Thursday, September 29, 2011

KillerCon 3: Horror in Las Vegas

When I started writing professionally back in the 1980s, I attended a lot of conventions. Unfortunately, I spent most of the 1980s drunk and, in retrospect, that did not enhance my convention experience. I drank in part because I was so insecure and filled with self-loathing and being drunk helped to numb that. But it didn’t keep me from being, for the most part, an introverted wallflower. I mean, I didn’t put a lampshade on my head and dance the Charleston on a table, or anything. Add to that the fact that I had been trained by my family and most of the people in my life from early childhood onward to be ashamed of my writing, to avoid talking about it. Suddenly, I found myself at conventions where the purpose was to promote my work, and I was surrounded by people whose writing I’d admired my whole life, big names who had been towering influences for me, like Stephen King, Peter Straub, Robert McCammon and others. But even though I was published when I attended those conventions, I didn’t feel like I belonged there.

This had nothing to do with the behavior of anyone at these conventions. Horror, fantasy and science fiction conventions are attended by friendly people who want to be there and who enjoy being with others who share their interests. The problem was me. I always had a nagging feeling of guilt, like I was pulling something over on everyone, engaging in some kind of fraud, and the fear that I would be caught at it never went away. By 1990, I’d stopped attending conventions and just stayed home and wrote. Isolation is great for productivity if you’re a writer ... but it’s not great for much else if you’re a human being.

I’m a much different person these days, but old insecurities don’t always go away; sometimes they just hide down in the basement, waiting till the time is right. I was thrilled by the invitation to be one of the guests of honor at KillerCon 3 in Las Vegas, but just a couple of days before the convention, that basement door flew open and those old insecurities came rushing out like a bunch of evil, recently dampened gremlins. This would be my first convention without liquid courage or any kind of pharmaceutical enhancement, and once the basement emptied out, all I could hear were the hissing voices of those insecurities telling me just how colossally I was going to fuck it all up. That changed once I arrived at the Stratosphere hotel.

Some conventions are big — some are downright huge — and have a prepackaged feel to them. They’re enjoyable, but they don’t have the kind of feeling of community you find at smaller conventions. KillerCon is small and everyone seems to know everyone. In some ways, it was like attending a reunion. But attending a reunion can be deadly dull if you’re not part of the group that’s reuniting. The great thing about KillerCon — the thing that struck me repeatedly throughout the weekend — was that even though Dawn and I had never attended before, we were made to feel a part of the reunion. I had met some of the other attendees at previous conventions, and there were a lot of my Facebook friends in attendance, but for the most part, these were people I was meeting for the first time. It just didn’t feel like the first time.

After arriving at the hotel and stashing our bags in the generous suite provided by the convention, we went in search of the party. We came in late and it was midnight by the time we set out to find the gathering, but I’d been to enough conventions to know that somewhere in the hotel, there were horror fans having a good time over drinks. As we stepped out of the elevator on the 24th floor, we almost ran smack into Sam W. Anderson, an online friend of mine and a talented new writer. Sam is part of Snutch Labs, a whole group of talented new writers made up of Erik Williams, John Mantooth, Kim Despins, Petra Miller and Kurt Dinan (who unfortunately was unable to make it to the convention). They’re a fun and hilarious group, and I wish I could’ve spent more time with them in Vegas, but as fun as they are, they’re dead serious about they’re writing — and they’re damned good at it. They were at KillerCon promoting their new collection, Tales from the Yellow Rose Diner and Fill Station, which I’ve read, blurbed and can’t recommend enough. Sam had just come from the hospitality suite and was on his way back to his room, but he led us to the party.

Once I started meeting people, those wet gremlins were shoved back into the basement and the door was solidly shut and locked. The convention ran incredibly smoothly and everyone was so pleasant and gracious. I’m just not accustomed to being called things like “sir” or “Mr. Garton.” In fact, the first time someone in the hotel called me Mr. Garton, my bowels loosened a little because I thought my dad had come back from the dead and she was talking to him. Some of the highlights:

We found Leah Anderson and Vincent Daemon at the party. I met Leah online and am happy to take credit for talking her into coming to the convention. She and Vincent are writers who have started a new magazine called Grave Demand, which publishes fiction too extreme or transgressive for mainstream publishers (they’re taking submissions now, so send them something you wouldn’t want your parents to read). We spent a good deal of time with Leah and Vince, and some of that time was also spent with Shaun Lawton and his wife Shasta. Shaun is the enthusiastic founder and editor of The Freezine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Shasta is a skilled artist. The six of us spent some time talking about our favorite writers and movies in the wee hours of the night when the rest of the KillerCon folks were shuffling back to their rooms and beds.

A big highlight of the convention for me was meeting my friends Carrie Clevenger and Dorothy Shaw. I met Carrie online earlier this year, and through her, I met Dorothy. Carrie is the creator of Crooked Fang. If you enjoy vampire fiction, you should be following his exploits. Carrie has recently made her first book deal, so Crooked Fang will soon be enjoying a much-deserved wider audience. Dorothy is a new writer whose work is difficult to shoehorn into a particular genre, which I find interesting because I’ve had that problem with some of my own work and I enjoy writing that defies categorization. Carrie and Dorothy have given me a firm kick in the ass when it comes to self-promotion — something I needed — and have been training me to look for any opportunity to plug my work. Thanks to them, and to the fine work of Dorothy’s multi-talented artist husband, Terrance “Wookie” Hoffman, I had a stack of beautiful promotional cards and bookmarks to pass out at the convention.

As small as KillerCon is, it’s still hard to spend as much time as you’d like with the people you want to get to know better. Ed Kurtz and I have been Facebook friends for a while, now, but KillerCon was our first meeting, and he was accompanied by his delightful wife Megan. Ed is a writer whose first novel, Bleed, was published this year, and he and Megan are, like Dawn and myself, cat lovers. Unfortunately, we only spoke briefly. I wish I could have spent more time with Jeff Burk, the maestro of Deadite Press, where amazing work is being done. Burk publishes boundary-smashing horror and bizarro fiction and his books sport some of the most eye-catching covers in the business. Deadite is publishing great writers like Bryan Smith, Nate Southard, the incomparable Robert Devereaux, and Ed Lee and Wrath James White, both of whom I’ll come back to in a moment.

While waiting for the elevator, I spoke only briefly with the charming Rose O’Keefe, the whip-cracker at Eraserhead Press. And I'm sorry I was unable to spend more time talking with writer PS Gifford, writer and artist John Palisano, writer Gord Rollo, writer, editor, director, producer and genre jester John Skipp, writer Lisa Morton, and so many others. There were some I didn’t get to talk to at all, like writer Gabrielle Faust. I’ve been familiar with Gabrielle’s work for some time and I’ve seen her picture online — she’s one of my Facebook friends — but I didn’t know the petite, stylish blonde woman I kept glimpsing was she. Finally, I asked Hal Bodner, who knows everyone (more on him in a moment), who she was, and when he told me, I had one of those forehead-slapping I-coulda-had-a-V8 moments, but by then, it was very late in the weekend and we never connected. I was very disappointed that I was unable to spend time with Rhonda Wilson, a genre regular who's become a great friend online. She was only at the convention for one day and our meetings were unfortunately brief. So many people and so little time. And so many elevators!

I met Gene O’Neill briefly — too briefly — and learned that he's from my old stomping grounds in the Napa area. He said he and a friend had once hooked up with a couple of Seventh-day Adventist girls from my old Napa Valley Sadventist alma mater, Pacific Union College in Angwin — very sheltered, inexperienced girls. Oh, yeah, I know what those sheltered, inexperienced Sadventist girls are like! The only problem is that they’re not like that with Sadventist boys because they’re afraid word will get around. They’re only like that with non-Sadventist boys — like Gene O’Neill! I didn’t get a chance to hear the story, but I’m going to hold him to it and corner him someday, because I want all the juicy details.

Like I said, it’s a small convention, but even so, the weekend just isn’t enough time to see everyone, even given the fact that I slept little and left the hotel only once for a couple of hours on Saturday night. Those couple of hours, by the way, were also a lot of fun. Our niece, Amy Trunoske, lives nearby and she came to the hotel, hung out with us for a while, then drove us down to Fremont street. It was standing room only as we watched one of the animated shows on the canopy that covers the entire street, then we checked out the shark tank in the swimming pool of the Golden Nugget hotel. It made for some great people watching; I would have been perfectly happy to sit there for a long time and just observe because the place was crawling with material ripe for fiction. But after having a meal, we went back to the convention and rejoined the festivities there.

Talking to everyone I want to talk to wasn’t helped by the fact that I’m still annoyingly hesitant to impose on people, to inflict myself on them. No matter how many books I write, despite the fact that I’m a guest of honor, I’ve been able to overcome my inherent shyness only to a certain extent. The important thing, though, is that these are people I wanted to spend time with and get to know better. How often do you find yourself in a situation where you want to be able to spend time with everybody? That isn’t very common. At least, it’s not for me. Usually in a large group, I find myself wanting to hang out only with a handful of people. That wasn’t the case here, and that’s what made it such a wonderful experience.

Most conventions cover genre fiction, movies, TV shows, comic books — the entire spectrum. One of the things that sets KillerCon apart is its focus on writing. Most of the people who attend are writers or aspiring writers and the topics of discussion tend to reflect that. I enjoyed a panel on writing groups that was moderated by editor R.J. Cavender of Cutting Block Press. It was a fun panel that included members of Snutch Labs, but I was especially impressed with R.J.’s remarks about editing. Sometimes it seems to me that the importance of editing is lost in a writer’s efforts to get published. It is impossible to overstate the importance of a good editor to every writer putting words on the page, I don’t care how big that writer might be. But truly good editors are hard to find. As I listened to R.J.’s insightful remarks, I kept thinking to myself, I want this guy editing my work! Fortunately for all of us, R.J.’s services are available through The Editorial Department.

Of course, the writing that is the focus of KillerCon is horror writing. I don’t think there’s a genre more maligned, misunderstood and even despised as ours. Horror writers always surprise their readers when they meet because they’re nothing like their fiction. Ever. It’s been my experience that writers of horror fiction are pleasant, gentle people. Many subscribe to the theory that we are as pleasant as we are because we get all our demons out in our writing, and if we couldn’t write, we’d all be engaged in widespread killing sprees or torturing our parents in the basement, or something. I don’t happen to subscribe to that theory because I’ve known too many writers in the genre, and I think they’d be good people no matter what. I could be wrong about this, but it seems the more extreme the horror fiction, the kinder and gentler the writer. Which brings me to three of KillerCon’s most illustrious figures — and most extreme writers.

We have Wrath James White to thank for KillerCon. It’s his baby. Wrath has a fascinating background. According to the bio on his Amazon page, he is “a former World Class Heavyweight Kickboxer, a professional Kickboxing and Mixed Martial Arts trainer, distance runner, performance artist, and former street brawler.” When you combine his background and impressive size with the fact that he writes some of the most upsetting extreme horror in print, this could be a very scary guy. But he’s not. He's the kindest, gentlest man I've ever known who could probably break my neck with his thumb. He’s soft-spoken, brilliant and sensitive, and there is no better example in the genre of what a mistake it is to judge a writer solely by his work.

If you’re already a fan of the horror genre, then you already know who these next two guys are, and you’re probably a fan. And they are two more excellent examples of what I’m talking about.

I was so happy to learn that Ed Lee and Jack Ketchum were among the guests of honor at this year’s KillerCon. Both are genre legends. I first met Ed five years ago at the World Horror Convention in San Francisco, the only other convention I’ve attended since my early days in the genre back in the 1980s. While that was a great convention, I’d just had the third in a series of major operations on my hip, and I was in pain and completely wonky on prescription painkillers. I hobbled around WHC on a cane trying to ignore the fact that it felt like ground glass and thumbtacks were crunching between the bones of my hip. Although I was there, I wasn’t entirely present. I was able to chat with Ed there, but I remember not being very responsive, and possibly not terribly coherent. KillerCon gave me a chance to make up for that.

He may not be a huge bestseller with millions of books in print, but whenever I talk to readers about their favorite horror writers, the name Ed Lee always comes up, almost without exception. And it is always spoken with a big, affectionate smile He writes some of the most extreme horror ever. I mean, like, in the history of the human race. If the Marquis de Sade were alive today and could read Ed’s work, I can imagine him wincing at Ed and saying, “Dude, that is twisted.” But no matter how gut-churning Ed’s writing is, it never loses touch with the most important element of all in horror, the element that the best horror always builds upon: Humanity. Sure, you’ll find plenty of monsters and psychopaths and demons in the horror genre, but the horror that works always remains focused on people, not menacing creatures or spattering bodily fluids. Those other things surround the characters, but a horror story that doesn’t focus on people in one way or another is like a soup without a base.

No one meeting Ed for the first time without knowing what he does would ever guess that he writes what he writes. The same can be said for Jack Ketchum (aka Dallas Mayr). I’ve been reading Dallas for thirty years and have always been drawn to his work because he not only maintains humanity in his horror, he writes about human horrors. His novel The Girl Next Door is a classic of the genre and a great example of his work. And I’ve never been able to finish it. I can handle all the horror you can throw at me, but this sort of thing messes me up. Based on an actual incident, the horrifying story of a family that holds a young girl captive and tortures her to death, this is perhaps the most upsetting book I’ve ever read — or tried to read. I promised Dallas I would finish it some day, but damn ... it’s a nightmare. And that’s a testament to his talent. I’d never met Dallas before, and he did a nice thing for me that might appear small to others but was big to me. He introduced me to Monica O’Rourke.

Monica and I first encountered one another online years ago. It didn’t go well. The internet is a treacherous place, and I’m not just talking about the computer viruses and donkey/midget porn. The screen and keyboard make it easy to forget that there’s a human being on the other end who has to deal with all the same daily crap life throws in all of our paths. Sitting alone at a computer makes it easy to forget — or not bother — to be sympathetic, compassionate, patient or tolerant. I think everyone has done that at one time or another; I know I have, a lot more than once (maybe you've heard some of the stories). Monica and I got started on the wrong foot. In fact, both feet were involved — we sort of jumped in the wrong direction. Bitter words were exchanged, harsh feelings were stirred. It seemed unlikely that a meeting in person would go any better than our meeting online.

One night at KillerCon while a group of us were standing in front of the elevator using the ashtrays — that was quite a party spot on the 24th floor, those elevators, and at one point, even the police were called in to quiet it down! — Dallas approached me and said, “I know you and Monica have had your problems in the past. She’d like to meet you, but she’s kind of afraid to.” I was, too! “Could I introduce the two of you?” he said. I thought that was a wonderful thing to do. Dallas introduced the us and it was a great meeting. Later that night, we ended up sitting in Dallas’s room and having the kind of relaxed, friendly conversation I didn’t think I would ever have with Monica, as if none of that earlier stuff had ever taken place. How often does something like that happen? With a few words and an introduction, Dallas smoothed over some old wrinkles and I made a new friend. There were a few individual incidents at KillerCon that, had each been the only thing that happened there, would have made the whole trip worthwhile. That was one of them.

Like a ghost rising from my convention-going days of the 1980s, William F. Nolan attended KillerCon, and I couldn’t wait to see him again. We met in 1984 or thereabouts when we shared a long car ride to a convention in Tucson, Arizona. That was a big deal to me because I’d been a fan of Nolan’s work my whole life. For those unfamiliar with the genre, Nolan is a veteran writer of science fiction and dark fantasy, the co-author (with George Clayton Johnson) of the novel Logan’s Run, which became a hit 1976 movie and is currently being remade. While that may be his most famous work, it’s far, far from his only work. He has to his credit 83 books and more than 750 magazine and newspaper pieces as well as several TV and movie scripts, including a favorite of mine, the 1976 horror film Burnt Offerings. He is a master of short fiction and his work should be required reading for any writer who wants to tackle the difficult task of writing quality short stories. Bill had been a big influence on me and meeting him was an event. I was only 21 or so at the time and my first novel had just been published. All of those insecurities I mentioned earlier completely ruled my life at that time, and I was wreck going into the Tucson convention, which was also being attended by Stephen King and Peter Straub. What was I doing there? Who the hell did I think I was? Bill saw this and took me under his wing. He was a calming influence and a great friend at that convention.

I didn’t really expect him to remember me at KillerCon, but he did. I also met his good friends Jason and Sunni Brock, with whom Dawn and I hit it off immediately. Jason and Sunni own JaSunni Productions and have produced a wonderful documentary called Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of Twilight Zone’s Magic Man. They also have a couple of other documentaries in the works. In addition to directing documentaries, Jason is a writer, editor and musician, and probably some other things I’m not aware of yet. You know that click! that happens when you meet certain people and you know immediately that you’re simpatico and there's a friendship in the works? That’s what happened for us with Jason and Sunni and we look forward to getting to know them better.

Bill and I shared a table at the mass signing and at one point, he leaned over, put his arm around me and said, “I remember you very well from that trip to Tucson and how uncertain and nervous you were. You were so young! But now, look at you. You're a major figure in the genre and you've created an enormous body of work. I couldn't be more proud of you if you were my own son.”

It probably doesn’t seem like much to anyone else, but hearing those words from William F. Nolan suddenly made it necessary for me to fight back tears. I nearly blubbered like a baby. I simply don’t think of myself that way and never have. Coming from someone I admire so much was overwhelming. My own father never said anything like that to me. Hell, he never read a word I wrote and dismissed anything I ever did. When I told my parents in 2006 that I was being given the Grand Master Award and explained to them what it was, he said, “That’s nice,” and changed the subject. For that moment, Bill Nolan was a father figure and I was hearing something I needed to hear. It felt good. Again, if that had been the only thing that happened all weekend, it would have been worth the trip.

Weston Ochse was hilarious, Jonathan Maberry spoke eloquently about writing and the writing business, Boyd E. Harris was enigmatic, Shane McKenzie of Sinister Grin Press was cool. And then there was Hal Bodner. When he’s not trying to kill the ants that are eating the maggots that are coming up out of his floor, as he was recently, Hal is a writer, the author of the hilarious bestselling novel Bite Club, among other works. I met him briefly at WHC in 2006, but it was too brief for me to discover what a force of nature this guy is. It’s such a cliche that I hate to use it, but it’s unavoidably accurate to say that he lights up a room when he enters it. No one at KillerCon made me laugh as hard as Hal and he did it several times. He knows everyone. And everything. He’s a walking encyclopedia of genre and convention knowledge and a natural mood-elevator. I enjoyed every moment we spent with him.

In fact, I enjoyed every moment of the entire weekend. It was an amazing high. There are a lot of people I haven’t mentioned here, and if you’re one of them, I apologize, but I’ve already yammered on long enough. Big thanks to Wrath White and his wife Christie Parsley White, Bailey Hunter of Dark Recesses, R.J. Cavender, Rena Mason and all the other people responsible for making it such a wonderful weekend.

If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll go through this article and click on the links to check out the work of all the people I’ve mentioned here. A lot of people have come to my blog and Facebook page for reasons other than my horror fiction, but I hope you won’t let the “horror” label turn you off. It’s a big genre and there’s something for everyone. There’s a good chance you’ll find someone here you’re not familiar with, but whose work you will enjoy.

I had forgotten what an invigorating experience a convention can be. I don’t often get to hang out with other writers, particularly writers in the horror genre, and it’s something I need to make an effort to do more often because it’s like a big vitamin B-12 shot to the creativity glands.