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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Michael Vance Talks About Light's End - Interview by Tim Walters

My most humble apologies to my good friend Michael Vance, as I planned to have this interview up MUCH sooner. Better late than never, they say.

Mark

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QUESTION: Michael, how did the creation of the fictional town of Light's End come about? Was it originally envisioned as the setting for a series of short stories?

MICHAEL VANCE: Horror is my favorite genre. In years past, I wrote several eight page horror stories for comic books. I also wrote a few within the larger framework of a comic strip I did for five years called "Holiday Out". In fact, I wrote "Holiday Out" while working for the newspaper in the town that serves as the template for Light's End. These stories directly and indirectly lead to the creation of my fictional town.

The first Light's End comics stories were "Where Bright Angel Feet Have Trod" (first published in a magazine), "In The Out Door" (magazine), "Wishful Thinking", and "The Zoo" (both first
published within my "Holiday Out" comic strip). All have been rewritten as short stories as well.

The Maine setting for the town is an homage to horror writer H.P. Lovecraft's fiction, while the name of my fictional town just came to me in an unexplainable epiphany. I liked the sound of it and it also suggested the use of a lighthouse as an icon, so I used it in my second and then third story. The town's name not only hints at the end of light and the triumph of evil, but at the resolution of the over-riding plot of the entire series.

"The Fall Guy" was the first Light's End prose story. It was written in a week during a low point in my life when I had been fired from a newspaper and had no idea what direction my life would then take. It took ten years to sell it to a small, semi-pro magazine.

When I wrote it, I decided to make the town a major 'character' and underlying continuity in what I envisioned as a series of stand-alone and interconnected short stories. These stories will form a trilogy of books with a bridging mega-plot. The first book titled Weird Horror Tales has been published; the second volume titled Light's End: The Feasting is soon to also be published. The last book of the trilogy has been plotted for some time.

QUESTION: Who are some of the writers that influenced and inspired the creation of Light's End?

VANCE: H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, William Faulkner and many other writers have influenced my writing. I owe much to the old EC comic books from the 1950s as well and several of the men who wrote those stories, including Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein. Kurtzman, in particular, has been an influence on both my comics work and prose work.

It was Wells who influenced me to become a writer, and I still consider him the best novelist in the SF genre. My mother tells me that when I was 8 or 9, I wasn't doing well in English; I didn't like to read. I had been assigned to write a book review as homework. I cheated and read the "Classic's Illustrated" comic book of "The Time Machine" by Wells. It literally stunned me, so I read the book as well.

I liked the near poetry of Bradbury's prose which I read as a teenager, and Faulkner's stream-of-consciousness technique as well as his sense of history and setting. I first read Faulkner as a senior majoring in English in college. These influences combined with my admiration of Lovecraft's use of atmosphere have all influenced my Light's End stories. By the way, I came to read Lovecraft relatively late in my life.

QUESTION: Writers like Ray Bradbury and William Faulkner have chosen small town settings for much of their fiction. Light's End, Maine is a small town. Do you prefer small town settings for your stories, and if so, why?

VANCE: I lived eighteen years of my life in a small town in Oklahoma, and Light's End is based on that town. If you visited it today, you would quickly recognize many of the buildings used in my series. I believed using that town as the inspiration for Light's End would add a feeling of authenticity, of reality that is central to the suspension of disbelief needed in any good fiction. That town certainly gave continuity to my life as a boy. Even a few of the events in some of the twenty-three stories that I have written about Light's End are based on my life. But, for the most part, the characters in Light's End are not based on actual residents of that Oklahoma town.

QUESTION: Light's End seems an appropriate name for the town, as it can be a very dark place populated with some equally dark characters. Do you have any favorite character or characters that you especially enjoy using?

VANCE: While waiting in the lobby of a print shop years ago, I read an article that basically asked the question, 'as bad as things are now, how much worse would they be if there really were no God to restrain the evil in the world'. That became the reason that Light's End was founded, as a sort of social experiment to eliminate God completely from at least one town on Earth.

For the most part, there are only two continuing characters outside of the town itself in my Light's End stories. I love writing them both. Jake Horne is the catalyst, the puppet-master, if you will, behind the mystery and evil of Light's End. He accomplishes what he wishes by manipulating other people; he seldom does anything directly. Schlomo Nantier is the symbol of reason and order and God in my hideous little town, and is often right but ineffectual for the most part.

QUESTION: There have been two recordings released featuring Light's End stories read by legendary actor William Windom. How did this collaboration come about? Are both volumes still available for purchase, and will more be released in the future?

VANCE: I met William at a signing. He liked my stories and agreed to record them so that we might both sell them at personal appearances. William has recorded twenty Light's End stories, and the first two stories will soon be available from Cornerstone Book Publishers. Each volume will feature two stories. Volume one offers "Cross Purposes" and "A Change of Heart". There will be ten volumes if they sell.

To refresh some memories, Windom is an actor who played in 18 Broadway plays and in more than a hundred TV shows and movies. He won an Emmy for his starring role in the TV show "My World and Welcome To It". He played Commander Decker in the original "Star Trek" series, the lead in "The Farmer's Daughter", on "Gunsmoke", "Mission Impossible", "Barney Miller", "The Twilight Zone" and many more. He was the prosecuting attorney in the "To Kill a Mockingbird" motion picture. But he is probably best remembered as the doctor in the TV series "Murder, She Wrote".

QUESTION: Would you like to see any Light's End stories adapted to film or television one day, or would you be uncomfortable with the changes required?

VANCE: I would be uncomfortable with the changes required if that included added profanity, graphic violence or graphic sex. I use each sparingly. As was true with men like Lovecraft and Alfred Hitchcock, my style embraces the idea that anticipation and atmosphere create greater suspense and have greater impact on the reader than graphic portrayal. I detest slasher movies.

Examples of what I like in film: "Psycho", "The Omen", "Rosemary's Baby", the original and newest "King Kong". "Alien". The remake of "The Thing". Those last two are even a little gory for my tastes, but are still outstanding horror films.

QUESTION: Does working in an already established "universe" make the writing less difficult? And perhaps more fun?

VANCE: Because it is a universe that I created, it makes these stories more fun AND more difficult to write. I can kill or reward real people I know!

I have written and constantly update timeline and character 'bibles' that are necessary for continuity. These manuscripts are actually longer than any one story, and contain information that will never be featured in a story. Why? Hopefully, these bibles will be published in my Light's End trilogy and enjoyed as much for their added detail as the stories.

QUESTION: You have written many comic books and reviewed tons more in your Suspended Animation column. A number of your stories contain comic book allusions, such as "Fall Guy". And your non-fiction book "Forbidden Adventures" has received much praise. Would you care to discuss your comic book career? I assume comics had a huge impact on you while growing up. What were some of your favorites?

VANCE: Growing up in a small town in the 1950s meant very limited access to entertainment. I read and collected comic strips including "Alley Oop", "Wash Tubbs", and "Superman" from my local paper at a very early age.

I began buying comic books when I was seven or eight years old. My favorite was "Superman". I also enjoyed some of the American Comics Group titles including "Adventures Into the Unknown", "Forbidden Worlds", "Midnight Mysteries", "Unknown Worlds" and "Herbie".

I went to the library and read Wells, Jules Verne and Zane Grey.

There were only three television channels available, and each went off the air at 10PM. My favorite animation on television was "Popeye" and "Rocky and Bullwinkle". Other favorites include Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, and Davy Crockett.

The local movie theater had a big impact on my life as well and, therefore, plays a large role in my Light's End stories. I saw many 1950s monster and horror movies there, several Verne adaptations, and, of course, "The Time Machine".

After I graduated from college in 1972 and after a stint in radio, I published my own advertising
tabloid, "The Oklahoma Advertiser". My first comic strip, "Crag", was published in that tabloid in a half-page format. When I started my first newspaper job several years later, I began publishing a fanzine, "Cryptoc", and reprinted "Crag" there. Some of the artists I met through "Cryptoc" drew my first comic strip, "Holiday Out", which was published for five years in dozens of newspapers, fanzines, and magazines. This strip was partially collected in a comic book title, further opening the door into the field. My first comic book title outside of "Holiday Out" (which was published by Renegade Press) was a rewriting of "Crag", and was called "Straw Men". It was an eight issue graphic novel published by Innovation.

QUESTION: Some of the characters in Light's End are named after notable authors. Do many readers pick up on this? It must be rewarding to be able to acknowledge those writers who have influenced you and your work so much.

VANCE: I have gotten very little feedback from readers, but most has been positive. This isn't uncommon for writers. Most of us spend our lives alone with a computer. Acknowledging writers who have influenced me is just a way of saying thanks for the time they spent alone with their typewriters and computers to entertain and influence me.

QUESTION: Has Light's End been well-received by critics and reviewers?

VANCE: Reviews have been favorable, Tim, and I am grateful for that. A nice review is like applause.

QUESTION: Let's talk about some of the specific Light's End stories. "Wishful Thinking" (in "Weird Horror Tales") is a marvelous tale set during the Halloween season. It must have been a delight to create Sara Lagle, the "town witch" and a very memorable character. Would you consider using Sara in another Light's End story, or is that just "wishful thinking" on my part? I suppose it would have to take place prior to "Wishful Thinking," considering the story.

VANCE: Although I have no particular plans to use Sara again, it certainly may happen. Because my stories are all set in the same town and cover 400 years of its history, I keep extensive 'bibles' on all my characters and the events in their lives. Every story takes place at a certain time, of course. So I turn to those bibles and make a list of everyone who is alive and how old they are during the time of each new story. When appropriate, I cast characters from that list in a new tale to add to its continuity and reality.

Sometimes, a character takes on a life of his or her own, however. Schlomo Nantier, who was never meant to be a reoccurring character, is now one of the major players in my Light's End universe.

QUESTION: The name Ebenezar Azreal is prevalent throughout the series. Who is, or was, he?

VANCE: Ebenezer Azreal is one of the more perverse members of one of the two most prominent families in Light's End, the Azreals. One of his thrills was to kill living things. In the story "In the Out Door" he actually finds a door from this world to the supernatural...or does he? He also plays a minor but important behind-the-scenes role in the story "Billie Hell" (also from "Weird Horror Tales"). During his life, he added great power and wealth to the family members who would follow him.

QUESTION: "Wishful Thinking" was originally a comic strip sequence published in Holiday Out way back in 1984. The art was by Paul Daly. Were you happy with the comic version?

VANCE: I think that Paul Daly, who did some work in my fanzine "Cryptoc", is a terrific artist, but he didn't do his best work on this story. Most of its weakness, however, was due to the fact that I foolishly tried to ink his pencils, and I was and am not sufficiently talented to ink anyone's work. Because it appeared as part of a comic strip that ran in newspapers, it also had to be a bit more tame than I prefer. But every medium has its limitations; I try to look at them as challenges.

QUESTION: "Fall Guy" was the first Light's End story in prose form. It has a "carnival is coming to town" atmosphere about it, reminiscent of Ray Bradbury's work. Would you agree?

VANCE: Yes. Bradbury is a major influence on my work.

QUESTION: This story in particular is rife with comic book references. The title character is something of a superhero, albeit a flawed and tragic one.

VANCE: Frankly, I never thought of him as a superhero, but I certainly agree that he was tragically flawed. I was still writing comic books and strips when I wrote the short story "Fall Guy". Those references were added as little winks or inside jokes for friends, and for readers who are knowledgeable about comics.

QUESTION: "Fall Guy" introduces us to Jake Horne for, I think, the first time. When you wrote this story did you know he would be such a central figure in the Light's End mythos?

VANCE: Yes, Jake was introduced in this story. From the moment I wrote him, I knew he would dominate many Light's End stories. Jake sprang from my 'pen' to paper almost fully realized as a character because he is simply the blackest, nastiest side of my personality. To save some readers some time, Jake is not Satan.

QUESTION: Louis Staples of "A Trick of Light" is one of the more sympathetic characters of Light's End. His life is pretty grim, but he seems a hapless and helpless victim of his own weaknesses.

VANCE: Yes, I think Louis is hapless, but not a helpless victim of his own weaknesses. He had made a choice in his earlier life and in this story to not resist what I believe he knows is a serious character flaw. In a way, Louis is somewhat of a coward. Rather than join the dance and possibly experience real joy, he has chosen to sit on the sidelines and guarantee that he will never face the pain of failure. Louis is one of the few Light's End characters who is actually loosely based on a real person and my friend. I believe this person to be brilliant but unnecessarily lonely.

In addition, the story was written to comment on a rather famous essay by the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis on how we perceive reality. "Lewis" became Louis, and Lewis' middle name was Staples. Louis Staples.

And, finally, "A Trick of Light" is also based on the memories of a man who actually worked in a theater in the town that I have metamorphosed into Light's End.

QUESTION: Jake Horne had a great line in the story: "You know that the real world only seems real when you see it on the stage or a movie screen."

VANCE: Thanks. It's a lie, of course, but one that Louis and many other people embrace. It is also a paraphrase of a line by C.S. Lewis about his experiences as a boy. Jake Horne's greatest weapon is the lie; he is its master. And all fiction, including theater, is an attempt to make a lie believable. So Jake and movie theaters are a natural pairing. And I add that Horne's greatest talent is recognizing and then manipulating human weakness.

QUESTION: Archie Killingsworth of "Dirty Angels" is, unlike Louis Staples, a most unsympathetic resident of your macabre little town. Archie actually makes Jake Horne seem like a nice guy by comparison.

VANCE: I think of Archie as representative of most of the resident's of Light's End and the world we live in. On the surface, he seems a most acceptable and productive member of society, but what lies beneath that facade is indeed horrible. What separates Archie from most of us, however, is that during a moment of stress, he acted on the sickness hidden in his heart. But Jake Horne is not a nice guy by comparison. In fact, on close reading I think a reader will see that Horne intentionally manipulated the situation that forced Archie to react on an impulse long suppressed.

For fun, I named Archie Killingsworth to honor one of the great men of comic books and strips, Archie Goodwin.

QUESTION: "Dirty Angels" has an effective surprise "twist" ending in the tradition of EC comics and "The Twilight Zone". Were you a big "Twilight Zone" fan?

VANCE: I enjoy the EC Comics and "Twilight Zone" styles of speculative fiction much more than most of the horror and SF written today. I really try to write stories that not only entertain but trigger some thought about underlying principles as well.

I might mention a part of my style that is often criticized. What Archie is doing during that twist
ending is not specifically shown. I prefer that the reader decide why his hands 'are everywhere evident' because it draws a reader deeper into the story to do so. The reader, in effect, personalizes a story by supplying some of its details from his or her OWN life experiences, biases, education and beliefs.

Furthermore, I intentionally don't spell out each and every detail of events happening in a story because no one actually has all the facts about most situations when making decisions in life. I believe this approach makes stories more believable. Some editors, however, think every single fact must be explained in a story; I simply disagree.

QUESTION: "Random Pairings" (also in "Weird Horror Tales") features Schlomo Nantier, an old man of great faith who is endowed with an eloquent and loquacious manner of expressing that faith. You stated that Jake Horne sprang from the darker recesses of your own personality. Where did Schlomo Nantier come from?

VANCE: Schlomo Nantier is based on me and my father with a bit of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton thrown in to make my father and I look smarter.

QUESTION: Did you intend for "Random Pairings" to symbolize the struggle between good and evil, salvation and damnation?

VANCE: Yes. "Random Pairings" is a pivotal Light's End story, and also a fictionalization of the recent craze based on the belief that The Bible is written in a code that can reveal the future. I think that idea silly, but fascinating. Remember, Schlomo was researching that idea in the story, but had not accepted it as truth. My twist ending gave him an answer he never heard.

QUESTION: Did you see the story's ending as the 'crucifixion' of Schlomo Nantier?

VANCE: Absolutely. Light's End is my vision of the world without God. Schlomo is my vision of a man of God, who, like all Christians, is nevertheless not able to overcome all of his own flaws. As example, he is a Christian who cannot accept the idea of miracles and, therefore, never really believes any of Jake's and Light's End's 'legends.' He ultimately pays a price for that.

QUESTION: "Billie Hell" takes us back to the 1910s and 1920s and the seedier side of Light's End. A red-light district dubbed The Alley is a haven of whorehouses, saloons, dance halls and drug dens. Both the era and The Alley are vividly brought to life via your colorful writing style. You seem well-versed in the slang terms and expressions of the period, which must require a lot of research?

VANCE: H.G. Wells once wrote that if every thing in a story is real, one element of injected fantasy can be believed. I have adopted that approach. Therefore, I do extensive research for most of the stories. This may include clothing, slang terms, dances, what movies and songs were popular and much more. Since I have never been to Maine, I also continue to research every aspect of that state including what foods are unique to its people and what birds fly over what types of trees.

Since Light's End is based on a real town, I have also gathered an extensive collection of photographs and items from that town as well. As I answer your questions at my computer, I glance to my left at a brick and a parking meter from August Street, and to my right at a Double Cola crate full of a key from the Crawford Hotel, a comic book from a clothing shop, a Citadel newspaper, and a tiny bowling pin from its bowling alley.

When writing a story, I try to immerse myself in those photographs and the research I've gathered.

QUESTION: I assume the real-life small town that Light's End is based on was never as wild and bawdy as The Alley district? Although some of the oil boom towns of those days were quite rowdy and vice-ridden.

VANCE: Actually, Bishop's Alley was quite real, the setting and names of the whore houses are accurate, and The Alley was called the worst such red-light district not only in Oklahoma but in America during its peak. Almost no photographs of Bishop's Alley still exist, but I do have three grainy photocopies from newspapers of scenes from that vile little stretch of human flotsam.

QUESTION: The Odzihozo Creek once ran with clear, clean water, but was spoiled and polluted by man's wicked indifference. Is this meant to mirror our own pure origins which also were spoiled and polluted by man's wicked indifference, or mortal sin? Odzihozo Creek was once "God's little garden", perhaps symbolic of Eden? Could "Billie Hell" be an old testament allegory?

VANCE: Yes. By the way, there is an Odzihozo river in Maine. Told you I do a lot of research!!

QUESTION: The character Billie Hell is born and raised in such ghastly conditions that his fate seems almost inevitable, although you might disagree. What does his character signify to you? Why did you choose the name Billie Hell?

VANCE: "That hurt like Billie Hell" is a common phrase in Maine. I'm not sure of its origin, but I liked the sound of it enough to use it as my character's moniker. As for Billie Hell's conditions, I researched what conditions influence the lives of 'troubled' boys, and followed that research carefully. But I am a big believer in free will, Tim. It may be true that we can't control the situations we find ourselves in, but we can control our responses to those situations.

QUESTION: A few years back you published a Light's End chapbook, and I understand a second volume has recently seen print. Tell me a bit about them. Can they be purchased directly from you?

VANCE: I do sell two chapbooks collecting not only my Light's End stories, but poems, additional prose pieces, artwork and photographs that will not likely appear in the trilogy. I sell these only at personal appearances or by email request. They are numbered and autographed. The first issue features 14 stories; the second was finished in November of 2004 and features 12 stories, I believe. Both are available from me directly.

In addition, I've just re-recreated both chapbooks as PDFs on CD featuring lots of color and even more photographs and art. Queries can be sent to MiklVance@yahoo.com. The first chapbook will no longer be kept in production since the publication of "Weird Horror Tales"; only two or three copies remain.

QUESTION: Michael, you have written fiction, comic books and comic strips, articles, reviews, a textbook, newspaper columns and even some poetry. Do you enjoy any particular one more than the others?

VANCE: The short story is my favorite literary form. I think it is the perfect form for horror stories because suspense and horror (and comedy!) are difficult to sustain over a long period of time. All forms of art have their own weaknesses and strengths, and it is difficult to develop character in a short story. But outside of that, it remains at the top of my subjective list of favorites. I'd have to say that the novel and, yes, comic books and strips rank as second and third on that list, although comics have yet to reach their full potential.

TIM: Thanks for speaking with me, Michael. I enjoyed it.