And Noir” and see for yourself if you don’t find a film you might want to watch come Halloween night.


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