Convention Hangover, Part 1: Four Readings

This year’s Bram Stoker Awards Weekend incorporating the World Horror Convention was in New Orleans, Louisiana, at the stunning Hotel Monteleone. Prior to the convention, I was informed by a former resident of NOLA that it was New Orleans, so the last syllable of the hotel’s name was pronounced like “own,” not to rhyme with “phony.” Armed with that vital bit of knowledge, I was on my way.
The experience is too big to handle in one article, so this is merely the first. My first WHC in Austin, most of my time was spent attending panels. These were alright, with some good information. I also attended a couple readings on a whim. They are what blew me away, and last year in Salt Lake City, and this year in NOLA, I scheduled my days around the readings I wanted to attend.
I saw four this year that were drop-jaw awesome: Robert McCammon, Tom Monteleone, Mort Castle, and Joe McKinney, all giants in the genre, immensely-talented writers and great guys to boot.
Robert McCammonThis past year, the Horror Writers Association honored Robert with the Lifetime Achievement Award. I settled into my seat, excited to hear my first McCammon story from the man himself. Robert read “The Great White Way” from The Hunter from the Woods, a story about a travelling circus and a beautiful woman who loves two men, one the carnival’s strong man who expresses his love with his fists and the other the quiet youth who tends the animals, whose soft demeanor conceals a raging beast. You can tell a lot about how a writer feels about their work by the way they read it. Robert’s prose was rich with detail, his voice inflected with the emotions of the story. It was a good reading, but what made it great was when he punctuated a tense moment by slamming his fist on the podium. I jumped in my seat, startled. It was perfect timing and it fit the moment in the story. I remained on edge for the rest of his reading, waiting for him to do it again. He didn’t. Being on edge refocused my mind to the story and I sat listening, breathing lightly, afraid to miss a single word. The story concluded tenderly with love fulfilled, love betrayed and love lost all in turn. After he softly spoke the final word, there was a hushed moment as we in the audience remained in the world of the story, then left only with reluctance.
Tom MonteleoneTom Monteleone changed my life. Twice. He wrote the essay, “Workshops of Horror (and Seminars and Conferences),” which motivated me to come to my first Word Horror Convention in Austin in 2011, which changed the course of my career. I’m also an avid reader of his column in Cemetery Dance. In the one from issue #65, he talks about having written The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel and the flak that he received from his advice to write at least 3 pages a day because the faster you write, the more you can sell. (See my defense of his advice here.) Needless to say, Tom greatly influenced my writing method. When I took my seat at his reading, I couldn’t wait to hear a story from one of my heroes. He told us he’d be reading “Yog-Sothoth, Superstar,” an epistolary story which was originally published in Song of Cthulu and collected in his Stoker Award-winning Fearful Symmetries. He didn’t stand behind the podium and, during the course of his reading, paced the room. His reading was energetic, by necessity taking on the personalities of those characters who wrote the letters, sent the memos, left the phone messages and made the news reports that were the story’s text. He made me smile, laugh, and then I felt something else. Dread. Being no stranger to HP Lovecraft, I inferred the story’s ending about halfway through the reading. Seeing the impending horror, I was powerless to stop it, and the characters obsessed with the minutiae of their lives who were ripped from their cozy little bubbles by the story’s ending were me, my friends and family, everyone. It may not be a god rising from the sea, but this world contains horrors that shrink our lives and concerns to infinitesimal proportions. Dread, the fear of dying and the fear of living powerless.
Mort CastleMort Castle also changed my life. He edited On Writing Horror which is one of the pivotal books in my life. Without this book, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today, nor would my career be on its current track. Mort has the distinction of being the only writer whose reading I attended who started his with live music, playing the ukulele. He read two pieces that frame his book, New Moon on the Water, “Nine Musings on the Nature of Horror” and “I Don’t Know is What I Say.” In the first, Mort lays down his rules for the genre, interspersed with demonstrative anecdotes. His core rule that “Horror is an emotion” has influenced me profoundly as an author. In a genre inundated with blood and guts, he exhorts us to write with heart, and his earnestness was crystal clear as he read. Continuing that theme, he read “I Don’t Know is What I Say,” a parallel essay telling the story of an author pitching a vampire novel to him and relating the details of a recent news story about six women who’d been held hostage at a nail salon, then killed. The balance between the two addresses one of the central concerns of the genre: writing horror in the face of real-world horrors. “I don’t know,” is the best answer Mort can provide the author who’s pitching to him when asked if his idea is horror, or what? His is profound and heartfelt doubt that inspires me to reach for meaning.
(For my answer to that question, go here.)
Joe McKinneyNOLA wasn’t the first time I’ve seen Joe McKinney read. I saw him in Austin, reading from The Red Empire. I liked the story and his reading, so I made sure to make time to see him in NOLA. He introduced the story, “Bury My Heart at Marvin Gardens,” which appeared in The Best of Dark Moon Digest, by saying that he’d written the story to honor a friend of his. The story takes place in a world overrun by zombies and is about a woman trying to fulfill her husband’s last wish that he be buried at Marvin Gardens which, according to her Monopoly board, comes after Ventnor and before Pacific in Atlantic City. While reading, Joe fought back tears while describing his friend, the husband, who he had been and the life that he’d been taken from too soon. The room was completely silent, most of the audience blinking away their own tears. For this story and this reading, Joe laid his soul bare for us. Afterward, the audience formed a line to embrace him and whisper words of encouragement. His courage and heart stands as an inspiration.
These four readings combined to affect me deeply. In a genre that can easily lose itself in the cheap gimmickry of splashy action and exploitative description, these four practice art through deep emotional investment in their characters and stories. They should be read, then re-read. And then thanked.
Thank you.

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