As someone with a voracious appetite for reading thrillers, there are very few novels that leave me feeling genuinely spooked, so much so that I feel the need to crawl out from under my covers at night and turn on the light, just in case. Rest assured that Simone St. James's The Sun Down Motel is very much one of those books, taking twists and turns that are equal parts compelling and creepy.
The novel, which is due out on Feb. 18, 2020 (you can preorder a copy here), follows the stories of two women in two different decades: Carly Kirk, who's on a mission to figure out what really happened to her Aunt Viv, who mysteriously disappeared in the town of Fell, NY, 35 years earlier; and then there's Viv herself, who was last spotted working at the Sun Down Motel before disappearing off the face of the earth. Is something supernatural responsible? And will Carly be able to find some answers before she suffers a similar fate?
While you still have a few months to go before all is revealed, St. James graciously sent POPSUGAR a very chilling excerpt from The Sun Down Motel. Ahead, you'll meet Viv and get a taste for just how terrifying things will become for her.
Fell, New York
The world was different at night. Not just dark, not just quiet, but different. Sounds and smells were different. Number Six Road had an eerie light, greenish under the empty expanse of sky. Viv's body got cold, then damp with unpleasant sweat; she was hungry, then queasy. She wasn't tired after the first few nights, but there were times she felt like there was sand under her eyelids, blurring her vision as her temples pounded. Three o'clock in the morning was the worst time, almost delirious, when she could half believe anything could happen—ghosts, elves, time travel, every Twilight Zone episode she'd ever seen.
And she sort of liked it.
Night people were not the same as day people. The good people of Fell, whoever they were, were sound asleep at three a.m. Those people never saw the people Viv saw: the cheating couples having affairs, the truckers strung out on whatever they took to stay awake, the women with blackened eyes who checked out at five a.m. to futilely go home again. These weren't people suburban Viv Delaney would ever have seen in a hundred years. They weren't people she would ever have talked to. There was an edge to them, a hard collision with life, that she hadn't known was possible in her soft cocoon. It wasn't romantic, but something about it drew her. It fascinated her. She didn't want to look away.
And it was in the depths of night that the Sun Down itself seemed alive. The candy machine made a deep whirring noise in the middle of the night, and the ice machine next to it clattered from time to time like someone was shaking it. The leaves swirled in the pool, which was empty of water and fenced in, even though it was the last month of summer. The pipes in the walls groaned, and when one of the buttons on the phone in front of her lit up—indicating someone in one of the rooms was making a call—it made a featherlight click sound, audible only in the perfect, silent hush of night.
The smell of cigarette smoke came back again and again when she was in the front office. Always the sting of fresh smoke, never old. At first she thought it must be coming through the vents from one of the rooms, so she took a folding chair and moved it around the room, standing on it beneath each vent so she could close her eyes and inhale. Nothing.
She stood next to the office door for an hour one night, staying still, nostrils flaring, waiting for the smoke to come. When it did she rotated, left then right, trying to figure out the direction it came from. She had gotten nowhere when the front desk phone rang and interrupted her, the sound shrill in the night air.
She picked up the phone, her voice almost cracking with disuse. "Sun Down Motel, can I help you?"
Nothing. Just the faint sound of breathing.
She hung up and stared at the phone for a minute. She'd had a similar call before, and she wasn't quite sure what to do about it. Who called a motel in the middle of the night and breathed into the phone?
The next night found her standing in front of the office door again, waiting for the smoke. If someone had asked her in that moment, she could not have told them what she was looking for: a man? A malfunction in the duct system? An illusion in her own mind? It wasn't clear, but the smoke bothered her. It was eerie, but it also made her feel less alone. If she had to put it into words, perhaps she'd say that she wanted to know who was keeping her company.
She was interrupted that night by someone actually coming through the office door—a real person, one not smoking a cigarette. He was a trucker getting a room to catch a few hours' sleep before continuing south. Viv took his thirty dollars and he inked his name into the guest book. After him came another man, also solo, wearing a suit and trench coat, carrying a suitcase and a briefcase. He, too, paid thirty dollars and wrote his name in the guest book: Michael Ennis. He might stay an extra night, he explained, because he was waiting for a phone call to tell him where to travel next, and he might not get it tomorrow.
"Sounds exciting," Viv said absently as she opened the key drawer and took out the key to room 211. She was putting him several doors away from the trucker; she always gave people their space. Night people didn't like to have neighbors too close.
He didn't reply, so she raised her gaze and saw him looking at her. His look was calm and polite, but it was fixed on her nonetheless. "Not really," he said, in reply to her comment. "I'm a salesman. I go where my bosses tell me to go."
She nodded and gave him the key. She did not ask what he sold, because it was none of her business. When he left, she could not have said what he looked like.
The next night, she tried a different tactic: She stood outside the office door, her back to the wall, and waited for the smell of smoke. She suspected it came from outside the door now, not through the vents, so she moved closer to the supposed source. It was a beautiful night, silent and warm, the breeze just enough to lift her hair from her neck and fan her sweaty cheeks.
It took less than twenty minutes this time: The tang of fresh cigarette smoke came to her nostrils. Jackpot. She shuffled down the walkway, following it slowly away from the direction of the rooms and around the other side of the building, toward the empty pool. She lost the smell twice and stood still both times, waiting for it to come back. Silently tracking her prey.
She edged out toward the drained and emptied pool, stopping next to the fence that had been around it all summer for reasons unknown. She looked around in the dark, seeing nothing and no one. Maddeningly, the smell came and went, as if whoever created it was moving. "Hello?" she said into the blackness, the concrete and the empty pool and the trees beyond, the deserted highway far to her left past the parking lot. "Hello?"
There was no answer, but the hair prickled on the back of her neck. Her throat went tight, and she had a moment of panic, hard and nauseating. She hooked her fingers through the pool's chain-link fence to hold on and closed her eyes until it passed.
She smelled smoke, and someone walked past her, behind her back, in five evenly paced steps. A man's heavy footsteps. And then there was silence again.
Her breath was frozen, her hands cold. That had been someone, something. Something real, but not a real person. The steps had started and stopped, like a figure crossing an open doorway.
Viv had heard ghost stories. Everyone has. But she had never thought she'd be standing holding a chain-link fence, trying not to vomit in fear as her knuckles went white and something other crossed behind her back. It was crazy. It was the kind of story you told years later while your listeners rolled their eyes, because they had no idea how the terror felt on the back of your neck.
Behind Viv's shoulder, the motel sign went dark.
The garish light vanished, she heard a sad zap as the bulbs gave up, and she turned to see the sign dark, the words SUN DOWN no longer lit up, the words VACANCY. CABLE TV! flickering out beneath them. She walked toward the sign, unthinking, a hard beat of panic in her chest. She had no idea where the switch to the sign was, whether someone could turn it off. She had never had to turn the sign on or off in her weeks here—the evening clerk always turned it on, and the morning clerk always turned it off. The loss of its bright, ugly light was like an alarm going off up her spine.
She turned the corner, opening up her view of the interior of the hotel's L. She stopped and cried out, because the lights were going out.
At the end of the short leg of the L — room 130 and the one above it, room 230 — the lights on the walkway in front blinked out. Then the lights in front of room 129 and 229, and on, and on. As if someone were flicking out a row of switches one by one, leaving the entire motel in darkness.
Viv stood frozen, unable to do anything but watch as the Sun Down Motel went dark. The last lights to go out were the office, closest to her at the end of the long row of the L, followed by the neon sign that said OFFICE. And then she was standing in front of a black hole on the edge of the road, without a sound or a shuffle of feet, without another soul for miles.
She could hear her breath sawing in and out of her throat. What the hell is going on? Her mind didn't go to mundane explanations, like an electrical malfunction or even a blackout; it was three o'clock in the morning, the sodium lights on Number Six Road were still lit, and she'd just heard the smoking man's footsteps behind her. No, this was no malfunction, and something told her it was just starting.
And now a muted clicking sound came from the motel. Click, click. Viv peered through the dark to see one of the motel doors drift open, then another. The doors were opening on their own, each revealing a strip of deeper darkness of the room inside, as if inviting her. Come in to this one. This one. This one . . .
Her panicked gaze went to her car. She could get in, go to the nearest pay phone. Call—who? The police, maybe. Or go to an all-night diner and sit there until whatever this was went away. The problem was that her purse, with her keys in it, was in the office.
The wind was soft and cool in her hair, making her shiver. The doors had finished clicking open and were quiet. There was not a single sound from Number Six Road behind her.
Do it. She could. Go to the office door, push it open. Her purse was next to the chair behind the reception desk. Four steps into the office, swoop down and grab the purse, then turn and leave.
She made her feet move. Her sneakers shuffled against the gravel again, and she found herself lifting her feet to move more quietly. As if whatever it was could be fooled into thinking she wasn't coming. As if whatever it was couldn't see her already.
Still, she found herself running toward the door, trying to keep her steps light. In and out. Just in and out. I can do it quick and—
Her foot hit the step to the walkway, and something banged overhead. One of the room doors, banging open. Viv jumped and made a sound in her throat as footsteps pounded the walk above her, short and staccato, a full stomping run. The steps pounded down to the bottom of the L, then turned the corner. A voice rang out into the night air—a child's. I want to go in the pool!
Viv twisted the knob to the office door and ducked into the darkness. She stumbled through the office, her breath in whooping gasps, her hands flailing for her purse, her keys. Her eyes stung, and she realized it was because the smell of smoke was so strong, as if someone had been smoking in here for hours.
She had just found her purse in the dark, her hands clutching the bulge of dark purple fake leather, when she heard the voice. A man's voice, crying out from the other side of the desk.
For God's sake, call an ambulance! the voice said, as close as if the man was standing there. Someone call an ambulance!
Viv dropped her purse, the keys flying out and landing on the floor in a tinkle of metal. She gasped another breath, snatching them up and rising to run to the door. She ran to her Cavalier and wrenched open the driver's door, launching herself inside. She threw her purse onto the passenger seat, got behind the wheel, and slammed the door.
The motel in front of her windshield was still dark as she turned the key and pumped the gas, her foot hitting the floorboard. Nothing happened; the car didn't start. She pumped the gas and cranked the key again, a sound of panic in her throat, tears tracking down her cheeks, but still nothing.
She raised her gaze as a figure stepped in front of the car. It was a woman. She was young, thirty maybe, and had dark blond curly hair pulled back from her face and falling down her collarbones, dark eyes, a face of perfect oval. In the shock of the moment, Viv saw everything clearly: the woman's slim shoulders, her long-sleeved dress in a pattern of large, dark purple flowers, the belt tied in a bow at her waist. She was staring through the windshield at Viv, and her eyes . . . her eyes . . .
Viv opened her mouth to scream, then froze. No sound came out. She inhaled a breath, fixed for a long moment in the woman's gaze.
The woman wasn't real, and yet — Viv saw her. Looked at her. And the woman looked back, her eyes blazing with some kind of ungodly emotion that made Viv want to scream and weep and throw up all at once.
She gripped the steering wheel, feeling her gorge rise.
There was a bang as the woman's palms slammed the hood of the car — a real sound, hard and violent. The woman stood with her arms braced, staring through the windshield at Viv. Her mouth moved. Viv could hear no sound, or perhaps there was none. But it wasn't hard to translate the single word.
Viv made a strangled sound and jerked the key again. The engine didn't turn. She twisted the key and stomped the pedal, tears streaming down her face as a frustrated scream came out of her mouth. When she dared to look up again the woman was gone, but the motel was still dark, the night around her even darker.
The engine was flooded. The car wouldn't start. She had nowhere to go.
Viv pushed down the locks on her doors and crawled into the back seat, curling into as small a ball as she could, crouching behind the passenger seat so she couldn't see through the windshield anymore. Like someone escaping the line of fire. She stayed there for a long time.
When the lights went on again and the sign lit up, she was still weeping.
Excerpted from The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James, published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020.