by Jeffery Scott Sims


They say-- these must be those sinister, mysterious "they" who have all the answers for everybody else-- that the author should "write what he knows". Maybe that dictum serves for certain forms of literary endeavor, allowing for the establishment of a story background possessing a presumably welcome air of realism. I wouldn't know, for I write tales of the horrible and the fantastic, and outside of very narrow limits that rule scarcely seems to apply in my case. I pen works dealing with monsters, wizards, ghosts, and aliens, often set in faraway places, fabulous lands, even distant planets. Most of what I write about I don't know very much about, nor (despite recurrent claims) does anyone else. Possibly the rule, if it really be such, refers merely to incidentals, the little things one must get right lest the reader recoil in dismay or confusion before reaching the heart of the story. If that's all it means, then I grant the point, suppose I do my best to meet that minor condition, without giving it an awful lot of thought or fretting over it a great deal. Normally I'm concentrating more on conjuring up the gelatinous, greasy perversion of nature that insidiously stalks the doomed hero.

Of course I've read a boatload of those kinds of stories, mostly from the masters of the art, so I know plenty about that; also, looking back on my corpus to date, I note a tendency to employ striking real world locales whenever I can or wish, which leads me to the subject of this essay. I've set a big percentage of my stories in Arizona, where I've resided for many years; have traveled extensively for pleasure within the state; have incorporated picturesque and colorful details of my Arizona wanderings into my works. Arizona is a grand place, like no other, and it pleases me to fold chunks of it into my dire accounts.

My chief dictum in writing fiction is: "the story's the thing". Composing a whopper of a tale constitutes my first goal, my last, my only. I undertake to do that, and heaven help any fact that stands in my way. What that means in practice is that I use Arizona as a means to an end. Sometimes a chosen location is critical to the plot, other times subsidiary; often only a hint of the actual intrudes upon the fictional. More importantly, I recognize that scenery is subservient to story. My literary Arizona is malleable; I bend, adjust, and warp it to suit my needs.

This accords with my understanding that the supreme quality of fiction lies in the exercise of imagination. I love history, I've read many a mainstream novel, and genre stories, such as the detective tale, torn from the pages of common human concerns. Fine stuff, a lot of it, but for me the weird tale forms the pinnacle of imaginative writing, or of any kind. As a writer I enjoy inventing worlds, molding worlds, recreating this world as I see fit, all in the name of a pleasurable reading experience. My eerie Arizona satisfies these desires, is what I make of it.

Without any serious intent I find that, over the years of my professional career, I have devised my own private geography of Arizona, my own peculiar history for it. Here and there truth meets fiction; sometimes one parallels or mimics the other; just as likely, one may ignore or, I dare say, trample the other. Through this essay I want to explicate this process, showing what I've done with or to Arizona, how and why I've done it, where I've done it. I hope to achieve twin goals: explain myself, for the edification and amusement of my readers, and to spotlight the delightful charms of this most beautiful and fascinating state.

The Arizona Stories

Here follows a list of every story to date avowedly set in Arizona, with specific commentary, ranged by order of composition:

A Detour to Skull Valley

Skull Valley is a real place, an isolated village some miles off the main highway between Wickenburg and Prescott, in a watered valley surrounded by stark, barren mountains. I fairly accurately describe the geography and the key structures at the crossroads, although the ghostly attributes are all mine. Skull Valley is not a ghost town nor, to my knowledge, does its history include strange horrors. The loneliness of the area struck me hard during my first drive through, one often repeated for the scenery, and to catch a glimpse of wandering peacocks once owned by somebody there.


World famous Sedona surely needs no introduction. In this heavily poetic, if harrowing tale (my one big experiment with mixing poetry and prose) I allude to the scenic glory of the Red Rock region, to pretty Oak Creek, and of course the New Age kookiness which forms the thematic backdrop of the story. Also I present a particular location, the Wilson House on the Hill of Stars, of which more later.

Peril In the Red Zone

This, the lengthy story which brings together my most popular characters, Professor Anton Vorchek and Theresa Delaney, commences with a description of Vorchek's isolated house out in the Arizona desert. I generally based the locale on the wild territory of rocks and scrub west and north of Phoenix. A bit of the White Tanks Mountains factors in, and the rough area toward Wickenburg. The little college where Vorchek sporadically operates, first mentioned here, derives from Glendale Community College, a place I had dealings with years ago.

Canyon Diablo

Real enough, Canyon Diablo, but I chose the title only because I liked the name, custom made for a creepy tale. Actually the terrain described is the weird badlands found in nearby Little Painted Desert County Park, north of Winslow. Hiking down from the road into that drear landscape quickly disconnects one from the civilized world.

The Man Who Sought Blug

While the critical scenes of this nasty work are set within a diseased psyche or in a far off never land, we again pay a visit to Vorchek's combination home and private laboratory on the high hill in the desert.

The Legend of the Vulture Mine

The Vulture Mine is a modern day tourist attraction with a colorful history dating back to the 1860s. Henry Wickenburg found gold there, made it big, got a town named for him. Visitors today pay to see the old buildings, the Hanging Tree, the remnants of mining machinery. Despite what the story suggests, no one is allowed inside the mine, and the vile legend is entirely my own fabrication, as are the lurking monstrosities still lying in wait.

Cathedral Rock

One of the most striking formations of the Red Rock Country overlooking Sedona, Cathedral Rock is a prime tourist destination, regularly climbed and photographed. It can be seen from all sides, is beautiful from every angle, especially from the banks of Oak Creek. New Agers tell their unimaginative stories about it; this tale offers my inordinately gloomier spin.

At the Bottom of Montezuma Well

Montezuma Well is a spectacular sinkhole adjoining lovely Wet Beaver Creek, containing perennial water and Indian ruins, all of this an outlying portion of Montezuma Castle National Monument. The introduction to this story of lurking evil describes the place in perfect textbook fashion; go there and see the identical spot as I relate it. It will be well worth the trip. The seafood restaurant in Phoenix, where Professor Vorchek and Theresa come together at the end to ruminate on what has occurred, is no less than the popular Pappadeaux.

A Nature Scene

This story incorporates in its setting a range of sites scattered along the river in the Verde Valley. It begins in Tuzigoot National Monument, location of an amazing Indian ruin, more importantly the Tavasci Marsh, which I describe fairly accurately, although making it seem larger and more isolated than it is. The tale concludes at what I call the Starrett house, source of the insidious nastiness plaguing the region, which is based on an old cabin atop the bluffs overlooking the Verde River in nearby Dead Horse Ranch State Park. The actual cabin is just off the park road, a mere stroll from the campground.

Under the Natural Bridge

The introduction to this story of ancient weirdness presents a detailed and largely correct assessment of the Payson region and the valley of Pine Creek, before focusing on the heart of the tale set at the stupendous Tonto Natural Bridge, located in the state park of the same name. This geological wonder must be seen to be believed. It is an incredible place, so big and deep that one might, at first glance, mistake it for a cave. I accentuate that for effect, also considerably exaggerating the difficulty of approaching the area. In fact an excellent paved road (terminating at the visitor center and parking lot) descends into the gorge where lies the natural bridge.

Vorchek's Vacation

In this story I explore the loveliness of Oak Creek Canyon, along with the adjacent Sedona region, together my favorite stomping ground in Arizona. Only bad luck has prevented me from crossing paths there with Professor Vorchek. All of the Sedona references contained within this story are accurate, right down to the sidewalk stand selling cheese steak sandwiches. The hike to Thomas Point in the canyon, the scenery along the creek, are true to life, as I can abundantly testify. The Creekside Resort is a compound of real places in the canyon, with much weight given to the Garland Lodge, which indeed advertises the "American Plan".

The Seal of Jacob Bleek

Another story beginning at Vorchek's retreat in the wilds outside Phoenix.

The Witch's Cave

While the story is sufficiently horrid, its generation still amuses me. Despite fleeting references to the Verde Valley and Cottonwood, the main setting of this story is based on wholly inaccurate impressions of the village of Cherry, derived from information gleaned before ever I went there.

The Mystery of the Old Church

Despite the opening which provides a few genuine details of Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon, most of this story's geography is wholly imaginary. Set in the forest north-west of the canyon, the references to commercial development are mercifully false, although inspired by genuine atrocities in the vicinity of Sedona. The loathsomely haunted church is entirely my creation.

The Old House on the Hill

Supposedly set in Sedona, the geography of this story is completely imaginary, as befits the warped nature of the tale, I suppose. The descriptions of the houses on the mysterious hill are drawn from all quarters, including many old neighborhoods in Phoenix.

The Mystery of the Inner Basin Lodge

Although the volcanic Inner Basin of the San Francisco Peaks overlooking Flagstaff is totally real, practically nothing else is in this story. There certainly is no lodge at the top reached by a tram, although I borrowed elements of the Snowbowl ski area when devising the locale.

The Diary of Philip Wyler

I set the obscurely documented story of Mr. Wyler's last days in Fairbank, Arizona, a 1940s era industrial site. Well, Fairbank is-- or should I say was-- a real town, established during the state's pioneer heyday, which gradually faded away until now it is a bona fide ghost town, complete with a huddle of old buildings and a cemetery on a hill, all by the pretty San Pedro River. My history of the complex is hopelessly faux. I chose the site for my tale because, upon first visiting it, I was struck by the sense of something lost, a feeling of explanations being in order. That feeling suited perfectly the story I wanted to write.

The Return of Vanek

Arizona receives constant mention in this story, without much local detail. There is the Air Force base where lands the space shuttle, derived extremely vaguely from Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix; more information about Vorchek's "historic" house, from which the lights of Phoenix can be seen creeping closer through the years; and mention of Theresa Delaney's fashionable Scottsdale apartment, she necessarily residing in that most upscale of Arizona cities.

My War Against the Invisibles

This tale of alien invasion references a host of real places: Munds Canyon, Oak Creek, Page Springs, and Cornville, the latter two little villages in scenic territory near the creek. Munds Canyon, however, at the edge of the Red Rock Country, is quite a ways off. It is impossible to square the geography of the story with reality. I wrote it that way because it felt right.

At the End of a Dusty Road

In this one an old timer advises the narrator, "You might take the back road... the old road to Harshaw, that connects you to Washington Camp, and then heads down to Dusquene, and from there to Lochiel, and via the border road leads you all the way past the southern edge of the Huachucas Mountains, and if you got that far it's just a skip and a jump to Sierra Vista, from where you roll in to Willcox and you're on your way." All of that is perfectly correct. I know, because I undertook that long and delightful scenic drive on dirt roads through wild scenery and past those rudimentary ghost towns. It is not a short cut, as suggested in the story, nor does my involved description of Lochiel correspond with the real place at all. That town is best deemed "depressed" rather than ghostly.

The Willing of the Man

Commencing in Miss Delaney's Scottsdale apartment, this peculiar story contains a crucial scene specifically located by Elephant Mountain, a genuine and notable geological feature gracing the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in the stark wilderness north of Phoenix. I describe the region accurately, except for the one odd addition vital to the plot.

The Revenge of the Past

Here I take my revenge on the rampant urban development plaguing the valley round about Phoenix. The setting is the once empty plain on the east side of the White Tanks Mountains, now overwhelmed by housing subdivisions pressing against the wilderness. I cruised those streets early one morning to soak up local color-- incredibly drab color-- for this story.

The Flaw in the Image

The doomed hero shoots test pictures during a foray to Oak Creek Canyon. Also, the unnamed desert location where he first discovers sinister irregularities is the fairly described White Tanks Mountains Regional Park. The camera shop mentioned still operates in Sun City.

The Old Camera

Similar in theme to the previous story, this one contains scenes derived from that same camera shop, and another glancing reference to Professor Vorchek's home outside Phoenix.

The House On the Hill of Stars

The setting of this story, and its vivid historical background of horror and mystery, so caught hold of my imagination that I almost believe them myself. The haunted history is phony, the setting to a great degree dead on. The Wilson House-- the House on the Hill of Stars-- is the Frye House, a real and spooky looking edifice located within the boundaries of what is now Red Rock State Park near Sedona. It was known as the House of Apache Fire after the campfires of the local Indian laborers who built it, which moniker I transformed into my weirder title. In the real world one may reach the actual house by parking at the visitor center, hiking across the valley, crossing Oak Creek, then climbing the bluff on the far side. Except that I intensify the isolation, and present a more habitable dwelling than fact allows, my version is reliable.

Into the Vortex

This uncharacteristic Vorchek story begins with the trappings of reality, starting at the outskirts of Sedona. The immediately following scenes, covering the early phase of the expedition after frightful knowledge, folds together two of the most gorgeous aspects of Oak Creek Canyon: the Wilson Canyon Trail, and the Wilson Mountain trail. I describe them truly, fudging only in pretending that the twain are one. Actually these are distinct trails, for despite commencing from the same point they quickly diverge, never to meet again. My fictional account hugs realism until the "saddle" of the latter hike is attained, beyond that everything being sheer fantasy. There is no Mathers homestead, with or without tragic history.

From the Mud of Grasshopper Point

Everything I have to say about Grasshopper Point, that wonderful (and too popular) swimming hole in Oak Creek Canyon, is 100% correct. In case it isn't obvious, I made up the stuff about inhuman survivals buried there.

A Chance Result

I set this tale of prehistoric menace in isolated Secret Canyon, one of many fine scenic destinations in the Red Rock Country of Sedona, but the description given somewhat more resembles nearby Lost Canyon, complete with Indian ruins. Also I exaggerate the archeological leavings, which maybe derive more from the distant sites of Honanki and Palatki.

On the South Face of the Medicine Man Mountain

Here a simple dichotomy: the beautiful region of the San Francisco Peak's Inner Basin is accurately portrayed, the rest-- meaning the south face of Humphrey's Peak, tallest mountain in Arizona-- made to order by me for weird adventure. Of course that climb, harrowing enough by my standards (I've done the safer west face), is not as difficult as claimed in the story. In an age when common tourists scale Everest, there can not be any mountain in this country that has not been climbed for decades, on any of its faces.

The Big Sedona Bash

Scrubby Scheurmann Mountain near Sedona, site of foolish Jerry Ethelred's mansion, can be found on a map and climbed, but hikers will not discover his estate thereabouts. I note that the ill-fated Ethelred built a resort in the Red Rock Country, this annoying datum being based on two intrusive and genuine developments of that kind.

Queer Musings On Reality

Unfortunate George Kestrels' new house on the outskirts of Cave Creek is suggested by development on the northern edge of that town, an area pressing against wilderness. It is just about the same area referred to in "The Willing of the Man".

Among the Hoodoos

This tale of occultic mayhem presents my fantasized, much lonelier version of Chiricahua National Monument. One of the glories of Arizona, it is a land of lovely forested mountains and thousands of awesome rock formations-- hoodoos-- many of them pretty creepy looking. I've never seen one move, but I don't trust them.

An Ending, Orchestrated

This tale of apocalyptic lunacy ends with a view inspired by the White Tanks Mountains west of Phoenix. It begins at a big shopping complex, based heavily on Arrowhead Mall in the northern part of the valley.

The Journey Through the Black Book

This novel of weird time travel begins and ends at Professor Vorchek's isolated home, which is more fully described here as an old ranch house. The provided detail I derived from many such structures around the state, most of them perhaps not really so old. Arizona still has lots of operating ranches.

In the Dragoon Station Annex

In this tale of invaders from other dimensions-- or is it beyond the grave?-- Professor Vorchek and Theresa set up shop in the shadow of the very real and impressive Dragoon Mountains, famous for being the stronghold of the Indian chief Cochise. The Dragoon Station (not the Annex!) is also very real, and quite eye catching, but known to the wide world as the Apache Generating Station.

The Shack On Escudilla Mountain

I hiked to the top of this wonderful mountain, had to write a story about it. Most elements of the hike described, including the weather, reflect the reality of my trip. The ghostly shack, on the other hand, and its cruel history are concoctions, although I borrowed tidbits of the latter from stories of famous Arizona outlaws.

The House On Anderson Mesa

As with the previous tale, my hike near Flagstaff out of beautiful Sandys Canyon up onto the forested mesa immediately inspired a tale. Most of it is pretty accurate, except for the spooky house, which was suggested by a glimpse of an isolated dwelling near Marshall Lake, way on the other side of Anderson Mesa. On a misty, rainy day I peered across the top of the canyon, spied dimly seen hikers on the far side, wove this moment into the story.

The Enemy From Nowhere

Think of this story of a particularly weird alien invasion as a tribute to the White Tanks Mountains, scene of many great hikes over the years. Everything contained therein properly reflects reality, up until the hero enters the strange zone.

The Kingdom of the Anasazi

A greatly expanded version of "Canyon Diablo", this one more accurately describes the actual region of the claimed setting.

The Granite Dells Mystery

After years of ignoring vague allusions to the place, I discovered the Granite Dells, that colorful wonderland of jumbled stone outside Prescott, and was amazed by them. Scarcely did I set foot within those precincts than I felt a scary story coming on. The picture I paint accords with the real thing in all significant details.

Secondary Influences

Before I go on, let me discuss for a moment another class of tales, those without pretense of being set in Arizona, yet containing scenes clearly inspired by the scenery of the state. I will just offer some representative examples.

The climax of my novel, The Journey of Jacob Bleek, leads that morose hero to the fabled Mountain of the Gods, located in a great valley somewhere in unknown lands across the western sea. That mountain is an imaginatively enhanced version of Courthouse Butte, a stunning flat-topped formation of the Red Rock Country around Sedona. Take the real thing, blow it up to full scale mountain size, and you have my vision of what Bleek tackled at the end of his titanic quest.

In "The Ghost Town" I uncharacteristically change all the names, but the locale is derived from the crumbling remains of Fairbank and, more obviously, Millville, with its nearby stone ruins, both hard by the San Pedro River.

"Alone With the Night Crew", "A Late Night Errand", and "An Apparent Case of Disappearance" are all based on an actual Glendale shopping center, including a big Wal-Mart, which I thought an eerie place by night.

"The Witch's Cave" appears here as well, because many of the details presented for fictional Copper Hill are taken from the actual Jerome, a magnificent specimen of a former ghost town now come gloriously to life.

Many of my accounts of Dyrezanian wizardry and Jacob Bleek's wanderings, despite being set in faraway lands or fantasy scapes, are derived from general impressions of Arizona scenery.

The Technique of Inventive Alteration

Following in the gigantic footsteps of H.P. Lovecraft, many weird writers choose to create wholly fictional settings for their stories, albeit settings somehow connected to or otherwise linked to the real. Lovecraft remains the finest example. His Arkham, Innsmouth, and Kingsport are inventions-- there are no such places on earth-- but any knowledgeable fan knows they closely reflect the New England he loves. Occasionally I have operated in similar fashion, as with "The Ghost Town" and "The Witch's Cave", but that is not my primary way. Early on, without thinking about it too hard, I decided to employ real places, actual place names that can be found on maps, and to invest those locations with macabre significance. It tickled my fancy to build imaginative structures directly from locations in which I have trod, so that when visiting them I and my readers may enjoy them on dual lines: the normal pleasures of the journey, and the added benefit of the unique "in the know" pleasures, realizing this or that spectacular, strange, or terrible event "happened here".

I tend to strip away the unnecessary and the mundane. Gone or ignored are the rest stops, the public rest rooms, the well tended roads, and the weekend crowds of tourists. My take on the realistic aspects invariably becomes more lonely, more shadowed, harder to reach, more difficult from which to escape. Seldom, however, do I perpetrate literary violence upon the essentials of the scenery. I add just enough to make the plot. Venture to these places, and they will be recognized for what they are.

For me this fictional overlay upon Arizona does indeed heighten the thrill of returning to my favorite places. When I venture once again to Chiricahua National Monument, or the Verde Valley, or Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon, Escudilla Mountain, and numerous other vistic sites that draw their thousands upon thousands of annual tourists, I don't see what others see. To be precise, I see what they see, and very much more. I lose nothing, gain a great deal, as can all who read my stories. I'm not trying to fool anyone, so for what it is worth I hope no one has ever been tricked into taking any of my fake horror histories as truth. No one needs me for that, there being plenty who perpetrate that sort of nonsense for a living!

How does my technique work for me? As some of the commentaries in the previous sections suggest, it's mainly a matter of the inspiration inherent in special scenes. On this point I fully appreciate Lovecraft. As he loves Colonial architecture, so I love nature, I love the wilderness, I love the cultural trappings of fading history and prehistory. Much of my free time (when not writing) is spent out of doors among the scenic wonders of this state. I've traveled a lot within Arizona, taking in the popular spots, bumping down dirt roads in a tired pickup, picking my way along sketchy trails to lonely overlooks. Both for the joy of it and, at times, for profit I've indulged in the wreckage of the past which whispers to the archeologist. Arizona offers an incredible amount in all these categories. There is a little bit of everything here, from high snowy mountains to plunging canyons, baking deserts to gushing waterfalls, cool forests to rolling plains, not to mention the freaks of geology that never fail to stimulate my literarily morbid mind. The relics of history loom at hand on every side: old towns that died, old towns that barely survived, picturesque ranches, creaky windmills, shacks disintegrating on windswept bluffs. Equally notable is the debris of prehistory, those dusty remnants of stone and pottery underfoot, the desolate fortresses atop the crags and wedded with cliff faces. For someone like me, every one of these forlorn items is a potential story.

My Arizona

So I combine the shards of actuality with my literary phantasms. What kind of Arizona, in the process, have I created? One considerably more threatening than the real one, to be sure, but also a rather chaotic vision. Bear in mind that I tend to approach each story as an individual, a unit standing by itself, with little attention devoted to squaring one tale with another. "The story's the thing"; that is, the one I'm writing now. If the latest composition runs roughshod over the last, so be it.

Nevertheless, throughout my many Arizona tales a hazy form of eerie history takes shape. I can break it down into these eras:

1) Prehuman Prehistory. During early ages of the earth, measured in geological time, strange forces (gods, entities, aliens) from beyond space, or time, or the known dimensions, came to this land, dwelling here, operating here, or just passing through. They left traces of themselves that crop up in various manners in such stories as "Cathedral Rock", "The House On the Hill of Stars", "Sedona", and "From the Mud of Grasshopper Point".

2) Early Human Prehistory. The first human inhabitants of Arizona learned, via subtle arcane mechanisms, about those beings who came before, amassed much lore about them, often surprisingly accurate. In stories such as "At the Bottom of Montezuma Well" and "A Chance Result" Professor Vorchek derives much of his knowledge from that transmitted from those olden times, or investigates their remaining relics.

3) Late Prehistory. Indian tribes such as the Yotipai, through their wise men (including the oft cited Tonipah), transmitted much of the lore of the ancients to the white men who entered their lands.

4) Pioneer Arizona. Countless stories-- for instance, "Under the Natural Bridge", "The Mystery of the Old Church", "Into the Vortex"-- hearken back to the good old days, when isolated ranchers and homesteaders found themselves facing, not only drought and savages, but the ancient horrors that still lurk among those sweeping landscapes. Sometimes these lonely folk dabbled in Indian magic to their detriment (in retrospect I notice that white men never get it right); other times they simply set up shop in the wrong place, where creeping nastiness lay in wait. In addition, the pioneers were remarkably fecund when it came to producing ghosts, as in "The Shack On Escudilla Mountain" and "The House On Anderson Mesa".

5) Modern Arizona. The old horrors still fester, and fresh ones spring up at whiles. The New Age beliefs focused on areas such as Sedona and its environs are tepid reflections of this monstrous reality. This Arizona is the special preserve of Professor Anton Vorchek, who strides through most of these tales investigating the hateful irruptions of bizarre and murderous powers that plague his world. With relish he chases hideous entities or stumbles upon unquiet graves. One may presume that Arizona is not unique in the number and variety of weirdies and weirdoes that haunt it, but if this be the case, then this our earth is truly a strange and dangerous place.

The Last Word For Now

Arizona, I predict, will continue to bask in the glory or suffer the slings of my tales. I have used so much of the state already, but there are certain juicy locales I have not yet despoiled. Each barren mountain, black mesa, gloomy gorge, or dank forest promises a story. All I have to do is receive the inspiration with which Arizona overflows, amass my materials, and blend the magical brew.

Return to Essays Page