For fans of Weird fiction, there is no resource quite like The Outer Dark. From its roots as an in-depth podcast series hosted by author Scott Nicolay, The Outer Dark has continued to expand into new directions. In addition to exploring and appreciating the Weird in literature, The Outer Dark also strives to build a forward-looking community of Weird artists and fans from across all cultures, identities, and backgrounds. This March 22 and 23 will see the third incarnation of The Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird — an intimate gathering of Weird artists, authors, and enthusiasts. This year’s guests include too many familiar names to name, but is being constantly updated on the event’s Facebook group.
We are joined today by Anya Martin (author of the superb Sleeping With The Monster and tireless The Outer Dark producer) to discuss the Weird, the upcoming symposium, and why this year’s gathering might be the best one yet.
The Outer Dark Symposium activities kick off on Friday March 22 and run all day Saturday, March 23. An Indiegogo campaign to raise additional funds to fully support the symposium, runs from February 20 to March 20. For more information or to purchase memberships to The Outer Dark Symposium 2019, visit https://theouterdark2019.brownpapertickets.com/.
HELLNOTES: Let’s start with the basics: Please tell us a little about The Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird. Can you tell us about what kind of programming and events you have lined up?
The Outer Dark Symposium: In a nutshell, The Outer Dark Symposium is the only annual conference focused on contemporary Weird fiction. Secondly, we’re beyond excited to welcome our largest line-up yet, a who’s who’s of about 40 of some of the most dynamic authors, editors, artists, publishers, and scholars in Weird and speculative fiction today. As with The Outer Dark podcast, our goal is to foster conversation and community among a diverse slate of program participants–inclusive, safe and welcoming to women, LBGTQ+, and writers of color. We’re thrilled that half of our program participants this year are women.
We’re upping the panels from four to five all of which will dig deep into facets of Weird fiction. Scott and I are still working on the program but last year’s topics included The House on the Borderlands/La Frontera, Weird fiction embedded in science fiction, and Weird cinema. OK, it’s pretty sure there will be a Weird comics panel because it’s also Hellboy Day (25th anniversary of Mike Mignola’s creation) and we have two Swamp Thing experts and one Swamp Thing writer (Nancy A. Collins). Panels are intermixed with author readings so you don’t just hear someone speak but also get a sense of their literary voice. Meals are included to further foster community-building, and with a larger space, we’ll be able to feature art displays by attending artists. Attendees can get books signed at a mass author signing reception and interact with three attending publishers (Pseudopod, Mythic Delirium, and Nightscape Press, which is scheduling pitch sessions). Not to mention taking an exclusive tour of our one-of-a-kind location Silver Scream FX Lab, enjoying a classic spookshow magic performance, and well, let’s just say there’ll be some more spooky surprises—some of which Scott and I don’t even know yet!
The Outer Dark Symposium activities kick off on Friday March 22, 6-10 p.m., at Hotel Indigo-College Park, including a welcome reception, panel, and author readings presented by platinum sponsor PseudoPod (details TBA). On Saturday March 23, hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. at Silver Scream FX Lab. And as with past years, panels and readings will be recorded and featured on The Outer Dark podcast which airs on This Is Horror, reaching a global audience of listeners who are readers of Weird and speculative fiction.
HN: The Outer Dark podcast has been exploring the Weird for several years, but how did the idea come to develop this into a symposium? As a symposium, too, one of the distinguishing factors is that there are a limited number of registrations, rather than a larger, freeform con-like atmosphere. What is the goal behind keeping this event more focused and intimate?
TODS: Really it came out of two things about NecronomiCon—one that Scott and I absolutely loved and the other that we loved but frustrated us. The first was the great conversations we had about the writing craft and The Weird at room parties hosted by Laird Barron and John Langan in 2013 and 2015. We met people we only knew online and also made new friends. Hell, Scott and I met at NecronomiCon 2013! But it was even more—the freefall exchange of ideas and the feeling of community that occurred in those spaces.
On the other hand, NecronomiCon organizer Niels Hobbs and his team did such a spectacular job at programming panels and readings, but it was impossible to attend everything. One must-see panel was at the same time as another must-see panel, not to mention competing with readings, films, and that essential social time spent wandering the dealers room checking out books and running into people.
We thought what if we could create a new model where everybody actually can attend all the programming, and also allow for social spaces where writers can have those meaty conversations. The limited membership came from figuring out a way to provide this model but also balance cost efficiencies and risk. The first year we had a limit of 50, including our 19 program participants. We increased it last year to 75, and it still seems like the perfect size but I won’t say we won’t grow a bit in future years to meet demand and spread the cost. The trade-off with a larger size is right now you can interact at least a little with everyone—guest, attendee, and volunteer. From post-symposium surveys, people tell us they leave feeling like they are part of The Outer Dark family. We don’t want it ever to get so big that we completely lose that intimacy.
HN: This is the third year of holding The Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird. What did you learn from the previous symposia, and what areas are you looking to either build on or change?
TODS: Every year we learn something. The first symposium was literally by our bootstraps. We decided in late December and put everything together in less than three months. We cut every corner, and I pulled every favor in Atlanta to pull it off. The big thing we learned was we could do this crazy thing and that people wanted us to do it again—i.e. there was a real appetite in the Weird fiction community for our own gatherings, not just that one “why is the Weird suddenly popular again; who should we read?” panel at World Fantasy Con or World Horror Con. People also really loved that even if they couldn’t attend, they could listen online.
Our second year was a big leap, doing it at the Winchester Mystery House, which may be the most haunted house in America but also is an attraction with no negotiation on booking fees and catering. First, we had to learn how to raise a lot more money—the budget jumped from $4,000 to over $11,000. Also, we set a new standard—not only is the symposium a conference but also it takes place in a distinctly Weird location.
Second, the first year we put up a number of guests at homes of other guests and only a few stayed at the partner hotel. Moving to San Jose meant more people in the hotel and by placing our Friday night programming at the hotel too, we found that created even more community. Everyone hung at the hotel bar at night and eventually ended up in our suite for impromptu room parties. We knew we wanted to replicate that again this year and fortunately found another great partner in Hotel Indigo-College Park. And while there’s not a lot of non-symposium free time, we also were able to address one complaint—this year’s hotel is within walking distance of a suburban main street with locally owned restaurants featuring barbecue, Cajun and organic fare.
In sum, we hope to bring together the best of both our first and second symposiums. We hope that it means we did something right, since a number of two-time and even three-time previous program participants are coming back. Scott and I have always envisioned Atlanta as a home base and it allows us to involve BlacktastiCon organizers Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade. And thanks to sponsor support from Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who joined us last year, and Innsmouth Free Press, we are delighted to bring in acclaimed Mexican author Gabriela Damian Miravete.
HN: This year, The Symposium is being held at the Silver Scream FX Lab in Atlanta and last year it was at the famous Winchester House in San Jose. How do you decide on which venues to use and what kind of different atmospheres do you think they lend to the proceedings?
TODS: We had the first symposium in a co-work space that was very flexible in its layout, but once we decided to do the second at the Winchester, Scott and I knew we had upped the ante. It’s hard to top the notoriety of the Winchester, one of the most haunted places in America, but another reason we decided to return to Atlanta was because we could book an equally Weird location in Silver Scream FX Lab.
Silver Scream is a floor-to-ceiling funhouse featuring both a special effects make-up/props/costume studio and an extensive museum including your favorite classic Universal and Toho monsters. Here, Shane Morton and his team have designed and created most recently the Cheddar Goblin for the crazed Nicholas Cage cult hit Mandy (2018), as well as work for AdultSwim’s Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell, Too Many Cooks, and many more.
But the real thing about working with Shane is he gets what we do—he’s a Weird fiction reader. He’s also the heart and soul of the Atlanta horror community, and there’s no one really like him in his energy level and passion for cult cinema monsters and practical effects. Locally he’s best known for creating the character of Professor Morte, The Ghost Host with the Most of Atlanta’s popular Silver Scream Spook Show, a loving homage to the classic spookshows of old. And the Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse, the haunt he designed and ran for five years in the old motel that is now Silver Scream FX Lab’s location, was immersive experiential theater, not the typical jumpscarefest haint.
So when I say you’re in for a treat this year, it’s no trick. Magic is going to happen!
HN: Because some of our readers might be more familiar with horror, what is the difference between Weird and horror or other types of dark fiction? Is there a distinction there to be made?
TODS: While defining Weird fiction too tightly is problematic at best, we generally are supportive of the flexible parameters suggested by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer in their introduction to the indispensable The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (2012; see table of contents here). In part, they suggest “Because The Weird is as much a sensation as it is a mode of writing, the most keenly attuned amongst us will say ‘I know it when I see it,’ by which they mean ‘I know it when I feel it’ — and this, too, the more rigorous of categorizing taxidermists will take to mean The Weird does not exist when, in fact, this is one of the more compelling arguments for its existence.” Also, Sofia Samatar suggests the Weird is “speculative fiction with a complicated relationship to genre. It might blend genres or overturn their conventions, while still remaining clearly anti-realist.” We agree with her that The Weird’s earliest examples “predate the marketing categories of fantasy, science fiction, and horror.”
HN: Over the last few years there seems to be a general creeping in of Weird elements into mainstream media. What is it about the Weird — or maybe about the past few years — that seems to have led to increased visibility?
TODS: Well, Scott has called it a Weird Renaissance and I agree. While some say The Weird never went away, it’s no longer your/literally my father’s Lovecraft and his almost all white-cis-male circle. Some say it’s because the world, especially the US, is literally so politically Weird now, but the resurgence predates that. As I said in “The Weird at the World’s End,” my The H Word essay for Nightmare magazine, one could argue that we’re closer to the end of the world than we have since the Cold War ended, with three imminent terminal scenarios—nuclear war, global warming, and the Singularity. The future’s so dark, you won’t be able to see if you wear shades!
But if the cause sounds grim, the result is not. The Weird in the 21st century is in the hands of writers representing the full spectrum of gender, orientation, race, and culture, and whose influences span broadly from genre to literary to global. Plus Weird authors are casting women, people of color, LBGT as protagonists, not as threats or ancillaries. With The Outer Dark podcast and symposium, Scott and I strive to celebrate this development, which we see as overwhelmingly positive and revealing a new dimension and relevance to Weird literature.
HN: One of the important things about The Symposium is that it recognizes that the Weird is a living and growing field. Rather than being defined by a specific time period or a handful of dead authors, there is a lot of interesting work currently being done in the field. Just briefly, how will The Symposium explore the link between the old traditions and the currently working authors?
TODS: Well, contrary to the perceptions of some, we don’t negate Lovecraft and his circle, but we also don’t center them. We, like Sofia Samatar, see The Weird as a much bigger an older literary mode which encompasses a wide range of authors, either intentionally or nonintentionally writing Weird fiction. Building upon the mission of Scott’s Stories from the Borderland blog, we have a passion for uncovering overlooked examples of Weird fiction and bringing older neglected authors, particularly women, into the “canon.” Since our panels tend to focus on thematic elements in Weird fiction, the names of older authors come up all the time. Last year we had a panel on science fiction stories that also are great Weird fiction stories, and that inevitably led to mentions of John Carpenter’s The Thing and John W. Campbell’s great Weird tale “Who Goes There.” This year the program isn’t completed yet but we’re considering a panel inspired by Borges.
Another place where we try to shine attention on seminal authors is in the program chapbook, which is also available to supporting members via the Indiegogo campaign. In the first symposium’s program, we featured a piece on Tanith Lee by Craig Laurance Gidney. This year, we’re going to be including a wonderful article by Ian McDowell on author Jane Rice, an affectionate piece by Orrin Grey on Mike Mignola and Hellboy, and we hope to have a piece on African American sword and sorcery author Charles R. Saunders too. We’ll also be including fiction by Mike Allen, Jesse Bullington, Selena Chambers, Gabriela Damiȧn Miravete, Orrin Grey, Edward Austin Hall, Scott Nicolay, Lesley Wheeler, and Gordon B. White. Oh, and a fantastic woodcut print cover by Liv Rainey-Smith! It was important to us to have a woman cover artist this year and Liv definitely gets the Weird.
HN: What areas do you see being important in the Weird’s further development?
TODS: I think the biggest fear is that the Weird is becoming oversaturated and that its looseness of definition frays too far on the edges. I was taken back recently when one prominent author whose opinion I deeply respect told me that he was growing weary of so much Weird fiction. That’s another reason why discussion among authors, like we do at the symposium, is so important. Attending writers have told us that they went home with burning questions that fueled both stories and nonfiction. The only thing I can say for sure again is the best Weird fiction is coming from diverse voices, so perhaps those who are weary and are seeing repeated patterns aren’t reading the most groundbreaking work.
HN: Finally, is there anything else that you’d like to share about The Symposium?
TODS: Please come get Weird with us at The Outer Dark Symposium, and if you can’t come, please consider supporting our Indiegogo campaign so Weird readers can listen to all the panels and readings on the podcast. It takes a Weird village to make something like this happen. We have a unique needs-based attendance model for program participants, and we couldn’t pull it all off without a combo of paid memberships, amazing sponsors, and crowdsourcing.
As in past years, the Indiegogo includes books signed by our guests, The Outer Dark T-shirts featuring our logo by artist Nick Gucker, supporting memberships which include the program chapbook, discounted NecronomiCon passes, and more. Melanie and I also went to the Days of the Dead convention in Atlanta and were able to obtain some unique cinematic collectibles such as signed photo of scream queen Linnea Quigley with a chainsaw dedicated to The Outer Dark, a Rob Zombie’s Three From Hell mini-poster signed by Bill Moseley and Sid Haig, and…drumroll…our top perk which was snapped up just hours into the campaign–a copy of The Hellraiser Chronicles signed not only by Clive Barker but by six Hellraiser actors including Doug Bradley, Barbie Wilde, Nicholas Vince, Simon Bamford, Ashley Lawrence, and Andrew Robinson. Clive and each star signed on the page with their photo/profile and personalized to The Outer Dark. We owe our deepest gratitude to Clive, who without us asking also did an original sketch to pair with this amazing collectible which went for $800!
Thanks to our 2019 sponsors so far: Argawarga Press, Broken Eye Books, Dim Shores, Dunhams Manor Press, Innsmouth Free Press, Lethe Press, Mocha Memoirs Press, Mythic Delirium Press, NecronomiCon Providence, Nightscript, Nightscape Press, Perpetual Motion Machine Publications, Revelator, Undertow Publications, Word Horde, and Grimscribe Press/Vastarien: A Literary Journal. And a final big thanks always to Michael David Wilson and Bob Pastorella at our host network This Is Horror!