NOTES ON THE COLLECTION EERIE ARIZONA

by Jeffery Scott Sims

Introduction

What I would do here is discuss the genesis and developmental process which led to my short story collection Eerie Arizona. Some of this material may usefully supplement or augment a reading of the tales; much else, for those interested in the practice of writing and publishing, may satisfy a craving for the "nuts and bolts" aspects of production. Such information can conceivably aid others in projects of their own.

Personal and Literary Intersection

While all my writings emphasize the strange and the fantastic, through the passage of years I began to set progressively more of my tales amidst Arizona locales. This wasn't the fruit of a cunning plan; indeed, I was well into the trend before I noticed it myself. Many moons ago in fact, during a previous lengthy interlude in Texas, I spun a handful of stories, Lovecraft style, based around the imaginary town of Granton, derived from the real Granbury, TX. (Incidentally, one of those, "The Mad One," I later rewrote with an Arizona setting, in which form it has been published.)

Having moved to Arizona in 1999, I fell in love with the state as with no other place before. Always a great traveler when circumstances permitted, I shortly commenced exploring the state, sating myself in the unique and fabulous scenery of what became my preferred home. I found out that there's a lot more to Arizona than the Grand Canyon, incredibly more (and by the way, I have obviously written a weird Grand Canyon tale, but it could not be included in this volume at present). During the course of these wanderings my literary bent naturally fastened on certain images, sites, relics, not always the most popular or famous. Something, often a minor facet of a place--names, peculiarities, imaginative possibilities--would by chance seize upon my mind and lead to inspiration out of the blue. From this, occasionally, would arise a story.

The first of its kind was "A Detour to Skull Valley," a brooding mystery piece sparked mainly by the picturesque name of that very real village. From this start I, with no overarching scheme, set in motion what eventually became defining characteristics of a major chunk of my literary corpus: stories set in Arizona, and moreover stories utilizing genuine locales. This process dramatically accelerated when I came to write the Professor Vorchek tales, and much later those of Sterk Fontaine; two heroes residing in and chiefly operating in Arizona.

Not back then, nor now, have I ever thought of my regional stories as disguised travelogues. Most of the locales I creatively shaped to a degree--even to an astounding degree--in order to further the tales in question. I've tinkered with names, moved mesas, diverted streams when the stories demanded, and I've plunked down spooky old houses in the oddest situations. The play's the thing, yet in time the Arizona aspect loomed larger, grew more important, and I did pay it greater, more studious attention.

Conceiving Eerie Arizona

Across the years those stories have sold well, and the Arizona grouping includes some I consider my best. In the nature of things, however, it has ever been the case--perhaps especially with modern literary markets--that even well regarded published stories fall through the cracks, ultimately vanishing from sight. Anthologies go out of print, magazines reach minute audiences or fail outright, and the stories disappear, slipping into limbo as if they never were. That has happened enough times to cause distress. Faced with said realities, I pondered the idea of republishing myself a choice selection of weird Arizona tales.

Having envisioned the project, and taking it very personally, I proposed to manage every step of the production myself, yet another grand learning experience. I did possess knowledge of these matters, having put out two prior collections of sundry stories, Science and Sorcery and Science and Sorcery II, under the imprint of the Press of Dyrezan. So I knew a thing or two about fashioning the documents, and I already had, so to speak, a willing publisher. That was the easy part.

Designing Eerie Arizona

There are two basic steps to designing a book: preparing the interior layout, and fashioning a suitable cover. What do these efforts entail?

1. To anyone accustomed to writing, arranging and organizing the text should seem a simple matter. In this case, pick the stories, line them up, savagely proofread for grammar, page numbers, fonts, etc., and you've got it. Yes, but . . . it all has to be just so in order to look professional. I understand there are special software programs that make this phase a cinch. Surely they live up to their promise. I wouldn't know, choosing to prepare layout manually with my standard typing tool, Microsoft Word. It does the job--really, really--but boy do you have to pay attention. Each section of text, the individual stories as well as the front and back matter, requires its own settings to allow everything to properly fit together. A slight oversight, a tiny stumble, leads to misnumbered pages, vanishing headers, sections encroaching on one another. Conventional proofing I do beforehand; once I've pieced together the text, I'm mainly searching repeatedly for formatting mistakes. Despite my best initial efforts, I subsequently catch plenty.

2. Virtually every "Perfect and Ultimate Rules for Self-Publishing" I've looked into cautions against designing your own book cover. "Leave it to the experts!" they scream. Which, necessarily, I accept as a challenge. My Science and Sorcery volumes bore simple star field designs (from my own photographic collection) which required relatively little effort. Eerie Arizona demanded much more. On that front cover I wanted eerie, and Arizona.

I studied hundreds of photographs from my travel files for ideas. None of those were quite right, but the ideas they did produce. Having settled on a general theme, I specially shot a bunch of pictures, using myself as the model, the human centerpiece. That batch I finally winnowed to one. This is it, shot in the White Tanks County Park near Phoenix:

Eerie Arizona

What caught my eye was the naturally menacing aspect of a couple of those jumping cholla (a characteristic AZ cactus), which already appear vaguely monstrous. The picture wouldn't do as it stood: too wide, dull background, a discernable road sign off to the left, and not enough outright "scare." Therefore I cropped, squeezed the image a tad, and commencing the harrowing work with photographic layers (mainly difficult because new to me) I replaced the sky with a star field shot at Sheep Crossing in the White Mountains. The fresh result:

Eerie Arizona

We advance. For all of the heavy duty tinkering with imagery I employed Zoner Studio Pro, an excellent program for the purpose. It has much touted competitors, some better known, but I've used this one for advanced photo editing many years and am comfortable with it.

To make a long story short, I then applied layer after layer, gradually inserting new creepy images and adding the vital cover text. The creepy stuff consisted of spider and ant elements, plus a good old AZ rattlesnake for spice . . . and the family cat? Yes, Samantha contributed her yellow eyes. Here is her utilized New Year's picture, from which I cropped only the two wee bits:

Eerie Arizona

You would never recognize her from the finished product, on which I also adjusted curves, white balance, light and shadow, etc., until I had exactly what I desired:

Eerie Arizona

That's my front cover. For the back cover I wanted something fairly plain, that wouldn't obscure the sprawling text with clutter. I used a deliberately distorted shot of dawn scenery, with altered color, taken in the Red Rock Country near Sedona. It looks like this:

Eerie Arizona

Tie it all together and I've got my book. That's how I did it. There are other ways. This one, while a lot of trouble at times, works for me.

The Stories

I chose with care the tales to be included. Besides hoping that each one would entertain, I desired stories that truly made something of their regional color, offering a taste, however fanciful, of the actual locales. It isn't my plan to discuss the plots and characters here; I advise reading the book, and for a taste of what it offers consult the expanded table of contents here. In this essay, rather, I will focus on the settings of the tales; I'll write about Arizona, and how it inspires me.

"The Ghost Town" derives from a tour of the site of Millville, by the banks of the San Pedro River in the south-eastern part of the state. The stone remnants of this 19th Century mining town resemble in places massive prehistoric ruins, fostering in my literary mind the notion of something mysterious, unusually lost, as if there had once been more to it than history allowed.

The Ghost Town

"At the End of a Dusty Road" is a wildly imaginative product stemming from a drive through the lonely border village of Lochiel, approachable only via an immensely long and variable dirt road. It's about as far into nowhere as one can get. I recall Lochiel as a rather depressed backwater, but despite initial appearances isn't really a ghost town.

At the End of a Dusty Road

"A Detour to Skull Valley" in real life leads one to a tiny village way out in the boonies far off the main highway, but based on my numerous visits and passages through the years it isn't nearly as scary a place as the story suggests. The spooky name and the isolation naturally gave rise to ominous ideas. The various locales referenced are genuine.

A Detour to Skull Valley

"The Shack on Escudilla Mountain," with its make believe dwelling and fantasized history, sits atop a lofty volcanic peak of the White Mountains. The beauty and solitude of the region make it one of my favorite travel destinations, the goal of an annual pilgrimage. Unfortunately Escudilla has since been ravaged by fire--the lookout tower mentioned in the tale was destroyed--but the story describes it as I saw it then.

The Shack on Escudilla Mountain

Crucial geographical details of "The Witch's Cave" derive from a dream, the location from then hearsay knowledge of the village of Cherry in the Black Hills overlooking the Verde Valley, but the main descriptive source for the imaginary settlement is the ever popular Jerome, the ghost town that has truly returned to life, strikingly perched on the slopes of those mountains and visible from far across the valley. I've been to Jerome too many times to count. I never get tired of it.

The Witch's Cave

"Sedona." What to say: for the seeker of natural beauty, glorious Sedona constitutes the heart of Arizona, maybe the center of the universe, as many a tale of mine may indicate. I've gone hiking in the surrounding Red Rock Country for years, still doing it, still finding fabulous novelty and grandeur. I've set more stories in and around Sedona than in any other place, nor am I inclined to stop.

Sedona

"My War Against the Invisibles" drops names such as Woods Canyon and Page Springs, and they're real enough, though it would be difficult to follow the events of the story on an official map. The canyon, poking into a fringe of the Red Rock Country, is plentifully wild as described, but it's a roundabout trek from there to the miniscule hamlet of Page Springs, by Oak Creek way down in the Verde Valley.

My War Against the Invisibles

"The Diary of Philip Wyler" takes us back to south-eastern Arizona and the valley of the San Pedro, not far from the setting of "The Ghost Town." This time I employ the abandoned site of Fairbank, today a notable attraction. Fairbank was a going concern well into the 20th Century, which suggested the curious chronology of the tale.

The Diary of Philip Wyler

With "Among the Hoodoos" this volume commences its recounting of the adventures of Professor Anton Vorchek, the man with a penchant for investigating strange mysteries while gadding about the most out of the way corners of Arizona. Translation: settings, occasionally obscure, ripped from some of my most enjoyable outings. This story, of course, grows readily from my several trips to the astounding Chiricahua National Monument, first visited by me decades ago. The tale can't do justice to that geological wonderland.

Among the Hoodoos

"A Chance Result" leads Vorchek and his fans into the depths of the Red Rock Country, where I borrow the place name of Secret Canyon but employ geographical details in the main from nearby Lost Canyon, an area stuffed with majestic scenery and impressive Indian ruins. The dirt road into that region has deteriorated dreadfully in recent years, so the site is even more difficult to reach than it was when I hiked it.

A Chance Result

Fact and fancy collide with a crash in "The Mystery of the Inner Basin Lodge." The San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff are the gigantic remnants of an even vaster volcano that blew its top Krakatoa style ages ago, and the lovely Inner Basin is actually the ancient crater of that exploded cone. There's no lodge inside, but the Snowbowl skiing complex with its lifts on the outer slopes of the Peaks gave me the idea.

The Mystery of the Inner basin Lodge

"The Legend of the Vulture Mine" is set on the site of Arizona's most famous gold and silver mine, dating from the earliest days of the Territory. Until recently a tourist attraction, I visited there some years ago, and in the tale describe accurately the surface features. The subterranean details are highly imaginative, the horrid back story entirely so.

The Legend of the Vulture Mine

Real world dismay over rampant development in the Valley of the Sun around Phoenix, especially where it has encroached on the rugged White Tanks Mountains, inspired "The Revenge of the Past." Maybe the story is overly naughty, but it's just meant as good fun. The White Tanks are preserved for posterity in a huge county park, and one may hike the trails along the desert ravines that provide scenic literary detail.

The Revenge of the Past

Concerning "The House on Anderson Mesa," I advise wasting no time seeking that house, for I made it up, but the picturesque mesa is accessible, best reached via the pretty--and enormously popular--hike through Sandys Canyon, as described in the tale. I take pains to create a word picture of a remarkably interesting volcanic extension of the canyon, which I oversaw from the forested mesa on a rainy, misty morning, precisely as does the hero of the story.

The House on Anderson Mesa

Except for the creepiness of the plot, "The House on the Hill of Stars" contains precious few digressions from Arizona reality. The location isn't quite as remote as I indicate, being a thinly veiled description of the abandoned Frye House (known as the House of Apache Fire, so-called after the night-time campfires of the Indian workmen who built it), presently protected atop its steep hill on the far side of Oak Creek inside Red Rock State Park. It's quite a sight, one which made a powerful impression on me, immediately fueling the percolation of sinister story ideas.

The House on the Hill of Stars

"Into the Vortex" leads the reader from Sedona, through the Red Rock Country and into the wilderness hinterland beyond. The tale plays fast and loose with geography, combining details drawn from hikes in Wilson Canyon and up Wilson Mountain, with descriptive passages mixing scenery from the lonely plateaus beyond both rims of Oak Creek Canyon. The mysterious cave is wholly imaginary, but there are plenty of dark and spooky openings like it in Arizona, be they natural or forgotten mines.

Into the Vortex

Finale

Crammed as Arizona is with scenic and historic goodies, the volume Eerie Arizona can only offer the merest taste of the state's magnificence. I have many more regional tales in my bag of tricks, and hope to produce more. In reading the sixteen tales of the weird and fantastic contained in my book, I wish the reader to take unsettling delight in the stories, and find his interest piqued by what Arizona has in store. The latter has certainly proved true in my case; fervent interest showing no signs of fading.


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