Diversity in Publishing: Good Ethics, Good Business

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Don’t mind me. I’m nobody.

I have no experience as a publisher, editor, or anthologist. Hell, I’ve only been an active member of the genre writing community for a couple years, and I have barely a handful of published credits to my name. As such, my opinion carries little to no weight.

That’s okay. I don’t think I’m smarter than people who have been doing this for decades. I don’t think I have all the answers. I don’t think I know better. All I know is what I believe, and if you don’t agree with me, well, feel free to chalk it up to me talking out of my ass.

Recently, the issue of diversity in publishing has reignited as a hot topic in the horror, bizarro, and weird fiction communities. It’s not a new issue. Nor is it one that necessarily impacts me, a (mostly) hetero-leaning white cis male, all that directly. I’m fortunate in that way. I’m privileged enough to not have to look very hard or very far to find my own perspective reflected back at me. A vast majority of the art and entertainment I consume is dominated by characters I can easily relate to, produced by creators who come from a similar background.

That doesn’t mean the issue of diversity in publishing doesn’t impact me whatsoever, though. It impacts every last one of us, in fact, and we should all view it as a matter of utmost importance. After all, isn’t the value of reading widely one of the great truisms which both readers and writers hold dear? That doesn’t just mean reading a wide variety of styles or genres; it also means reading a wide variety of authors, voices, and perspectives. Being open to a multitude of different worldviews, lifestyles, experiences, and identities is not just the hallmark of a good reader, but of a good person. In turn, our own life experience becomes all the richer for it, exposing us to possibilities we might have otherwise never dreamed of.

Which is why it disappoints me so much when I look at the table of contents of some new anthology and see not even one woman, person of color, or LGBTQ author listed as a contributor. It’s the kind of thing that makes me double-check the copyright page just to make sure that, yes, I am indeed holding a product of the current century.

Even when unintentional, this kind of oversight is especially damning when it comes to anthologies, wherein part of the whole point of the thing is to offer up a veritable witches’ brew of diverse voices. For all the variety that differing writing styles, plots, themes, and characters can provide, even if some contributors are specifically trying to represent perspectives different from the ones they personally identify with, the fact remains that you can line up a hundred hetero white guys and not one of them will be able to reproduce the unique viewpoints of just one woman, person of color, or LGBTQ author.

Of course, we are, all of us, different and unique and we all have our own singular life experiences, blah blah blah. That’s a given. But there are nevertheless some experiences which more or less all individuals of a certain background are more likely to be able to relate to. One hetero white guy may overall have very different life experiences from another hetero white guy, but chances are there remains a common baseline of experience uniting them simply because they are both hetero white guys. It might seem like a small thing, but that’s the kind of fundamental difference that stacks up over time. It affects the way you think and what you expect from life. It affects the very way you understand reality.

In a very real, meaningful way, women experience the world differently than men, people of color experience the world differently than whites, and LGBTQ individuals experience the world differently than straight folks. This does nothing to diminish the value of any individuals’ experiences, nor does it validate or invalidate any of those experiences above or below the others. None of this should be seen as excuse to hold biases against those who are different. Quite the opposite, it should motivate us to reexamine what biases we may already hold because of our individual privileges (or the lack thereof).

Therefore, an anthology which deprives readers of a truly diverse lineup of contributors in turn deprives readers of entire swaths of possibility and experience. Such an anthology inevitably falls far short of its full potential. And, frankly, in a market overflowing with competition, why should any reader be expected to waste their time and money on something that isn’t the very best it can be?

A few days ago, I said as much in a thread on Facebook, only to have my opinion completely dismissed by a writer and editor far more experienced and respected than myself. I don’t disagree with this person being held in high regard (in truth, I count myself as a fan). Nor do I dispute the validity of said person’s own experiences.

And yet…

Here’s the thing. In the simplest terms, this person’s argument boiled down to a rehash of the idea that it is not an editor or publisher’s responsibility to seek out and cultivate diversity, and that an editor or publisher shouldn’t be expected to do anything beyond simply rifle through whatever submissions they receive and select the very best stories they can, regardless of who wrote them.

Seems like pretty sound logic, right?

Eh, not so much.

I’m not even going to go in-depth into the disingenuousness of claiming editors/publishers always accept only the best stories regardless of author (admit it, if Stephen King submitted a pile of barely readable crap, most of us would probably accept it sight unseen, if only to guarantee the book healthy sales numbers and a shot at attention from mainstream media). Nor am I going to spend much time tackling the ugly underlying implication that women, POC, and LGBTQ authors would be published more if only they were good enough writers (independent from the fact that many of the very best writers working in genre fiction today are women, POC, and LGBTQ individuals, this notion blithely ignores years upon years of marginalization and homogenization through which minority voices have often, at best, been treated as novelty items and, at worst, been told in no uncertain terms that they are not welcome here).

Instead, I’m just going to focus on the question of what constitutes an editor or publisher’s “responsibilities.” At first blush, it seems reasonable to suggest that an editor/publisher should be beholden to nothing more and nothing less than the requirement that he or she put out the very best anthology they can, selecting the very best stories from whatever submissions that have found their way to them. Putting aside my earlier assertion that an anthology without a diverse set of contributors is inherently not the best it can be, the flaws with this line of thinking become apparent the moment we start thinking about everything else that we, both writers and readers, contributors and customers, expect from any publisher who wants to be taken seriously.

In general, we expect publishers to not only produce “good” products, but ethical ones as well. Otherwise, why would it cause a scandal when a publisher violates a contract, infringes copyright, fails to pay their writers, exploits rookie authors through predatory “for the love” submission calls, or employs someone with a proven history of sexual assault or who is literally Hitler?

Conducting business in an ethical manner is not just a responsibility of publishers; it’s a responsibility of all people, everywhere, at all times. Arguably, you can be a “good” publisher without being an ethical one, and you can be ethical publisher without being a “good” one. But, as previously noted, the market is awash with competition. When there are publishers out there who are indeed both “good” and ethical, why settle for anything less?

So then, what does it actually mean to be an ethical publisher? Well, aside from avoiding the obvious aforementioned pitfalls of shortchanging authors, employing white supremacist scumbags, etc., being an ethical publisher means, surprise surprise, seeking out and cultivating diversity.

Actively encouraging diversity is important. Not just because it inherently improves the quality of your product and enriches your costumers’ experiences with it, but also because it’s simply the right thing to do.

Why? Because women, POC, and LGBTQ individuals are still drastically underrepresented and often reduced to stereotypes, both on the page and behind the scenes. Because decades of this exact sort of thing has made the overall literary community into a place that is in some ways subtly intolerant and in other ways openly hostile towards voices which do not reflect the already accepted status quo. Because minority voices are already starting from a disadvantaged position which their majority peers can breeze right past, thus making “equality” an impossibility unless steps are taken to correct systemic prejudices.

These days, publishers are too frequently viewed, both by themselves and by writers, as godlike behemoths who exist to pass judgement on that which “good” and that which is “bad,” blessing the “good” with publication and banishing the “bad” to the hell of rejection. Publishers, in this context, become passive beings, monuments which we writers must trek to and grovel before, and if we don’t or can’t make that journey, well, that’s just one less supplicant for the publisher to pass judgement on. No worries; there are still many, many others eager to take our place.

Not all publishers embrace this view, but those that do, those who see no reason to actively search for and court new and different voices, are just plain lazy. Good publishers are not stationary gods. Good publishers are treasure-hunters.

Some publishers may protest, claiming they don’t have the time, energy, or resources to reach out to authors beyond their established pool of reliable contributors. As a reader, though, how am I supposed to trust that such a publisher will indeed put in the work required to make a final product worthy of my hard-earned money if I can’t even trust that publisher to put in the work required to put together a fresh, diverse line-up of contributors?

No one expects the unreasonable. No one expects your average small-press publisher to send out a network of undercover scouts to every community-college workshop and open-mic night on the eastern seaboard in hopes of discovering the next great diamond in the rough. But is it too much to request that a publisher or editor put in a few extra minutes of effort to ensure their latest submissions call explicitly asks for and encourages diversity? Or to ensure that said submissions call is posted in places where diverse authors might actually see it? Like I said at the start, I myself am not an editor or a publisher, so maybe I’m wrong here, but it doesn’t really seem like that taxing a request.

Either way, being that I’m not an editor or a publisher, I don’t really have a whole lot of power to directly correct what I perceive to be a genuine injustice in genre fiction. As a writer, though, I do have the power to say “No thank you, I don’t want to be involved” to any project pretending it’s 1955 and that heteronormative whitebread sausagefests are still acceptable. And, more importantly, as a reader I have the power to say “Fuck you, you will not get my money” to any product whose creators are too lazy to be bothered to put in even the bare minimum of effort to ensure diversity.

I may be nobody and my opinion might not carry much weight, but my cash sure does. Some editors and publishers can’t see past their own privilege, but they sure as shit can see the difference between good business and bad business.

Vote with your dollars, friends. Don’t just ask for better. Demand it.

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Con Report: Things I Did at StokerCon 2018

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Last year featured a major milestone for me, as I attended my first professional writers’ conference, NecronomiCon Providence. So memorable an experience was it that I ended up writing a gargantuan, rambling, two-part blog about the experience (which you can read here and here). This year, I attended my second such event, StokerCon 2018. But because I’m now a jaded veteran of the con scene, I’ll keep my blog about it short.

Actually, it’s just because I have a lot going on in my personal life right now, and I just don’t have the time to write something as exhaustive and, frankly, exhausting as I did for NecronomiCon. Besides, you don’t want to read something that long again, do you?

Before I start rattling off some of my favorite memories from my trip, I will say this much about StokerCon: It’s very different from NecromiCon. It is somehow both bigger and smaller, with a much more limited array of panels and events, but also a decidedly broader range, which comes from encompassing horror in all forms and formats (as opposed to focusing specifically on, say, Lovecraftian and weird fiction). One thing I noticed (and, as a novice author, appreciated) was that StokerCon seemed to offer more content for attendees interested in the craft and business side of writing, while NecronomiCon put a greater emphasis on the themes, philosophy, and history of genre literature.

Personally, I enjoyed both events about equally, and I feel I got a lot out of each. I would definitely recommend either one in a heartbeat. In fact, I hope to attend both cons again regularly in the future. I assure you, I have not been paid by either StokerCon or NecronomiCon to say these things.

Yet.

Anyway, here are some of the more memorable things I did at StokerCon 2018:

I…

…stayed at the Providence Biltmore, purportedly one of the most haunted hotels in America.

…paid my respects to the dearly departed Jack Ketchum at a special memorial panel.

…talked to editor Don D’Auria about how instrumental the Leisure Books imprint was in inspiring me to write horror.

…scored a signed copy of Amber Fallon‘s TV Dinners From Hell straight from the author herself.

…geeked out over Borkchito with Matthew M. Bartlett.

…compared neuroses with Sean M. Thompson.

…ran into fellow Wilkes University Creative Writing Program survivor John Koloski.

…gushed to Eraserhead Press founder Rose O’Keefe about how bizarro fiction changed my life.

….did my best impression of a wallflower at a get-together in Kenneth Vaughan‘s suite.

…was almost blinded by the light reflected off of Bracken MacLeod‘s smooth, shiny noggin.

…talked Nathan Carson‘s ear off and got signed copies of his new comic, The Willows.

…caught readings by the legendary Ramsey Campbell and Caitlin R. Kiernan.

…had the likewise legendary F. Paul Wilson and Tom Monteleone ask me for directions and miraculously managed not to turn into a stammering fanboy.

…ate my body weight in cheese.

…pushed this button:

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A Yuletide Miracle: Test Patterns is Here!

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Looking for a last minute present for X-Mas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Yule? Trying to decide what to get with all those gift cards you’re sure to get from unimaginative gift-givers? Well, fret no more; Test Patterns is finally available!

The debut anthology from Planet X Publications, Test Patterns features all-new original stories and poetry inspired by such classic horror, sci-fi, and fantasy TV shows as The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and The Outer Limits.

My story, “I Am Become Death,” is about a WWII combat photographer who, after documenting the devastation at Hiroshima, returns to America only to find that some shadowy thing has come home with him.

Check out the full list of contributors below.

Table of Contents:

  1. “The Woman in the Forge of Saturday Night” by Joe Pulver
  2. “Evidence of Absence” by Scott Graves
  3. “I Am Become Death” by William Tea
  4. “The Judge” by Philip Fracassi
  5. “The Snake Beneath My Skin” by Sarah Walker
  6. “The Hands of Chaos” by Ashley Dioses
  7. “The Nomenclature of Unnamable Horrors” by Peter Rawlik
  8. “Golden Girl” by S.L. Edwards
  9. “Scenes From a Forgotten Diorama” by Brian O’Connell
  10. “You Can’t Go Wrong with Grass-Fed Beef” by Jill Hand
  11. “Abettor” by Ruth Asch
  12. “Work Group” by Pete Carter
  13. “The Cliffside Tavern” by Sean M. Thompson
  14. “One Evening in Whitbridge” by Scott Thomas
  15. “The Velveteen Volvo” by Nathan Carson
  16. “Outre Non-Limitations” by Frederick J. Mayer
  17. “The Kumiho Question” by Frederick J. Mayer
  18. “I’ve Lived in This Place a Long Time” by Can Wiggins
  19. “The White Terror” by Frank Coffman
  20. “Symptom of the Universe” by John Claude Smith
  21. “Sustenance of the Stars” by Scott J. Couturier
  22. “Alien Shore” by Rob Martin
  23. “Ye Hermit’s Lay” by Adam Bolivar
  24. “Bridge” by Don Webb
  25. “Balls” by Russell Smeaton
  26. “Call Me Corey” by Matthew M. Bartlett
  27. “Hero Mother” by Cody Goodfellow
  28. “Red-Eye” by Mark Rainey
  29. “Séance” by K.A. Opperman
  30. “Looking for Ghosts” by Duane Pesice

Yes indeed, this anthology is surely the perfect holiday surprise for that special someone you love. Or for the one you just kinda like. Or for the one you hate. Or for yourself. For anybody, really!

Art Inspired by… Me???

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Well, this is a first! I can’t quite wrap my mind around the idea of someone liking something of mine enough to be a “fan” of it, but I’m nevertheless amazed and humbled to know that a story I wrote (“Reset,” from the video game-themed horror anthology Terror in 16-Bits, which you can get through the Muzzleland Press webstore or Amazon.com) inspired someone else to create something. If you’ve read “Reset,” you know all too well the critical moment this illustration depicts; if you haven’t, then you should probably get yourself a copy so you can find out all about it! Anyway, major props to Mat Fitzsimmons of Feral Teeth Press for making this image, and additional thanks to Terror in 16-Bits editor/publisher Jonathan Raab for bringing it to my attention. I love this so much!

The Yellowed Page: An Appreciation of Vintage Paperbacks

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Paperbacks from Hell, the new book from Grady Hendrix (author of Horrorstör and My Best Friend’s Exorcism), came out yesterday. Unlike Hendrix’s previous releases, Paperbacks from Hell is a work of non-fiction, although at times the absurdities it recounts make you wonder how they could be true.

How could Zebra Books flood grocery stores with all their garish, goofy skeletons and still be taken seriously for so long? How could Rex Miller take Chaingang, the 400 lb. homeless serial killer/rapist from his 1987 novel Slob, and reimagine him as a superpowered crusader of justice with a soft spot for puppies over the course of just a few sequels? How could talented writers like Ken Greenhall and Joan Samson remain obscure and unloved in an era when every yahoo with a typewriter could somehow land a gushing blurb from Stephen King?

Paperbacks from Hell is a smart, humorous, and affectionate look at the gory glory days of the ‘70s and ‘80s horror publishing boom. If you’ve enjoyed reading Hendrix’s blogs for Tor.com, ever spent an afternoon marveling over gorgeous and insane relics of vintage paperback cover art on Will Erickson’s website Too Much Horror Fiction, or regularly come away from used book sales with armfuls of William H. Johnstone and Ruby Jean Jensen titles, Paperbacks from Hell is an essential buy. Shit, I preordered my copy months ago.

Having spent all of last night and most of today flipping through it, I can’t understate how much of a rush it’s been seeing all these forgotten names given ample limelight, not to mention gorging myself on so much beautifully lurid artwork replete with evil dolls, killer crabs, and, of course, a neverending parade of skeletons. It makes me want to hunt Hendrix down and give him a big, fat, sloppy kiss, because it almost feels like he wrote this book just for me.

I was born in 1987, the waning days of the horror boom. Even still, I grew up very much in its shadow. When you’re broke, you really can’t waste money on such a luxury as new books, and I grew up broke. Being a voracious reader with an appetite for the dark and fantastic, I was left with few options other than whatever was cheapest, and what was cheapest were the battered ‘n’ tattered secondhand paperbacks I found at flea markets, yard sales, and the Salvation Army. It was either subsist on bottom-of-the-barrel books for bottom-of-the-barrel prices… or shoplift. I’m not too proud to admit I did plenty of both.

When I say “bottom-of-the-barrel,” though, keep in mind I don’t mean it as a knock on the quality of such books, more as an acknowledgment of how they were (and still are) valued (or not) by more “serious” literary types. Those typerwriter-fingerbangin,’ Stephen King blurb-scorin’ yahoos I mentioned earlier? I poke fun, but I still respect the hell out of ‘em. Shit, I’d sell at least 50% of my working limbs for a Stephen King blurb. Maybe more.

The bargain bin may be where the “bad” stuff lives, but it’s also where the purest stuff lives, the stuff that relishes being about ghosts ‘n’ goblins and doesn’t feel the need to “elevate” itself. Even better, it’s where the weird stuff lives. These are not New York Times Bestsellers. These are the curiosities that slipped through the cracks: splatterpunk sickos taking sex and violence to a whole new level, extraterrestrial orgasms that kill innocent housewives, horny werewolf ghosts, sadomasochistic nazi leprechauns, and, for some reason, a whoooole lot of incest.

Call ‘em crass. Call ‘em crude. They’re also some of the wildest, most imaginative stories you’re likely to come across. They don’t play by the rules, and that is often their downfall, but you don’t find ideas this outré if you’re playing by the rules. They may be crazy, but they’re also earnest, and that counts for a lot.

I grew up on a steady diet of this stuff (so now you know where to point the blame). For that reason, I have never and will never look down on any writer or publisher or subgenre of horror for being too strange or trashy or low-brow or unrefined. Ultimately, horror is supposed to be all those things; it’s the punk rock of literary genres, just one step up in the publishing hierarchy from full-blown pornography.

Though no longer a penniless youth (which isn’t to say I’m not still broke, I’m just slightly less broke), I still buy a lot of used books. Not necessarily because I have to, but because I want to. Because I enjoy it.

I enjoy trawling overstuffed shelves and rickety milk crates at flea markets and secondhand stores. I enjoy hunting for secret treasures hidden beneath piles of James Patterson cast-offs. I enjoy finding old authors who are new to me, reading the outlandish back-cover copy of impossible-to-summarize pretzel-logic plots, and drooling over eye-popping masterpieces pieces of lush, pulpy cover art the likes of which you simply can’t find today. All those cut-outs and step-backs and the shimmery holofoil; gotta love ‘it!

I also enjoy the sense of history you get with used books. One of my favorite things to find in an old beat-up paperback is a “This book belongs to…” notation, or a library stamp, a dog-eared page, an inky smudged fingerprint, a bookmark, a note to self, anything of that sort; I like the idea of being another link in a chain that stretches back to god knows how many other people over the course of god knows how many years.

The yellowed page may be ugly, it may be ripped and brittle, it may even smell a little… off. But damned if it doesn’t hold wonders just the same. Like VHS and vinyl, there’s just something magic about it.

Cheers to Grady Hendrix for paying tribute to that.

New Story Transmitting from Planet X!

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Greeting mortals! Today I’m happy to announce that a new story of mine, “I Am Become Death,” will be featured in the upcoming anthology Test Patterns, the premiere release of the newly formed Planet X Publications. I’m fortunate to share the pages of this exciting anthology with some truly amazing writers, many of whom I would consider among the very best voices in genre fiction today. Check out the table of contents for yourself below. This is going to be one hefty tome!

Inspired by such classic TV shows as The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, and Night Gallery, Test Patterns is a collection of richly varied tales, told in unique ways, employing provocative twists and surprises, and exploring the universal themes of humanity and self-discovery through the lenses of horror, fantasy, and science fiction.

Test Patterns is due out this Halloween. In the meantime, click here to reserve a copy of the anthology in either ebook format ($5), trade paperback ($20), or limited edition hardcover ($40), and help support an upstart independent publisher with a vested interest in high-quality strange and supernatural fiction.

Table of Contents:

  1. “The Woman in the Forge of Saturday Night” by Joe Pulver
  2. “Evidence of Absence” by Scott Graves
  3. “I Am Become Death” by William Tea
  4. “The Judge” by Philip Fracassi
  5. “The Snake Beneath My Skin” by Sarah Walker
  6. “The Hands of Chaos” by Ashley Dioses
  7. “The Nomenclature of Unnamable Horrors” by Peter Rawlik
  8. “Golden Girl” by S.L. Edwards
  9. “Scenes From a Forgotten Diorama” by Brian O’Connell
  10. “You Can’t Go Wrong with Grass-Fed Beef” by Jill Hand
  11. “Abettor” by Ruth Asch
  12. “Work Group” by Pete Carter
  13. “The Cliffside Tavern” by Sean M. Thompson
  14. “One Evening in Whitbridge” by Scott Thomas
  15. “The Velveteen Volvo” by Nathan Carson
  16. “Outre Non-Limitations” by Frederick J. Mayer
  17. “The Kumiho Question” by Frederick J. Mayer
  18. “I’ve Lived in This Place a Long Time” by Can Wiggins
  19. “The White Terror” by Frank Coffman
  20. “Symptom of the Universe” by John Claude Smith
  21. “Sustenance of the Stars” by Scott J. Couturier
  22. “Alien Shore” by Rob Martin
  23. “Ye Hermit’s Lay” by Adam Bolivar
  24. “Bridge” by Don Webb
  25. “Balls” by Russell Smeaton
  26. “Call Me Corey” by Matthew M. Bartlett
  27. “Hero Mother” by Cody Goodfellow
  28. “Red-Eye” by Mark Rainey
  29. “Séance” by K.A. Opperman
  30. “Looking for Ghosts” by Duane Pesice

Con Report: My First NecronomiCon (Part 2)

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Previously, I posted a summary of my first two days at NecronomiCon Providence (actually the two days before the con proper). TLDR version: Day One was awkward and uneventful, due mainly to my terminal shyness and a wicked case of imposter syndrome. Day Two started much the same, but took a sharp upward turn when I ran into fellow up-and-comer David B. Busboom, which helped make me fell less like an outsider. I’m happy to report the next three days followed the trend of skyward ascent, ultimately culminating in a peak of awesomeness that leads me to respond now to all the naysayers: NecronomiCon is alive and well, and if you’re a fan of H.P. Lovecraft and/or weird fiction in general, I can hardly think of any event more deserving of your time and money.

There you have it, con organizers, an official endorsement from William Tea, a legend in his own mind. I expect payment in full by Monday morning.

Without further ado, let me tell you about my Necro weekend…

FRIDAY (8/18/17)

After indulging in two of the proverbial three S’s (a shit and a shower; sorry, but you don’t get a manly beard like mine from shaving), my bleary eyed self attended two panels; first, “Wereweird: Lycanthropy, Animism, and Animal Transformation in Weird Fiction” (with Stephen Graham Jones, Cody Goodfellow, Sonya Taafe, and K.H. Vaughan), then “Machinations and Mesmerism: How Middle European Fantasists & Romanticists Informed Modern Horror” (with Anya Martin, Jon Padgett, Steve Mariconda, Leslie Klinger, Sean Moreland, and Michael Cisco). God I’m such a nerd.

Sidenote: Not to get too far ahead of myself, but I think it speaks to how friendly and down-to-earth everyone at NecronomiCon was that by the end of the weekend several of the people mentioned above would go from being panelists I looked up to and saw as separate from myself to folks with whom I shared post-con meals and casual conversation.

Following that, the vendors’ room was open at last and howling for my hard-earned moolah. More importantly, it was beckoning me to find the Muzzleland Press table so I could pick up my contributor’s copy of Terror in 16-Bits, a new anthology of horror fiction inspired by classic video games, featuring stories by yours truly, Matthew M. Bartlett, J.R. Hamantaschen, Orrin Grey, Amber Fallon, Sean M. Thompson, Brian O’Connell, Alex Smith, Jonathan Raab, Jack Burgos, Richard Wolley, Julie Godard, Thomas C. Mavroudis, Adrean Messmer, and Amberle L. Husbands.

I was lucky enough to get to meet Bartlett, Thompson, Smith, and Raab in short order (we talked about the games that inspired our individual tales, among other things), and I also ran into both Steven Rosenstein (who co-hosts the Microphones of Madness podcast) and Scott Dwyer (who runs the weird fiction website The Plutonian). Dwyer was kind enough to hook me up with a free copy of Phantasm/Chimera, an anthology he edited and published on his own, and which features fiction from some of the most singular talents in horror and dark fantasy today, including the aforementioned Bartlett and Padgett, as well as Livia Llewellyn, Christopher Slatsky, Brian Evenson, John Claude Smith, Jason A. Wyckoff, Mike Allen, Clint Smith, Thana Niveau, and Adam Golaski.

Two more people I met in the vendors’ room and had memorable encounters with were Jim Dyer and Tim Vigil.

Dyer is the grandson of C.M. Eddy, Jr., a pulp writer who contributed to the legendary Weird Tales Magazine back in the 1910s and ‘20s and who was a close personal friend of the man himself, H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, the two famously collaborated a few times, most notably on the notorious necrophilia tale “The Loved Dead” (which was so controversial it actually got issues of Weird Tales pulled from shelves) and an unfinished manuscript commissioned by Harry Houdini called The Cancer of Superstition. Dyer honors his grandfather’s legacy through his company Fenham Publishing, which maintains the rights to Eddy’s stories and keeps them in print all these years later for pulp junkies like myself to discover and enjoy anew.

Vigil, meanwhile, should need no introduction. How things should be, sadly, is not often the way things are, though. Despite being a highly influential comic book artist with an intense, surreal, hyper-detailed style reminiscent of Bernie Wrightson, Jack Kirby, and Richard Corben, Vigil remains mostly a cult figure to this day. He’s also one my own personal favorite illustrators of all time (as if my effusive praise thus far hasn’t already given as much away). Over the years, Vigil has done art for Heavy Metal Magazine, the Frank Frazetta-inspired sword-and-sorcery title Death Dealer and the zombies-in-Vietnam series ’68 from Image Comics, several titles from Glenn Danzig’s Verotik Comics, a whole bunch of damn titles from Avatar Press (including the long-running Webwitch, Threshold, and Raw Media Monthly), and even a couple Green Lantern and Wolverine books for The Big Two.

Despite all that, Vigil remains best known for Faust: Love of the Damned, a groundbreaking and controversial independent epic that took more than 20 years to complete, and which spawned some fantastic miniseries spinoffs (including the Stoker Award-nominated Faust: Book of M) and even a movie adaptation directed by Frank Yuzna (the b-movie maniac behind such cult classics as Bride of Re-Animator, Return of the Living Dead 3, and Society). Almost aggressively, actively noncommercial, Faust is a gothic, brooding, philosophical masterpiece of antiheroic, genre-bending horror awash in explicit violence and graphic sex. It is without a doubt, the most iconic series to come out of the post-TMNT black-and-white indie-comics movement of the 80s. The same things which made Faust such an incredible piece of work, however, are big reasons for Vigil remaining so much a fringe personality. Of course, the man’s casually confrontational fuck-the-mainstream do-it-yourself ethos might have played a role in that, too. Gotta love it.

As you can tell, I have a huge amount of respect for Tim Vigil, so it was an exciting opportunity to meet  in person. We actually hit it off, if you can believe it, which directly led to an amazing experience I got to have on Saturday evening, but we’ll get to that soon enough. As of Friday, I was content to merely gush all over him like a swooning schoolgirl. I also commissioned an original piece of art from him (a rendering of Jack Kirby’s Etrigan) which I plan to be buried with when I die.

20915662_265576717262825_5069277433062088082_nFollowing that, I attended a few more panels: “Writing Non-Stale Mythos Tales” (with Kij Johnson, Darrell Schweitzer, Peter Rawlik, Alex Houstoun, Tom Lynch, and Vincent O’Neil), “Women Directing Weird” (with Gemma Files, Andrea Wolanin, Heather Buckley, Izzy Lee, Diana Porter, and Gwen Callahan), and “Erotic Lovecraftiana” (with Paul LaFarge, Livia Llewellyn, Peter Rawlik, Sonya Taaffe, and Joe Zannella). Those last two were especially insightful and entertaining, with Erotic Lovecraftiana bringing out the ribald best in both the speakers and the audience, leading to discussion of everything from Lovecraft’s own sexuality to the pornographic pastiches of Edward Lee, to the fetishistic possibilities of Deep Ones not needing to breathe, to a sex-ed demonstration in which rubber tentacles stood in for the usual bananas. Nice.

After the con I met Jonathan Raab and a bunch of other people at a local pub for some artery-hardening bar food. While there I finally got to meet Jon Padgett, Tom Breen, and Scott R. Jones in person. I told Padgett how much I enjoyed his brilliant collection The Secret of Ventriloquism and we talked about the recent Dark Tower movie adaptation (which, dammit, I still haven’t seen) and the familiar experience of growing up as geeky kids made fun for loving books about monsters and alien worlds, only for us to age into adults and find the rest of the world now reflecting decidedly similar interests. Later, me, Jones, and Breen bitched about the state of U.S. politics, while Sean M. Thompson and I bonded a bit over our mutual affections for Goosebumps books and the old Nickelodeon T.V. show Are You Afraid of the Dark?.

Trump-bashing and ’90s children’s television, truly the kind of high-brow conversation you’d expect from us snooty literary types, eh?

I can’t believe I’m technically an adult.

SATURDAY (8/19/17)

Right off the bat, the first event scheduled for Saturday morning was one of the ones I had been anticipating the most. Horrorstor and My Best Friend’s Exorcism author Grady Hendrix presented a special preview of his upcoming nonfiction book Paperbacks From Hell, shining a light on all things good, bad, and utterly insane from the ‘70s and ‘80s horror novel boom. Though it was early morning, Hendrix sure as hell was the right person to wake my ass up, blazing a mile a minute through an enthusiastic, hilarious, and, frankly, loud survey of the trends, tropes, clichés and ridiculously lurid cover art that defined the era. The dude even sang a pair of original songs he wrote about cheesy paperback covers. It was a blast.

I got to say, as a nostalgic bargain-hunter whose personal library consists primarily of used books rescued from flea markets and secondhand stores, I’ve had the Paperbacks From Hell preordered since it was first announced. During the presentation, though, I got so excited that I actually went online with my smartphone and hunted down a few of the zanier titles Hendrix mentioned. I’m especially looking forward to getting my grubby mitts on William H. Johnstone’s Toy Cemetery, which reportedly features killer dolls, vampire-werewolf hybrid ghosts, and, of course, tons of incest. Be still my beating heart!

I attended a couple more panels later, including “Editing Horror (with Ellen Datlow, Peter Straub, Douglas E. Winter, Michael Kelly, Leslie Klinger, and Mike Davis) and “Teatro Grottesco: The Bleak Universe of Thomas Ligotti” (with Jon Padgett, Matthew M. Bartlett, Michael Calia, Michael Cisco, and Alex Houstoun). The former was especially eye-opening, not in the least because of the presence of ELLEN FUCKING DATLOW, as well as PETER FUCKING STRAUB and DOUGLAS FUCKING E. FUCKING WINTER.

Winter, if you’re unaware, edited two of the most essential tomes any horror fan should have on their shelf. First, in 1985 there was the World Fantasy Award-winning non-fiction book Faces of Fear (which includes must-read interviews with some of the all-time giants of the genre: Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Robert Bloch, Charles L. Grant, Richard Matheson, Ramsey Campbell, William Peter Blatty, T.E.D. Klein, Michael McDowell, Alan Ryan, Whitley Strieber, David Morell, James Herbert, Dennis Etchison, John Coyne, and V.C. Andrews). Then, in 1988 there was the classic fiction anthology Prime Evil (which includes original, never-before-published stories by King, Straub, Barker, Campbell, Grant, Strieber, and Morrell, as well as stories by even more genre giants like Thomas Ligotti, Jack Cady, and Thomas Tessier).

Straub, meanwhile, is probably best known for his two novel collaborations with Stephen King, The Talisman and Black House. The man has also won a frankly absurd number of awards over the years (including six Bram Stoker Awards, three World Fantasy Awards, one Locus Fantasy Award, and one August Derleth Award, not to mention numerous nominations) for such classic books as Ghost Story, Shadowland, Koko, and, my personal favorite, Floating Dragon. A gleaming highlight of my NecronomiCon experience was getting to shake Straub’s hand and tell him how much that novel meant to me, the impact it’s having on the novel I’m writing now, and the role his work played in making me want to be a writer to begin with. In all honesty, he probably hears that kind of thing all the time, but how often do I get to be the one to say it?

Naturally, I made a total fool of myself, babbling and shaking his hand no less than three separate times in the span of about two minutes.

It was worth it.

Less anxiety-inducing were my encounters with three talented artists who I managed to strike up conversations with: Nick Gucker, Liv Rainey Smith, and Yves Tourigney. I went home with art from every single one of them, because how could you not? Seriously, click Google their stuff and tell me its not eye-poppingly gorgeous. Tourigney in particular I had to hunt down; he and writer S.L. Edwards have been collaborating on a weekly webcomic called “Borkchito: Occult Doggo Detective,” which combines two of my greatest loves: paranormal investigator stories and doggo memes. Not only did I need to meet this mad genius, I needed to snag myself one of the limited-run print editions of the collected Borkchito!

As the day came to a close, I wandered back over to Tim Vigil’s booth to check on my commission and bullshit some more. As I mentioned earlier, we kind of hit it off earlier in the weekend. Even still, no way was I expecting him to say “Want to hang out later?”

One of my all-time favorite comic artists wanted to hang out with an absolute nobody like myself? Gah.

I somehow managed to put my inner fanboy back in his box long enough to say “sure” and suggest we grab something to eat. We went to a nearby restaurant and, over burgers and mac-and-cheese (classy artsy types, ain’t we?), we talked a good long time about the convention, his art, my writing, European horror movies, the current state of the comics industry, and porn. By the end of dinner it, he asked to read some of my stories and even offered to illustrate something of mine someday (like say if I ever put out a chapbook, hint hint).

My mind had basically blown out the back of my skull by this point. Fortunately, I was able to gather up enough pieces of my splattered gray matter to make my way back to the hotel so I could get ready for one thing I’d been waiting all day for. As part of the NecronomiCon festivities, the nearby Columbus Theater hosted a special concert featuring the bands Magic Circle, Beastmaker, and Coven.

20882366_266033790550451_8404608010217385461_nYes, that Coven.

The Jinx Dawson Coven. The “One Tin Soldier” Coven. The “Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls” Coven. That Black Sabbath-before-Black Sabbath Coven. The satanic-psychedelia occult-rock doom-metal prototype Coven. That fucking Coven.

Live.

In a beautifully restored 1920’s theater.

With two kick-ass modern-day doom bands opening.

Formed in 1968, Coven were one of the first rock bands to not just be associated with satanism and occultism, but to embrace and even enthusiastically flaunt such things. Their shows were half-concert and half-black mass, full of diabolic chants and theatrical rituals. Every single goth-rock witch-pagan, black-metal church-burner, shock-rock devil-worshiper, and doom-n-gloom bong-ripper on Earth owes a debt to Coven.

I’ll let you speculate which of those categories yours truly might fall into.

Honestly, this is not a band I ever actually thought I’d get to see live. It was a truly otherworldly experience. Icon frontwoman Jinx Dawson still knows how to dominate the stage; emerging from a black casket wearing mirrored mask, bathed in hellish scarlet light and surrounded by dark-robed druids, she demanded every last drop of the audience’s attention. And she fucking got it. True to Coven’s reputation, the performance felt as much like a transcendent, blasphemous, magic ceremony as it did a rock concert. By the time I got back to the hotel, my body was soaked with sweat, my ears were ringing, my head was pounding, and my godforsaken soul was at least 666 shades blacker.

Evil me then ordered cheesecake from room service and went to bed.

SUNDAY (8/20/17)

After weathering the demonic assault of Coven’s sinister occult rites, I felt like hammered shit, so I slept in on Sunday. This resulted in me missing a panel and a reading I was interested in, but, hey, them’s the breaks. Once I finally regained my strength and sanity, I emerged from the shadowy tomb that was my hotel room, hissing and recoiling from the light like a centuries-old vampire. The housekeeping lady may or may not have the sign of the cross as I passed.

I attended a few more panels on Sunday: “Small Press in the Weird” (with Cody Goodfellow, Derrick Hussey, Dragana Drobnjak, Mike Davis, and Dwayne Olson), “Faithful Frighteners” (with Richard Stanley, Bracken MacLeod, Tom Breen, Douglas Wynne, Izzy Lee, and Heather Buckley), “The Bleak Oblique: Aickman’s Influence on Contemporary Horror” (with Simon Strantzas, Michael Cisco, Paul Di Filippo, Jack Haringa, and Steve Rasnic Tem), and “The Future of Weird Fiction and NecronomiCon Providence” (with S. J. Bagley, Ellen Datlow, Sam Cowan, Ruthanna Emrys, and Michael Kelly).

I also ran around the vendor’s room like a chicken with its head cut off in a mad scramble to buy a few last minute items (I say “a few” here, when really I mean “a bank account-eradicating shit-ton”). Among the individuals I ran into while in the grip of this consumerist frenzy were author and con organizer Sam Gafford, German illustrator Fufu Frauenwahl, and artist/zinester Michael Bukowski.

I’d actually been looking for Bukowski on and off all weekend. He’s the prime mover behind the Illustro Obscurum zines, wherein he and some other artists bring to life the bizarre beasts and crazy creatures depicted in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson, Clark Ashton Smith, and more. Issues are often hard to get a hold of, because they comes in extremely limited quantities and often sell out fast. Thankfully, I was able to snatch up some of the few remaining copies Bukowski still had, including the Manly Wade Wellman issue, the Chuck Tingle issue, and the special Stories From the Borderland issue (which, for the first time in print form, compiles illustrations by Bukowski and essays by author/podcaster/grave-pisser Scott Nicolay, taken from the titular long-running blog series in which the pair rediscover forgotten gems from lesser-known pulp writers of yesteryear).

I also finally got to talk to author K.H. Vaughan for longer than three goddamn seconds, which proved a lot trickier than it sounds. Over the course of the weekend, our paths crossed many times but always when one or both of us was on the way to something else. Near the end of the final day of NecronomiCon,  we were able to sit for a while and properly get to know one another. I told Vaughan about my convention experience thus far and mentioned a few other cons I’m interested in checking out, and he pretty much sold me lock-stock-and-barrel on the upcoming 2018 Camp Necon. So, hopefully, you’ll be reading another rambling, long-winded con report from me about that event next year.

As the con came to a close, I ran into Sean M. Thompson and Scott R. Jones again, and they were nice enough to invite me along for dinner. Good thing, too. If it had been left to my antisocial ass, I probably would’ve ended up holing up in my hotel room, supping on cheap vending machine snacks. Instead, I accompanied them to a nearby restaurant, where we partook in that most holy of sacraments, delicious coal-fired pizza. Alongside Jones and Thompson, Cody Goodfellow, Alicia Graves, Liv Rainey Smith, Fufu Frauenwahl, Sam Cowan, and a few others were there. We talked about everything from Mick Foley’s infamous Hell in the Cell match to the politics of lady Ghostbusters to the cooking and consumption of human placenta. Y’know, typical chit-chat.

20914712_266221307198366_2915333657839673597_nGoodfellow, I should mention, is just as insane in real life as his fiction would have you believe. I first became a fan upon reading his novel collaboration with John Skipp, Jake’s Wake, back in the days when Leisure Books was still a thing. Seeing his mind work in-person was a great and terrible thing; at times he talks faster than light moves, his bearded pie-hole constantly overflowing with colorful anecdotes, philosophical asides, and outrageous factoids about fringe beliefs, such as the theory that human evolution is the direct result of ancient man engaging in brain cannibalism! At one point he briefly fell silent and spent a good five minutes staring off into space. When he returned to planet Earth, he brought back a fully formed story idea that was simultaneously deranged, ingenious, and way better than anything I could come up with in five days, let alone five minutes.

The pizza was damn good too.

After dinner, we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. Parting was, as the Bard once scribbled, such sweet sorrow. I was bummed to have to say adios to all the cool and kind and brilliant and funny and altogether amazing people I’d met over the course of the convention, but I was happy that I’d gotten to meet them, that I’d somehow stumbled my way into some great new friendships, and that I can look forward to seeing these weirdos again in the future.

I spent the next few days staying with some friends in nearby Massachusetts, where we hunted for seashells along the shore and visited infamous murderess Lizzie Borden’s resting place. Hard to imagine a more perfect way to cap things off.

As I returned to rolling hills of Pennsylvania, so to did NecronomiCon return to the eldritch bowels of New England’s witch-haunted underbelly. I do not mourn, however, because I know, just as Cthulhu’s alien priests know, that eventually the stars will be right once more. In 2019, the shadow of NecronomiCon will fall yet again on the winding streets of Providence, Rhode Island, and I will certainly be there, lending my own darkness to that mammoth shadow’s deepening tenebrous black.

Especially if there’s more pizza.