THE CURIOUS HISTORY OF PROFESSOR VORCHEK

by Jeffery Scott Sims

Introduction

Among my published stories, my most popular creation by far has been the character of Professor Anton Vorchek, that determined investigator of strange mysteries, devoted to uncovering the hidden horrors of the modern world. It pleases me that I have devised a serial character who apparently possesses some literary appeal. I also admit to a mild surprise as to how it all worked out, for you see, I never intended it to happen. It wasn't the result of cunning authorial planning. Vorchek accumulated, so to speak, came to life by degrees, acquired narrative accouterments, only in time developed into the full blown persona as I and my readers know him now. I suspect that is not the standard way. It suggests to me that I have something, hopefully something entertaining, to explain.

Here I shall attempt to encapsulate all things Vorchek: the odd particulars of his invention, his employment as a narrative device, his relation to other, ostensibly similar, character types. As always when I compose an essay about my own works, I trust that the material offered will enhance the experience of reading about his bizarre adventures, perhaps as well provide insights into the--for me--fascinating writing process.

The Creation of Vorchek

As far as words on the page are concerned, Vorchek was born in January of 2003, initially appearing in the short story "Realization: a Tale of the True Theory." Except, of course, that he doesn't really appear in it. That piece, the first person account of a gullible researcher's descent into madness (and by the way, conceived as a nod to Poe's "The Imp of the Perverse"), gets down to business when the doomed narrator confronts "that damnable manuscript of Anton Vorchek."

You see, the good professor isn't actually a character in the story. The hero reads, and is driven insane by, a near anonymous lunatic screed entitled The Machinations of Our Visitors, supposed to recount the nefarious activities of infiltrating alien beings. Nothing in the story demands the reality of any of this. Professor Vorchek, as a man, takes his bow solely in a crazy dream of the hero. "Realization" offers no legitimate facts about the fellow. It's a one-off story and, for all that it deals with Vorchek, that should have been that. The Vorchek saga continued just because, on a whim, I chose to re-use the name in the next story.

Lurking in the Background

I simply liked the sound of the name, so I used it again. "A Critique of Vorchek's Holobiologia" purports to be a book review of another peculiar work, this an obscure scientist's delvings into morbid matters concerning the grim truth of life after death. Again, Vorchek does not appear in the flesh, but his reality is affirmed, chiefly by the indication that he has mysteriously disappeared since the publication of his creepy tome. Also, despite the critic's snide insinuations, the reader this time may be led to conclude that Vorchek knows of what he writes, that the hideous claims in his book are genuine.

In "Langley's Painting," the still unseen Vorchek corresponds with the narrator, delivering to him key pieces of the puzzle that serve to explicate the harrowing events of the story. Now there is no question that Vorchek is some kind of credible scholar of the weird, a man whom one, when facing supernatural horror, must take seriously.

Launching Vorchek as Hero

The foregoing tales serve as stepping stones to the moment when Vorchek at last strides confidently onto stage in "Peril in the Red Zone." This story, which also introduces his regular companion Theresa Delaney, offers the first proper description of the man: "a tall, thin, angular gentleman, dressed in a stained white smock, with dark hair turned iron-gray at the temples, and a hawk-face in which the sharp nose predominated. The thin lips of his harsh mouth pursed primly above the strong chin, which sported a small, neat beard also tending toward the gray. Piercing black eyes loomed inquisitively behind round wire-framed lenses." More important to the Vorchek canon, the piece establishes the kind of man he is.

Professor Anton Vorchek is a scholar of vague, possibly dubious academic background, ostensibly working out of a small college in the area of Phoenix, Arizona. Not highly regarded there or by his peers, he does teach at whiles, maintaining an office at the establishment, but much of his work is performed at his isolated old house, out in the desert north-west of the city. An historic structure approached via lonely dirt road, antiquely furnished and ornamented with peculiar objects from around the world, it incorporates his private laboratory dedicated to arcane purposes.

So what does Vorchek do with himself? "I have devoted most of my life to the study of the unknown, the unsuspected, and the unimaginable. It is my passion, rather than my vocation." He is a student of the weird, with a penchant for anthropological matters, yet one who pursues any scientific mystery verging on the inexplicable or the uncanny. His taste in topics tends to keep him on the outs with his more conventional colleagues.

Developing the Character

In planning the composition of "Peril" I had already given much thought to what I wanted to do with Vorchek, and as things turned out I did fashion a template generally adhered to in the many subsequent tales. I conceived him, somewhat, in the vein of the several "occult detectives" of macabre fiction, akin to the John Silence and Carnacki types, though with an emphasis on his scientific bent and a preference for what I think of as Lovecraftian mysteries. Vorchek, however, constitutes a deliberate reaction to his forebears, in that he is not a "do-gooder" at heart. Vorchek heads no agency founded to help others afflicted by the supernatural or the supernormal; rather, he operates mainly for his own purposes, and those chiefly involve the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake. He is a scientist first, a decent bloke second, and his obsession with knowledge tends to trump his fundamentally congenial nature. In certain striking cases his callousness practically paints him as the monster of the piece.

Vorchek is a dabbler, involving himself in all manner of weirdness, but he is always a stout proponent of the scientific method, and nobody's fool. A recurrent theme of his stories highlights a contrast between his dismissal of popular claims for the supernatural, at which he mocks and sneers, and the much more terrifying truth underlying cozy and comfortable beliefs. He delights in smashing pleasing falsehoods, equally enjoys revealing grim reality. Tidbits of information along the way fill in details of his persona. Of unspecified foreign extraction, he speaks with a slight accent, his speech "precise, well modulated." His love of things archaic extends to his quaintly old-fashioned demeanor and attire. He often dresses well, in suit and tie, commonly sports a broad-brimmed, floppy hat. His abode, a former ranch house, shared only with his black cat Claudia, gains in description, as does its occasionally important basement laboratory.

Whatever his critics may say, Vorchek sees himself as an active scientist, one who accordingly publishes his results. Infrequent mention is made of his writings. The Machinations of Our Visitors, of course, doesn't later signify, but there are others in what may be deemed the more classic Vorcheckian mode. He amazes, confuses, or outrages others with such works as Holobiologia, "Psychological Analysis By Means of Integrated Hermeneutics," "Confirmation of the Existence of a New Universal Force," "Yotapai Legends of the Third Advent," "Psychological Responses Among a Test Group to Pictorial Presentations of the Demon Astrodemus," "Mystical Realities Deduced from the Seventh Book of Artocris," and "Second Level Energy Disturbances in the Vicinity of Cathedral Rock."

Companions of Vorchek

Here I tell more of Theresa Delaney, who comes to Vorchek as a client in "Peril," afterward by design serves as his confidential assistant, "annoyingly diffident but loyal," in most of his adventures. She doesn't appear in every Vorchek story, but only appears with him. Her character, with slight variances, actually originated as the heroine of a fairly standard science fiction story, conceived but never executed. I abandoned the story, retained the character, put her to a completely different use.

Early on I meant to portray the delightful Miss Delaney as one of those hard boiled, brassy dames so common in private eye detective fiction, and I suppose that elements of such characterization remain. She's gorgeous, well off financially, dresses like an upscale model, possesses a hard, uncompromising edge noted by all who come in contact with her, even Vorchek at times. Quite swiftly, though, beginning with "The Man Who Sought Blug," she commences her transmutation into Vorchek's Watson, ably if querulously assisting him in his scientific work and his dramatic escapades. Like Watson, she stands in for the reader, archly asking all of the right questions so that Vorchek may smugly propound his wisdom and, naturally, explain what's going on. In "At the Dragoon Station Annex" she even narrates the story, in fitting Watson style, a technique which demands replay.

What ties together this stuffy older man and this charming young girl? The tales do not clarify the issue, nor will I here. That I choose to leave to the reader. Observers within the stories occasionally infer possibilities, but there I must leave it.

One other recurrent character with a connection to Vorchek is my later creation Sterk Fontaine, who arose out of a desire to formulate an explicit modern anti-hero involved in twisted mysteries. His character intentionally ties back to the adventurer John Harrow, disreputable narrator of the Vorchek tale "Among the Hoodoos." When Fontaine premiers in "The Granite Dells Mystery" (another Vorchek piece), it is suggested that he has assumed a new name, or dropped a false one.

Sterk Fontaine does run an agency devoted to anthropological matters--his given name derives from a famous South African anthropological site--but one operated solely for the benefit of its owner. Fontaine, served by his cute secretary Angie, seeks big profits from acquiring and peddling ancient occult artifacts. He's learned plenty along the way, but science per se means nothing to him. He just wants the bucks, and he doesn't care how he gets them. Fontaine appears in several adventures of his own, yet he often associates with Vorchek, usually to Fontaine's detriment. They respect one another professionally, but that's about it. Theresa despises Fontaine, whom she considers a mere criminal.

Vorchek's Unfolding Story

With "Peril in the Red Zone" Professor Vorchek hits the ground running, and in no time becomes the star of his particular brand of story. The majority of them I style Lovecraftian, in that it's understood, however minor or personal the incidents of a tale, that vast cosmic forces fester in the background, entities or powers that few can grasp, known only by their effects on those poor mortals who brush up against them. These forces range from somewhat conventional supernatural threats, to pan-dimensional beasties, right up to beings deemed "gods" of the sort that Lovecraft fans relish.

Two of the latter sort, oft cited, are Blug and Xenophor. The former represents everything squalid, decadent, and despairing in the world, a nasty lord indeed, to whom the most pathetic specimens of the human race are unaccountably drawn. Xenophor, a broader concept, in age old tradition is the true master of the cosmos, like Azathoth "Lord of All Things," referred to as the "Creator and Destroyer." In such tales as "The Man Who Sought Blug," "Under the Natural Bridge," "The God in the Machine," and "The Secrets Behind the Canvas," Vorchek proves that gods are easier shunned than defied.

In the Vorchek universe magic is real, an alternative science that a genuine scientist may analyze and employ. The professor does so repeatedly, deriving his knowledge of the arcane from classic old tomes, the foremost being The Black Book of Jacob Bleek, written by the gloomy hero of a competing line of numerous horror tales set in the medieval era. Vorchek wields lore from this and other ancient sources to unlock mysteries of the modern day, in stories like "The Seal of Jacob Bleek," "The Old Camera," and "The Sedona House." He recites magical formulae with the same scholarly gusto that he activates his odd, home-made machinery deployed to detect breakthroughs of dangerous energies from realms beyond.

No stranger to ghosts, Vorchek battles spirits or other evil influences in such stories as "A Simple Solution," "The Revenge of the Past," and "A White Mountains Mystery." He is pretty competent at beating those, when he wants to do so.

A number of Vorchek adventures veer into science fiction, for he is an all-purpose quester after the unknown. "Peril" qualifies, and aliens in various forms arise to plague the Earth in "The Diary of Philip Wyler," "Vorchek's Picnic," (a rare detour into comedy) "In the Dragoon Station Annex," most notably in "The Return of Vanek" and "The Enemy from Nowhere." Certain of these, among others, disclose that Vorchek, within narrow, restricted circles, is acknowledged as an authority on weird matters, a man called in when unique expertise is required.

Based in Arizona, Vorchek has evolved into the spear carrier for my efforts to devise a body of regional weird literature for that state. Starting off with "Canyon Diablo," "The Legend of the Vulture Mine," and "Cathedral Rock," straight through to his most recent adventure, "A White Mountains Mystery," set in Greer, Vorchek (along with his contemporary Sterk Fontaine) has delved into the fictional malevolent underbelly of Arizona. Many of his mysteries deal with historical horrors stemming from the pioneer period or prehistoric creepiness associated with Indian lore. In addition to previously mentioned locales, his research has led him to other real and famous or popular places: Montezuma Well, Tavasci Marsh, Sedona, Oak Creek Canyon, the San Francisco Peaks, the Chiricahua Mountains, and so forth. The list continues, suggesting perhaps that Arizona is a scarier place to live than it really is.

Vorchek, in his single-minded pursuit of dark data, can behave badly toward his associates, shockingly so toward his hapless students, at least those who don't exhibit the preferred degree of intellectual commitment. Philip Matthews, "a dedicated young gentleman and budding scholar," receives decent treatment in The Journey Through the Black Book, but to lesser types Vorchek can be positively dangerous. Stories which depict this in astounding fashion are "Canyon Diablo," "Under the Natural Bridge," "The House on the Hill of Stars," "Into the Vortex," "On the South Face of Medicine Man Mountain," "The House on Anderson Mesa," and "Images from Ironfang Island."

A few stories break the mold to varying degrees. "Critical Information" and "An Apparent Case of Disappearance," for instance, or "The Diary of Philip Wyler" and "The Journal of Reverend Winters," merely reference Vorchek or purport to be accounts derived from his files. More crucial are the oddities contained within "The Discovery of the X Force" and "Into the Vortex." The former story, a kind of scientific fable, employs the Vorchek character within an "end of the world" framework, obviously not readily relatable to other tales. I used his name when I could have made up another. "Vortex," in most respects a typical rip-roaring Vorchek piece, does indicate that the professor isn't entirely what he seems; rather, more and other. I, for what it's worth, find no difficulty in rationalizing the business, yet confess that a reader meeting Vorchek for the first time through that story would, having moved on to others, wonder about the fellow too much. I write every story to stand alone, but regardless of spooky insinuations, rest assured that nothing permanent has happened to Vorchek. He is still the same man as ever, possibly dabbling more dangerously with horrors these days.

What's in a Name?

In my dozens of weird tales I allow myself the indulgence of exotic names. Most I've just drummed up on the spot, plunked them down and banged away at the keys, never thinking twice about the matter. Jacob Bleek was meant from the first to suggest darkness, but that's a rarity with me. What about Anton Vorchek? It did simply pop into my head--I wished, for whatever reason, a name hinting at central or eastern European extraction, and got it--but could there be more to it? Quite a bit later something occurred to me. As a kid I was fond of the Kolchak: The Night Stalker television series, a bunch of eerie adventures starring a daring investigative reporter of that name. Now Vorchek is virtually nothing like Kolchak personally, night and day really, yet I can grant that two explorers of horrors with similar names might be more than coincidence. I don't know, so neither does anybody else, but if I can subsequently wonder, so can my readers. It amuses me to imagine a connection, a tenuous link through all those years.

Conclusion

Professor Vorchek and company seem like old friends now, and I harbor no inclination to let them go. He especially is such a useful character, adding a dash of spice to any tale in which he appears. Vorchek has been good to me, so all going well, I intend to return the favor in the future by presenting him in new mysteries of the fantastic. Stay tuned.

A chronological list of the Vorchek stories to date:

Realization: a Tale of the True Theory; A Critique of Vorchek's Holobiologia; Langley's Painting; Peril in the Red Zone; Critical Information; Canyon Diablo; The Man Who Sought Blug; The Legend of the Vulture Mine; Cathedral Rock; The Discovery of the X Force; At the Bottom of Montezuma Well; A Nature Scene; Under the Natural Bridge; Vorchek's Vacation; The God in the Machine; The Seal of Jacob Bleek; The Mystery of the Old Church; The Mystery of the Inner Basin Lodge; The Diary of Philip Wyler; The Return of Vanek; A Simple Solution; The Willing of the Man; The Revenge of the Past; The Flaw in the Image; The Journal of Reverend Winters; The Old Camera; Vorchek's Picnic; An Apparent Case of Disappearance; The House on the Hill of Stars; Into the Vortex; A Chance Result; On the South Face of Medicine Man Mountain; The Big Sedona Bash; Queer Musings on Reality; Yardreela; Among the Hoodoos; The Journey Through the Black Book; In the Dragoon Station Annex; The Idol of Zita; The House on Anderson Mesa; The Enemy from Nowhere; The Kingdom of the Anasazi; The Search for Doctor Vane; Images from Ironfang Island; The Granite Dells Mystery; A Trivial Case of Haunting; The Secrets Behind the Canvas; The Sedona House; A White Mountains Mystery


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