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Haunted 'River' Waters Flow Below A Grand Hotel

When crime novelist Michael Koryta was 8 years old, his father took him to visit the ruins of the nearby West Baden Springs Hotel in Indiana -- a hotel that was once so magnificent it was called the Eighth Wonder of the World. It was a visit he wouldn't soon forget.

"It stands out as a very vivid memory because even in that state of disrepair, you could sense the grandeur that had been there," Koryta tells NPR's Michele Norris. "With that arose this question of why had it ever been here, and then why did it disappear? From that point on, I was very interested in the history."

The former reporter and private detective was so interested that he took his time finding the right way to write about it.

"I'd tried for a while to work that setting and that history into a traditional crime novel plot, and it just never worked," he says. "Everything was always returning to a casino heist novel -- which I did not want to write."

It wasn't until he decided to go in a completely new -- and supernatural -- direction that a novel began to take shape.

That novel, So Cold the River, follows filmmaker Eric Shaw as he's hired to uncover and record the history of a dying man who has left precious little information about his roots, save for the name of his hometown -- West Baden Springs -- and a bottle of Pluto Water -- a substance manufactured in nearby French Lick, Ind., around the turn of the century that claimed to cure any affliction known to man.

Shaw's search takes him to a newly restored West Baden Springs Hotel and the mysterious Lost River -- an evil force that flows around and under the hotel -- to confront the ghosts of his client's past.

It's a chilling tale, but Koryta is quick to assert that it is not a "haunted hotel story."

"It's more about the water and towns themselves," he says.

And, apparently, also the music. Koryta says the architecture of the West Baden Springs Hotel informed the story just as much as the music he listened to while writing it. He cites the song "Short Trips Home" by Indiana native violinist Joshua Bell and fellow Hoosier composer Edgar Meyer as an especially significant source of inspiration.

"The song itself is just scorchingly beautiful," he says. "It's an Americana-, folk-inspired piece, but there's this joined quality of beauty and sorrow," he says.

Just as he tried to imagine the story behind the hotel, Koryta says he also tried to imagine the story behind the song and, in doing so, landed on the image of a Depression-era prodigy violinist busking in tattered clothes with his violin case open for donations.

He says the performer's history and motives, which play a significant role in the novel's narrative, all arose from the song itself.

"It's just a haunting song," he says. "He hits notes that still just put chills down my spine."

Koryta's book is likely to do the same.

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