I’m not much of a people person. It’s not that I don’t like people, though I do tend to assume the worst of them until proven otherwise. Mostly I just dread the idea of walking into a room in which most or all of the people there are complete strangers to me. It makes my stomach knot and my sphincter clinch. If such a loathsome situation is at all avoidable, I avoid it.
I’ve been writing horror fiction for a few years, but alone in my office—after all, writing is (usually) a solitary craft. My thing used to be cinema, years ago in my twenties, but that’s a group effort. I don’t dig groups. So I turned to fiction.
Which brings me to the 2011 World Horror Convention.
I discovered the Shocklines forum in April, joined, and began lurking posts to see what the hell other people in this game were like. They seemed like pretty cool folks for the most part. I was startled and pleased to find several authors whose books I’ve read thoroughly engaged there. But the thing that surprised me the most was something that never really occurred to me—there existed such a thing as a horror fiction community, and they were preparing to congregate ten miles from my front door.
Naturally my first inclination was to check out all the available details about the convention—who was going, what it entailed, how much it cost. My second inclination followed forthwith—no way am I going to thrust myself in the middle of a few hundred strangers in the horror community. I’ve read their stuff. Surely they must be really, really odd people. Maybe a bit touched. And none too friendly, either.
Thusly ambivalent, I posted on Shocklines with the fairly basic question: should I even go to this damn thing? R.J. Cavender led the chorus of voices that followed: quit being a pansy and register, already. Lincoln Crisler and Martel Sardina chimed in, telling me to come and say hello to them. I then received an email from Harry Shannon informing me that Drew Williams was fully registered, but unable to go. He wanted to transfer his registration to me. Complete stranger. So that was that; I had to go, now.
Immediately I set to scraping the money together to get my wife, Megan, on board as well. She’s the extrovert, the bubbly, smiling one. I figured it couldn’t hurt. It sure as hell didn’t. Ask Gene O’Neill.
We arrived Thursday night in time for the opening ceremonies, after which we lingered in the hallway and gawped at the writhing throng. From amongst them, two guys came barreling out, directly at us. I gawped some more, because I recognized Gord Rollo and Gene O’Neill. They wanted to know if I was Ed Kurtz, the guy from Shocklines. Holy shit—real, honest-to-hell writers were asking me if I was who they thought I was. The ice was broken. The rest, my friends, was cake.
We spent a lot of time with those fellas, chatting and gathering invaluable advice. Almost every time a professional question occurred to me, I tracked down Gene to ask him. Every time we saw either him or Gord anywhere in the hotel, it felt curiously like running into old friends. Later, at the Bad Moon Books release party, Gene took a moment to introduce me to the entire room and Joe McKinney read aloud from the blurb he gave me for my book, Bleed. The next thing I knew, people were shaking my hand and introducing themselves. Among them was John Everson—whose name I’ve been mispronouncing for years, alas—a wonderful writer and, again, a very nice guy. I was on cloud nine.
The parties were amazing. I got tight and talked e-books with F. Paul Wilson in the hallway at midnight. I drunkenly introduced myself to Mary SanGiovanni, told her I was a fan, and then misspoke the title of one of her books. She wasn’t fazed; she’s much too nice for that. (Nonetheless, my apologies to Mary—to be clear, I loved The Hollower and don’t know why I called it The Hollow Man. Jesus, that’s embarrassing.) Crisler invited me to a guerilla reading with the gang from Shroud Magazine, where we heard some great readings from Crisler, Sheldon Higdon and Richard Wright. I even read a bit from my book, something I’d never done before. No one threw rotten fruit. I was amazed.
Much of the event was spent in the outdoor smoking area, where alliances are struck between fellow tobacco aficionados. There we met some marvelous people like Rena Mason, Selena Bargsley and Joe Wight. I had a couple of nice chats out there with Deadite/Eraserhead people like Rose O’Keefe, Jeff Burk and Andersen Prunty. I talked with John Skipp for half an hour before I realized I was talking to John friggin’ Skipp. I apologized and explained that I never knew what he looked like; he grinned, pointed to his face and said, “Like this.”
And then there was the most luminous smoker of them all—the legendary Jack Ketchum.
What can I say about this cat? I was legitimately afraid I’d vomit on him the first time I shook his hand. The only reason I didn’t was because he was so damn open and friendly and happy to talk with people. He’s genuinely interesting, the epitome of cool, and the author most responsible for this ill-conceived decision I have made with regard to writing. I kept calling him Mr. Ketchum; he told me to call him Dallas. I’m still shocked how comfortable I became talking with him over the course of the con. There is, I think, an inherent risk in meeting one’s heroes—what happens when your idol is an asshole? I don’t know, because mine is a consummate gentleman. So there.
I went into WHC a Jack Ketchum fan. I came out of it a big admirer of Dallas Mayr, too.
On Saturday I did three pitches—surely the most nerve-wracking aspect of WHC about which I worried endlessly. I needn’t have, though. Not only did two of them go quite well, but Rhodi Hawk did such an exceptional job of organizing the thing that it went off without a hitch. I expected it to turn my hair stark white and permanently ruin my psyche, but due to her efforts it was actually a pleasure to be involved with it. Kudos to her.
I enjoyed several great conversations with Wrath James White (a superstar in his own right and a marvelous person), connected with a fellow genre-writer and fellow Arkansan both in John Hornor Jacobs, and even got to chat briefly with Del Howison on a couple of occasions (my wife was particularly taken with Del). I was very pleased to meet Lee Thomas (I’m reading The German presently and hot damn is it good), and I am exceedingly impressed with the hard work and bravery of Nate Southard, who is not only an excellent writer but a stand-up guy who has clearly earned the respect he is given. From everything I’ve heard, the folks on the committee managed to put together a convention for the history books, and I’m so gratified that such a great one turned out to be my introduction to this incredible community of incredible people.
It was also very cool to meet Steve Niles, Chris Roberson, John Picacio, Vinny Chong, Gabino Iglesias, R.J. Sevin, Roy Robbins, Jim Gavin, Meghan MacInnis, Jared Sandman, Elias Siqueiros and probably a dozen other people I’m egregiously neglecting here.
And do you know who snubbed me? Brushed me off? Made me feel like I didn’t belong there? Nobody. Not one person. I won’t say that it has restored my faith in humanity, but it sure was great to be there. I made some friends, acquired too many damn books, learned a lot, and I’m already excited about the next one.
To all of you mentioned above, thanks. I’ll see some of you in Vegas in the fall, and more still in Salt Lake City in 2012. Good luck to those of you who are up for Stokers in June. And quit writing so many fabulous books, goddamnit. I’m not made of money, you know.
Addendum: I would be remiss not to mention Brandon Zuern and Brad Bankston at Austin Books & Comics, who kindly hosted my book and signing. They're the greatest comic shop in the world, and great friends, too.