Veterans in Horror: Interview with John Lane
John Lane’s fiction has appeared in THE DISAPPOINTED HOUSEWIFE, PAGE & SPINE, VERSIFICATION, dyst LITERARY JOURNAL, 101 WORDS, BLACK HARE PRESS, THE BIRDSEED, THE DAILY DRUNK and many other venues.
“The Visit” was published in 81 WORDS FLASH FICTION ANTHOLOGY, which won the Saboteur Award for Best Anthology.
“The Monster Inside” was part of the Horror Writers Association’s Mental Health Initiative anthology, OF HOPE AND HORROR.
Tell us a bit about your military service. Years? Branch? Specialty?
I enlisted in the Army as a 39T Computer Technician between January 1988 to 1992. After basic training in Fort Jackson, SC and Advanced Individual Training in Fort Gordon, GA, I served a tour of two years in Wildfleckin, Germany (known as West Germany before the wall came down), then finished my time in Fort Ord, CA. Fort Ord was a victim of the Base Realignment and Closure Program, so after I left, the post ceased all operations and moved everything over to Fort Lewis, WA.
During my time in Germany, our unit, 48th Maintenance Company, used a Tactical Army Combat Computer System (or TACCS, for short). This was well before the Windows Operating System. They were very inefficient machines, resembling nothing more than glorified green chalk blocks. And we were not allowed to open up the machines for any kind of repair. All defunct equipment had to be taken down to the depot in Frankfurt. I remembered the one time I accompanied one of the Sergeants. The room was wall-to-wall machines, swapping parts from one to make another operational.
I also served two terms in the Pennsylvania National Guard between February 1994 to 2000 in various units. I took up different jobs, stinger gunner, chaplain assistant and tank gunner. At the time I was in, the National Guard would find a slot for you and that’s where you did your duty. By the time I finished my second enlistment, the points system for promotion was already being implemented.
What role, if any, did reading and writing play during your military service?
To be honest, I had a tough time acclimating myself to the rigors of military life, so any interest in reading and writing was put on the back burner.
What inspired you to start writing?
I think that it was a gradual process. Growing up in an environment where I never felt loved or wanted, I craved an outlet as a way to express myself and to show, at least to myself and then hopefully others, that I had some value as a human being. During a sixth grade English creative writing class, the students were asked to write a story, and I created one about a knight that found and attacked a dragon, your basic medieval type story. When my teacher handed the assignment back to me, I found a handwritten note that said, “You should become a writer.” I never forgot those words.
What is it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
I don’t want to use the term, “monster,” but in my life, I’ve dealt with people that had a darkness to them, a darkness that accounted for some of their most twisted behavior. Something most wouldn’t know about except for those closest to that person. And the horror genre is full of people and other entities with the darkness. Coupled with my lifelong struggles with rejection, depression and anxiety, horror made for a perfect fit.
A story that came to my mind was Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. A seemingly normal village of about three hundred seemingly normal people held an annual “lottery” in which the winner, chosen by black dot, was stoned. To keep the ongoing tradition alive as noted in the story, Tessie Hutchinson was sacrificed for the “greater good”. That story terrified me because no one came to Tessie’s side, not even her husband, Bill. And I would imagine any strangers that drove by would see what they thought was people as they were except for the townspeople, who knew what those people were capable of. I’ve seen that type of behavior in my own life, the way I was treated by certain people, people that I expected would protect me but would do the opposite.
What role, if any, does your military experience pay in your writing?
I thought of two of my stories that ended up in publications. The first, “Germany, 1989,” in 101 Words, based on an incident that actually happened, was about the consequences of firing an M-16 in an arms room. The second, “Private Edad,” in Black Hare Press’s anthology, THIRD YEAR, was more research than any actual experience, about the newest soldier in First Infantry Division fighting in D-Day from his perspective. How at the end, he didn’t want to hurt his mother’s feelings was very touching to me. I was more of a peace-time soldier, but this story taught me about how war affects the lives of many people, especially those outside the battlefield.
What is your favorite depiction of military service in all of literature? Why?
The firebombing of Dresden in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE, really shocked me because of how it powerfully affected the character of Billy Pilgrim. Billy’s capture by the Germans and survival of the Allied bombing around the point that he becomes “unstuck in time”, causing certain events in his life, events that he believed he experienced, that led to a theme of escape, from the abduction of Tralfamadorians to mate with Montana Wildhack to his eventual assassination. Having an event, like the Dresden firebombing, affect a human being to that extent, taught me a lot about the human condition.
How do you feel military veterans and the broader military experience has thus far been represented in the horror genre?
Not necessarily focused on the horror genre, but I think sometimes that the military had been used as a glorified plot device to move the action forward, specifically thinking of the Unified Intelligence Task Force being mostly ineffective against the monsters of DOCTOR WHO, or the United States Colonial Marine Corps used as a fodder against the alien in its namesake sequel. However, I appreciated the psychological horror of JACOB’S LADDER and even some of the stories in the SNAFU military anthology are throat-grabbing.
Who are some civilian characters in horror that you think would have made for great soldiers?
I think the classic monsters, like Dracula and Frankenstein, would make for soldiers. They are both driven by their own passions, and that drive, if harnessed correctly, would make for good soldier material.
Who are some military veteran horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
I am not as acquainted with military horror as I should be, but thinking outside the box, I was thinking more along the lines of Ambrose Pierce’s story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” where I believed it had a shocking ending. However, Rod Serling, who served in the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment during WWII and was highly decorated, was in my opinion an underrated writer who was able to translate his military experience to scriptwriting for shows, like the Twilight Zone. One of my favorite stories and one of the most compelling was “A Quality of Mercy”, which starred Dean Stockwell and Leonard Nimoy. The story took place near the end of WWII where a gung-ho second lieutenant wants to have his men kill more Japanese, and found himself being one of the Japanese soldiers himself. That spoke to me more about WWII more than any other program.
What’s something about veterans most people don’t know?
I recently learned that years ago, there was a Pew Research Center article that stated since 9/11, that not even 1% of the American public has been on active duty at any given time, as opposed to almost 9% during the height of WWII. The lack of active duty, I believe, is causing a disconnect between the civilian and are veteran population. This has the risk of feeding into the lack of understanding to our veterans, especially in meeting needs, like mental health.
I want to thank the HWA for highlighting this very important segment of our writers. Hopefully, it carries into the public thinking about the ones that served and fought for our country, and in the process, have them feel a little more appreciated.