Wednesday, June 30, 2010

West Baden Springs Hotel, 1 : Writers, 0.

Book Reviewed: So Cold the River, by Michael Koryta

I rarely get to read books set in places I've actually been. Sure, there's books with scenes in Paris's Latin Quarter or set in South Carolina or whatever. But I'm talking about books that take place in actual rooms where I've stood. And I very rarely get to read books about places that I've not only been to, but that I actually love. Which is why I went out and ordered the hardcover copy of Michael Koryta's new book as soon as I heard about it last week.

So Cold the River takes place at one of the most amazing sites I've ever stepped foot inside: the West Baden Springs Hotel in southern Indiana. During a visit to the infamous resort town of French Lick, Indiana, a couple years ago, my family went on a tour of the historical West Baden hotel. At that time, the hotel had just come under new ownership and was beginning to be restored to its former glory. Before that, it had sat for decades as basically very pretty ruins. From the very first glimpse I had of the hotel, my breath was completely taken away. I can honestly say that the West Baden blew my mind. It's such an incredible place, full of history and wonder. Its most famous feature, its massive atrium dome, was a groundbreaking architectural phenom at the time it was built. That dome is so big I could barely comprehend it when I saw it. Seriously, I can't describe how awesome that place is. Here's the website for the newly restored (and now very expensive) resort. Please look at the pictures. I think you'll agree it's something.

Anyway, despite all its grandeur, there's something kind of creepy about a place that big sitting so empty for so many years. Not to mention how strange that whole part of Indiana is, with its rolling hills and its underground river. So it's no surprise that Koryta, who lives in Bloomington and apparently grew up near French Lick and West Baden, chose to make his book about the hotel and its surrounding area a supernatural thriller. Unfortunately, it wasn't that scary. Or thrilling for that matter.

The book centers around Eric Shaw, a filmmaker without much of a film career. He's resorted to making movies about people's lives to be shown at funerals and weddings. After one funeral, he gets chosen by a woman named Alyssa Bradford to make a movie about her dying father-in-law, a mysterious businessman who abandoned his hometown of West Baden, Indiana. Shaw stays at the famous hotel and attempts to make his film, but he ends up just getting haunted instead. He encounteres ghosts and mysteries and some really terrible people. We meet a variety of characters who try to help him find the truth as he begins to get a little too into the history of West Baden as a producer of "healing waters" over the last century.

The problem with the book is that it's kind of boring. It reminded me of a case-heavy episode of my favorite guilty pleasure, the TV show Supernatural. I don't mean that as a compliment. The book just doesn't have much spark to it. Koryta writes wonderfully about that part of Indiana, and he uses French Lick and West Baden to terrific affect. As I read the novel, I couldn't help but wish he had written either a straight mystery or a piece of literary fiction centering on an unfairly misunderstood place. Unfortunately, he wrote an uninteresting ghost story instead. Oh well. At least I got some major kicks out of reading a book about one of my favorite places in the world.

But seriously you guys: This book might not have been that great. But West Baden Springs Hotel? That place kicks ass.

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