Haunted 'River' Waters Flow Below A Grand Hotel When Michael Koryta was 8 years old, his father took him to visit the ruins of an American hotel that was once referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Eighteen years later, he's written So Cold the River, a supernatural thriller about the historic hotel and the mysterious waters that run beneath it.
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Haunted 'River' Waters Flow Below A Grand Hotel

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Haunted 'River' Waters Flow Below A Grand Hotel

Haunted 'River' Waters Flow Below A Grand Hotel

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

The town of West Baden Springs in Southern Indiana is home to a hotel so grand and magnificent, it was once called the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Next door, in the town of French Lick, are mineral springs whose waters are said to cure just about any ailment. The resort town's once drew presidents, movie stars and mobsters - most famously, Al Capone. But more recently, they caught the attention of crime writer Michael Koryta.

The Indiana native has made the town's and the newly restored West Baden Springs Hotel the setting for his latest novel, a supernatural thriller called "So Cold the River."

I asked Michael Koryta to talk about his inspirations for the book and to give us a synopsis of the story without giving too much away.

MICHAEL KORYTA: The story involves a down-on- his-luck - self-inflicted down-on-his-luck filmmaker named Eric Shaw, who was, at one point in time, a rising cinematographer in Hollywood. And his career has bottomed out and he's now making what he calls video life portraits, tributes for memorial services, essentially.

And he finds his way down to these towns of West Baden and French Lick to record the history of a dying man who left very few clues behind about his childhood, just the name of the town, and he has one bottle that he's carried with him for his entire life. That is a Pluto Water bottle. Pluto Water was the substance bottled in the French Lick area, around the turn of the century, that was reputed to cure, basically, any affliction known to man.

NORRIS: And Pluto Water is not something that you made up. I mean, there really was a product called Pluto Water.

KORYTA: No, unfortunately, all of the really great stuff in this novel, I stole from reality. I love to claim that I have that sort of imagination, but the history was there, so I just borrowed it.

NORRIS: Do you remember the first time you saw the hotel? And what state was it in when you first saw it?

KORYTA: I remember it very vividly. Actually, I think I was about 8 years old. And at that point, it was in a state of total decay. My father's an electrical engineer, so he's been interested in architecture, and he took my sister and I down there with my mother to see the place. And it stands out as a very vivid memory because even in that state of disrepair, you could sense the grandeur that had been there once.

And with that arose this question of why it had ever been here and then why did it disappear. And from that point on, I was very interested in history. I tried for a while to work that setting and that history into a traditional crime novel plot. That's what I've written through five books. And it just never worked. Everything was always returning to, like, a casino heist novel, which I did not want to write.

And it was when I finally committed to the idea of taking it in a very new direction and going toward the supernatural that I finally felt I had a story that gelled with, you know, the rich fabric of the place.

NORRIS: I want to ask you about how you work, if I can. I understand that you create almost like a soundtrack for each of your projects. And...

KORYTA: Right.

NORRIS: ...in this book, in particular, you were influenced in someway by the music of another son of Indiana, Joshua Bell, the violinist...

KORYTA: Right. Yes.

NORRIS: ...and a particular work called the...

KORYTA: "Short Trip Home."

NORRIS: ..."Short Trip Home."

KORYTA: Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: Why that piece, and how did it influence you?

KORYTA: The song itself is just scorchingly beautiful. It's an incredible piece of music. He worked on that with Edgar Meyer, who's another Indiana University graduate. And it's an Americana folk-inspired piece, but there's this joined quality of beauty and sorrow, and something about that - it's just a haunting song. He hits notes that still just put chills down my spine.


KORYTA: I became kind of obsessed to the idea that I wanted to imagine a story behind a song, and I fixated on the image of a Depression-era prodigy playing in tattered clothing and with his case open for coins. Originally, I had viewed that image as kind of a stand-alone moment.

Eric Shaw, my protagonist, begins to have visions when he arrives in these towns, and it occurred to me that having just, you know, floating set piece visions wasn't going to accomplish much. I needed to work in a narrative of their own, and I knew I needed the past and the present to collide.

And so I began to think more about the boy and what his story would be, and his song turned into an elegy then for lost parents. And once I discovered that he had lost his family, I thought, okay, well, who is he living with now, how did he end up in this place, and so all of these questions continue to arise from the song itself.

NORRIS: Michael, before I let you go, I have to ask, what do the current owners of the West Baden Springs Hotel and Resort think of this book? Have you let them...

KORYTA: Right.

NORRIS: ...take a look at this?

KORYTA: Yeah, they've...

NORRIS: I can't imagine that it's exactly good for business.

KORYTA: Well, actually, we're hoping just the opposite, and I think they're taking it with great enthusiasm. I wanted to be sure that I wasn't writing a haunted hotel story. You know, it's really - it's more about the water and the towns themselves. You know, hopefully, it will intrigue some people, so...

NORRIS: Michael Koryta, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much.

KORYTA: My pleasure, thank you.

NORRIS: Michael Koryta, his latest book is "So Cold the River."

A question for you, what's the most suspenseful novel you've ever read? We're taking nominations at the Summer Books section of our website, npr.org.

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