Cookson Selway has had a problematic childhood (his mother dressed him as a girl and his father was a murderer) and a complex youth (after dealing cocaine and becoming an alcoholic, he went into the restaurant business, made a fortune and retired at thirty-nine). Now 44, he is settled into wealthy middle age, living in Massachusetts with his wife, Ellen, a mystery writer, and his teenage daughter, Jordan. When Jordan goes away to boarding school, Cook and Ellen move to London so that Ellen can research a new novel.

Cook, always unconventional, sometimes sees things no-one else can, and in England, his condition, whatever it is, becomes worse. He begins to believe that the Willerton, the old hotel he and Ellen stay in, is haunted. He encounters three "ghosts," a small boy, an adolescent girl, and a man about his own age who is always drunk and repulsively lascivious. He learns that, years before, a girl died after jumping or falling from an upstairs window. It is rumored that she had been sexually abused by her drunk uncle. The only other person who seems aware of the ghosts is Pascal, the French bellboy, who soon becomes Cook’s ally.

Cook begins acting increasingly strangely, and his wife and the people she befriends (in particular the Sho-pans, an elderly Chinese couple) are convinced that Cook has started drinking again or is having some kind of mental breakdown. The reader is never given a final explanation for what happens; the "ghosts" certainly seem to reenact events from the hotel’s history, but they are also deeply linked to Cook’s own obsessions. They are all, perhaps, aspects of himself. Both fascinated and horrified, he is unable to reject them, even as his obsession estranges his wife. Only when it causes the death of Pascal is he able to leave the hotel and, perhaps, the ghosts. The couple return to America, and tentatively begin to recover.


At the end of the novel, Cook tries to identify what happened: "If you believe that dreams are the psyche’s attempt to purge itself, . . . then my ghosts were dreams, self-proclaimed residue, what didn’t move on, suggesting that some undamaged core, perhaps of goodness . . . is what did move on"(306-307). This is partially adequate: he has a kind of mid-life crisis, rediscovering and confronting old parts of himself abandoned in his escape from a confusing childhood.

But McFarland refuses us such simple psychologizing: the hotel is also haunted in a conventional, and very spookily supernatural, way. Only Cook and Pascal, both ambivalent about their own identities, are called by the ghosts. Pascal does not survive their call because, for some reason, the ghosts hate him. The Sho-pans are mourning the death of their son from AIDS, and have grown very fond of Pascal, whose death is another grievous loss. Only Ellen seems secure. Her stability appears, at great cost to her, to enable Cook to begin to heal.

At the edges of the mystery, never fully shown to us, are the terrible betrayals that most of the characters suffered as children. Ultimately, whether Cook’s ghosts are the products of dreams, alcoholic dementia, psychosis, or just of an old English haunted hotel, McFarland leads us to consider how precarious reality must be, when stable adult identity has to grow from something as vulnerable as childhood.



Place Published

New York



Page Count