From Trait to State: When a Setting is a Psychopath
No Vacancy is a novelette built upon personification: bestowing human qualities to a place as it lets the setting become a character in its own right. The concept of place-as-person is one I use in a lot of my fiction; the funeral parlor in Divinity and The Python is every bit as much of a person as any of the flesh-and-blood characters in the book.
But...can a place be a person? Oh, I think so. I've experienced it in real life.
So have you.
Consider the last time you visited somewhere new and knew, just knew it felt 'right'.
Years ago, I took a road trip with my Mom across the vast expanse of prairie in southern Alberta. Outside the town of Cardston, a massive, and inexplicably ominous building squatted. As I stared at it, my skin crawled. "What is that place?" I whispered.
"St. Mary's," Mom replied, voice tight and clipped, the way it always gets when she's disgusted. "It was an old residential school."
My gut blanched. A residential school, for those unfamiliar, was where Native children were once sent without choice and certainly against the wishes of their parents (in other words, government-sanctioned kidnapping). In the 'schools' (disdain intended) these children were misappropriated, abused, sometimes even tortured and killed. Face to face with St. Mary's (and what a revoltingly ironic name, incidentally: 'Mary'. 'Mother'. I think it's abundantly obvious that no Native child was ever 'mothered' there - unless it was in the most macabre way possible). Anyway, as Mom and I gazed upon St. Mary's she said, again in her razor-edged style, "Isn't it an evil old dump?"
Hell, yes. And it amazed me, how my body had known it before my brain had. What was that? It was like the place had somehow become every dark deed it had housed on its inside, and that wickedness now shone out of it like some sort of psychical light.
I wondered then: Can places, like people, be evil?
As a counselor I've reviewed a lot of literature on psychopathy, and the data are split; some scholars say psychopaths are born bad, that the amygdala in their brain, assigned to govern empathy, is faulty. Others contend that the amygdala becomes damaged by life experiences, that neglect, abuse, and trauma build a psychopath.
So which is it for The Cecil of my imagination in No Vacancy?
Della, my protagonist, a therapist who is also a psychic, believes the old hotel is bad for where it's at. Situated as it is in Los Angeles, Della says the whole city is evil because it is not geographically on a fault so much as it's at fault. She contends that the setting itself is responsible for having drawn so much tragedy, depravity, and horror into its confines. A 'nature' argument, if you will.
Although, on the nurture side of the coin, maybe the old Cecil (as it appears in my story) is more like St. Mary's. Perhaps a few random and horrific occurrences worked like some sort of malevolent version of the Law of Attraction, magnetizing despair and bloodshed over and over until nothing but horror exists on an endless feedback loop.
For, really - if anyone (or anywhere) eats something long enough won't they learn to like it? To crave it?
Could that even be possible? Nature or nurture, can a place be a psychopath?
In No Vacancy, Della tells Lucas that evil is simply part of "...what an old hotel like this can now do on its own. From trait to state, therapist," she says. "You know this stuff."
Indeed. But surely only as it applies to people....right? Not places?
Visit The Cecil of my nightmares and judge for yourself. And know that upon arrival I sincerely wish you No Vacancy there....
Or maybe you'd prefer a paperback - No Vacancy appears in this amazing anthology: Made In LA