Published by This Is Horror
After accidentally ‘proving’ the existence of ghosts via super-fine weight measurement in a chamber housing a subject who believed her dead twin was haunting her, the once-reputable narrator of Stephen Graham Jones’ The Elvis Room is inadvertently reduced to operating on the fringes of his sector, forging a career in pseudoscience conference appearances.
While attempting to negotiate a deal in weekly rate with the management of a hotel, he notices record of one particular room that seems to remain consistently empty. In flippant turn, he coins the phrase “The Elvis Room”—that one room always kept aside in case a high-profile guest, such as a rock star, should arrive unannounced. Querying the origins of this industry staple, he comes to find that it is in fact grounded in urban legend and superstition: Without one room remaining empty at all times, hotel owners have found that, without fail, they are statistically guaranteed to have a guest fatality.
Making his way to a busy hotel and performing an act of theatrical desperation to secure a room, our narrator successfully snags the Elvis Room in order to put this theory to the test. The next morning, two bodies are wheeled through the lobby by paramedics.
And so begins a shifty study into the occurrences at various hotels, as he sets about idling in lobbies, attempting to avoid confrontation with staff by pretending to be waiting for guests while he observes the action taking place in the hope that each hotel’s Elvis Room will be rented. At the same time, his increased curiosity as to the nature of ghosts also plays a large part in his observation—believing that ghosts are drawn to areas of crowded human behaviour, but little interaction… say, an elevator or hotel lobby. Somewhere that they can feel alive—be alive—without being queried or studied; somewhere that they can just be that other person that we have no wish to bother.
It isn’t long before his theory is proved, but our devoted scientist finds, too late, that he’s already much further down the rabbit hole than he’d expected—and his life isn’t the only one at stake. There’s a secret behind the Elvis Room, and the dead will take any action necessary to maintain it.
Considering the short length of Jones’ story, one of the most striking factors about The Elvis Room is just how perfectly paced it all is. The author’s prose is finely balanced throughout, offering a smooth cadence that sees it flow from the page with a highly considered measure that mirrors the absorbing, authoritative tone of his narrator. Through the magic of the slow burn, Jones gradually pieces together an excursion into literary horror that has its hooks firmly under your skin long before you even realise it.
And when the moment arrives to acknowledge Jones’ effect on you, it isn’t done by bombastic means but the mere sideways observation of an everyday situation that masterfully raises an uncomfortable chill that is unlikely to leave you any time soon after. The story’s most tense ghostly set piece, too, is an exercise in sweaty palms that hearkens back to the sensationally frightening elevator scene in the Pang Brothers’ classic The Eye—albeit loaned a heavier dose of restraint than displayed on-screen in that particular movie.
Jones’ restraint tends to work against him as The Elvis Room reaches its conclusion, however, leading to what feels like some unnecessarily muddied behaviour and motivations of what may by that point be a wholly unreliable narrator (for lack of want to spoil the sting in this tale, it wouldn’t be pertinent to delve into specifics) and an ending that subsequently doesn’t land its final punch as strongly as it could have.
Regardless, The Elvis Room stands strong—a laudable exercise in fireside fear perfectly suited for those quiet, dark evenings perched in an armchair while the wind howls outside. Late night excursions through hushed hotel hallways will never feel quite the same again.
4 out of 5