WHC2012 Live Coverage: Day 3

Greetings once again, faithful readers! Pardon the lateness for my post of Day 3 of the World Horror Convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, which was on March 31st, and what an eventful day it was! I was in transit for most of yesterday going between two connecting flights that took the better part of ten hours, and didn’t have much luck with connectivity in the air. I also experienced quite a bit of jet lag and other travelling maladies. As well, this is the reason that I was unable to attend any of the programming on Day 4 of WHC, which included panels on screenwriting techniques, Lovecraft’s short stories, residual hauntings, collecting horror, writing groups, paranormal romance, classic horror, and the ending ceremony, which included gothic belly dancers, which would have been interesting to see for sure.

In any case, what follows is my recap of Day 3:

Dacre Stoker, (pronounced like “acre” or “baker” and so named for an ancestor), the great grand nephew of Bram, did a presentation called “Stoker on Stoker” about a recently uncovered journal of the author’s, of which entries were taken and published in The Last Journal of Bram Stoker: The Dublin Years from Robson Press, released a month ago.

Dacre began the presentation by discussing some of Bram’s most direct relatives who are still around, including three great-grandsons who are, in Dacre’s words, “very British” and don’t want to make a big fuss about their famous relative. Two are retired accountants, and the other one sails around the world in his boat. One of his boats sank with family memorabilia in it, although thankfully not too much. Dacre also explained that he found the lost journal during his research in a cousin’s attic, which was an astonishing discovery as Bram’s wife, Florence, sold a lot of his collection off after his death.

Before launching into the journal, Dacre covered off some of the basics that are known about Bram. The family history and the way Dacre explained it was fascinating, because he provided a social context not only about Bram’s circumstances growing up but also about Ireland at the time.

Bram started writing the journal at age sixteen when he went to Trinity College, which is also when he worked as a civil servant. The journal lends many interesting insights into his family life, including the conflicts he had with his father over pursuing a life in the arts and literature, and his mother being a staunch advocate for women’s rights, which may have influenced his portrayal of Mina Harker in Dracula.

There are so many interesting facets to Bram’s life at this time and some clarifications as well, including that Bram did not die of syphilis as attested by biographer Daniel Larson. The official Bram Stoker estate website has some interesting documentation relating to this; check out their website for more info. Among some of the other interesting things mentioned during the presentation: Bram had terrible handwriting and wrote on whatever he could find; more reviews of Dracula have recently emerged in recent years showing that the book was positively viewed during the time that Bram was alive, and that he would have seen this praise (there are rumours that he died not knowing how well-loved Dracula was). Bram was also quite the athlete, contrary to the image of the usually reclusive and athletically challenged writer.

On to Dracula, Bram didn’t start writing notes for the novel until 1890. One of his notes is so cool–he wanted to make the character, Dracula, a “quatorzieme” (if you had thirteen people for dinner, you had to invite a fourteenth because otherwise it was bad luck). Bram was thinking about having Dracula as the fourteenth guest at a dinner. As well, Bram never actually went to Transylvania, although he had family who did.

As if one hefty dose of vampire fiction wasn’t enough, for those eager to sink their teeth into more about the fanged creatures, the “Vampires Through The Ages” panel, which featured Hal Bodner, Leslie S. Klinger, James Dorr, Thomas Roche, and Ed Erdelac brought forth some interesting discussion as well.

Leslie Klinger set out by saying there are three big periods of vampires: the first is comprised of folk tales and legends like that of the lamia going around. The second period is the monster period, and it’s much more at home (the idea of vampires is that they’re risen from your neighbour’s grave and they’re preying on the local village, going back to their family, and they’re familiar people.) During this period, plagues of vampires were recorded in the 1600s and 1700s in Europe by the government. There was usually a problem, like cattle with mysterious wounds, someone blamed it on vampires, the townspeople dug up someone recently deceased who looked like a vampire with long nails and hair. Of course, decomposition of human bodies was little understood; people were struggling to come to terms with death. Dracula is a product of this second “monster” period. The beginnings of the third age, known as the “lounge lizard” period, see Dracula film adaptations and vampires transform into romantic, interesting, sexy hypnotic figures and, in Klinger’s workds, “it’s been downhill from there.”

Bram Stoker made manifest some very sexual overtones in terms of compulsion toward vampires. In the 80s, we began to see more sexualization of the vampire (dangerous, but sexy, like the bad boy boyfriend), followed by the 90s explosion of vampires, particularly in urban fantasy. We also started to see more of the vampire as a romantic lead with traits such as being doomed, isolated, knowing a lot about sex, etc., and gradually, the vampire became less and less monstrous. Sexual fascination with vamps amped up, and as Roche pointed out, in Urban Fantasy there’s a dichotomy of main characters having a hatred of vampires, but then they fall in love with them.

Religion is deeply rooted in people’s superstitions, which is why people were so fervently invested in believing in vampires in the second age. Empress Maria Theresa even passed a law making it illegal to report a vampire at the end of the second age). Vampirism, the panelists observed, is a moral contagion. The reason the Catholic Church got invested was because of the belief that spirits animated corpses to create vampires; the church never made up its mind. The Devil was blamed. The idea that vampires were demons disappeared from literature until Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The panelists also discussed one of the momentous changes in the second “monster” period being the release of The Vampyre by John Polidori, Lord Byron’s physician. It’s the first substantial piece of vampire prose; there was only poetry prior to its publication. This marked the first time in literature that a vampire’s depiction included a somewhat pleasant physical appearance, which led right up to the publication of Dracula in 1897. What’s interesting is that unlike Sherlock Holmes, which led to a string of copycats, Dracula didn’t inspire the same reaction in literature. It wasn’t thought of as a vampire story, just a thriller/mystery.

Some discussion of Interview with a Vampire and Salem’s Lot came about during the panel, and yes, Twilight was mentioned, and despite the groans it induced, one of the audience members pointed out that as much as there’s a great backlash from the horror community against the mega-successful series, in her experience, she’s seen the book bring mothers and daughters closer, and it’s turned women who wouldn’t normally be classified into readers as people who are now readers and seek out similar literature.

For more insight into the history of vampires, Bodner recommended Barber’s Vampire Burial. Overall, it was a very interesting and insightful discussion on vampires.

Next, I attended the panel on the Horror Writers Association featuring HWA president Rocky Wood, vice-president Lisa Morton, novelist Robert McCammon, and although the panel was also to have included co-founders Joe and Karen Lansdale, Joe showed up apologetically at the tail end of the panel to explain that he had some issues with the timing. This was also a fascinating glimpse not only into some of the progress that the HWA has made in recent years, including increases in membership, a boost to their social media presence, and planned additions, including an HWA booklet for new members to get when they join.

Robert McCammon had some very interesting insights into the publishing scene and horror community in the late 80s (although HWA officially came to be in 1987, then known as HOWL, talks had been underway since 1984). The genre, McCammon affirmed, was different because there were more publishers, it was a more active time, and there was a lot of output, but he felt isolated despite the conventions. He wanted to establish a community, to support the new and older writers both emotionally and financially, and in some ways, things were better, as many people fondly refer to the era as the “golden age of horror.” While publishers were spending a lot of money on some commercial hot properties, it was questionable how much cash they devoted to certain projects. There was an explosion of horror fiction, and many properties didn’t perform as well as the publishers had hoped. Now, as a result, publishers are reluctant to spend money on mid-list books that would once have garnered a higher budget. This is true across the industry, but particularly in horror.

The splatterpunk scene also started during this time, Stephen King was at an all-time high at the pinnacle of his success, and McCammon wanted a serious place for people who felt isolated in different parts of the country who didn’t have writer’s groups to come together. He wanted to reduce the combative feel of competition that happens in most genres, and to facilitate more of a “family” type of environment where writers could feel welcome and included.

McCammon also emphasized at many points during the panel that horror is literature, something I whole-heartedly agree with and have been saying for many years. But at the time, and to some extent now, horror was being ghettoized. It’s valid literature, but critical reviews, even of writers like King, treated it like garbage.

McCammon also edited the HWA’s first anthology, The Fang (1991), and hadn’t edited an anthology prior to that. The overarching concept of the anthology was that vampires had taken over the world, and some pretty big names were included. It was the bestselling anthology produced by the HWA until Blood Lite (ed. Kevin J. Anderson), which has been so successful, that Pocket is releasing Blood Lite III this summer, and there is a good possibility that the HWA will come out with Blood Lite IV in the future.

Lisa Morton delivered president Rocky Wood’s message, and the biggest change we’ve seen is the explosion of e-books, which has made more horror available. Because of an expanded web team, the HWA runs their blog, Dark Whispers, which, incidentally, many librarians read. The HWA also had a successful presence at Book Expo America next to the Mystery Writers of America booth. There are lots of new additions, and many more great things to come, including Stoker Weekend 2013, which will be held in New Orleans, Louisiana, a city which it has been a dream of mine to visit.

The panelists also touched on the fact that the definition of what the HWA considers a professional writer tasked the organization at the time of its founding, and now it’s more difficult because there are self-published authors popping up all over the place, and it will likely change membership requirements.

Another of the interesting questions that came up was whether the HWA should include authors of related genres to join, such as paranormal romance. Excluding someone is a bit defeatist, and McCammon expressed that he thinks some people have too rigid a view of what horror is (horror can also be quiet and not necessarily splatterpunk). Rocky mentioned wanting the HWA to be very inclusive–as long as they can find one element that matches the HWA’s requirements, they will let an author join, although it’s interesting that there are people on the fringe of horror who don’t identify their work as such, but the HWA invites them, as well.

Lisa mentioned having invited noted vampire scribe Charlaine Harris to join the HWA, and she’s always very polite in her responses, saying she doesn’t write horror when she declines the invitations. She’s never provided an explanation, but doesn’t think she writes horror. I found that to be an interesting point, because there are clearly some people who consider what Harris does to be horror, which is fine–everyone has their own definition of what constitutes horror–but in my view, I consider her as more of a paranormal author in the urban fantasy umbrella as her work has many elements such as fantasy, mystery, and romance. In any case, the important thing is that people who want to join should be allowed to, and if a paranormal romance author is passionate about horror, the HWA is the place for them.

One of the future goals of the organization is to organize the national chapters a bit better, as geography poses a big challenge. They also encouraged authors who are members to sign up for local appearances, particularly BEA, as many of the member authors don’t perhaps know that they have this resource to their advantage. Joe Lansdale, when he did show up, gave a hilarious but nonetheless comprehensive and sped-up version of the HWA’s history. This was a cool “retrospective plus future things to come” panel that I enjoyed.

As well, I attended a Horror Publishing panel that included Norman Rubinstein (Genius Publishing), Dawn Martin and Don D’Auria (both Samhain), Roy Robbins (Bad Moon Books), and Derrick Hussey (Hippocampus Press). They discussed the hot topic for the last few years, which is the digital age and how it has impacted sales, book releases, etc. Samhain’s feedback was that many of their horror readers prefer print books, versus the romance readers of their line, who prefer e-books. More than 50 % of all fiction is sold in e-books, and Samhain has a great track record with trade but especially e-books.

Horror is one of the best suited genres for short fiction, and the conversation steered to anthologies and collections, which generally don’t sell as well as novels across the board, but with Samhain, Don mentioned one of the benefits to him has been being able to consider novellas, which opens up a large vista for him on acquiring projects.

The editors on the panel also spoke of the importance of acquiring new authors, as although the old guard might be the ones selling the copies needed to pay for the new authors’ books, you need new authors in a consistent supply so that they can eventually become established, and then the cycle of getting more new authors is repeated, and so on.

The panel then steered into more of a general discussion about the state of publishing, and Don in particular, having started out as a sales representative for a publisher, was extremely knowledgeable in his answers about book distribution, bookstores and how book are “sold in”, books being remaindered versus pulped, and although many people in the audience (myself included, as I work for a trade publisher) already knew most of what he was talking about, it’s always validating to hear things from the publishing point of view for those who may not know how everything works.

With the evening came preparations for the Bram Stoker Awards ceremony, broadcast on the web via Ustream, where I had my first live tweeting experience. Every time someone won for a category or received an award of distinction, I tweeted about it and received a good number of re-tweets from other authors, and some people who were also in attendance at the banquet. Jeff Strand was hilarious, as always, and came up with a hand puppet this time, which I thought was great. The evening ran very smoothly, and everyone in the room was so touched when Richard Matheson, author of I am Legend, joined via video to deliver his message of thanks and appreciation for having won the Vampire Novel of the Century award, a great distinction. I kept on dreaming of one day being nominated for a Stoker, and the whole atmosphere in the room was one of great support–a place where hopes and dreams come alive, and hope in particular is amplified.

The HWA party started downstairs shortly thereafter on the first floor, while Chizine had their own party on the third floor, which was excellent–people caught up, chatted over drinks, and generally had a great time. I also got some packing done, knowing I had to leave the next morning. It’s never fun when something is over, and this particular experience at the World Horror Convention was amazing and inspiring in so many ways, but also just a lot of fun. It really did feel like summer camp at one point–a place where everyone sees old friends, makes new ones, and has a good time amid all the business parts of the weekend. I will most definitely be attending the Stokers in New Orleans next year, and look forward to possibly attending the World Horror Convention 2013, as well.

Thanks for sticking around to read my coverage–I realize it’s longer than most, and some people prefer just to do photo galleries or videos, or combinations, but in my case, I never found myself with a shortage of good things to say about this convention.

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