A desert oasis – the city of sin and lights – was a distant beacon for horror writers from the vast corners of the world. Named after Bram Stoker, who wrote the genre defining novel Dracula (1897), the Horror Writers Association held the first annual StokerCon 2016 held at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, Thursday, May 12 through Sunday, May 15. Driving Highway 15 from the Los Angeles basin, I made some stops along the way, taking in a few of the iconic roadside attractions that included Peggy Sue's Diner in Yermo, the World's Tallest Thermometer (reading 101 degrees!), and the Alien Fresh Jerky store and future home of the UFO Hotel, both located in Baker, California. And to provide a little history to the cultural milieu, a stop at Whiskey Pete's was in order to view the infamous Bonnie and Clyde death car, a 1934 Ford V8. I don't know how many bullet holes riddled the car on display, but it was sobering to think of the violent historical moment, while juxtaposed with sounds of slot machines ringing in the background. From Primm, it was a short drive into Las Vegas.
After a short wait for hotel and conference registrations, the festivities began with the opening reception, with author Stephen Jones (The Art of Horror: An Illustrated History) presiding as the master of ceremonies. He introduced a full house of guests of honor, which included himself: Ellen Datlow (The Doll Collection), Jack Ketchum (The Girl Next Door), Leslie S. Klinger (The Annotated Sandman), Daniel Knauf (HBO's Carnivale, NBC's The Blacklist), Marge Simon (Bram Stoker Award winning poet), R.L. Stine (Goosebumps series), Anne Serling (As I Knew Him: My Dad Rod Serling), Anthony “Tony” Timpone (Editor Emeritus, Fangoria), Ryan Turek (Director of Development, Blumhouse Productions), and Jeff Strand (The Greatest Zombie Movie Ever). To a packed room of approximately 400 conference attendees, Jones thanked Rena Mason (The Evolutionist, Fear the Reaper), Brad C. Hodson (Darling, Slices of Flesh), and Lisa Morton (The Halloween Encyclopedia, The Castle of Los Angeles) who led the StokerCon committee of volunteers that worked tirelessly to make the conference a success.
The reception ended promptly and attendees had three hours to ease into a 3+ day program that offered panels, presentations, readings, Q&As with experts from the horror community, and signings – all free to attendees. Also running alongside the free programming was the Horror University, offering writing workshops led by industry giants that included Jonathan Maberry, Jack Ketchum, Nancy Holder, Lucy Snyder, and many others. I chose two panels to attend:
Does the Death Card Really Mean Death?
Sephera Giron, author of the Witch Upon a Star Series, led this presentation on Tarot cards. Giron began the hour by explaining that initially she feared the cards but took classes to confront her fear. In addition to learning the meanings of each of the 78 cards that make up a deck, Giron explained that it was useful to know some numerology and astrology for the purpose of giving readings.
Over the years, she started to use the cards to assist in her writing. She provided three examples where the cards helped her develop her stories. First, she randomly laid out a card face down to represent each chapter of her novel. Giron would read each card and their meaning would then guide her as she wrote. The second method focused on developing a character through a 7-card chakra reading, and the third method was the 3-card read focusing specifically on a character's body, mind, and soul.
As the hour concluded, Giron shared a few of her Tarot decks one of which included the popular Rider-Waite deck. She also presented a variety of crystals and stones.
Comics & Graphic Novels: Attracting New Horror Fans
Leslie S. Klinger (The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels) served as moderator to the last panel of the evening which included Chris Morey (owner/publisher, Dark Regions Press), James Chambers (Shadow House), David Lucarelli (The Children's Vampire Hunting Brigade), Josh Finney (Casefile: Arkham), and Jonathan Maberry (V-Wars, Rot & Ruin, Joe Ledger Series).
Since the majority of panelists were novelists that had crossed over to writing comic books and graphic novels, the discussion quickly veered towards the mechanics of writing in this medium. Maberry explained he had to learn to focus his writing since his novels are typically 140K to 180K words in length. He also said that it was a collaborative process with the artist. Morey concurred that a novel's meanderings had to be trimmed because comics are very measured, while Finney stressed the importance of solidifying a partnership with the artist. Based on the fact that Alan Moore writes upwards of 60 pages of script and Neil Gaiman approximately 40, Klinger asked how much detail each writer provided their artists. Chambers stated that real locales did not require much detail and instead he said he focused more on the character cues. Maberry explained that it depends on the artist. For example, he worked with a Croatian artist, so Maberry provided URLs and photographs since there was a language barrier. While Moore did have lengthy scripts, Lucarelli said that he used Moore's guide to stick with about 270 words per page.
Always an intriguing question is how to break into the comic book/graphic novel market if you are writer. Morey stated that webcomics are a good way to get your content noticed as well as develop a following. Social networking is crucial he added. Maberry advised stepping down a tier and pitch to IDW and others of that level since they are more supportive of creator-owned projects. Chambers said to not forget self-publishing as a way of getting your project seen by the publishers, since it can help get your foot in the door; however, he did acknowledge that printing costs can be expensive. Lucarelli added that no one will know what you can do until you do it. Morey said crowdfunding can help you get noticed and Maberry explained that editors are often working the booths at comic conventions and they are looking for new talent all of the time.
Klinger followed up with asking what's overused or hot right now. Maberry stated graphic novels targeting teenage girls, and an important entry point for writers are the kids’ picture books. Finney advised analyzing the market and looking for ignored subject matter and audiences. Lucarelli added that it is difficult to jump on trends; however, if you can take a different approach and explore familiar tropes in a fresh way it will allow you to stand out from the crowd. Chambers agreed and offered Moore as a great example of recycling material and giving a new perspective as well as Steve Niles' vampire series 30 Days of Night and Frank Miller's Daredevil.
As the hour came to a close, the writers all agreed to write honestly and to write what you would want to read rather than what you think is popular and/or going to sell. As Morey said, it will come off sounding hollow and flat.
Friday morning commenced the first full day of programming that started at 9 o'clock. I attended a couple of scheduled program panels.
Writing Non-Fiction: Where to Begin?
Lisa Morton, Bram Stoker Award winner for Best Non-Fiction, expressed how significant non-fiction was and that each panelist represented an aspect of writing that explored and enlightened the horror community at large. Hence, Morton was joined by Stephen Jones (an anthology editor and biographer), Leslie S. Klinger (a prolific annotator of classic horror literature), David J. Skal [a historian (Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula)], Anne Serling (a poet and biographer), and Anthony “Tony” Timpone, magazine editor.
Morton asked how each panelist got their start in writing non-fiction. For Jones, he was looking for projects where he could find people to write a chapter that he could edit together. Timpone started when he attended cons, asking for interviews that he then turned around and published in magazines. Klinger said his wife challenged him to write about Sherlock Holmes, given the collection he had amassed on the famous Victorian sleuth. Serling expressed of writing through the grief she experienced from losing her father (Rod Serling), but also to set the record straight. Skal loved the monster films of the late 1950s, had a degree in journalism, and had access to a treasure trove of correspondence letters which led to his seminal book on literary and popular culture icon, Dracula. For Morton, her love for Hong Kong films resulted in The Cinema of Tsui Hark and eventually her opus on her favorite holiday, Halloween.
Timpone and Jones expressed that the market has changed over the years and that the internet has had a detrimental impact on print media where non-fiction writers could find a home. The conversation thread shifted to the laborious, yet enriching, endeavor of research. Klinger stated that he has found digitized manuscripts online, which did not require him to travel from his desk chair. Skal added that, for him, travel was a necessity for access to original newspapers, because the other news articles provided context of the times he was researching.
There are benefits to non-fiction writing. Per Klinger, writers get to include most of their research into their writing, whereas fiction writers likely will conduct similar amounts of research, but will not include nearly the amount of material in their stories. He also said that it is easier to get publicity with non-fiction writing, because you may be seen as a subject matter expert. Morton said that crossing over to fiction can be easier. And, writers of non-fiction are paid the same as their fiction counterparts. The magazines Clarkesworld (science-fiction and fantasy) and Nightmare (horror and dark fantasy) were mentioned as outlets for non-fiction. (Note: A quick online search revealed that Nightmare was not currently accepting non-fiction submissions.)
Bump in the Night: A History of Ghosts
Fascinated by ghosts and ghost stories? Then the special presentation by HWA's President, Lisa Morton and author of her comprehensive text, Ghosts: A Haunted History (2015, Reaktion Books) would have been a must attend.
Undaunted by technical difficulties, Morton jumped right in and explained that Reaktion Books asked if she would write a monster book, so she selected ghosts as her topic. She revealed that after reviewing ghost books out on the market, she noticed that most of them offered a Western perspective of approximately the last 300 years. Right then, she decided she wanted to write an encompassing study.
First, what was a ghost? A wraith? Phantom? Revenant? Apparition? Morton discussed each term before leading off with Epic of Gilgamesh, written circa 2100 BC, as including the first recorded ghost, Enkidu. From there, Morton led the audience on a time-traveling world wind tour that touched on Greek, Roman, Celtic, Viking, Mexican, Asian, and Native American ghost mythos. She also revealed some of the infamous shams that included London's Cock-Lane in the mid-1750s and the more recent 20th century hoax of the Amityville House that has spawning more than a dozen films.
Morton rounded out the presentation with explaining that she was a huge skeptic but after researching her book, she felt that the stories could not be discounted. She ended by showing an image of the God Helmet that stimulates the wear's temporal lobes, which can create a sense a presence or perhaps even ghost appearances.
Okay, this is the fan girl gushy moment of my StokerCon experience. After Morton's presentation, I lugged a plastic grocery bag full of books down to the Dealer's Room (Somehow I missed taking a photo!), where book sellers congregated and authors gathered for their appointed author signing times. High on my list of “must meet” was the successful media jumper himself Jonathan Maberry. My stack of Maberry books – and I did not even bring all of my Maberry comics! - touched on his Joe Ledger series, his V-Wars collections and a variety of anthologies that included his writing. It was exciting to meet him and Maberry was easygoing as he chatted about his research and use of experts for his Ledger series, while hinting to book nine's premise.
The remnants of the day and evening was spent sightseeing since it was the visit for my boyfriend and I to Las Vegas and the strip. The amount of foot traffic was reminiscent of time spent in the crowded streets of London and the number of people carrying drinks in all manners of plastic containers that ranged from elongated swirly colorful cups to wearable “purses” with straws was, to say the least, a rather unique sight to behold. Regardless of the time of day or night, the city was in constant motion and accompanied by a cacophony of sounds.
In conjunction with the con, attendees were treated to the Lucky Th1rt3en Horror Short Film Competition which featured, well you guessed it, thirteen short listed films Friday evening in the Eldorado Ballroom. Filmic horror was served up from the UK, Italy, Spain, Germany, and the US. The winner of the StokerCon2016 Lucky Th1rt3en Tredecim Award went to the short film Quenottes (Pearlies). In addition the award, filmmakers Pascal Thiebaux and Gil Pinheiro received $1,000 and an exclusive first-look deal with Co-Conspiracy Entertainment for one-year. Second place honors went to The Package (US, dir. Eric Morgret) and third place to Chateau Sauvignon: Terroir (US, dir. David E. Munz-Maire).
After an unexpected early morning emergency hotel announcement on the loudspeaker in our room at 3 a.m. that apparently was a false alarm, marking the halfway point of the con, Saturday shaped up to be a bumper day for attending panels.
Readings by Janet Joyce Holden & Aaron Sterns
The day started with a couple of bloody readings from horror writers Janet Joyce Holden (Origins of Blood series) and Aaron Sterns (screenplay for Wolf Creek 2). Holden read an excerpt from Blood Paternal, at the moment when one of her characters transitions between his human death and his re-awakening as a vampire. The choice was an attention grabber and quickly pulled the audience into the scene that was filled with intense emotions and sensations as the character mediates the past moments of his life as they flash in his mind.
Sterns read from his new novel, Vilkaƈi. Set in present day New Jersey, his excerpt catches up with a rough gang of werewolves in which one character is experiencing his first night on the town after turning into a werewolf and thereby fulfilling his destiny. The narrative was gritty, graphic and heavy-laden with drug-inducing violence as the character grows accustomed to being part of a werewolf clan.
There was time after the readings – actually, I wished there had been a couple of selections from each because they were so good – so Holden held a Q&A with Sterns, given his cross-over experience between novel writing and screenwriting. Explaining they are polar opposites, Sterns said that fiction writing is filled with introspections, reflections, and it is a matter of putting words into your character’s head. A novel has usually about five ideas. With screenwriting, there is a predefined format (he uses Final Draft software). In the script, a writer must have a strong beginning with the first few pages and most screenplays focus on one idea in a 90-page script.
Sterns stated that while both methods are founded on storytelling, it is a challenge to switch between screenplays that can take a couple of weeks verses novels that typically take from six to twelve months to write. It falls to details: a script has to be direct and concise writing while with a novel, more details can be incorporated. He added that it was essential to read examples of screenplays, because a good script will focus on more dialogue. However, Sterns cautioned that good dialogue is nothing without a strong plot.
The Romance of Horror or the Horror of Romance
Moderator Heather Graham (The King’s Pleasure, The Pirate Bride) asked each panelist to introduce themselves and speak briefly to whether they focus on the romance of a story or if their story has romance elements in it. Greg Herren (as Todd Gregory, Midnight Hunger: Erotic Tales of the Vampire, Need) started first. With over 30 books written, he stated that he wrote romance/erotica specifically as well as writing crime/horror stories. Early on, Nancy Holder (Crimson Peak, Buffyverse tie-ins) said that she was a romance writer, but that her focus has changed over the years. Tonya Hurley (The Blessed trilogy) was next and she discussed that her YA stories address religious and loss themes. Yvonne Navarro (Highborn, Buffyverse tie-ins) explained that she has romance in every book and stressed the importance to have a sense of caring in one's story. Megan Hart (Don’t Deny Me, Every Part of You) rounded out the panel and said that she writes horror with romance elements.
Graham's first question to the panelist was to ask what inspired them at a young age. The novel Rebecca topped Herren's list, explaining that he re-reads his book every couple of years, each time with a different lens. Most recently, he read the story in the noir genre. Holden named Boris Karloff's Frankenstein (1931) as her inspiration, thanks to her mother. Hurley agreed, adding that the themes of love and loss resonated for her. For Navarro, she found that she enjoyed the stories that could potentially happen in real life, such as with Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). Hart shared that The Screaming Skull (1958) and Orca the Killer Whale (1977) were early inspirational films for her.
Was there anything that the panelists would or would not write, Graham asked. Hart said she would not write what does not feel appealing to her; she would kill anything. Navarro said she also killed everything except dogs. (She has a Great Dane.) Hurley is terrified by possession and exorcism, while Holden killed everything for a long time and went for the “gross out” however she was not into torture porn. Herren will write about the impact of rape, but will not write the act. And, he will not sexualize children. For example, while he felt that Lolita was beautifully written, it is disturbing. For Graham, Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs are uncomfortable; in fact, she dieted in fear because of Hannibal Lecter's cannibalistic habits.
As a follow up, Graham asked if the panelists had any phobias. Herren fears heights, what could happen in crowds and home invasion. Holden's phobias include ghosts and heights. And, in a revealing moment, she added that she could not watch most horror films without her hands before her eyes. The fun house, death, and catholic faith stories. Navarro said her fear was of having no strength to fight back if she is snatched or experiences a home invasion. Elevators, escalator rails and hermit crabs, which Hart used to keep but doesn't anymore.
Graham shifted the conversation away from the subject of romance to discuss the current and future state of horror as the hour finished up.
The Horror Short Story in the 21st Century: Markets, Trends, and Sales
Moderator Sunni K. Brock (A Darke Phantastique) was joined by Ellen Datlow (editor, The Monstrous, Lovecraft’s Monsters) and Stephen Jones (editor, The Vampire Stories of R. Chetwynd-Hayes, The Mammoth Book of Zombies) to discuss all aspects of the horror short story in today's market, and the group did not waste any time getting started. Datlow advised to check out where your work will be seen and Jones added to work towards building a career, rather than settle for instant gratification. Jones said a well-written solid, unique story is what editors are looking for in horror stories. Datlow stated that horror fiction is emotion and Jones argued that horror can be blended with other genres; it doesn't have to be visceral.
“You need to know where you are going,” Datlow said. Jones said that a story's title is important and Brock stressed to have others review your title because you don't want a book that matches with a book title already in use. In addition, you want to avoid books with the same ideas and that can be revealed by reading books in the market of interest. Another avenue of assistance that Brock offered the audience is the Horror Writers Association's mentorship program.
The panelists went on to discuss mechanics of editing that included pdf files versus hard copy manuscripts for the remainder of the hour.
Creating Believable and Unique Characters
Hal Bodner (Bite Club, The Trouble with Hairy), Nancy Kilpatrick (Nevermore, The Goth Bible), Steve Rasnic Tem (Deadfall Hotel, Blood Kin), and Michael Marshall Smith (We Are Here, Everything You Need) joined moderator Tim Waggoner (Grimm: The Killing Time, The Way of All Flesh) for a lively discussion about creating believable characters.
Waggoner asked the panelists to describe what they thought believable meant when it came to creating their characters, and alternatively, what made an unbelievable character. Tem advised avoid writing stereotypes, instead, he stated that a character that rings true was one in which the writer was intimate with, which involved a process of discovering that character. He said that character sketches can be helpful in that process. For Tem, he starts with dialogue and then slowly builds the “emotional heart” over a three-month period. By then, Tem said he was writing from the inside of the character. If the writer doesn’t connect with their characters, then a writer might error on the side of controlling that characters adversely.
Smith agreed that it was a process of discovery. For him, a line of dialogue can inspire a character for his stories. He warned writers to not barrage readers with personal details, like what you would find on a driver’s license (male, 5’ 10” from Chicago type of facts). Unbelievable characters tend to be shallow. He also added that a writer should be able to say more with less.
Bodner expressed that characters are and should be 3-dimensional: they are what they say and do, so it is important to observe real people. He advised writers to not smooth a character’s edges because a believable characters has flaws and ticks. Characters without them does not ring true in a story. The “wouldn’t it be cool if….” prompt for creating a character does not work because they will come off as contrived, Bodner warned the audience.
Kilpatrick delves internally first to her own depths (experiences and knowledge) as her starting point and then fleshes out her characters. She said to not underestimate the reader; they are intelligent so the characters and plot need to be believable. Competency is impacted by the character and as such, characters that are shallow and do “stupid things” are not believable in Kilpatrick’s estimation.
Waggoner has found that writers seem to forget the impact of fear on a person, which leads to a hyper competent character. For example, Tem said that serial television is guilty of not allowing the character to feel the full impact of events around them.
Did the panelists have any tips with character development? Tem said when he stuck with a character, he’ll shift gears and try writing dialogue instead. Smith reads through the dialogue, determining if each character has a unique voice. Bodner discussed the indirect creation of character: the reader learns about the character through their own observations and actions. He provided an example from Bite Club where his character Troy interacts with objects around him, in this instance, his alarm clock. Kilpatrick said to record reading your story and then listen to it. How does the characterizations and descriptions of the environment congeal?
Could the panelists offer advice on how to improve developing characters that are unique? Tem shared that he reads a lot – history, psychology – and he observes people. He said a lot can be learned from watching children. Smith said that using experiences and writing empathetically will help. Bodner said that during his high school and college years, he got to observe and interact with larger-than-life people that influenced his writing. Kilpatrick added to live life and read everything! But, she also advised to be true to yourself and write what interests you; she said that interest is what drives her stories.
The last question that Waggoner was able to fit into the hour was “What is the character’s emotional journey?” Smith stated that he started with first person and then added points of view from other characters, but he cautioned that sometimes, there can be too many points of view in a story. Tem advised “don’t get complicated.” An audience member expressed worrying that characters from one story would sound the same in another, unrelated story. Tem responded that he doesn’t feel that readers will think that. Bodner and Smith concurred that writers should not get hung up by the trappings of creating characters. People are people and their emotions – literary or real life – are similar.
The Bran Stoker Awards Banquet was held Saturday evening in the Sunset Ballroom. There were eleven categories presented that evening and here is a list of the award winners: Superior Achievement in a Novel – Paul Tremblay (A Head Full of Ghosts); Superior Achievement in a First Novel – Nicole Cushing (Mr. Suicide); Superior Achievement in a Young Adult Novel – John Dixon (Devil's Pocket); Superior Achievement in a Graphic Novel – Sam Weller, Mort Castle, Chris Ryall and Carlos Guzman, editors (Shadow Show: Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury); Superior Achievement in Long Fiction – Mercedes M. Yardley (Little Dead Read [Grimm Mistresses]); Superior Achievement in Short Fiction – John Palisano's “Happy Joe's Rest Stop” (18 Wheels of Horror); Superior Achievement in a Screenplay – David Robert Mitchell (It Follows); Superior Achievement in an Anthology – Michael Bailey (The Library of the Dead); Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection – Lucy A. Snyder (While the Black Stars Burn); Superior Achievement in Non-Fiction – Stephen Jones (The Art of Horror); and Superior Achievement in a Poetry Collection – Alessandro Manzetti (Eden Underground).
Previously announced awards that were honored during the evening's presentation and included the Lifetime Achievement Award to writer Alan Moore and filmmaker George A. Romero; the Silver Hammer Award to Michael Knost; Speciality Press Award to Borderlands Press; Mentor of the Year Award to Tim Waggoner; and the Richard Laymon President's Award to Patrick Freivald and Andrew Wolter.
The few days of conference programming went quickly and suddenly. It was already Sunday with a handful of panels left to conclude the first StokerCon2016. My last panel examined a term that has been gaining ground in the various popular culture mediums: “mash-ups.”
Crossing Boundaries: Horror Genre Mash-Ups and How to Do It Right
Moderating the first panel of the morning was Hal Bodner, and he was joined by Tim Waggoner, Jennifer Brozek (Karen Wilson Chronicles, Apocalypse Girl Dreaming), Rob E. Boley (The Scary Tales series), and Weston Ochse (SEAL Team 666: A Novel, Blood Ocean). Bodner opened the hour by stating that, for a long time, he was told not to cross genres. He asked each panelist to comment.
Ochse stated that booksellers don’t like mash-ups because they are hard to categorize, market, and track book sales. Brozek qualified that there are two kinds of mash-ups: mash-up of characters, such as Jason vs. Freddie, or mash-up of genres. Bodner agreed. Waggoner added that the fusion of genres, either variety, comes down to marketing, citing paranormal romance as an example of a mash-up that became its own genre, while some have moved into the dark fantasy section.
Bodner asked the panelists if and/or how mash-ups impact their career. Boley said that he doesn’t do it to be stereotyped, but rather looks to find hooks that fit each other, for example Batman and Jack the Ripper. Sometimes, the mash-up may not be seamless, such as the first few books by Seth Grahame-Smith (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter). For Brozek, her focus is on the writing of the book, so she doesn’t look for or examine what elements populate her stories. In other words, she doesn’t have an agenda that she will consciously include certain elements to create a mash-up. She stated that the 1979 film Time After Time took a few time-traveling elements and elements from Jack the Ripper to create a wonderful mash-up. Bodner stated that at Netflix, they cross-market movies in several categories, which is much more difficult in a brick-and-mortar book store.
What mash-ups would the panelists like to see? Boley immediately offered up Godzilla and Gone with the Wind – many audiences were intrigued and asked when he would write it – and Brozek said Kaiju and Fight Club. Fan fiction was brought up by Bodner, who mentioned the Kirk/Spock slash fiction and then asked if mash-ups can go too far. All of the panelists had examples from television where a series started off with an interesting mash-up but soon became muddled by certain storylines. Boley did offer up that Buffy the Vampire Slayer evolved but maintained consistency in their stories, and Waggoner mentioned Supernatural as a stand-out example of working well. He added that the core of these shows rests on the relationships established.
As the panel finished up, Bodner took questions from the audience, addressing several points covered earlier by the panelists. And like that, the con came to end and it was back on the road for the long drive home - headed home with lots of new books, new knowledge gained, and new friends made.
Next year, StokerCon2017 will be held April 27 – 30 on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, and guests will include PS Publisher Peter Crowther, game designer Bill Bridges, Reader's Advisory Librarian Becky Spratford, and authors Elizabeth Hand, Chuck Wendig, Tananarive Due, Gretchen O'Neil, and George R.R. Martin. If this first year is any indication, then next year should be stellar!
Please check out the StokerCon 2016 photo gallery at Fanbase Press’ Facebook page. (All photos courtesy of Michele Brittany.)