Redwood Coast Roamer

Publication(s)

Wolfe's comments from the Introduction to Storeys from the Old Hotel

"About the time the winter of 1980-81 was fading, my wife Rosemary and I rode a crack train called the Empire Builder from Chicago (where we live) to Seattle and back. Sitting in the observation car with a notebook on my lap, I wrote six very brief stories. When we got home, I typed them up and sent them off to The New Yorker.

"With no great hope. One tends to gamble with short pieces -- if they are accepted, their acceptance will bring a noticeable gain in prestige; if they are not, little has been lost. All in all, I suppose I've submitted at least twenty stories to The New Yorker.

"This time I got a surprise -- one of the six, 'On the Train', had found a home; it's still the only success I've ever had with that notoriously picky publication. Furthermore, the letter of acceptance revealed that the junior editor who had read all six had wanted to accept another, 'In the Old Hotel', but had been overruled. Needless to say, 'In the Old Hotel' at once became a great favorite of mine. My agent submitted the remaining five to Amazing, where George Scithers, its editor in those halcyon days, bought four -- bought all of them, in fact, except 'In the Old Hotel', which appears in this collection for the first time anywhere.
...
"'In the Mountains' and 'At the Volcano's Lip' are two of the stories I wrote on the train; I've already told you about 'On the Train' itself and 'In the Old Hotel', from which this book takes its name."

Summary

'On the Train' -- the narrator is on a seemingly infinite train journey, accompanied by (among others) his mother and a porter who used to be his fox terrier Flip.

'In the Mountains' -- the narrator observes elk, and reminisces about an elderly couple who lived in the city for fear of bears. The husband had a lung condition and an ax whose paint was dull but whose blade was still sharp.

'At the Volcano's Lip' -- the narrator and wife attempt to visit a recently-erupted volcano, but are unable to see real evidence of it. Fear of nuclear weaponry is hinted at.

'In the Old Hotel' -- the narrator stays in an old hotel, meeting with an Englishman and his daughter and discussing girls with an old man in the elevator.

Analysis

  • The train in 'On the Train' is a metaphor for the journey of life -- the narrator was helped onto it by a doctor.
  • After a reading of 'On the Train' at Balticon 43 on 24 May 2009, Wolfe indicated that the story contained multiple references to Little Nemo, a weekly comic strip published in newspapers between 1905 and 1914. Both Flip and his uncle the Dawn Guard are characters from Little Nemo.
  • The reference to Flip originally being the narrator's dog was later explained. In the afterword to 'On the Train' in The Best of Gene Wolfe, Wolfe writes: "My father gave Flipís name to the fox terrier we owned when I was very small: Flipís barking always woke my father up."
  • 'In the Mountains' appears to be a cautionary tale about letting fear ruin your life or prevent you from doing what you want to do.
  • Presumably the volcano is Mount St. Helens, which had erupted shortly before the time of Wolfe's train journey.
  • 'At the Volcano's Lip' uses the imagery of the devastation from the volcano's eruption as a warning against impending nuclear war.
  • 'The Old Hotel' seems to be another metaphor for life or the human condition, specifically getting old. Much of the imagery of the hotel suggests a human body. The "wheezy elevator" represents the trachea. "A pipe in the bathroom clears its throat again and again." The old hotel at night is "resting." The penthouse apartment "was not designed to hold a television, but there is one now, intrusive as a pinball machine" (likely how Wolfe feels about the role of television in our lives). Progressively younger and prettier women reside on the lower floors.

Unresolved Questions

  • Why refer to a nuclear test by "the Union of South Africa"? In real life South Africa has been a Republic since 1961, and has conducted no such test. The initials (USA) suggest that the Union of South Africa is a thinly veiled reference to the United States of America, but what's the point of the substitution?
  • Why does the narrator of 'The Old Hotel" refer to the hotel as "Kennedy" in his imaginary conversation with it? There are a number of Kennedy Hotels around the world. Could Wolfe be referencing one of them specifically?

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