"Clownette," by Terry Dowling: An Appreciation by Laird Barron
A proper campfire tale imparts a moral, a lesson, some bit of unhappy wisdom often gained at prohibitive expense. A proper campfire tale never concerns anybody special; it's always about a couple of kids necking on Blueberry Hill, or the guy who ignores his fuel gauge until his car dies on a bleak stretch of country road at night, or, as in this piece, the hapless salesman who settles for the only room at the inn. The protagonist could've been one of us. Next time he might be.
In "Clownette," Bob Jackson, harried businessman and routine traveler, discovers there are no vacancies at his regular hotel, the Macklin, except for 516-—the room employees half-jokingly refer to as the Clownette:
And this time, for maybe the eighteenth, nineteenth time in six years, it was a full house and the Clownette or nothing.
516 is an overflow room, a room few want because of the "rush of weird" that greets one at the threshold, an electric charge, a brief, ominous sensation impelling the visitor to flee. But-—the Clownette or nothing? No other hotel in the entire city? Surely Jackson's predicament is an exaggeration, a contrivance. Not so; Dowling has deftly and elegantly foreshadowed the compulsion of morbid curiosity as it afflicts the human mind and how it drives poor, foolish Bob Jackson to tamper with things best left undisturbed.
The "rush of weird" isn't the main attraction, however. No, that would fall to the bizarre stain on the wall, a large discoloration that bleeds through any paint job. They say covering it up with furniture is equally fruitless, because . . . because the stain moves, you see. It creeps and seeps and reaffirms itself upon the surface of the dresser, the painting, or whatever has been artfully placed to block its unsightly presence from the clientele. And it gets worse. At night the stain transforms in a most peculiar and disturbing fashion:
"You get to see the face, the 'Motley,' the Macklin Hotel's very own Shroud of Turin right there in the wall."
The Motley. Ah, and now we come to Mr. Jackson's motive for accepting these "lesser" accommodations: here is an infrequent opportunity to rendezvous with his friendly nemesis, the leering Motley. He's heard the legends regarding its mysterious manifestations and decided to test them for himself. This time around he's determined to play a little game with the Man in the Wall. God help him. Jackson is a bug trapped in the honeyed embrace of a sundew, drawn to doom by his own design.
Most powerfully, Dowling in his light-as-air characterization of anonymous Bob Jackson has drawn a perfect cipher for the reader to experience the inexplicable and utterly sinister phenomena in room 516—-for this story isn't about Jackson, it's about any of us who have ever been tempted to go against better judgment, to accept a dare, or delve into the secret and dark places that exist in the gaps of our everyday lives. It is and has ever been contrary to human nature to leave well enough alone. Dowling quite obviously understands this fact and employs it to devastating effect.
"Clownette" is a brief, suffocating paean to fear. Terry Dowling has given us a dose of horror in its purest form-—at once cautionary and dreadful. Curiosity is the death of cats, as they say. However, death is the least of what curiosity can inflict upon the unwary and the unwise, and by the time Bob Jackson's stay-—our stay-—in the Macklin Hotel has ended, that bitter lesson will be all too clear.
Link to story.