The guests check in, but they can never leave

It's downright scandalous for a little old English lady to write like this. A.L. Barker's latest novel, "The Haunt," beguiles us with a quaint hotel on the Cornish coast filled with quirky guests on holiday. But you might say her bite is worse than her barker. After more than 50 years of award-winning writing, she's still the sweet neighbor whose cat kills your birds. Her literary crumpets are laced with jalapeno.

The Bellechasse hotel looks romantic at a distance. From there, you might not hear the proprietors arguing with their clumsy waitress, or the crash of pans, or the shriek of a guest.

"This was no five-star hotel," Mildred Gascoigne admits as she dresses for dinner. "The brochure described it as 'for connoisseurs of peace and plenty,' " but these unsettled guests find no peace or plenty at Bellechasse.

Lonely Mildred, for instance - "singular by nature," she announces - can find no relief from her father's rejection many years ago. She suspends her fusty scruples just enough to reach out to Mr. Piper, a famous advice columnist craving a moment of anonymity. But he finds himself skirting the pursuit of an obnoxious journalist named Senga ("Agnes" spelled backwards), who hopes to expose the corruption of cult heroes.

Unable to corner him, Senga drifts instead to Charlie Olssen, a poor artist who's trapped at the hotel until he can get his car fixed. He's come to Cornwall to return a nude painting of his ex-wife, but she seems interested in reclaiming more than his canvas. While he waits for her decision, he spots a grumpy old man in a wheelchair named Mr. Eashing, who might make the perfect subject for his next masterpiece.

Mr. Eashing, however, is more interested in finding a nurse-companion who will listen to him read Dickens without giving him the dickens. Bettony, the Bellechasse's belligerent waitress, may be "useful in the way of a willing horse," but it doesn't look promising.

Down the lane from the Bellechasse, Elissa and Owen Grierson have just moved into an old bungalow, "more a flight of fancy than a leap in the dark ... hoping the change might compensate for the other radical change of not having a job to go to."

Thirty years of marriage have made Owen something of an expert about his wife's moods, but retirement has unsettled them both. When he surprises her with two new twin beds, she tearfully concludes their long romance is over. Retiring to their jungle-like backyard to sulk, he discovers a little boy who hoots at him and gradually earns his reluctant affection. Before long, he's slipped into an emotional entanglement he didn't think he had the stamina for anymore.

"The Haunt" makes a convincing case that most people can't handle leisure time. As one dejected guest realizes, "This place brings out the morbid streak." Barker fixes her camera on a tripod and lets these strange characters pass back and forth in front of the lens for a series of short snippets that are as comic as they are painful. It's an engaging technique, carried off here with the gracefulness of a master who can make it look casual and random.

These short, rapidly changing scenes create a special challenge for author and reader, but Barker is the sort of master minimalist who can create a seaside with a stone, a Cornish hotel with a table, and a conflicted old woman with a single glower. What's most impressive is the way she captures the non sequiturs of lovers and strangers, the miracle of communication that somehow goes on between people whose words miss each other like startled birds.

Gradually, beneath the wry comedy of ridiculous misunderstandings and bizarre idiosyncrasies, there's something harrowing going on here. The ghosts have fled the hoary forest around the Bellechasse hotel, but temptation and longing still haunt these characters and cast strange shadows.

Barker is a sly narrator who leads us into the woods with crumbs of sentimentality, but then suddenly, the sky darkens, and we're in a strange, scary crevice of the human heart.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor,

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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