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  • Writer's pictureLee Murray

StokerCon, Lovecraft, and a Hurricane

Updated: Mar 25, 2018

StokerCon 2018 was held in Providence, Rhode Island, and in a special welcome to the horror community, Lovecraft’s Providence turned on a hurricane. At the iconic Biltmore Hotel (est 1925) where we had gathered, windows bowed against the wind, and water seeped through every crack. The bellhops sandbagged the front doors and the kitchen ran out of French fries. Transportation was curtailed and a heap of our friends travelling across the country were turned back by the nightmarish conditions, but for those of us who made it, StokerCon was anything but gloomy.

For the first time, my partner in darkness, Dan Rabarts, is in attendance, buoyed by an elusive Creative New Zealand grant and effectively doubling the Kiwi contingent on previous years. Our not-so-secret mission is to stuff our brains with helpful writer stuff, make friends, and wave the flag for New Zealand dark fiction.

“Wait! I thought you were bringing the flag.”

“Me? I thought you were bringing it.”

Lacking a flag, we hand out postcards with links to free antipodean fiction, copies of Te Kōrero Ahi Kā and Midnight Echo, and talk up our down under writer friends at every chance we get.

We know already that some of the best work of any convention revolves around the meals, and our StokerCon meals, when we have time for them, are epic.

Let’s start with our Wednesday night supper at Blake’s Tavern, two streets from the Biltmore, with Jennifer Barnes and John Lawson of Raw Dog Screaming Press. Dan has met them both online via skype, but this is his first time meeting our Hounds of the Underworld publishers in person. “How old are you?” they ask Dan, their eyes widening when their guess of late twenties is more than a decade off the mark.

Joining us for dinner is four-time Bram Stoker Award winning poet, last year’s mentor of the year, and all-round person of gorgeousness, Linda D Addison.

There is some writing talk, interspersed with a smattering of Dad jokes and a serious degustation of local ales. John Edward Lawson gets the giggles.

As we’re paying the bill, I get a text from a colleague arriving at the train station.

“Don’t bother texting directions,” my darling says. “Let’s just go and meet him.”

“Hell no,” says Linda. “I’m not walking another step.”

To be fair, there are several hundred Twisted Book of Shadows submissions waiting for her back in her room and she has already travelled halfway across the country today. Nevertheless, she lets us cajole her into it, showing exactly the kind of perseverance that makes a Lifetime Achievement Award winner, and as the snow begins to fall, we all walk to the station to meet Aussie Alan Baxter fresh from thirty hours of travelling.

After some committee-like indecision, we head back to the Biltmore and the bar, where I meet some old friends, and make some new ones. There are so many faces, and everyone is tired from travelling, so there’s the occasional error.

“Hello, I’m Lee Murray.”

Craig DiLouie reminds me we’ve been face book friends for about five years.

Whoops! And I swear I’ve only been drinking Diet Coke.

Then someone mistakes me for my fabulous Kauai Writers buddy, Rena Mason, which makes me feel better.

On Thursday the storm is still gathering steam, so the Antipodean contingent, featuring Alan Baxter, Dan Rabarts, my darling and myself, head out to explore the capitol building of a state where the founding principle is: “Rare felicity of the times when it is permitted to think what you like and say what you think.” There is no mention of doing what you like, but it doesn’t stop Alan sitting in any chair or bashing any gavel he can get his hands on. After a thoroughly fascinating tour, we head to the mall for lunch at the Cheesecake Factory —no, we did not see Penny. Despite our best intentions, the portions are so big no one makes it to dessert. Then we go our separate ways: Dan and Alan heading off for the prerequisite photo opportunity at Lovecraft’s grave, my darling shopping for our children, and me back to the Biltmore for afternoon tea and tactics with Kate Jonez of Omnium Gatherum.

Our first true event of the conference is the Rabarts-Murray reading slot, shared with the very charming Brian Matthews, author of the Forever Man series (Journalstone). The slot is scheduled in the late afternoon at same time as the Jack Ketchum memorial and as such is attended only by our die-hard fans and a few stray souls who have not managed to find the memoriam. Dan and I wear All Black…um… Raw Dog colours on our fancy home-team t-shirts. Brian’s reading, an excerpt from his newest title, is a hard act to follow, but Dan and I do our best.

*Back home, on seeing us reading in our new t-shirts, SFFANZ secretary Lynelle Howell was inspired to write this poem:

Possibly not an award-winning poem, but we're flattered all the same!

With little time remaining before the opening ceremonies, we stop at the bar for a quick meal with two of the deadliest women in the business, JH Moncrieff and Theresa Braun, along with New England writer James Ebersole. Cue an impromptu squealy hug with RDSP poet Stephanie Wytovich, where I assure her we’ll catch up again because I’ve signed up for her Horror University workshop on How to Write Killer Poetry. Then we use all our writing-to-a-deadline skills to finish our meals and make it to the top floor before HWA President Lisa Morton introduces the guests of honour: Ramsey Campbell, Craig Engler, Caitlin T Kiernan, Victor La Valle, Elizabeth Massie and Sam Weller. All giants of the industry, I am too short to see any of them over the crowd.

Cue another squealy moment when I meet Thersa Matsura, Bram Stoker nominee and author of The Carp Shaped Boy and Other Stories, who has travelled from Japan for the convention. A highlight. I insist on a photo with her. Mine isn’t too great, but Lynne Hansen, with her filmmaker panache, takes an arty picture of the group using a wall mirror. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m certain it’ll end up being a collectible if any of us ever become famous.

Eventually, we’re shooed off the top floor, so we return to the bar where, somewhere around midnight, editor Ellen Datlow puts a hand on my arm and tells me she has read our book, the one that got on the longlist, and enjoyed it.

*Ellen Datlow has read Hounds of the Underworld and enjoyed it.*

Of course, by this time, it is very late and given my state of writer euphoria, I might have imagined it. I float up to bed, missing poor Rena whose flights are so disrupted she does not arrive until 1:30am.

On Friday, there is a lovely organised-in-advance breakfast with far-too-animated-for-this-early Jennifer Barnes, where Dan and I pitch a new book project (and have it accepted). We chat about strategies and promotion and New Zealand fiction while enjoying oatmeal and Bananas Foster and fortifying ourselves with cups of tea and coffee. Towards the end of the meeting we’re joined by UK writer Danny Rhodes, and Alan Baxter, the latter stopping by for a mini-book signing of his latest title Hidden City.

It’s a smart move to eat well from the get-go because it’s straight on to The Doom that Came to Providence: Call of the Cthulhu a live RPG moderated by Bill Bridges with characters played by Oliver Baer, Karen Bovenmeyer, Danielle deLisle, Kathleen Kaufman and Brad Hodson. This is the first time I’ve seen one of these played live and it’s hysterically fun to watch so I can only imagine what it must be like to be immersed in the game [Note to self: get assigned to this panel next time. Caveat: Bill Bridges can actually summon Cthulhu]

Then it was back on the elevator and on to Knock Out Fight Scenes, a panel with James A Moore, Tim Waggoner, Teel James Glenn, Alan Baxter, and JH Moncrieff (and moderated by me). These scary folks have all the tricks and moves for killing you…I mean showing you how to write effective fight scenes, the discussion ranging from adrenalin rushes, women berserkers, accidental heroes, psychological versus physical aspects, pacing, and more. Afterwards, Linda Addison tells me she has taken two pages of notes. I figure if we can teach Linda something, then we have succeeded. Sadly, the topic is too big and the panellists too knowledgeable to cram it all into an hour and we are forced to wrap it up. For anyone who missed the panel, here are some excellent resources by the panellists:

There is a short space where I squeeze in a quick trip to the dealer’s room (no, of course I didn’t buy any books, okay only a few books), stop by to see who is reading, have a quick chat with Ellen Datlow, and another quick chat with Jeff Strand, finally meet Matt Bechtel (yes, yes, I must come to NeCon sometime) and grab an even quicker lunch, then I’m back on the elevator and on to Beyond Borders: Reading and Writing Outside the USA, with a commonwealth of writers, including Alan Baxter, Ramsey Campbell, Chris Marrs and myself and moderated by Dan Rabarts. The questions are excellent, and Alan and Chris’ contributions are articulate and informative, covering their UK, Australian and Canadian experiences. Ramsey, whose pre-panel bio to us said simply “I write horror’ gives us his more global view, including how publishers’ and readers’ perceptions towards his work and the genre have changed over time. Dan and I provide the Kiwi context. People assure me afterwards that I am perfectly coherent throughout, although I’m not sure how I can be, given I am sitting next to Ramsey.

My last panel of the day is Writing from A Dark Place: Writing from Depression, Trauma and Grief. I’m nervous about this one. This one is personal. I calm myself with ten minutes of browsing for puppies on the internet. Will anyone turn up? But I need not have worried because when the session starts the room is full and my fabulous panellists —Brian Matthews, James Arthur Anderson, Leslie Klinger, Eric Guignard, and Brian Kirk — do all the heavy lifting. They talk of the link between mental illness and creativity, of the role of addiction in writing, and how mental illness has influenced the works of iconic horror writers like King, Poe, and Shelley. We discuss writing authentic characters with mental illness, and how our own anxiety and depression influences our writing processes both in terms of fiction and non-fiction. We talk about the quality of work, and our attitudes about that quality. Brian Matthews, a clinical psychologist, enthralls us with the neurological similarities between mental illness and the process of writing, parallels such as overthinking and editing/revision. The conversation is frank but balanced. There are some valid and insightful comments from the floor. The time flies by. Afterwards, several people approach me to thank me for proposing the panel. Others question whether the topic will be reprised at future convention, so I am confident we have opened an important discussion.

By the time the panel is finished, there are only a few minutes to stop by the restrooms before heading to the restaurant. My darling has booked on our behalf, but since the storm is now reaching epic proportions, no one is keen to leave the hotel (there is a weather warning advising against it) and the queues of casual dinners hoping for a table stretches into the lobby. Our party includes Brian Matthews, but he is unable to join us, as he is waiting on Sue Simonte Matthews who is battling the hurricane and dodging uprooted trees to reach him: on a plane, on a bus, and in a taxi. We are sorry to lose him, although happily it means we have a place for Jacques Mersereau, a party of one, who is hovering forlornly at the hostess desk. It’s a long wait for our meals, which gives us more time to enjoy our conversation with Ann Radcliff convention convenors, Nicholas Diak and Michele Brittany, two of the most hard working and genuinely lovely people on the planet, and possibly beyond, since Michele is the editor of the Bram Stoker nominated anthology Horror in Space.

The conversation is animated and engaging and covers peplum and Bond and other pop culture. There is talk of food and cocktails and general plans for world domination. And as the evening stretches on, the restaurant begins to empty and there is still no sign of our meals, we realise there is no way any of us is making it to the film festival. Silently, we resign ourselves to the fact and enjoy the company at hand. And as the storm rages around us, horizontal rain battering the windows, it turns out to be one of the most enjoyable meals of the convention. I have no energy for a third night at the bar, so I say goodnight, leaving my darling with Dan and Baxter and their second round of drinks.

Friday is a big day. I have 6 straight hours of programming on my dance card, beginning with Stephanie Wytovich’s masterclass How to Write Killer Poetry. She asks the class why we are there. I run through my own reasons:

  • Because I love to read poetry and know nothing about it.

  • Because I want to improve my prose.

  • Because I want to extend the skills I can offer my mentorship clients.

  • Because Stephanie Wytovich!

  • Because, joy.

It is everything I expect. I hang on every word. Take photos of all the slides. Collect up everyone’s cards. There is some space available for writing and since the class is small there is time for some of the class to read from their work. How did they write that in just a few minutes? Clearly, there is a well of talent in the room. I do not write anything beautiful, but I come away inspired to one day write something beautiful. I console myself when my critique notes echo Stephanie’s own comments.

I am late to the Pitch panel, although I am not the last. Ever charming, Brian Matthews holds up the panel while he rustles me up a glass of water.

Imposter syndrome kicks in. I am sitting alongside Don D’Auria, Pete Kahle, Kate Jonez, Jess Landry, John McIllveen, Alec Shane, and Cherry Weiner. Even more exciting is the depth of talent in the audience. I tell my story about pitching Hounds of the Underworld to Jennifer Barnes at the first StokerCon event. The one where I have rushed to the session straight from lunch and launch my pitch with the memorable words: “Have I got spinach in my teeth?”

Then we are up to the gorgeous Biltmore ballroom for two hours of pitches. I hear six wonderful pitches from six wonderful writers. They don’t seem to mind that I eat my lunch while they tell me their stories. They’re nervous at first—proof that I am very scary—and then their enthusiasm takes over. Every project is compelling. I ask for manuscripts, some of which arrive while I am still travelling. As I write this, just three weeks after StokerCon, contracts are being exchanged on one of those pitches.

When the pitching is over I cross the corridor for my final panel session of the convention, JH Moncrieff’s Unspoken Clichés where I am joined by John Palisano, Theresa Braun, and Mathias Klausen. JH Moncrieff’s journalism skills come to the fore, as she guides us through the topic, teasing out threads and taking us to the heart of the matter. We talk about reinventing the old, cross genre opportunities, genre as a means of changing the political landscape, the importance of context, and ways to provide fresh perspectives on old tropes. (Thanks to Dan for the photo.)

A quick cup of tea and a debrief with Dan leaves me just fifteen minutes to get ready for the Bram Stoker Awards banquet. The elevator to the ballroom is crammed with beautiful people. My darling asks Craig Engler if he is attending the conference.

It’s a crush as they check us through admission. While we’re waiting, I’m interviewed by Christa Carmen. It’s just like the Oscars red carpet only without Ryan Seacrest. Probably just as well as I expect I have spinach in my teeth.

Inside the ballroom, there is a frantic game of Musical Chairs as everyone jostles for a table. And then, after the meal, the Bram Stoker Award presentations commence, emceed by the wonderfully funny Jeff Strand in his tenth and last occasion in the role. There are some insider jokes, an onstage stabbing, and an interpretive dance, all of which set a high bar for MC Jonathan Maberry for next year. Friends and colleagues are recognised for their wonderful work. There are tears and gasps and much applause as they ascend the podium to collect their trophies. The winners graciously acknowledge their colleagues on the ballot. A full list of the results are included here.

Our table is lucky enough to win two Bram Stoker Awards, with Christina Sng taking the Bram Stoker for Superior Achievement in a Poetry Collection, and Will Errickson sharing the Bram Stoker with Grady Hendrix for Paperbacks from Hell.

Especially moving for the three Australasian Horror Writers members in the room is Greg Chapman’s winning the Presidents’ Award for service to the organisation.

We get in on the excitement by taking some photos with Greg’s award and president Lisa Morton. It is a miracle when Alan Baxter does not drop the glass trophy on the floor. And then the celebrations begin in earnest with a reception on the top floor. Photos. Hugs. Farewells to those with early flights (weather pending). Dan and I are among the last to leave. We are the last ones in the elevator.

“Shall we go to the room parties?”

“We’ve been invited.”

It is nearly 2am. We shake our heads.

The last day of the convention is traditionally a sad one, since it might be a while before you see these friends again and who knows what the gods have in store? Trains and some flights are disrupted and some of the convention members are stuck in Providence.

Dave and I share a final Biltmore breakfast with the two Dans (Rabarts and Rhodes) and since my own panels are all over, I can relax and attend some sessions for pure enjoyment. I head along to Horror Fiction Collections moderated by Michael Bailey and including panellists Jennifer Barnes, Matt Bechtel, and Curtis Lawson, followed by a wonderful discussion on Why Book Design Matters (moderated by Peter Kahle) with expert panellists, Michael Bailey, Lynne Hansen, Eric T Johnson, Kate Jonez.

Later, in the corridor, there is an amusing moment where Kate Jonez and I struggle to close the zipper on her suitcase. It’s impossible. The bag is positively bulging with lovely books. We try sitting on it, to no avail. Happily, Bill Bridges comes along, assesses the situation in two seconds, then pulls the zipper from the other end. Problem solved.

Then we all head to the Garden Room for the HWA General meeting, and the Closing ceremonies, including a hats-off to Kevin J Whetmore and James Chambers and their team for a fabulous event, and laying down the gauntlet to Brian Matthews to do even better next year at Grand Rapids, Michigan.

And suddenly, it is all over. There is a last coffee in the hotel Starbucks, and then Dave and I collect up our bags for our trip to Cape Cod. And as we take the interstate 195, I reflect on the highlights:

  • The team at Raw Dog Screaming Press. Nine RDSP authors attended the con and it felt like a family Christmas; one of those rare good ones, where everyone is lovely and there is no whinging. Plus, Dan and I receive some matching Raw Dog t-shirts.

  • A post con wail from Dacre Stoker, as somehow in the chaos of the con we have not managed to meet. We make a plan to do better next year.

  • Women in horror. You are amazing. The support and comradery are humbling.

  • Books! Lots of them. Written and published by my friends. Including some added to my kindle.

  • Providence, who showed us her best as well as her worst.

  • A stroll and a visit to Lovecraft’s former residence with Dan.

And finally, my darling, who has accompanied me to three of these events now. I like to think it’s because he loves me, but of course, it could be because I write horror and he has seen my browsing history.


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