Long Island, New York – Stoker Weekend 2011
It really was a dark and stormy night. Waking up at 5am from a thunderstorm isn’t exactly the way that most people would want to kick off a convention weekend, but it didn’t seem like such a big deal knowing I had to get up only a half hour later for my commute from Manhattan to Long Island. And for the rest of the day, it rained. And it poured. And it rained some more. It is a horror convention so it only seems fitting, right? I arrived at the train station in time, then at the bus depot after that, and, after quite a schlep to the hotel from the parking lot, eventually got to the Long Island Marriott Hotel and Conference Center where this year’s Stoker Weekend took place.
At registration, I was greeted rather warmly by Martel Sardina and HWA Chairperson Vince Liaguno (just about the sweetest person you could ever meet) and I received my badge, goodie bag, and the revised schedule of events, updated for some last minute changes.
First up was Michael Arnzen’s workshop called Horror Unbound, which was about horror writing in general. An informal workshop, Michael allowed those assembled to talk a bit about the fundamentals of horror plot structures and we examined a comic strip that represents horror in the grandest way. A kid sees a ‘wet cement’ sign and chooses to jump in anyway, sinking like quicksand as the last panel depicts the construction worker paving over him like he never existed. Truly disturbing if you think about it. This workshop was a fantastic way to get the weekend started, and if you haven’t seen Michael speak in person, he’s a hoot. I like to think of him as the Jeff Foxworthy of the horror world.
The first thing I noticed was how intimate Stoker Weekend was – this definitely wasn’t your standard con, which features celebrity guests from popular films and tv shows, an endless dealer’s room, costume contests, etc. If anything, the weekend felt more like a close knit writer’s retreat, and I personally loved the small scale of it.
After Arnzen’s insightful (and hilarious) panel, I was off to the pre-Horror Pitch panel where all of the editors/agents who had agreed to hear pitches that day gathered for the afternoon. Those accepting pitches included Don D’Auria (formerly of Leisure, now at Samhain), Leah Hultenschmidt of Sourcebooks (also formerly of Leisure), Tom Colgan of Penguin, moderator R.J. Cavender from Dark Recesses Press, and Beth Fleisher of Clear Sailing Creatives, Medallion Press. Ginjer Buchanan of Penguin, who showed up later on, didn’t participate in the panel. R.J. was the perfect moderator as he knew to address the key things: how to pitch, how not to pitch, what the panelists were looking for in a pitch, and some general useful guidelines that it helps to go over, because although some are veterans at pitching, it’s not always possible to determine who is completely new to it (it’s definitely an art form; I will say that).
Then I had the pleasure of meeting a fellow blogger, Midnyte Reader, which was a lovely highlight for me as one of the few book bloggers in attendance. I also had the pleasure of meeting some amazing fellow writers, and although horror is such a tight-knit community to begin with, one of the best parts of the conference was meeting those people for whom it was also their first time out, forging new connections, and best of all, coming together in a pre-pitching huddle. We were all pretty nervous, making sure that we had all the information we needed, but there was such a strong sense of camaraderie as we got to know each other and laughed at each others jokes that we put one another at ease and basked in each others company.
The celeb sightings were restricted largely to writers, which made me feel like I was at some kind of horror equivalent of the Oscars. Jeff Strand, Michael Knost, Jonathan Maberry, Peter Straub, Joe Hill, Ellen Datlow, David Morrell – the list goes on. But the who’s who of the community definitely had a very strong presence at the convention. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this much at home as I did among the horror community at Stoker Weekend. I’ve been to my fair share of conventions, but it’s a completely different experience from going when the Stokers partner with the World Horror Convention. There’s more room to do things that may not necessarily be able to happen when attached to WHC, for instance.
I then visited Jonathan Maberry’s workshop on how to write comic books in which he gave a frank and detailed description of how everything in that universe works, his experiences with companies doing adaptations, including Marvel, and his general views on how best to break in to the industry.
Overall, I had a successful first day and a fantastic time. Saturday kicked off bright and early with a panel on horror blogging, in which published authors such as Chad Helder, Scott Kenemore, Jonathan Maberry, Lisa Morton, and Sally Bosco joined moderator John Cozzoli in discussing what strategies have worked for them in terms of social media, finding a unique perspective from which to blog, connecting with other horror writers, and basically finding a way to integrate themselves within the community. Self-promotion is definitely an art form, and as Scott pointed out, there needs to be a balance between how much time a writer spends on social media and on actual writing time. “You don’t want to use up all your writing juice on Facebook,” he said. I couldn’t agree more.
Chad’s perspectives were also interesting, having come from a background rooted in queer horror (read his fascinating piece on the subject here, a decidedly niche carving in an already niche-y area, but he made it work and eventually expanded his site to create a strong presence.
After this, I went to one of the most enjoyable sessions of the weekend, a Graveside Chat (interview) with Fangoria hall-of-famer Anthony Timpone, interviewed by former Fangoria correspondent (and fellow Canuck) Michael Rowe, who now writes for the Huffington Post. This was one of the most insightful chats I had the privilege of attending, and the room was decorated with scary figures in bloody/violent poses, including a green-skinned skeleton wearing a top hat and sitting cross-legged. I’m still embarrassed that every time I walked into the room, I would think one of the figures at the door was a person.
Anthony went into how the magazine business, specifically horror publications, have changed. Though Fangoria’s subscriptions are on the rise. Asked if he ever thought horror films would get the recognition they deserve as cinema, or whether those films that are clearly horror (such as Black Swan) will ever be called by that name, he said he wasn’t certain at this point but that the main thing is for people to continue to enjoy these works whatever they may be called, because we all know they’re horror.
He also lent insights into the horror film making boom of the ’70s and ’80s with such genre mainstays as the Halloween films, Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, etc. and he had several options to pick from in terms of which films to feature. The early ’90s, with the exception of the Scream films were a bit light in terms of films made, and the magazine struggled in deciding what to put on the cover. But in the early 2000s with the advent of the Saw franchise and the remake boom that has currently overtaken the genre, he could easily pick four or five films to feature on the cover.
Anthony’s answer to whether he thinks of the people who label Twilight as horror was frustrating but ultimately true – the real fans of horror who prefer their vampires vicious and remorseless, not sparkly and docile, know that Twilight isn’t horror. It has vampires and werewolves, but it’s a teen paranormal romance that borrows its speculative elements from horror. He said that although he understands peoples’ disdain, he thinks that if it leads people to buy more horror and to move from Stephanie Meyer to Anne Rice, that’s the ideal situation.
The Masters of Horror panel was also highly entertaining, a great revelation into what constitutes horror according to the panelists. And no, sitting beside Ellen Datlow is not intimidating at all. Not! I was so scared I would say something stupid, but thankfully I didn’t. The back and forth humor and the stories between the panelists, particularly David Morrell and Peter Straub, was delightful. Gillian Flynn had some moments to shine, as well, as Horror World editor Nanci Kalanta asked if Gillian has encountered any difficulties in the male-dominated field, to which she surprisingly replied that she hadn’t and that although horror is still very much dominated by men, she’s never had someone tell her that she ought not to be writing horror because she’s a woman or that she’s not writing good horror because she’s not a man. In fact, she receives emails from people who tell her to tone it down as they’re shocked at how brutal the mother character is in Sharp Objects.
Douglas Clegg moderated a hilarious but also insightful panel called Night Terrors: Why We Write Horror, which explored the roots of each panelist’s foray into the field. Sarah Langan, also one of the few female novelists in attendance, recounted a hysterical story about how she enjoyed the thrill of upsetting people very early on, much to the chagrin of her teacher and classmates who had to endure a whole report on starving African children.
“What a Wednesday Addams thing to do,” Clegg remarked, eliciting more laughter.
For Norman Prentiss, his mother provided much of the source of his inspiration. An agoraphobe who didn’t want to go outside, she tried to get her son to do the same but like Xavier Dolan’s character in J’ai Tué Ma Mère (I Killed My Mother) albeit for different reasons, Norman would tell people his mother was dead. And she once answered the phone as “Norman’s dead mother.” Perhaps the craziest of all childhood tales was an honor belonging to Stephen Graham Jones, who described poking dead cow carcasses and coming home one day to find that his family had painted themselves and lay on the ground pretending to be dead, and it was all part of an elaborate joke that left young Stephen unsettled.
One of the most interesting points of discussion came when an audience member related to Sarah’s frustrations of going through an MFA program and being discouraged (quite vehemently) from writing genre fiction, especially horror. As a professor, Stephen forces his students to take on genre writing assignments and he often clashes with the other professors in the department who he feels are doing students a disservice by forbidding genre works in their classrooms.
The highlight of the day came with the So You Want to Write a Graphic Novel panel, which included perhaps my favorite author at the event, Joe Hill. He was kind enough to autograph my review of Horns (which you can read here, incidentally) and to pose for pictures. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – I respect the hell out of Joe for not taking the easy road and using his father’s name to catapult to fame. He did it on his own merits and with his own talents, and boy does he bring quite a few. He has a deep-seated love of comic books and it felt like watching an excited kid in a comic book store (albeit a very polite and well dressed one).
And the last day ended on a positive note with two equally interesting panels, the first on debut novelists and their roads to success, which featured Michael Louis Calvillo, J.G. Faherty, and Benjamin Kane Ethridge, who related familiar but nonetheless touching stories of their journeys to the publication of their first novels.
The horror journalism panel was the last official panel of the weekend, and it was great to see Anthony Timpone moderating this one, not only because of his rich experiences with Fangoria but also because of the tips of the trade and the advice from the other panelists, such as Michael Rowe’s assertion not to get into flamewars with authors who didn’t like a particular review. There have been instances when Derek Clendening of Dark Scribe wisely sat those types of situations out, not wanting to add fuel to the fire. But when asked about how to bring about a unique voice, Rowe cautioned reviewers not to be mean for the sake of being mean. Snideness and viciousness have no place within reviews, especially when one thinks of how much effort a writer put into the project and struggled to get review coverage. “It’s so much easier to be sarcastic, rude, and just plain mean,” Rowe said, adding that some writers get off on how funny they think they sound when they’re writing negative reviews, “but what’s the point?” It’s unfair to the writer, and it’s unfair to the publication/blog, who may choose to turn down work from the reviewer if a situation escalates in a bad way.
All in all, I had a complete and utter blast at my first Stoker Weekend. I made connections and friendships that I hope will last for a long time to come, I got to rediscover that same sense of feeling at home that I so rarely get to experience these days, and I came out of it feeling like a bigger horror fan than I ever could.