Pamila Payne is a noir horror writer, and she is more than that. She is an original voice conducting an ongoing narrative search in the darkness.
For fifteen years she’s been living with a group of dead guys at the Bella Vista Motel. She acts as a channel for their voices.
Her writing explores the themes that lie at the core of horror. She inhabits the twilight where the edges of reality blur.
I invited her to The Slaughterhouse and she accepted.
We spoke about ghosts and otherness.
Scroll to the end of the interview for more links to Pamila’s work.
In what ways do you think a person may be haunted in their lives?
Human beings are haunted by their impending death. Every one of us.
We are all so temporary, but our minds seek the illusion of permanence to overcome the horror of that truth. Happy people have an above average ability to forget.
Haunting is the imposition of memory.
To remember an experience or a person without consciously seeking that data in our minds can be a kind of haunting. Especially if there is much emotion attached. The image of a face comes unbidden, the sound of a voice, the smell of skin. In truth, we are only alive one moment at a time. Memories can only come from the past. We link to ghosts. There are ghost versions of ourselves in the minds of others. Memories are synaptic cobwebs brushing our faces.
Regret is the wailing banshee of memory.
A person can be haunted more deeply by feeling they should have done something differently, or made the attempt, or spoken from the heart, or just shut the hell up and waited for the moment to pass, than by any non corporeal entity.
If we love someone, the desire to be connected to them doesn’t go away with absence. They come into our minds, freely, no invitation needed. If you can totally forget someone you thought you once loved, chances are, it was a strong case of like.
Artists are mind wombs.
Fictional characters are a unique sort of ghost. They pass out into the material world through one human mind, like a birth. And then, if they are lucky and compelling, they come back into countless other human minds and become known. They develop into real people in the sense that they are known, their stories and their personalities are known.
At some point, all of us become memories. So who is real? Does a person who possesses a temporary body for a finite lifetime have an advantage over a person who is known by thousands, maybe even millions, and will live for as long as people can call their image to mind? I think real is all relative.
We are beings made of will.
If you look at a dead body, especially if it was someone you knew, it’s hard to believe the thing that lies there was ever a person. The reason people so often remark that a corpse looks like a poorly rendered wax dummy version of the person they knew is that very little of what makes us who we are has to do with the meat body we inhabit. The spirit animates matter.
Look at that dead body again. Reverse engineer it. Imagine what kind of force it would take to make that thing a person again. Imagine what kind of force it took to make that thing a person, ever. It’s not just a matter of physical function, the machinery can be running, but once the spirit is gone, the person ceases to live inside the body. If you see a body on life support it’s very much the same as looking at a corpse, except they are warm and pliable.
Unless the spirit is still there. Unless the person inside still somehow managed to retain the will to live inside their injured body. Rare, but it happens. And that’s my point, it is the will of the spirit to inhabit our bodies that makes us go on being who we are. Elderly people who have reached advanced age with the good fortune to posses healthy, functional brains can burn more brightly with personality than they did in their youth, because the body fades back and ceases to distract from the spirit behind the eyes. The strength of will animates matter that in the end is no better or worse than tree trunks or any other collection of cells.
I find it impossible to believe that something strong enough to animate a body simply ceases to exist once it leaves. I don’t have religious ideas about where the soul goes, but I believe it exists as a specific entity. If the spirit is strong enough to animate a human body, surely it can come back to whisper in our ears.
Do you believe ‘Rebecca’ is an illustration of what you are talking about and do you think love and all we mean by love invokes haunting?
I do think Rebecca is an illustration of the haunting power of love, but not in the usual romantic sense. The person most haunted by the love she felt for Rebecca is Mrs. Danvers. She is the one who can’t let go and for whom the memory of Rebecca is a painful spectre, but not in any supernatural sense.
Rebecca is not a ghost story. It’s a story of psychological and emotional torment. Each of the main characters are tormented by their own thoughts, fears and feelings, and in turn torment others, willingly in the case of Mrs. Danvers, unwillingly in the case of Maxim de Winter.
The second Mrs. de Winter, our poor dear heroine narrator with no first name, torments herself as much or more than she is tormented by Mrs. Danvers and her mostly unaware husband. Aside from her horrible sense of inferiority to Rebecca, our narrator suffers from an exquisite over awareness of her surroundings, her feelings, and interior thoughts. Her senses, self consciousness and memory are fine tuned to the point of agony. Her imagination verges on channeling. I have always identified very deeply with that character.
Nothing supernatural happens in the book or Hitchcock’s film. I love Hitchcock, but the film is not much more than the Cliff Notes version of the book, with the salient points mashed up to make for good popcorn eating. The unabridged audiobook read by Anna Massey is fantastic, by the way.
But… I believe what you were really asking was, is this how I meant to say love haunts?
Well, yes. And no.
Love and all we mean by it is a very broad subject. I think the very act of loving someone creates an opening in the psyche for the loved one to come in that we lose control over. It doesn’t have to be romantic love, it can be love for a friend, a child, even animals for some people. Nor does it have to be requited love. The oneway road can be quite treacherous.
Another thing that I find interesting speaking about the novel Rebecca is that Manderley, the mansion in the story, though not a traditionally haunted house, is as much a character as any of the people. It is also being held in thrall to the memory of its mistress. There are parallels to my own stories in the sense that the Bella Vista motel is very much an active character, though in my case, there are supernatural elements.
It is safe to assume that Maxim and his second wife will be haunted by Manderley for the rest of their lives and makes the point that it is more than possible to be haunted by the memory of places, too.
Do you see Bella Vista as a physical map of subconscious forces?
Yes. I look at it several ways. The Bella Vista motel is a physical form where the subconscious compulsions, memories and spirits of the people who live and die there attach and embed. It is like a coral reef. As the psychic debris pile up, the physical place becomes more spiritually and emotionally treacherous, dangerously easy to get lost in, to become trapped.
Bella Vista is also a character, a kind of mind that experiences and replays trauma, a personality that feeds off of drama. As a character, Bella Vista is a playful sociopath.
The motel is also a gateway to self discovery. Journeying to one’s dark places is dangerous, but not impossible to return from stronger and wiser. Subconscious forces are real and powerful. Going through life without shining a light down there is much the same as trying to walk across a dark room filled with an unknown number of snakes. You might make it across the floor to the bathroom in the middle of the night without stepping on one… but not being able to see them doesn’t mean they won’t rear up and bite you. Of course, some people have more snakes on their floors than others. Some of us build terrariums.
Do you believe that states of possession exist and if so how would you define one?
I believe that states of possession exist on many levels. That is a very deep subject and it’s a good thing that you limited me to one definition, because I could go on and on about it.
As a writer, I know I sometimes become possessed by my fictional characters. I’m not a total believer in the notion that our characters are nothing more than aspects of ourselves.
Certainly, that is true to an extent, more so for some than others—people who “write what they know,” as the saying goes and are basically reproducing their friends and family, or rewriting their childhood. And I don’t say that with any derision, there are deeply affecting and interesting stories created that way. It’s also true that creation is a function of imagination. The brain is a wonderful model builder and can pull elements from many sources.
Some of what I write comes up from my basement, out of my imagination and is all me. But some of it just isn’t. I feel my characters moving around in my brain quite apart from myself sometimes. It can be awkward. A lot of my characters are male. Not very nice males. When I spoke of a mind womb earlier, I meant that we share space in our minds with these fictional people. Just as every human being comes out of a *1 woman’s body, every fictional character comes out of a human mind.
Writers talk about getting characters out of their heads all the time, though probably, not many see it as possession. Being deemed “Fictional” may be more about not having a legitimacy granting meat body of their own to inhabit here in the material world, but it doesn’t mean a character isn’t a person. Fictional characters are just another kind of illegal alien who must enter into marriages of convenience for access to this world.
If we go back to the idea of spirit, or soul, whether you believe the assignment of a soul to a human body is an entirely random shuffling and dealing of the cards or according to some preordained cosmic hierarchy, *2 the result is the same once we get here. We get plunked into a body and we’re stuck there for life. Sometimes we end up in a family (or more uncomfortably, a body) where we are totally alien.
If as writers we are inspired to write characters that are totally alien to us, how do we handle that? I think it can be very unsettling, like having a baby that looks and acts like nobody in the family.
Learning to submit, to get out of my characters way and allow them to speak in their own voice, to just give in and let them come into the material world without judgement and censorship was one of the hardest lessons I ever learned about writing. That can be very difficult for people who have the need to be in control all the time. I think that may be where a lot of what we call writers block comes from. It’s a power struggle. You want your characters to think and speak and behave according to your moral judgement, opinions and outlook. You want them be actors who deliver the lines you write and hit their marks on cue. But they may have other ideas.
I think we have been taught to fear and resist possession as a totally negative, unnatural and evil state, (which it surely can be) however, that’s not always so. In the case of artists, a very positive symbiotic relationship can develop. As with most relationships, it’s about respect and balance.
*1 Yes, there is cloning and in vitro etc, and perhaps one day soon women’s bodies will no longer be the sole entryway for human babies.
*2 And if you believe that there is no such thing as a soul or spirit and that all organisms are nothing more than a collection of sophisticated organic machinery with electrical impulses running through them, no disrespect to you, but that’s a whole other conversation.
William Burroughs posited that the word is a virus, do you believe in curses and if so do you think they are word viruses?
Leave it to a writer to see words as threatening viral entities… William Burroughs’ theory that words could be and had been used as weapons, especially recorded spoken word, was very apt and rather prescient. That was an interesting part of his whole cut up theory, that recordings of speeches made by authority figures and politicians could be cut, spliced and remade into new recordings with entirely new context. This has been shown to be possible in amusing examples of YouTube videos, perhaps it has been done for more nefarious purposes as well. I think Mr. Burroughs would have been delighted and appalled by the creative examples of depravity and satire offered up on YouTube, it’s a shame he missed it. I’d love to hear the rant that would probably have resulted.
Words have always been used for evil as much as for good.
We’ve moved into a strange stage of altered representations of reality between what’s possible with photo and audio/video manipulation software and the gleeful efforts of a vast and eager populace who love to repeat and share even the most outlandish lies. Even a casual user can rework reality in what used to be considered mediums of proof. But really, it doesn’t even take tricky video skills these days, a simple old fashioned press release or an amateur gossip blogger or even a sham news organization like Fox can lob a word bomb out and away we go.
A curse, pure and simple, is an assertion that someone is due to experience harm and how the harm will come about. A curse is also a contract. The cursed must play their part and believe they are cursed, or the thing will not work.
A virus is a self-replicating organism that depends on outside means to introduce it to a suitable host environment, where it then reproduces itself and affects the host according to its design.
I suppose you could say a curse is a kind of word virus. A biological virus can be foiled by a strong immune system. A curse can be foiled by strong common sense.
I think Mr. Burroughs’ idea of a word virus was on a bigger societal scale, but did rely heavily on the transmission aspects of viral entities. (I can only chuckle at what he might have thought of Twitter, and share buttons…) Words in and of themselves contain no power, just as a virus outside of the proper host environment is null. But the interpretation of words by human minds and the willingness to act as vectors for those words has resulted in more harm and horror than any biological disease. Words are much harder to defeat when they reach epidemic proportions. The big lie technique of popular opinion control is in full swing on many levels right now.
A curse is very personal and is always the resort of a coward with delusions of grandeur.
Is the Bella Vista a real place?
The Bella Vista motel is based on a real motel that I visited in Texas in 1993. The name of that motel is lost to me now, but my Bella Vista becomes more real the more I write about it. The story of what happened to me there and how it inspired me to begin writing the Bella Vista series is on my website in the Memnoir section. The town of Ozona is real, but I doubt the rotary club would approve of my version of it, which is decidedly fictional and not a very flattering likeness. I’ve always been fascinated by the underside of Americana, the small town folksy image of good God fearing people who present that Norman Rockwell sweetness at first glance, but are capable of casual evil in their day to day lives.
Do you see ghosts and if so what do you believe they are?
What are ghosts? They are the unknown, undefinable element. They are persistent thoughts that take on a life of their own. They are memories that become parasitic. They are collections of cellular debris that get trapped in our atmosphere like smog. They are traumatic energy that intensifies into will. They are non-corporeal life forms that joyride on our material plane. They are long distance messages. They are souls that refuse to or don’t know how to move on. They are persons.
Seeing ghosts… that question is difficult. As much as I’ve blathered on already, that’s a very personal question for me. I have exposed myself by relating my experience in the motel on my website, and though I don’t exactly regret it, I do get a sort of squirmy feeling about it. There’s this trade off, between wanting to be known for one’s work, becoming known as a writer, and wanting to retain a certain level of privacy. There’s a side of me that would like my work to answer all the questions. Have I seen ghosts? Read my stories. But people always want more, don’t they?
I don’t go around like the child in The Sixth Sense seeing dead people everywhere. But I have had some very intense experiences, and the death of someone close to me at a young age affected me deeply. Some of my experiences involved other still living people who I would not want to disturb or hurt if they were to read my accounts. I also have no wish to invite contact with them.
It all gets tangled up with what I feel I have a right to relate as a writer and how much consideration I feel obligated to give to others. You pay a price writing nonfiction about real people, you leave a trail for them to find you and create a hole in the fence. Some of the small flash stories that I wrote on Six Sentences were inspired by personal experiences. They were like tiny memoirs and I realized, I’m not ready to write like that. My fences are there for a reason.
I can’t remember the exact quote or who said it it, but something like, writing fiction frees you to tell the truth, comes to mind. I write fiction because it allows me to give full range to my thoughts, feelings and desires. I can draw from pure imagination and I can also put the way I felt, what I saw during an actual experience into a fictional account and feel no obligation to shelter or apologize to anyone. As far as my fiction writing is concerned, I will write what I want to and what wants to be written, according to my own standards and no one else’s.
I do have standards, however, despite being a horror writer. Going back to the idea that some fictional characters are entities, (which by the way, I didn’t mean to imply that’s an original thought, other artists have postulated that theory much better than I) just because I believe they are people who want to be known in our material world, doesn’t mean I believe they have divine right to come through whomever they choose. Unless one is a child, or a person in some way being held against their will, all relationships are consensual. I have said no to characters that I just couldn’t live with giving voice to. And with me, no means no. As writers, and artists of any kind, it’s absolutely our right to choose.
Do you think that schizophrenia inhabits some of the same places of otherness we have been discussing, and if so how do the schizophrenic’s visions differ from those of someone not suffering from what are perceived to be delusions by mainstream psychiatry?
I think much of what is characterized as mental illness inhabits some of the same places of otherness we have been discussing.
It’s been said that artists make money from the products of their insanity. I’d be happy to agree, if I could get paid. This is another question that could generate pages of discussion, but I’ll try to be brief.
Schizophrenics cannot negotiate the disparity of what’s going on in the material world their bodies inhabit and the visions and thoughts they experience in their minds. The really severely ill people simply can’t navigate through the duality of inner and outer experience.
The judgement of all mental illness comes down to degrees of functioning within society. Are you able to hold down a job or generate income in some legally recognized way, maintain some sort of indoor residence, care for your personal hygiene, feed and clothe yourself? Good. Congratulations, you are deemed sane enough, with allowances for eccentricity based on how far you stray from the norm in any extracurricular activities. You can wear your tinfoil hat or display your vote for Sarah Palin button with pride, as long as you meet the basic criteria and maintain your credit card payments.
The important distinctions are the ability to function and the ability to differentiate between unusual visions and the usual state of being. Sanity means being able to understand that something unusual is happening and having the power to separate yourself from what you see. Extra points for being able to derive meaning from it and turn it into a painting, a film or a book.
What do you think are the main differences between dangerous women and dangerous men?
I don’t think there is a lot of difference, I think it’s just that we’ve learned to attribute gender to certain characteristics. So, for example, it’s more shocking and unexpected when a woman is a stupid thug, but any sensitive grade school kid will tell you, girl bullies have hard fists, too.
It’s always the unexpected that gets you. Cold brutality that is thought of as a male attribute, and the underhanded emotional cruelty that is thought of as female are especially devastating when they are co-opted by the opposite sex. You see this a lot in corporate environments, women behaving like tyrants, abusing power in order to intimidate and men using emotional manipulation to avoid taking responsibility.
I think the most dangerous people are those who can project an aura of harmlessness, kindly demeanor, polite behavior, friendly smiles, but who make it their life’s work to cause harm in anonymous ways. So basically, managers, corporate executives, politicians, bureaucrats, anyone who makes decisions that negatively affect others without bothering their own conscience. Civilized modern society has trained and nurtured armies of sociopaths who do more damage sitting in front of a computer creating control freak policies or enforcing mass cruelty than even the most brutal serial killers.
To me, one of the worst and most abusive human characteristics is the urge to control and limit the freedom of other people. To go back to William Burroughs, he wrote at some length and very colorfully about the petty urge to mind other people’s business and always be right. To assume that your beliefs and tastes should be imposed on all other humans, and their right to self determination should be denied if they disagree with you, that is certainly an expression of evil and is unfortunately engaged in with equal vigor by both sexes.
Tell us about the effect spoken word and audio narration have had on your writing.
I’ve had a lifelong love of oral storytelling and reading aloud. I was a child who wanted more than anything to hear stories and would sit still and listen for as long as people would indulge me. As soon as I learned to read, I read aloud every day. I was raised by my elderly, religious great-grandparents. My grampa was a minister and we read from small books published by our church that had a page or so of psalms or little parables meant to begin and end the day at breakfast and dinner time.
Storytelling in my family was just a natural component of conversation and what came about when people got together. Hearing stories about how things were “in the olden days” was fascinating to me, and still is. I love listening to recorded interviews from the library of congress or anywhere I can find them.
I remember discovering a local radio station when I was a kid that played old radio drama recordings and feeling like I was time traveling while listening. I had vinyl records of folk tale collections that I wore out. When books on tape started happening, it was like they were made for me, but all those cassette tapes… And then there came the iPod, and an audio junky found her crack pipe.
I’m not joking. At last count I had more than six hundred audiobooks. I listen to books every day. If I really like the narrator and the story, I’ll listen to books over and over the way people listen to music. There are certain narrators that I seek out and will listen to almost anything they read because I love the sound of their voices.
Listening to stories read aloud engages a different part of the brain than reading the written word. As a writer, I find that the way the story sounds to me is always more important than how it looks. I’ve taken to using dictation software to create some of my work and certain pieces, like Roy’s New Eye for example, were written specifically for narration. (Though that piece has a decidedly comedic edge to it and is meant to be an homage to classic radio horror stories.)
I started taking voice acting classes some time ago and have been gaining technical skills and acquiring equipment. I’ve begun narrating stories with a goal of going professional. I wrote and recorded a short flash piece titled, To Be Together Again, that I posted on my blog recently which I think is one of my best short stories.
Pamila thank you for giving an interview that is not only original but honest. You have said so much here.
The bulk of my stories are available on my websites, though I do have two stories on Powderburn Flash, one up at The Journal and one on At The Bijou.
The story at The Journal, She Got Hers, is one I think really represents the horror aspects of Bella Vista well.
Currently, I’m editing a Bella Vista Motel novel entitled, The Ballad of John Daniel. It’s the story of a local kid from Ozona with a beautiful voice, whose dreams of leaving Texas to become a professional musician are derailed when he picks up part-time handyman work at the Bella Vista Motel, and falls victim to its dark mystery.
My own links are my blog, Bella Vista and my main writers website, The Bella Vista Motel.
My audio short story, To Be Together Again is here.
And on Twitter, I am @mspamila.