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End of the world

Halley’s Comet shimmered above New York in May of 1910, causing some to prophecy the End of the World. In the novel, the comet passes during the first month of filming and it brings Sabine Montrose’s existential funk to a crisis point.


The seductress in the attic

In Claude Ballard’s silent feature film, The Electric Hotel, his muse and sometimes lover, Sabine Montrose, plays a consumptive widow and hotelier who preys on her male guests. I modeled the character of Sabine on Sarah Bernhardt and Theda Bara, two actresses and silent film stars who challenged the popular conception of female identity and sexuality.


Hotels figure prominently in the novel

The Electric Hotel is the name of the silent film that Claude Ballard and his associates make up above the Palisades in Fort Lee, New Jersey, America’s first movie town. In real life, it is also the name of a short comedy-fantasy film that used stop motion animation, directed by Segundo de Chomón in 1908. There’s also another hotel in the book: the Hollywood Knickerbocker, where Claude Ballard, a forgotten film pioneer, is spending his twilight years.


Airships in the rise of cinema

Airships were becoming increasingly popular during the rise of early cinema. In the novel, Claude Ballard and Hal Bender build their film studio right next to the Palisades Amusement Park, which featured an airship available for joyrides across the Hudson River. Seeing an opportunity for aerial shots and a mysterious form of transport for the widow in The Electric Hotel, the filmmakers rent an airship and its pilot from the amusement park. Later in the novel, airships also play a more destructive role in the first months of WWI.


A fascination with animals

Animals featured prominently in early films, starting with Edison’s shocking footage of electrocuting a “killer elephant” at Coney Island. To add some spectacle and menace to their silent film, the producers of The Electric Hotel use a Bengal tiger as the widow’s pet.


Cinema begins in a basement

In December of 1895, Auguste and Louis Lumière, two brothers who run a photographic plate business in Lyon, mount the first paid, public exhibition of their cinématographe invention, along with ten short reels. It takes place in Le Salon Indien de Grand Café, in the basement of the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines. In the novel, Claude Ballard is among the first concession agents hired by the Lumière brothers to evangelize cinema around the world.


Magnetism and electricity
run amok

Early filmmakers were fascinated by electricity and its effects on people. In the novel, inspired by Segundo de Chomòn’s short 1908 film, El Hotel Electrico, I feature electricity as a mysterious, potentially malevolent force. The widow’s children in Claude Ballard’s film see figures and furniture moving under their own volition in the doll house in their shared bedroom.

Researching the Book:
Travels in the World of 
Early Silent Film

A silent film festival in northern Italy, a trip to the archives at the Library of Congress, a walk through the Lumière brothers’ family home in Lyon (now a museum), a visit to Belgium to retrace the steps of early WWI cinematographers—the research for this book was an immersion in pictures and places. Along the way, my perception of early silent films changed completely. These were not all jittery pantomimes and melodramas; many were indelible works of art. If 75% of all silent films have been lost (the estimate from the Library of Congress) then what jewels have vanished? That was the question that drove this novel.

Silent Film Playlist


The Electric Hotel winds through the nascent days of cinema in Paris and Fort Lee, New Jersey— America’s first movie town—and on the battlefields of Belgium during World War I. A sweeping work of historical fiction, it shimmers between past and present as it tells the story of the rise and fall of a prodigious film studio and one man’s doomed obsession with all that passes in front of the viewfinder. Read an excerpt

As fresh and deliciously strange as the first days of film-making it so dazzlingly brings to life, The Electric Hotel is utterly absorbing, astonishingly inventive, and richly imagined.  Dominic Smith is a wizard

National Book Award Winner and author of Archangel

Radiant... a vital and highly entertaining work about the act of creation, and about what it means to pick up and move on after you’ve lost everything.

The New York Times

A glorious ode to the luminous art that ushered in Hollywood’s film era.


A compelling plot, robust characters, and finely crafted prose richly evoke a bygone age and art.

Kirkus Reviews (starred)

Smith winningly delves into Hollywood’s past.

Publishers Weekly

Wondrous... [Smith] writes with an old-world elegance; you get lost in these pages like you do in a great movie, not wanting the lights to come up.

The Seattle Times