Con Report: My First NecronomiCon (Part 1)

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Just days before the first complete solar eclipse in almost 30 years, it emerged from out of the heart of that generations-old seaside metropolis, a many-headed monolith waking from hibernation to bask in the adulation of its black-clad worshipers, filling me with equal parts existential dread and perverse glee as it threatened to swallow me whole.

No, I’m not talking about some eldritch alien god from beyond the veil of corporeal reality. I’m talking about NecronomiCon Providence 2017. A celebration of weird fiction, literary horror, and all things Lovecraftian, NecronomiCon is a biennial event in ol’ HPL’s Rhode Island hometown. Half fan convention, half professional conference; all awesome.

Also, all terrifying. At least for me. As a lifelong Lovecraft fan who still considers the man one of the most personally relevant and influential writers of all time (even if he was, writing aside, pretty much a dick; see my blog post about the WFA’s), I’ve wanted to check out NecronomiCon for a while. And, of course, as a lifelong wanna-be storyteller finally making a go at this whole writing thing after too many years letting fear and self-loathing keep me from pursuing my passion, I’ve been eager to attend any event that might help me immerse myself better in the genre community, get to know some like-minded readers and writers, and hopefully get my own work out there a bit more.

Naturally, I was eminently excited for my first NecronomiCon. Doesn’t mean I wasn’t also nervous as all get out. Social anxiety and low self-esteem are absolute bitches at the best of times, but they only get bitchier when you feel lost at sea in a roiling tide of strangers, and even bitchier still when the whole damn lot of those strangers just so happen to be authors you yourself are a fan of and whom you feel pressure to make a good impression on. Surely, I thought, once I’m face to face with someone whose name is already known and respected throughout the community, and there’s little old me, an unknown nobody with hardly a handful of published works, surely they’ll be left wondering why the hell I’m bothering them, all while an agonizingly awkward silence envelops us in jet-black wings of mortification.

As it turns out, nope! First off, every single person I met at NecronomiCon could not have been kinder, humbler, or more inclusive. Maybe I thought of myself as an outsider among giants, but no one else seemed to share that perception. I’d say they went out of their way to make me feel like a genuine peer, but the fact that it all felt so casual and decidedly not like something they had to go out of their way to do, that alone speaks volumes about the positivity of my experience.

Second, there simply wasn’t any time for awkwardness. Going into the event, I was worried I would be given too much rope to hang myself with, but in truth there was so much to do at the convention and so many people to meet, I barely found enough time to rest, let alone put my foot in my mouth.

That said, I thought I’d share a recap of my experiences. Starting with…

WEDNESDAY (8/16/17)

nec1Though the con proper didn’t technically start until Friday, there were plenty of preparatory events scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. I arrived in Providence Wednesday afternoon and checked into my room at the Omni Hotel (one of the con’s two main venues, along with the nearby Biltmore Hotel). After some much-needed rest from being on the road for several hours, as well as an equally much-needed shower, I enjoyed a short private rendezvous with a personal friend from the area, then made my way to the downtown Aurora nightclub for the NecronomiCon pre-party. On the way there, I came across a cat dragging a fake severed arm down the street and thought to myself, “Yes, this must be the place.”

Now, see, one of the things that made me so nervous about going to NecronomiCon was that I was essentially going alone. There were a few (actually more than a few) other attendees that I knew would be there, folks I’d interacted with somewhat via social media, but none whom I’d ever met in the flesh before. I’m an odd guy; my close friends would probably describe me as loud, outgoing, and talkative (if not outright obnoxious), but that’s only how I am when I get to know you. On my own, or with someone I haven’t yet developed a rapport with, I’m painfully shy. I don’t even know how to start a conversation, frankly, having never really mastered the beguiling art of simple self-introduction.

So it was that I found myself standing in a darkened corner at Aurora, nervously sipping a soda while a pair of already inebriated Call of Cthulhu players repeatedly explained to me how I needed to take charge and establish a RPG group in my own hometown, all despite the fact that, as I informed them again and again, I am not nor ever have been a tabletop gamer.

Ah, good times.

I confess, that first night I never did manage to loosen up, although I did greatly enjoy hearing Catherine Grant, J.T. Glover, Barry Lee Dejasu, Madeira Darling, and Farah Rose Smith read select pieces of work as part of the event’s open-mic component. Smith in particular blew me away with an excerpt from a current work-in-progress, so much so that I rue the fact that it’s still “in-progress” and not yet in my grubby little mitts. Shamefully, I lacked the self-confidence to go up to any of the readers and tell them face-to-face how much I enjoyed their cuttings. It took me a couple days to warm up to that.

As the night wore on, clips from old Night Gallery episodes and Paul Naschy movies played out on a screen above the club stage, and I made small talk with a few thankfully less inebriated con-goers before calling it an early night and shuffling back to the Omni in search of slumber.  Not a terrible first outing, but not great either.

THURSDAY (8/17/17)

Knowing that the next few days would be a blur, I let myself sleep in on Thursday. When I finally got up, I took a quick shower, found a nice sushi place nearby for lunch, registered for the con, then swung by the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences Council store in the Providence Arcade before heading to the opening ceremonies.

Having friends in Rhode Island, I’ve been to Providence before, and I always make it a point to stop by the Lovecraft store. Though not much bigger than my hotel room, the place is nirvana for any weird fiction fanatic. It’s wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling books, from the requisite Lovecraft collections and biographies, to fiction that runs the gamut from Robert W. Chambers and Arthur Machen to Clive Barker and Brian Keene, to nonfiction on such varied subjects as serial killers, world mythology, circus sideshows, fringe science, and new age spirituality. There’s also a buttload of art prints, shirts, and other tentacled tchotchkes, more than enough to clear out your bank account.

Considering the convention itself offered not one but two vendors’ rooms stuffed to the Innsmouth gills with similar offerings, I told myself I would only be browsing for now. Aaaaand that plan fell apart in about five minutes. I came out of the store with four issues of Fred Lubnow’s Journal of Lovecraftian Science, including two I already own but which are in pretty rough shape, and two others I haven’t yet read. If you’re not familiar already, Lubnow is a genuine smarty-pants with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology, a Master’s in Environmental Sciences, and a Ph.D in Limnology, who in his spare time runs a blog which explores the actual science in (or absent from) H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. He dissects the ideas Lovecraft puts forth and speculates on how they might be feasible according to modern scientific knowledge. Often I find Lubnow’s work not just a fun source of learning, but also a great way of getting my own imagination firing on all cylinders. I can’t recommend this stuff enough, people!

Of course, Lubnow was also at the convention, and in fact was scheduled to present several academic talks that I was interested in attending, including one on Lovecraft’s conception of the planets in our solar system and one examining both the accurate and inaccurate ways Lovecraft utilized evolution in his work. Sadly, I ended up missing these events, and in fact never managed to run into Lubnow the entire time I was there. Perhaps next time. Oh yes, there will certainly be a next time.

nec2Anyway, after forking over my hard-earned money to read essays about non- Euclidean geometry even though I flunked high school math, I made my way to the First Baptist Church in America for the NecronomiCon opening ceremonies. The irony of holding an event honoring an unabashed mechanistic materialist in a centuries-old house of worship was lost on no one, I’m sure. Lovecraft himself was vocally fond of the building despite his atheism, and it wasn’t hard to see why: It’s a remarkably preserved example of early English Georgian and traditional New England architecture, complete with a towering 185 foot-high steeple, an immaculate Waterford crystal chandelier, and a booming pipe organ from the 1800s.

Lovecraft himself reportedly attended Sunday school at the very building as a child. Needless to say, it didn’t take.

Arriving a bit early, I took a seat near the front of the church and looked around to see if anyone I recognized was around yet. No… no… no… n- OH MY GOD IS THAT ELLEN FUCKING DATLOW?!?

Yes, Ellen Datlow, the mastermind behind the annual Best Horror of the Year series, the woman who has edited more A-list horror, sci-fi, and fantasy anthologies than I could even read in a lifetime without sacrificing every other damn book on my shelves, who has won more awards for her contributions to genre fiction than I have reasons to live, THAT ELLEN FUCKING DATLOW… was seated two pews ahead of me!!!

Shamefully, I once again said nothing. I don’t know, groveling just seems sooo last season. Besides, what could I say? “Hi, nice to meet you, ELLEN FUCKING DATLOW, I’m someone you’ve never heard of and will likely never read anything by, and even if you do you’ll probably hate it. How are you enjoying Providence? Have you tried the clam chowder?”

Gah.

I managed to avoid fainting, which was worth the effort good. The opening ceremonies were definitely worth being conscious for. “Interesting” doesn’t quite describe the performance stylings of organist Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, who garnered as much attention from her baroque gothic wardrobe and eccentric theatrical mannerisms as from her beautiful renditions of classic Wagner tunes.

Additionally, Lovecraft scholar Steve Mariconda and NecronomiCon’s own poet laureate Donald Sidney-Fryer both spoke, among others, and it was encouraging that many did not shy away from addressing either the recent tragedy in Charlottesville or the controversy surrounding preeminent HPL researcher S.T. Joshi’s decision to “boycott” the convention (quote-marks there because, well, he still showed up to hustle his wares; such a gleaming beacon of integrity is he). As I’ve said before, Lovecraft’s contributions to literature do not forgive the ugliness of his bigotry, and being able to apply a nuanced, critical eye to the man and his work is vital in moving his legacy and the whole of weird fiction forward so as to keep it vibrant for future generations. This is especially true now, as regressive strains of ignorance and hate begin to reassert themselves violently in the current political climate. While some may not appreciate the real world intruding on their escapist reveries into the fantastic, the truth is that the fantastic is nothing without the real world to define it.

Following the opening ceremonies, I hoofed it up the biggest, steepest, most oh-my-god-why-did-I-eat-that-much-sushi hill in all of Providence to attending the opening reception for Ars Necronomica, the official art exhibit of NecronomiCon, which featured original pieces of Lovecraft-inspired art from almost 80 different creators, including guest of honor John Jude Palencar. This was definitely something I was looking forward to, as, much like reading Fred Lubnow’s science essays, drooling over dark and surreal artworks is one of my favorite ways of getting the ol’ creative juices flowing. Alas, I only got to see some of the pieces on display during my visit (though I did return a few days later to take the rest in), because I had the good fortune of running into David B. Busboom.

I knew David a little from social media, so it was a treat to finally meet in person. Like me, David is a relatively new writer still working on developing a published bibliography; in fact, we both had stories in the same anthology, Walk Hand in Hand Into Extinction: Stories Inspired by True Detective from CLASH Books. We talked about working on that project and on our individual experiences trying to improve as writers and get our work out there. We ended up hitting it off so well that we hardly moved from the spot, even as the reception began to wind down and the gallery had to close up for the night. So much for drooling over all that art.

We continued our conversation as we walked to the official NecronomiCon kick-off party, which transformed a parking lot near the Providence Arcade into a writhing mass of bodies bouncing along to the psychedelic glam-goth punk of The ViennaGram and the hilarious costumed spectacle and freaky-deaky funk rock of the decidedly Gwar-like Big Nazo Intergalactic Band. I’m especially bummed that my phone died before I could get more pics or vids of the Big Nazo performance, as it really does have to be seen to be believed: It included such sights as a triclops metamorphosing into a cyclops, a surprisingly limber mumu-clad housewife with rollers in her hair emerging from the guts of a giant dancing polyp, anthropomorphic cucumbers, and an octopus-man versus lobster-man showdown for the ages.

nec5The party also featured a beer garden (from local brewery Narragansett Beer) whose pleasures were lost on a no-fun teetotaler like myself, and a straight-up satanic goat sacrifice (okay, not really, but Great Northern BBQ was on hand serving goat-and-squid ink curry, and they weren’t at all shy about showing off where their butcher’s handiwork). All in all, Thursday was a much better experience than Wednesday and, happily, it set the tone for the rest of the weekend.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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Now Available: Terror in 16-Bits & Weirdbook #36

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It’s time! Two new stories by yours truly are now available!

In “Insect Song,” a young woman returning home to make peace with her estranged mother runs afoul of local bigotry, her own haunted past, and something not quite human whose every movement is accompanied by the sound of dry, crackling leaves. This story appears in Weirdbook #36, and can be purchased in ebook and paperback from Wildside Press and Amazon.com.

In “Reset,” a tortured soul condemned to live and die and live and die and over and over again looks beyond the veil of reality in search of answers to the questions that plague his every waking moment: “Who am I?” “Why is this happening to me?” and “How can I get revenge?” This story appears in Terror in 16-Bits, and can be purchased in paperback from Muzzleland Press, and in paperback and ebook from Amazon.com.

God of Destruction: Remembering Gojira’s Roots

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A great black shadow falls over the Japanese metropolis. Thousands of innocent people flee in terror, but atomic fire burns them to smoking silhouettes. Streets shatter, skyscrapers crumble into dust, and a new monster is born, one whose devastation will be both evoked and invoked time after time in the coming generations.

From that description, tell me, does it sound like I’m talking about Gojira or Hiroshima?

As a decades-old monster movie icon, Gojira (known better as “Godzilla” in the west, but he’ll always be “Gojira” to me) has played many roles over the years. He’s been a hero just as often as he’s been a threat. In America, he’s been mistreated and misrepresented as a CGI joke, little more than an exercise in crass corporate branding and “cinematic universe” ambulance-chasing. For most of his career, though, he’s been an embodiment of pop art, and I mean that in the best sense of the term.

The Gojira movies that so many of us (including yours truly) grew up with were essentially horror cartoons, campy and colorful celebrations of weird monster art, explosive action, and cheesy special effects. I say this with no disrespect. For me, both “cheesy” and “campy” are very much positive attributes. But the truth remains: The Gojira who battled UFOs, robots, time travelers, and telepaths, who gave Minilla piggyback rides on his tail, used Anguirus like a soccer ball, and celebrated the defeat of King Ghidorah with a jaunty dance number, that Gojira, the one I know and love as much as any other kaiju fanboy worth his salt, represents low stakes as much as he does good fun.

As children (whether in body or spirit), we thrilled at the sight of the big lizard stomping tanks, throwing haymakers at apartment buildings, and roasting everything in sight with his nuclear breath. We were given the green light to cheer on the chaos and root for the monster precisely because of how obviously fake the entire spectacle was. We knew that no one was in those tanks, that no one was in those apartment buildings. We knew that the monster was just a man in a suit, and that all those little planes, trains, and automobiles were just models, often dinky ones at that, no more real than the Hot Wheels cars we collected in grade school. Indeed, the movies rarely ever tried to convince us otherwise; in Gojira’s world, all these structures existed for no other purpose than to get wrecked.

Because of this, we audience members could relish the on-screen annihilation without reservation or guilt. We were given permission to vicariously indulge our destructive impulses and fully immerse ourselves in the fireworks of so much carefully orchestrated anarchy. The only characters that really mattered were the kaiju themselves; the humans were generally afterthoughts. We related to Gojira, Rodan, Mothra, Baragon, Megalon, and Gigan. When these titans clashed, we picked sides and hunkered down for a show like it was a pro wrestling match.

(The fact that there nowadays exists a wrestling promotion called Kaiju Big Battel, whose performers actually strut their stuff while dressed as giant monsters, brawling in squared circles decorated with model buildings, is a testament to just how much of Gojira’s legacy is steeped in the same kind of over-the-top comic-book pageantry as, say, lucha libre.)

It wasn’t always this way, though. Hack away at more than half a century’s worth of embellishments, tangents, and reinventions, and you’ll find Gojira’s heart a smoldering scar, radioactive with pain and tragedy. Released in 1954, just nine years after the Allied bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the original Gojira is very different from the sequels that followed.

For starters, it’s in black-and-white, one of only two such films in the entire franchise (along with the 1955 sequel, Godzilla Raids Again). Superficial though this may seem, it actually has a startling effect on the film’s visual attitude and atmosphere; director Ishirō Honda and cinematographer Masao Tamai express the story’s figurative darkness by embracing literal darkness, meticulously crafting high-contrast monochromatic images that are at once beautiful and oppressive. The film seems to take place entirely at night, and the big lizard himself is depicted as being almost jet black in color, a lumbering personification of death in all its merciless, monolithic inevitability.

What’s more, submerging so much of the film’s visuals in shadow helps hide the artifice in a way that later franchise entries simply can’t manage. Darkness conceals the particulars of the model buildings and vehicles that Gojira tears his way through, and our imagination fills in the gaps, making it all ring truer than a more brightly lit miniature, no matter how methodically detailed, ever could.

With that sense of realness, however, comes morose sobriety. The mayhem Gojira unleashes in his debut carries real weight with it, and it hangs heavy on your heart. The destruction here is not “safe,” it is not sanitized. It doesn’t read as hokey, fantastical, or fun. Honda, who co-wrote the screenplay with Takeo Murata (based on an initial idea from producer Tomoyuki Tanaka), doesn’t shy away from showing the brutal reality of the havoc Gojira wreaks. Even now, the sight of a Japanese cityscape in flames is chilling; one can only imagine what it must have felt like not ten years removed from WWII.

Even more haunting are the broken, twisted bodies crushed under the rubble of buildings they once called home, the overworked doctors struggling to tend to a constant influx of injured civilians, and the young children suffering in the throes of severe radiation sickness. Such imagery is something Japanese people of the time were all too familiar with, having been subjected not only to the atomic onslaught of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also, in the very same year as Gojira’s release, the events of the “Lucky Dragon 5” incident, wherein a crew of fishermen sailed too close to a bungled American nuclear bomb test near Bikini Atoll. As if to hit the nail on the head, this event is recreated in the film’s opening scene, implying that U.S. nukes are to blame for the big lizard’s wrath.

While the rest of the Gojira films are more or less feel-good popcorn monster movies, the first one is more like a cross between an unromanticized disaster epic and a grim ‘n’ gritty war picture. The human toll of Gojira’s rampage is front and center in a way it never is again in the series (at least not until Shin Godzilla, but I’ll get to that later). Not only do we see the destruction as it happens and the heart-rending aftermath, but, also, we are granted access to several well-developed human characters. Through them, the film explores more than just the practical challenges of facing a kaiju threat, it also investigates the emotional, moral, and philosophical implications.

Case in point: Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (played by Akihiko Hirata), a scientist researching a new chemical process which could very well be the key to building a weapon capable of downing the big lizard. The problem? A weapon powerful enough to kill Gojira would itself be just as dangerous as Gojira, and the good doctor (a military veteran who lost an eye in WWII) is loath to trust such a device in the hands of foolish, flawed, fallible mankind.

Again, the parallels to real life are striking, even if they’re not entirely subtle. These parallels are, more than anything, what sets apart the first Gojira from its seemingly endless conga-line of follow-ups. For me, one of the primary features that makes horror, sci-fi, and fantasy storytelling so captivating is the ability to confront issues and themes directly. Instead of obscuring them beneath layers of plot and subtext, they are instead integrating into the plot as full-blooded characters. In genre fiction, inner demons get to be actual fire-and-brimstone devils; symbols are given sentience.

In an interview from 2005, producer Shogo Tomiyama (who oversaw the Gojira franchise from the 1980s through to the early 2000s) compared the big lizard to a Shinto “God of Destruction,” an unstoppable, inhuman force, like a storm, which simply cannot be reasoned with, can barely even be understood by petty human minds. Revisiting Gojira’s roots, then, serves a worthwhile function. That is, it reminds us of what kind of symbol the big lizard actually is, when you get right down to it. What Gojira symbolizes is a uniquely Japanese experience (which is why I’ve personally never warmed to any of  the American adaptations). Gojira symbolizes the radioactive horrors of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Lucky Dragon 5. If you prefer to look at things more broadly, he also symbolizes the reprehensible horrors of WWII, and of war in general.

Despite the almost superheroic molds we’ve forced him into in the 60 years since he first rose up out of the wine-dark sea, despite all the remakes, reboots, and animated Saturday morning spinoffs, underneath it all, Gojira is an amoral engine of doom. He may have been created by man, but the King of the Monsters owes allegiance to no one.

None of my saying this, mind you, is meant as a jab at the later films for “neutering” the character or anything like that. No sir. If nothing else, I hope you’ll take this long, meandering love letter of mine as an appreciation for how versatile Gojira has proven over the years. The most recent entry in the series, Shin Godzilla, in many ways returns Gojira to his roots, reflecting anxieties brought upon by such recent tragedies as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tōhoku, and the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident.

I love that a character like Gojira can be used like that. I love brooding, allegorical, black-and-white Gojira, and I love bright, zany, robot-fighting, space-faring Gojira too.

Across the character’s long and stories history, only one man ever embodied the big lizard at both ends of the spectrum. Only one man embodied both Gojira the walking H-bomb and Gojira the proud papa of Minilla. That man was Haruo Nakajima, who recently passed away.

Nakajima was the first Gojira, the original Gojira. He continued to be Gojira all throughout the 50s and 60s, right into 70s. He played the role for 12 consecutive movies, more than any other Gojira suit actor. And now he is gone.

A few years ago, I had the honor of meeting Nakajima and shaking his hand. I was almost surprised at how small and humble he was in person. Still, as colossal as the character he made famous may be, the imprint Nakajima left in the hearts and imaginations of monster movie fans all over the world will always be bigger.

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