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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Mankowski

Writing Sample: The Avernus Hotel

Updated: Mar 17, 2023

The following short story was drafted for publication in 2020. While it was not accepted in the final print of an anthology, I enjoyed writing it. I hope you take the time to find the devil in the details.


The Avernus Hotel is reopening under new ownership.

With sweeping views of the city’s waterfront and a premiere design in the Italian Renaissance style, the soon-to-be newly renovated six-story hotel has 210 bedrooms, six presidential suites, three restaurants, and three large ballrooms. It features two trendy venues: The Styx, a club-like restaurant, secluded atrium for resident guests, and The Alcyonian, a private cocktail library originally introduced in the 1940s for exclusive members only.

The Avernus’ notoriety, having been one of the city's landmark hotels for over a century, complements its rich history. Despite being financed in June of 1919 by an anonymous individual, most publications regarding the hotel at that time did not appear until January of 1921.

To add to the mystique, no formal announcement preceded its grand opening; no advertisements were made in the papers or reports over the radio. There wasn’t even a mention of its construction in the architecture columns prior to its official New Year’s Eve Gala.

The Gala of 1920 was an unforgivably opulent exhibition. Every inch of the main atrium was painted in gold; the bellhoppers, servers, and housemaids were all dressed in threads of the same shimmer. The banquet tables, which stretched the length of two of the ballrooms, were filled with fresh seafood, every imaginable cut of steak, and tiers of exquisite cakes. The other accessible rooms on the main floor were occupied by string quartets, brass band orchestras, and circus performers from Europe. The entertainment was strategically mapped out so that when one song concluded or an outburst of applause faded, a performance and fanfare echoed from elsewhere, drawing upon the attention of many and encouraging others to follow. And finally, at midnight, a private viewing of fireworks helped ring in the year 1921.

Guests of the 1920 Gala regaled their experiences from that evening in a dream-like haze in the papers for weeks to come. Although no two accounts were the same, certain curiosities wove their way through; such as several guests claiming to have seen Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, despite its known residence being in Spain. Those who had not been in attendance were ravenous for more details.

The guests that night all attested to not being invited to the hotel in advance, nor having connections to the unnamed owner. Instead, they each attributed their luck of attendance to simply being at the right place at the right time. When the Avernus Hotel declared in March that it would not host a gala annually like the other local hotels, the guests from that night became a source of envy to all.

But like a private art collection, the hotel was eventually traded.

In 1929, after the second-ever New Year’s Eve Gala at the Avernus, it was publicly announced that the hotel would be taken over by Murgo Osore, an angular, stalk-like man who came under scrutiny for making the majority of his wealth when the rest of country was plunging into the Great Depression.

Rumors whispered that Murgo had always been the first owner of the Avernus, but finally stepped out from the shadows to put his hotel back in the headlines. Locals claimed that Murgo had ties to gangsters like Al Capone, alleging that the owner had done terrible things for the hotel’s deed.

A widespread conspiracy of the time claims that the real, unnamed owner’s remains are buried somewhere in the basement.

It seemed that such speculation didn’t deter people from booking a room. Whether those guests could afford to stay or not is anyone’s guess, but the lavish lifestyle within the walls of the Avernus continued, despite the thousands of Americans living jobless for years to come.

For most of his tenure, Murgo Osore remained out of the media spotlight. Only once was he quoted in the local papers while hosting a dinner event for an ambitious politician. Murgo declared,

“there is no greater elixir than alcohol to pacify a man’s wrathful nature.”

One year later, President Roosevelt stepped into office and ratified the 21st Amendment, thus ending the era of Prohibition, a story the bartenders at the Alcyonian loved to share with guests.

The Avernus Hotel’s third owner came into its possession in 1952, just after Murgo Osore completed his expansion in the east wing. An additional 111 bedrooms were opened, along with 2 breathtaking lake view suites on the top floor.

Kara Darvaza, an illegitimate daughter of the Rockefeller family and only 24 at the time, took possession of the Avernus Hotel in what is now believed to be the first corporate hostile takeover in American history. Darvaza never interviewed with reporters while remodeling the hotel, or opening up its second restaurant. She was, however, photographed frequently in her signature booth surrounded by her closest friends.

Infamous black and white photos of the Avernus's 1954 New Year’s Eve Gala are still framed in “The Styx”. The variety of pictures depict Darvaza in an evening gown with champagne blonde tresses, standing alongside Grace Kelley, Dean Martin, and Jayne Mansfield. In others, she’s laughing with Harry Belafonte and Vice President Richard Nixon. And another, a captured moment of concentration, Darvaza plays chess, one hand loosely holding a vodka martini, against a very young Bobby Fischer.

Throughout the 9 years that Darvaza owned the Avernus, not a single room was left vacant. Every day of the year was booked well-out in advance. People poured in from all across the country to experience the Avernus Hotel for themselves. Their rapacious desires for eating high-end cuisine alongside future presidents, drinking artisanal concoctions near famous celebrities, and bathing in one of the then six completed suites suitable for real kings and queens became infectious. People no longer traveled to see the city, they traveled to see the Avernus - and they paid more than they could afford to do so.

But then Kara Darvaza disappeared. Like the original owner of the Avernus, some claimed that she was murdered for criminal ties, though these were to Russian politics. Yet the staff at the hotel stated that Darvaza had simply grown bored of her ownership and left for a quieter life in Europe.

In 1961, when Hellam York took over the hotel, he mocked the privacy of his former owners and spoke with every reporter willing to listen. In his first interview, Hellam showcased a cartoonishly large golden key. He claimed it was a parting gift from his predecessor, who had, in turn, received it from Murgo Osore.

A week later, York was struck and killed by a westbound train.

The key, commonly agreed upon to be cursed, was paraded around from one owner to the next. Some wore it on gaudy chains around their neck, whereas others flashed it during large public gatherings as a semblance of their hospitality royalty. One owner infamously kept the key in a large glass case in the main lobby, taking it out only to be attached to her bell-bottoms for evenings on the town. Yet neither the key nor its possessors’ panache could halt the declining success of the Avernus. Each new owner was notably lazier than the last. Cockroaches infested the kitchens. Bedbugs moved into the mattresses. And a sulfuric rotting smell wafted through the ventilation systems in the east wing in the summers. It was the hotel’s name alone that kept business afloat through the 1980s and then the conclusion of the Gulf War.

Admission to the 1992 New Year’s Eve Gala came at a steep price. The decision bore early criticism from lifelong guests of the Avernus, as no other New Year’s Eve Gala had charged for a ticket at the door. But the syndicate of three business moguls known as WMH Proud, Inc. claimed to know better. They explained to all their media outlets that the price of admission was going to offset the unimaginable and exclusive experience the Avernus Hotel was about to offer.

In the end, the New Year’s Eve Gala of 1992 was reported as the worst Gala in the hotel’s history, and the biggest socialite upset of the century. Renovations made in preparation were only done on the first floor of the Avernus. One of the ballrooms was turned into a carnival arcade of flashing neon lights and overstimulating electronic sounds, another one was retrofitted into an indoor pool with slides and tacky fountains shaped like clowns and animals that sprayed guests with water. The Styx lounge was opened to the non-resident guests and served cocktails and hors d'oeuvres priced at a premium, while the Alcyonian was uprooted and moved to an older wing of the hotel. The entrance to a vacant suite was obscured by an audacious floor-to-ceiling portrait of Murgo Osore that made the exclusive bar’s once prestigious aesthetic feel more akin to a low-budget movie set with cheap liquor.

The absolute bungling of the New Year’s Eve tradition brought the Avernus to its knees. Instead of finding a passionate buyer to take over ownership, the syndicate sold pieces at a loss to anyone who desired it. Large businesses carved into the hotel as if it were a pie, and turned every square inch of the ground floor into a city block of retail stores. Only the iconic marble facade with its Roman columns remained as vestiges. The bedrooms and suites above were locked away, and the elevators leading to them sealed. Whatever dreams and memories lingered from the golden ages of the Avernus were entombed and forgotten...

…until now.

The Avernus Hotel is reopening under new ownership, thanks to CEO Nathan Saal, of the Fortune 500 company, Apollyon.

Often described as one of the most powerful men in the world, and certainly, one of the most financially and politically well-connected, Saal thrives due to his personal mantra: "living with the intention of maintaining social experiences.” Ironically, his typical morning routine begins in solitude. He enjoys jogging around his private estate followed by a session with his personal trainer - a former Mossad operative, who puts Saal through a series of torturous calisthenics and stretches. Then, with his characteristic punctuality, he is showered and on the move with a cup of herbal tea. He claims sentimentally in the digital age that he prefers paper copies of his company’s earnings to review each morning. When asked why he takes such a vested interest in the minutia of Apollyon, he quips,“idle hands may do the work, but idle minds rot on their own”.

Despite Saal’s incessant need to be timely, he presents himself as a man capable of commanding his schedule down to the minute. When initially scheduling this interview, Saal’s assistant said that he had no free time short of the following quarter, at which point Saal joined the call and stated he’d fit it in the following week.

We met at the hotel and spoke while seated in the Darvaza booth at The Styx. While sheeting plastic billowed along one wall, the splendor to come was apparent throughout the renovations. Saal appears in his early forties and chuckled when I asked about early retirement. He confessed that he is actually nearing seventy, a truth only given away by the deep peppering of gray in his neatly combed hair and trimmed beard. He’s mastered the dressed-down business look sporting a maroon blazer and dark denim. The absence of a tie signals his departure from business attire of previous decades, inspired by younger executives of the modern age. But Saal’s not trying to become them, he’s simply willing to dress with the times. Unless it comes to wearing a thousand-dollar pair of sneakers, which he places in the same sinful category as single-use plastics and extraneous gluten-free labeling.

Saal owns the world’s largest private hospitality and travel conglomerate, whose luxury resorts and various transportation systems are skyrocketing, quite literally. By next year, thanks to early partnerships with Elon Musk and Warren Buffet, Apollyon will take its guests out into space and around the moon in the first-ever galactic space cruiser. Apollyon’s deep-sea resort is also slated to start diving excursions in the Mariana Trench this September.

“Up or down, it’ll be a hell of a time,” Saal says.

But Saal’s corporate mastery didn’t happen without sacrificing some blood and sweat for his ledger. His first two companies in the 80’s were “too old-school”, and his third “went out of style faster than floppy disks”. His multiple failures nearly cost him everything, but with one final loan and substantial investment in a privately-funded project he claims he can not name due to an NDA, Saal changed his luck. He thanks the bank for bailing him out.

And while Apollyon is aiming for the stars, Saal has set his sights back on the ground. In one of the company’s riskiest decisions to date, it has now spent $1.6 billion to acquire every last inch of the Avernus Hotel and restore it to its former glory - with a modern twist. The purchase has other hotels in the city growing anxious. “It appears Saal has made it mandatory for all of us to upgrade and rebrand,” says a spokesman for The Drake.

The much anticipated Avernus Hotel boldly claims that it will revitalize the city’s social culture - “Without needing an arcade or kiddie pool,” Saal promises with an effervescent smile. When asked about his concerns regarding renovations, he says, “I’ve never been particularly fearful, and I love a good rebellion against the status quo. Everyone buys new these days. Everyone builds with a vision from the ground up. It might be cheaper to knock this hotel down, but this piece of American history still has bones. And a building as old as this one clearly has more secrets than Harry Caray’s on Kinzie.”

After the Avernus closed in 1998, tabloids began their annual October Haunting specials. The hotel frequented the top of their list with a variety of ghost stories. A mirage of a golden bell hopper appears in the window reflections whenever church bells ring late at night. The corpse of a 1950’s woman leaps from the east wing on foggy nights in November. But stories like these can be heard on the city trolley tours.

The more sinister tales are passed down among life-long residents of the city. For example, in the winter of 1999 during a record blizzard, Murgo’s ghost ushered unassuming tourists into the decommissioned elevators before sending them down into the semi-flooded basement below. They only escaped after enduring three days in complete darkness, after which the elevator simply brought them back up to the lobby. “Stories of ghastly screams and eerie, untethered music, the whole aesthetic is alluring,” Saal beams. When prompted about the multiple hauntings and hidden skeletons that have always surrounded the abandoned upper-floors of The Avernus, Saal leans towards me. “Why do you think I pushed to buy it?” he retorts.

“One of the historians we’re working closely with for accuracy in the restorations says the original blueprints remind her of H.H. Holmes’s Murder Castle.” Saal elaborates that there are multiple hidden corridors threaded between actual bedrooms and suites that were recently discovered by the construction team and how some stairwells only go up half stories to create false micro-rooms in between the actual floors.

“If you pick apart the old rumors, you can imagine Al Capone’s people storing alcohol during the Prohibition era in these secret spaces. There’s this really unique old pulley-elevator, almost like an oversized dummy waiter, that goes from Murgo Osore’s office on the fifth floor down to the basement behind the boiler room. I want to restore that for guests.” Saal says. And then he goes on with the same enthusiasm one might expect a treasure-hunter to have amidst ruins of a bygone age. He briefly touches on shady deals that might have been made between politicians in the fifties in a private room. Falsified documents signed by former mayors. Spy equipment from the Cold War era. And antiques that museums are already bidding on. "I won't give too much away," he concludes wryly, "you'll have to imagine it for yourself"

The more Apollyon unearths, the more architects need to redraw the blueprints. If an original design for the Avernus Hotel was ever made, it was not filed away in public records with the city or state. Saal insists that no dead bodies have been found.

Saal muses:

“The Avernus is still revered as the cradle and tombstone of America’s social culture. Celebrities and Titans of industry were born here. Dreams were made here. And when the hotel closed, I believe we as a society lost something precious. We started fumbling around with these things.”

Saal pulls out his smartphone flippantly. “I don’t want to just send people to the moon, or into the depths of the earth, I want to take them back in time too. I want them to experience everything the Avernus has to offer.” The key to accomplishing this according to Saal, is ensuring that the Devil is in all the right details.

“Did the Devil give you the key?” It’s a question I had been waiting for the entire interview to ask. Inspired by my favorite take on the urban legend.

And Saal is all grins when he removes Hellam York’s infamous cursed key from a chest pocket in his jacket.

Whether it unlocks any more secrets remains to be seen.

The Avernus Hotel opens on December 31st at 6 PM. All are invited.

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