WHC Part 1: A Brief History of the World Horror Convention
The World Horror Convention, more commonly known as WHC, is perhaps best described as an annual trade show for horror writers, publishers, artists, booksellers, agents, and others with an interest in the field. Fans of horror fiction are welcome to attend, too, and they do, but WHC is a professional gathering, and it’s expensive, and you’re not apt to see cosplayers or a guy in the dealer’s room selling bootleg copies of Manimal on DVD like you would at a fan or media convention such as San Diego Comic Con or Dragon Con. The first WHC was held in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1991. There’s been one every year ever since, usually in the United States or Canada, although the 2010 event was held in the United Kingdom, finally putting the World in the World Horror Convention.
I attended my first WHC in 1999. It was held in Atlanta. I was a complete newbie, having published a handful of stories and articles in a few amateur zines. It is fair to say that the World Horror Convention changed my life. At the time, I was working for a radio station, doubling as a sales representative and an on-air personality. Writing for a living was something I aspired to do, but so was a trip to Mars. I didn’t think either were attainable in any sort of real sense. Hell, I would have settled for just being professionally published, but that seemed like a pipe dream as well.
I arrived in Atlanta and hopped on a shuttle bus from the airport to the hotel and met the first member of our tribe that I had ever encountered.
Well, okay. An aside. Before that, my interactions with authors had been conducted solely online, using Windows 3.0 and a very primitive chat room that took approximately twenty minutes to refresh every time you typed a response. I’d only physically encountered a real author once—when Joe R. Lansdale did a signing at my friend’s comic book store. I managed to mumble something about how much I liked The Drive-In before shuffling away. I also once stood outside a club where John Skipp was playing music with his band, convinced that if I handed him my manuscript, he would help me get it published. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet him that night.
And here we are now, years later, and I am lucky enough to call both Joe and Skipp friends.
And in a weird bit of synchronicity, Joe’s daughter, Kasey Lansdale, and I did a signing at the same comic book store years later.
(I should warn you now that the meat of this nine-month series of columns—of which this is column number four—is going to be built around the concept of Eternal Return. It’s something I believe in very strongly, and I’ve based my entire fictional mythos around it and String Theory. Eternal Return proposes that the universe and all existence and energy has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time and space. Or, if you want to put it in horror terms, think Rust Cohle’s “Time is a flat circle” speech from True Detective, or delve deep into the writings of Laird Barron or Alan Moore. We won’t come back to this until much later in the year, but I’m throwing it out there now. Writers call that “foreshadowing”).
But I digress. Where were we? Oh, yes. On a shuttle bus in Atlanta in 1999 on our way to Brian’s first WHC.
Before we even arrived at the hotel, I met a guy about the same age as me. I don’t know how we recognized each other. I don’t know what about us said “I’m going to the World Horror Convention.” Maybe it was a chemical thing. Maybe there was something in our eyes. We struck up a conversation and he introduced himself as Gak. I recognized his name. We’d been appearing in the same fanzines together—he as an aspiring artist and me as an aspiring writer. Here we are, almost twenty years later, and Gak’s artwork is now indelibly inked across much of my back in the form of a large tattoo.
Time is a flat circle, indeed.
When we got to the hotel, Gak disappeared. My room wasn’t ready yet, and I found myself standing in the lobby, not sure what to do next. There was a guy dressed all in black sprawled across one of the sofas in the lobby. There was no one else around. And then the guy, somehow sensing that I’m there for the convention, calls me over to him. I approach him with caution, and then he reaches into his bag and shows me something he’d just bought in the dealer’s room. To this day, I can’t tell you what the item was, because it quickly dawned on me that the guy was author John Shirley. He’s trying to show it to me and have an intelligent conversation with me about it, and meanwhile, I’m standing there with my mouth clamped shut because I know if I open it, I’m going to shout unhelpful things like “You’re John Shirley! You’re John Shirley! You wrote A Splendid Chaos! You’re John Shirley!”
And that was my first WHC. Over the course of that weekend, I discovered just how open and welcoming the horror professional community is. I was an absolute nobody, and yet I found myself having dinner with Brian Hodge and Yvonne Navarro, or partying on a hotel rooftop with folks like Neil Gaiman and Ramsey Campbell. I also met most of the peers I’d been talking with online in that archaic, Internet 1.0 chat room—folks like Tom Piccirilli, John Urbancik, Jack Haringa, Geoff Cooper, Mike Oliveri, Michael T. Huyck, Ryan Harding, Regina Mitchell, and so many more. In the almost twenty years that have followed, they remain some of the best friends I have ever had in life.
As I said earlier, before attending WHC, I’d approached writing as a past time—a hobby. I’d write things occasionally and send them out to zines, and sometimes they’d get published but more often they got rejected. When WHC was over and I’d gone home again, that all changed. Suddenly, I was driven to write. It changed my entire outlook and approach to this vocation. I began writing every evening, no matter how tired I was. The publication versus rejection ratio changed. I became more involved with our community. I finally began to view myself as a writer, rather than as a guy who worked a succession of various jobs and wrote occasionally on weekends. I’d always dreamed of writing for a living. Attending that first WHC was what finally gave me the resolve to actually strive towards it.
At my second World Horror Convention, Richard Laymon—an author who was a huge influence on me, and whom I looked up to immensely—introduced me to his editor, Don D’Auria, and told him about a little zombie novel I was working on at the time (of which Laymon had read the first few chapters and offered some advice). Don asked me to send it to him, and I did. At my third World Horror Convention, Jack Ketchum sat down with me at the hotel bar and went over the contract for that zombie novel with a red pen and taught me everything I’d ever need to know about negotiating a publishing contract. I still have that red-penned original at home, and I still have the receipt for the bottle of scotch I bought him in return. That novel was The Rising, and it launched my career and made me a full-time writer.
None of that would have been possible without WHC, and I’ve been attending WHC—whenever possible—ever since.
But I wondered, flying in to this year’s WHC, if Millennials and younger horror writers saw it in the same light? Was it as useful to them as it had been to our generation and the generation before us—or, like seemingly everything else in our society, had its sense of community been replaced by online social networking? Was WHC still a vital thing? Was it still good? Or had time gnawed on its bones the way it seemed to be doing everything else in my life?
Here’s the thing about WHC. It is only as good as the people who are hosting it. WHC is overseen by the World Horror Society. Each year, individuals can bid on the right to host WHC in their city. The World Horror Society Board of Directors then awards the bid to the group they think will do the best job. Most years, this works out just fine. There have been plenty of lovely World Horror Conventions. Some years, it works out phenomenally (Denver 2000, Seattle 2001, New York 2005, San Francisco 2006, Toronto 2007, Brighton 2010, and especially Austin 2011 are fondly remembered and praised as exceptional conventions). And occasionally, just occasionally, there are years that are remembered less-than-fondly (Kansas City 2003 and Portland 2014 immediately come to mind. Had it not been for the combined efforts of the HWA and Deadite Press’s Rose O’Keefe and Jeff Burk, all three of whom stepped in at the last minute to save the day, I seriously doubt the Portland WHC would have happened at all).
But the important thing about WHC is that it doesn’t matter who is hosting it from year to year. Their individual competence or incompetence doesn’t matter. What matters is that when you come to WHC, you are among friends. You are among family. Horror writers have always been welcoming of anyone, regardless of race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation. Indeed, we’ve often been the first to do so. You will never find a more welcoming, friendly, and good-humored group than the people in this tribe.
As my plane landed in Utah, and I found my driver waiting to take me to this year’s WHC, I wondered if that would that still hold true.
To be continued…
Author’s Note: A few paragraphs of this column appeared in an altered form in the book Trigger Warnings.
Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, including the recently released Pressure and The Complex. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.