WHC Part 2: Spirits
The first time I ever went to Utah, it was to meet with some producers who wanted to option my novel, The Rising. It didn’t work out because we had conversations like this:
THEM: “We see The Rising as sort of a buddy road comedy starring Chris Tucker and Gary Sinise.”
ME: “But it’s a serious novel about a father looking for his son during the zombie apocalypse.”
THEM: “Not if we option it.”
ME: “I’m leaving now.”
As if that wasn’t bad enough, during that trip, I also got hit by a van while crossing the street, which seems to be a common malady among horror writers. In hindsight, that wasn’t a good weekend.
The second time I visited Utah, it was to attend the Sundance Film Festival. Particularly, it was to attend the premiere of Ghoul, a movie based on one of my novels. The studio allowed me to bring some friends along: authors Mary SanGiovanni, Mike Oliveri, and Michael T. Huyck; my loyal pre-readers Mark Sylva and Tod Clark, and Tod’s lovely wife Suzin. There were lots of laughter and smiles and actor Nolan Gould and I got in trouble for throwing snowballs at the paparazzi trying to take his photograph. That was a good weekend.
It occurred to me, sitting in the car on my way to WHC 2016, that my score with Utah was 1 and 1.
My status as a Guest of Honor at this year’s World Horror Convention was purely accidental and pretty much last minute. Originally, I had planned on skipping this year’s WHC because I’d be on the road for the rest of the year, but then, Sarah Pinborough asked me to come, and since I would pretty much do anything Sarah asked me to, up to and including murder, I decided to attend. That decision was made easier since the convention was paying for my travel and room. See, one of the traditions of WHC is that each Guest of Honor gets interviewed on stage in front of a crowd of people. Sarah wanted me to conduct her interview, and thus, the convention staff were very accommodating. Basically, they were paying for Sarah and I to drink wine and bourbon and run amok through the streets of downtown Provo for a weekend, carving a vast swath of destruction and carnage in our wake. Maybe we’d even let Jeff Strand tag along. (You haven’t seen depravity until you’ve seen Jeff Strand in the depths of a spring water binge).
Unfortunately, due to other commitments that she just couldn’t get out of, Sarah had to cancel her appearance at WHC. Since they were already paying for me to attend anyway, the convention organizers asked if I’d like to be a replacement Guest of Honor. I said yes. And it should be noted, even though Sarah was unable to attend, the convention did a wonderful job of representing her throughout the weekend, with her books available for sale and prominently displayed in the convention registration area and dealers room. It is little touches like this that veteran authors like myself pay attention to, and as far as I’m concerned, this year’s organizers deserve big props for that.
So there I am, an accidental Guest of Honor, being driven from the airport in Salt Lake City to the convention in Provo. I’d been bounced around airports all day, and had my flight delayed twice. It was late, I was tired, and all I really wanted to do was check into my hotel room and maybe grab a drink and then go to sleep. The ride took about an hour. I asked my driver if any of the convention staff were concerned about whether or not holding the convention that far away from a major airport might impact attendance. What I found out was that, while it was certainly a concern, the bigger concern was the HWA’s Bram Stoker Awards.
HWA stands for the Horror Writers Association. It is a non-profit organization founded in 1985, for the purpose of promoting the interests of Horror and Dark fantasy writers, publishers, and other professionals in the field. This is done primarily via the annual Bram Stoker Awards, which recognize superior achievement in the field of horror fiction.
WHC and the HWA are two completely separate entities, run by two completely separate organizations. Every year, sometime between the first week of February and the first week of May, professionals in our field attend WHC—the trade show for horror writers—wherever it is held. They also usually attend the annual Bram Stoker Awards banquet, which used to be held in New York City or Los Angeles, and usually in June. But at some point in the 00’s, a decision was made to hold the Bram Stoker Awards banquet at the World Horror Convention. In my opinion, this was a mistake. If the purpose of the Stoker Awards is to recognize superior achievement in our field, and promote that superior achievement to the fans and the general public, then it should stand as its own entity, rather than being saddled to a trade show that we have already established (in the previous column) is decidedly NOT a fan convention. Joining the two events together only serves to dilute both brands.
And yet, that tradition has continued sporadically over the years. Various WHCs have hosted various HWA Stoker Award banquets. As a result, fans and the general public have now irrevocably confused the two. Rarely a month goes by where I don’t overhear a reader confusing them. Readers think the HWA gives out the Grandmaster Award. They think WHC gives out the Stoker Awards. They see three letter abbreviations, both with an ‘H’ in them, and think they are one and the same. Now, understand, this is not the reader’s fault. Fans just want to read horror novels—they don’t want to know about all the minutiae going on behind the scenes in the industry. When my toilet breaks, I call a plumber. I don’t know which pipefitters union he belongs to. I just want him to fix the fucking commode.
As I said, from where I sit, hosting the HWA’s Stoker Banquet at WHC is not good for brand recognition, and I think it does a disservice to both organizations. It also seems to invalidate the World Horror Society’s stated Rules of Conduct for convention organizers bidding on the right to hold a WHC. They state, quote “WHC should be held no earlier than the last weekend in February and no later than the first weekend in May. The reason for this interval is to avoid conflicts with the World Fantasy Convention, usually held around Halloween Weekend, and the HWA Business Meeting & Bram Stoker Awards, usually held around the beginning of June, both of which involve professionals from the horror field.” End quote.
This year, the HWA did not hold the Bram Stoker Awards banquet in conjunction with WHC. That’s a good thing, right? Well, yes and no. It’s good that they are back to being two separate identities. WHC was in Provo. The Stokers were in Las Vegas. The problem is, the Stoker Awards took place May 12—just two weeks after WHC. Now, I’ve been told by multiple HWA members that former President Rocky Wood, before his death, requested that the Stokers be held in June, like they usually are, so as not to compete with WHC. I haven’t verified if this is true or not, because experience has taught me that I can spend a week verifying things and sorting facts from allegations, and after all that work, random halfwits on the Internet will ignore my findings anyway, so fuck that noise. I have better ways to spend my time.
I don’t know if that gossip is true or not, but I have no problem believing it might be true, because Rocky Wood was a good man, who genuinely cared about WHC and cared about this industry. Even when he and I butted heads, I always appreciated and respected his love of this genre. So, I don’t know. Maybe he expressed that desire. Maybe he didn’t. Whatever the case, this year, WHC went up against the Stoker Awards, and professionals in this field had three choices:
Option A: Attend WHC in Provo.
Option B: Attend the Stokers in Las Vegas.
Option C: Find a source of income other than writing and have the money to attend both.
When we arrived at the hotel, it was clear to me that Option B was the clear winner. Yes, it was late. But lateness has never mattered at a World Horror Convention. In almost twenty years I have never walked into a World Horror Convention and not found the hotel bar packed. But it wasn’t packed. It was deserted. So were the lobby and the hallways. Indeed, had it not been for the fact that the hotel had a room reservation in my name, I would have suspected I was in the wrong place.
The only two people from our tribe that I saw were Kelly Laymon (daughter of Richard Laymon and a very good editor in her own right) and a young man I didn’t know, but recognized immediately as one of us. Kelly introduced him as Wile E. Young. She made a point of telling me—before she went off to bed—that this was his first WHC, and that he was a big fan of mine, and that he had read The Rising in high school, and wanted to be a horror writer.
Remember how we talked in last week’s column about the concept of Eternal Return? Well, suddenly it was 1999 again, and I was at my first WHC, meeting Kelly and her parents for the first time, and telling her father that I had read The Cellar in high school and that I wanted to be a horror writer. And Richard Laymon made me feel welcome and offered encouragement and advice and mostly let me know that there were other people like me. So did Jack Ketchum. And Ray Garton. And John Pelan. And Edward Lee. And F. Paul Wilson. And John Skipp. And dozens more over the years. And so, even though it was late, and I was tired, and I still wanted to grab a drink and go to sleep, I chose instead to stay up and talk to Wile E. Young and did all the things my mentors did for me at various World Horror Conventions over the years. And I’m glad I did, because it was delightful.
Yes, the Stoker Awards definitely impacted WHC’s attendance this year. It was the lowest attended World Horror Convention I’ve ever been to. But what it lacked in people, it made up for in intimacy. And look—I’m not bashing the HWA here. They absolutely have a right to hold their event wherever and whenever they want to. All I’m saying is that, from the perspective of a new, aspiring horror writer, you’d be hard pressed to get the kind of access that was available at this year’s WHC.
As I said in last week’s column, it used to be that when you attended WHC, you were among friends. You were among family. I had wondered if that would still hold true.
Well, it does. I saw old friends—Jack Ketchum, Linda Addison, Michael Arnzen, Jeff Strand, Kevin J. Anderson, Michael Bailey, Bailey Hunter, and more. I made new friends—Dave Butler of Wordfire Press, Dale and Natalie Johnson from Cross Genre Books (who helped me fill some holes in my Arkham House and Gnome Press collections), Josh Hutton of Ammodillo Munitions, and others. I saw acquaintances—editor Jason Brock, who wanted me to know that all the terrible things he’d said about me a week earlier on Facebook were just that—terrible things said on Facebook, and that we should be cool. And I agreed with this because what else was I gonna do? Punch the guy and ruin WHC for everybody, including myself? Not even I am that much of an asshole.
I stepped outside of myself during my interactions. I watched Jack Ketchum and I talking alone together in a quiet hotel room. I watched Jeff Strand and I giggling over what he was going to say about me two weeks later at the Stoker Awards. I watched myself watching Michael Arzen and Kevin J. Anderson, and marveling over the mentors they’ve become to others.
But mostly, I watched the convention through the eyes of the newbies. I watched it through the eyes of Bryan Killian and Stephen Kozeniewski, two authors who are just now beginning to discover that they’re not really newbies anymore, and they can do this shit, and aren’t quite sure whether to believe it or not yet. I watched it through the eyes of Rachel Autumn Deering, a Harvey Award and Eisner Award nominated comic book writer who has fled that section of the industry for the safe harbors of horror literature, and has found acceptance and a much healthier scene. I watched it through the eyes of Amber Fallon, and Sara Tantlinger, and Wile E. Young, and Richard Wolley and dozens of others who have just started down this path, who have just taken their first tentative steps. They are tinder and kindling, and all they needed was a spark. All they needed was a small flame of encouragement and acceptance, so that they begin to blaze.
Blaze, kids. Blaze. Set the world—and the genre—on fire. Light it up with your own unique glow.
I told you this nine-month series of columns would look at the genre twenty years ago, and look at it now, and examine the changes. Here is what I learned about the World Horror Convention. Twenty years later, most of the faces have changed. Most of the panel topics have changed. Most of the exhibitors have changed. But its purpose—and more importantly its spirit—remains absolutely the same. It is just as vital and needed and required now as it ever has been. It provides something that no amount of interaction on Facebook or Twitter can ever provide. It is my sincere hope that it will still be doing so another twenty years from now.
It is 7 p.m. on a Thursday night as I write this. The column is due tomorrow. Next week, I head back out on the road again. I don’t know what I’ll find out there, and that has me afraid. But for right now, for just this minute, I am enjoying the fire inside of me—a fire that others started, and a fire which I, and other authors of my generation, have in turn helped to spread to those coming up behind us.
A fire that, almost twenty years later, is becoming an inferno.
Eternal Return indeed.
Speaking of Eternal Return, and seeing old friends, and mentors, and the spirit of the World Horror Convention, I also ran into Richard Laymon at WHC. This was a surprise because he’s been dead since 2001.
More on that reunion next week…
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.