BizarroCon 2016

When it comes to my work schedule and holidays and vacation days and such, I’m normally pretty flexible, willing to cover, willing to swap shifts, pick up some overtime … but with a couple of conditions. I want my Halloweens off, and I must-absolutely-MUST have a few days in November for the best convention ever, the only convention that really matters, the convention where I live among my chosen family.

BizarroCon. As long as I get to that one, I can stand missing everything else. Others would be great, sure, would be fun, help my career and all that shit, but … BIZARROCON. It is a long weekend party with all your best friends. It is a warm and fun intimate gathering where you can hobnob with your literary idols like equals.

Where you can get personally trampled by bestselling author and Horror Grandmaster Brian Keene in a full-contact LARP reading of Eric Hendrixson’s Drunk Driving Champion. That is the kind of event this is.

People have described it as a family reunion, which also works … except, real-world family reunions tend to have those relatives you don’t want to talk to anyway, those bitter grudges and passive-aggressive sniping, general pissy infighting, screaming brats, creepy uncles, judgey grandmas, and lectures about when you’re going to get a real job or make something of your life.

Now, this isn’t to say all of the above are entirely absent from BizarroCon, but most of it’s set aside, muffled in hugs and laughter, drowned in booze and good cheer, swallowed up and overshadowed by a near-tangible glow of affection, community, and bonhomie.

This year marked my, uh, fourth-and-a-half, I guess. My first time was only a one-day pass, but even that was enough to prove to me beyond any smidgen of a doubt that I’d found my home. Hell, BizarroCon and its locals are a major reason why I decided to move to Portland just over a year ago, during my whole divorce / empty-nest / midlife crisis reboot.

This year also marked the special, wonderful moment when I could introduce and present my greatest work … my daughter, Becca … to all the rest of these wonderful people. For various reasons of alcohol and adult content, BizarroCon is not very kid-safe (though, given how many of the regulars been gettin’ busy lately, we could have a kids’ track and a day care by now).

But, Becca’s 22, college-graduated with a theater major, and she basically outdrank me exponentially this weekend. I had maybe 1/3 of 1/2 of a glass of Cameron Pierce’s pomegranate cider (brewed for Nathan Carson’s book Starr Creek, which sold out before he even started his reading) at the Friday night party. The rest of the weekend for me was water, tea, and coffee. Pathetic, I know. Meanwhile, here’s my girl, spending an afternoon in one of the bars, drinking and writing … downing a couple of vodka-somethings during the Showdown … without even a hangover to speak of the next day … I’m so proud!

Being able to witness her experiencing BizarroCon, encountering these people she’d only previously heard of, was fantastic. She’d read The Rising back in, what, seventh grade? Now, here she was meeting Brian Keene, as we passed on to him one of her Super Munchkin shirts as a hand-me-down for HIS kid (small world, and I think I still owe John Kovalic a margarita).

Here she was, being awestruck by Carlton Mellick III, boggled by Jeff Burk and Kevin L. Donihe and Danger Slater, being wholeheartedly welcomed by Rose O’Keefe, Lisa LeStrange … she nearly climbed over three chairs to talk theater with Laura Lee Bahr … and I honestly believe she would have followed Jennifer Robin home like a stray puppy if I’d let her (then again, who wouldn’t follow Jennifer home like a stray puppy?)

“Your friends are weird,” she told me. Friday night, she tweeted something about how it was like she was at a college party but where everybody was at least ten years older. She also snapchatted ten-second segments of Carlton’s performances — Babyflex will give your newborn those toned abs! Ninjablocker, keep your loved ones safe! Lexus luxury condoms! Do YOU suffer from uncontrollable anal bleeding? — without context or explanation to her own friends, whose responses were along the lines of “WTF???” and “where ARE you?!?”

Her biggest concern about the Showdown was whether anybody would get pierced or stapled on stage (your fault on that one, Mr. Burk) and all I could tell her was that when it came to the Ultimate Bizarro Showdown, there were no guarantees. True, the stapling had been at World Horror, but you never know. We’ve had, what, everything shy of full-frontal nudity by now? Or was that at one of the years I missed?

I am, however, getting ahead of myself timeline-wise, so let’s back up and try to do this in a little more coherent order.

Thursday was when the con officially began. I spent that morning finishing up my various bits of prep: another benefit of living this close means I can really go overboard bringing goodies, plus I had all the dolls for the banquet centerpieces to box up, and my skull-bucket of Buddy System buttons, and making sure I remembered to print out my labels for things and my flier for the doll drawing and the pages I needed for my reading and all that good stuff.

Doug Blakeslee arrived mid-afternoon, so I fetched him from the station and then took a much-needed nap (it did not help that, in the couple of weeks leading up to the con, I’d managed to contract some kind of bronchial death-crud probably-pneumonia, of which the dregs of the cough have still not completely left me). Then we drove out to Edgefield for the Opening Ceremonies, followed by the First Inaugural BizarroCon Beer Tasting and Pickle Party!

To digress just briefly and repeat what’s been said elsewhere and many times before yet still cannot possibly be said often or loud enough:


If you don’t know that by now, or don’t know why by now, then you better correct that like pronto or there is no hope for you at all. She is the absolute exemplar of den-mother and cat-herder, a savvy businesswoman, a brilliant organizer, a personable and charismatic leader, a rock-steady touchstone and grounding lightning rod for the crazywhirl chaos, one who supports and comforts but also encourages and challenges, a reacher-outer, a morale-booster extraordinaire … just an all-around amazing woman, a lady and a powerhouse, and if not for her, none of this would have happened. WE LOVE YOU, ROSE!!!

Where was I? Oh yeah, Thursday night. Badges, and program books that turned out gorgeous, and the meetings and greetings! Old friends and new, and faces to names, in-person after online! I immediately spotted Amber Fallon on the couch, looking either tharn or jet-lagged, and don’t remember who I elbowed out of the way to lunge over there and say hi. Lee Widener brought stickers to put on our badges to show how many years we’d each been there … pumpkins for newbies, and I forget the order of the rest; mine was a cute pink monster, and there were bats and Flying Spaghetti Monsters and skulls too I think. And various swag throughout, stickers, patches, bookmarks, etc.

In previous years, there’d been a beer sampling event run by Ross Lockhart, but this time Lisa LeStrange suggested adding to it with a pickle party, wherein folks could bring their favorite kinds of pickled whatever, and you know what? I don’t like pickles but it was a great time! Yet another way of showcasing the various interests and talents of our group … some were store-bought but some were home-made, and even home-made from peoples’ own gardens … Jeff with his peppers, Ross with some kind of space-dust cucumbers (not to mention his bonus super-yummy zucchini bread; everyone else was too polite to take the last piece so I did to save us all from the social awkwardness moment).

And who was it, was it Eric Hendrixson, who presented the kosher dill / peanut butter / tortilla roll-ups? I was thrice-aghast by that, let me tell you … first because he DID it, second because people ATE them, and third because those same people then LIKED it!

Witness Jeff using toothpicks to surgically carve off tiny slivers of a lethally large pickled ghost pepper … feeding one to Michael Allen Rose, who was then not allowed to smoochies on his lovely lady for the rest of the night … Jeff himself gasping and coughing and insisting he’d choked on cheese, not the pepper … Garrett Cook popping down an entire smaller ghost pepper, and I couldn’t tell under the ever-present shadow of his hat brim if he really was turning that shade of third-degree scarlet or not.

There were pickled all-kinds-of-things, curried cauliflower, radishes?/beets?, pickles from Boston and Chicago, quite the spread. There was even, after Jeff opened his raffle-won mystery box from CV Hunt (thankfully not bees), a tin of pickled octopus. Those, however, once opened, did what the other pickles had not … whew lordy … the fishybriny reek would only be rivaled the next day when Cameron Pierce popped the lids on a couple containers of some kind of mud shrimp during his reading and nearly cleared the whole building.

I didn’t try any of the beers, either, but the bottles were cool to look at and folks seemed to appreciate Ross’ selection of offerings. All in all, it was a great way to enjoy one of my favorite pastimes, which is a sort of vicarious voyeurism of second-hand experience.

By then, though, it was late for this old gal and despite my nap I was tired, so, Doug and I headed out, knowing we’d need to be back bright and early because he was in an 8:00 workshop. We got some kitty time at home, and some sleep, and before I knew it there went the alarm clock and it was Friday.

I should also mention, we had at least three birthdays this weekend as well — Sauda Namir, David W. Barbee, and Ross Lockhart. I guess we know what YOUR parents were doing for Valentine’s Day all those years ago, now, don’t we?

Moving on! Friday morning. I wasn’t in any workshops myself, so, after Doug headed off to his, I went to the restaurant for a while, reading Amber’s chapbook Joey’s Story over breakfast. Bacon; Edgefield has legendary bacon. Also, never tried cheesy grits before so I had those and they were yum.

Since my plan was to camp out in the Ad House most of the day, I’d also volunteered to help monitor the readings, keep track of who was up next, etc. And it gave me the chance to set out the goodie tray. Pumpkin spice mini-muffins, peppermint brownies, butterfinger cookies, rice krispie treats, cranberry/almond/pretzel clusters, and S&M cookies (Skittles and M&Ms mixed in the same cookie, muahahaha!). Also, Amber brought her homemade almond/bacon brittle with a zing of cayenne pepper, yowza!

Then it was story time! Reading blocks of two people per half hour, from 10:30 until 5:00. Vince Kramer’s Deadly Laser Explode-a-Thon, Robert Devereaux ruining childhoods with an Easter Bunny scene from Santa Steps Out (and giving away free CDs of him reading the first chapter), Rios de la Luiz with a shatteringly powerful performance, so much more! I read from my upcoming Deadite book, Spermjackers From Hell (to the mortification of my daughter, even though it wasn’t a dirty part). John Skipp treated us to the cheery tale of Depresso the Clown. Michael Allen Rose presented a charming fable with illustrated figures drawn by Andrew Goldfarb. And much, much more!

We finished up with Brendan Vidito sharing the tragic love story of a man and his tapeworm, just in time for the dinner break. Becca and I had grabbed Subway earlier — eat fresh, make Danger Slater cry! — but kept Doug company and had beverages; I needed an infusion of coffee to make it through the rest of the evening without a nap.

As good as the regular reading blocks are, they’re really only the warm-ups for the main event heavy hitters, who do their thing Friday night at the actual party. See, each year, a slate of new releases are selected and then the cabal of bizarro brewers create custom brews to pair with each. The editors and brewers talk a little about what we’re getting, the books are made available for sale and the brews for drinking, and once everyone’s had a chance to wet their whistles and unlimber their wallets, the authors take their turns in the spotlight.

Oh, and such a show … this was when Carlton’s commercials happened, and Eric’s drunken trampling deathrace … Danger put his puppet life on the line letting others control his strings … Tiffany Scandal talked us through DICK VISA applications … Molly Tanzer and Brian Keene read without resorting to chomping handfuls of dog food, while Nathan Carson had no such qualms (this being the fourth time I’ve heard him read the dog-food scene, it was certainly interesting to see him up his game and put his kibble where his mouth was) … and David Barbee preached the gospel of toad-licking.

Amid these points in the proceedings was the pomegranate cider, and I bought Tiffany’s new book Shit Luck while Becca got Guitar Wolf from the current crop of New Bizarro Authors. We also each bought one of the pint glasses, this year’s design by Jim Agpalza being, for him, surprisingly demure … his work is often what you might call ‘genitalia forward’ (and I overheard some of his negotiations with Rose about how many dicks he’d be allowed to put in the program book).

Though the Slow Poisoner and other musical entertainment was yet to come, we still had a drive clear across to the other side of Portland, so called it a night and dropped Doug off at his hotel (side note: also attempted to stop for a shake at JitB but their machine was broken so stopped again at the one near home and theirs was broken too WTF who hacked the Jack in the Box shake machines???)

Out of sensible deference to the late nights, Saturday programming starts late and Sunday even later. And both, out of an even more sensible means of making sure people actually eat as well as combat any hangovers with mad amounts of protein and carbs, both those days begin with the Edgefield’s fantastic breakfast/brunch buffet. Saturday’s selections included french toast and eggs benedict, along with of course plenty of bacon, sausage, pastries, and fruit.

After that, Becca and I did our own walk-through art tour, starting on the third floor and working our way down as advised by resident expert Kevin L. Donihe. The artwork ranges from entire murals to oddball little accents on switchplates and pipes. And, the more you examine it, the weirder it gets.

We then, being primed for weird art, wandered over to the Ad House where Liv Rainey-Smith, Alan M. Clark, Chrissy Horcheimer, and Andrew Goldfarb were displaying, demonstrating, and selling their stuff. Each of us got a King in Yellow woodcut print, and Becca splurged further with another Liv piece (I forget the exact title, something witchy with a cat and a rat and occulty-looking accoutrements) and a raven enamel pin, a Goldfarb black velvet rendition of the Creature from the Black Lagoon — her favorite of the classic monsters since she was six years old.

At 11:00, the Book Nook opened, and it was like our very own private Black Friday sale with crowds and lines, though minus the pushing and shoving and fistfights (at least, that I saw). Pretty sure we exceeded the Mt. Hood Room’s maximum occupancy by at least half again for a while in there. Between the two of us, we came away with three Carlton books (Biomelt and The Terrible Thing That Happens for me, the long-title Dairy Queen face explodey one for her); she also got Danger Slater’s Puppet Skin and Molly Tanzer’s Rumbullion, and I picked up Kevin Shamel’s Island of the Super-People, wondering how in the world I had not seen it before!

Broke but not regretting it, we split up for a bit, and she did her own thing (which eventually involved that afternoon in the bar, drinking and writing) while I went to panels (Varieties of the Weird, The Next Draft, Craft of Horror) and the Word Horde reading block.

Next came set-up for the banquet, so I enlisted Doug’s generous help to haul centerpiece stuff from my car to the third floor ballroom. Only one of the dolls turned out to need last-minute repair — Musclebound Mario‘s big bulked-out arms — but I’d had the presence of mind to bring along my gluegun just in case. I’d also brought a bunch of rocks coated with blackboard paint, and colored chalks, for a fun idle-hands Chalk-a-Rock dinnertime activity.

The dolls, though … the dolls … I confess, I’d been anxious … I hoped everybody liked them, I hoped nobody was upset or offended … months of work, mostly in secret, with only a couple of peeks and feedbacks … to be unveiled, revealed, presented to their unsuspecting recipients. Surprise!

(pics of all the dolls here:

They were, I’m so pleased to say, a smash hit. The reactions, ranging from excited shrieks to outright happycrying, made my stress and anxiety and glue burns and everything more than worthwhile. I watched like a creeper as people meandered in, waiting for the moment, THAT moment, almost like on Christmas when they see, when they realize. Lee Widener was so eager to show Kevin Donihe the Mario doll that he hadn’t even noticed the one for his own Rock’n’Roll Headcase until I pointed it out … I saw Jeremy Robert Johnson do a jawdrop almost as impressive as that of his Skullcracker, and when I went over and told him it was his to keep, he shot out of his chair like he’d sat on a spring to hug me … Amber Fallon clapped both hands over her mouth and her eyes just brimmed up … each reaction, the astonishment, the delight …

Well, and then, making their dramatic entrance, along came our host and hostess for the evening, Michael Allen Rose and Sauda Namir. These two, you must understand, if you’ve never met them, they … well, damn, they are not just hot, not just smokin’, they full-on smolder. Last year’s outfits, the ones upon which I’d done their dolls, had been whoa-nellie sexy, but this year … THIS year … corset and waistcoat, steampunk regalia in rich burgundies and bronze …

I mean, they walked in, those two, and the entire ballroom erupted in a thunderous standing orgasm. Wait. That other O word. Ovation. Yeah. Standing OVATION. Ahem. Autocorrect. Either way, you get the idea.

As Sauda told me later, she’d already been barely able to breathe thanks to that steel-boned corset, which whittled her already gazelle-slim waist to a near-handspan (this I know because Gabino Iglesias tried, and hey, who could blame him; I wanted to try too!). When she saw their dolls, it knocked the rest of her breath right out of her, and as her consort exclaimed “oh my GOD!” over and over, she made the teeniest teakettle-whistle inhale and seemed about to faint on the spot.

Glue burns, worth it, all totally worth it and then some. But, okay, okay, enough about my dolls; they’re fantastic, people loved them, now I’m just bragging; once again, moving on!

This brings us to the Wonderland Awards, where the best bizarro books of the year are honored. Unlike with the Oscars or other such awards, when it comes to these ones, I’m familiar with most if not all of the nominees, and each year the slate is nothing short of impressive. The winner for Best Novel was Jeremy Robert Johnson’s Skullcrack City (smugly extra-gratifying far as I was concerned, because I’d called it way back in a review in January, and had made a point of telling him how great the award would look displayed alongside his doll … it’s nice to be right!), while Rios de la Luz took home the Best Collection win for The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert. Well-done and well-deserved all around!

As for the Ultimate Bizarro Showdown … you know, many of the attendees of this convention are among the most intelligent and erudite people I’ve ever met, wordsmiths of rare form at the top of their game, true artists of description. Yet, even for masters of such caliber, there really just is no way to do justice, no way to truly convey, the magnificent madness that is the Ultimate Bizarro Showdown. Telling about it later, pics, even video … all fall far short. You seriously DO have to be there. The energy in the room, the camaraderie and emotion, cannot be expressed any other way.

Whether it was Jeff Burk’s angry non-concession speech about his and his cat Squishy’s disappointing showing in the presidential race … paleontologist lectures and porn demonstrations … Karl Fischer enduring raw sausage wet willies while reciting about blackbirds … nihilistic erotica … the return of Christmas Shark and Butthole Monster in an Andrew Goldfarb felt board production … the world’s most endearing beer lullaby … Kevin L. Donihe’s distraught rage at the lack of the shock wand (replaced this year with a length of rope and three dunce caps with terrible insults written upon them) … handsome hipster cowboys getting pounded in the butt … Danger Slater’s many sponsors (the fruit-roll-up of the body!) … an impromptu Lazy Fascist pitch session which should produce an interesting book for next year … parasites …

The panel of judges — John Skipp, Brian Keene, Laura Lee Bahr, and Robert Devereaux — had their work cut out for them choosing the winners. Vital work, too; valuable prizes were at stake! Like the disguise kit of shame for third place, and the mystery pinata (this year, a giant black mustache; though I did not witness its breaking, I understand it was filled with toy dinosaurs, bugs, and really yucky candies of some sort), and the surprise extra award of something recreationally legal in this state someone found in the ladies’ room (not left there by one of us, either!), and of course the most coveted prize of all, the ceremonial championship mumu! Okay, yeah, this year there was also an actual trophy too, but it’s all about the mumu. Though it may need some repairing or replacing before next year, after Gabino wrestled it onto his powerhouse frame. Those seams stood nary a chance once he flexed.

Another late-night party traditionally follows the Showdown, but once again we bailed, after boxing up the dolls for transport by their new owners and collecting leftover centerpiece stuff. Somehow, in the cleanup, a few extra items made it into my bin. The dinosaurs from Garrett’s paleontology lecture, after all that unfortunate business with bullying and shaming and extinction by suicide — AND IT WAS YOUR FAULT! — got left behind on the judges’ table, so, they went home with me. So did a 5 month AA chip, go figure, presumably a relic from the drunk driving LARP, but fitting enough in the end given my teetotaler ways.

Sunday morning even later was breakfast/brunch buffet again, after which Becca and I hung out at the Ad House some more. My goodie tray was down to mostly crumbs and a fistful of Nathan Carson’s kibble and some dubious unidentified liquid, so I erred on the side of tossing the whole thing in the trash. People gradually meandered in, and we amused ourselves with coloring books (Spider Man vs. Applause-O-Tron!) and oracle Jenga. All too soon, though, it was time for Becca to leave, since she had a long drive back and a play she’d promised to attend up in Bellingham that night. But I was just so glad to be able to share the weekend with her, to let her see for herself what her ol’ mom is doing with her life, to introduce her to so many of my favorite people. I think she’ll be back.

Two more panels were scheduled for that day, one on “Breaking Through the Noise” or getting noticed in an entertainment-option-glutted world, and one on “The Art of the Con,” which shared some tips and pointers and warnings about conventions in general.

And then John Skipp shattered everything that may have been left of our collective sanity with an hour and a half of bizarro film shorts. Like with the Showdown, words fail, attempts to describe fall far short. The rich gorgeous decadence of “Disco Inferno” … a musical in French about a killer android … a little girl breaking up with the monster in her closet … I suspect all you’ll have to do from now until forever is say, “The Procedure” and most of us will fall down howling with revolted laughter … the gooshy, graphic, squelchy grossness of Sussurus … warped takes on horror movies … medication side effect advisories … suicide attempts gone wrong … the tooth fairy mouse (I adore the tooth fairy mouse!) … book trailers for one demented Fungasm Press title after another …

The most bittersweet part is always Closing Ceremonies, which followed the film festival. It’s part recap, part celebration, part troubleshooting, and part goodbye … the final collective swell of emotion and affirmation … and if you watch carefully, you can see the moment Rose finally lets herself take an actual full deep breath again for the first time in days … the look of a woman who’s been going non-stop and loving it, thriving on it, but also realizing several consecutive hours of uninterrupted SLEEP are at last almost within reach.

Also at Closing Ceremonies was the drawing for my Bizarro Barbie commission; I asked for a volunteer to pull a slip of paper from the box, and Michael Smith promptly drew his own wife’s name … she swears it wasn’t rigged and that she had a feeling and almost stopped him as soon as he raised his hand. But hey, it’s all good, though I admit I am a little nervous at what challenge she — woodcut artist extraordinaire — might present me with. In the week since the con, I’ve begun work on some new dolls too, to make sure I’m back in decent practice!

Although other informally scheduled events were to take place the rest of the afternoon and evening, I was fading fast, and Doug had made dinner plans with another of our friends. Said dinner plans turned into him cooking and them socializing at our place while I conked out before 9:00.

But what a time, what a wonderful time!

What all else happened? So much … probably more than I can remember, and I was sober … even as I’ve been writing this, I’ve been sure I’m already forgetting stuff … M.P. Johnson gave me copies of his new books, Lake Lurkers and Neon Trash … I’m told there was a ritual stacking of objects atop Jeff Burk … Ross Lockhart showed me the prelim cover for my Viking collection The Raven’s Table and it looks SO DAMN GOOD SPEECHLESS SO EXCITED CAN’T WAIT! … I gave Brian Keene his own Buddy System button, which somehow seemed to surprise him they were an actual thing, then he asks can he also grab one for Mary and I’m thinking like, dude, YOU started all this, you and Jeff, take a handful, take as many as you want, hand ’em out, you’re the Buddy-in-Chief here (I pick on him, but he also hugged me in a hallway and told me he was proud of me; much loves!)

My big derpasaurus moment was in having FOUR of my Sharkasaurus authors right there at the same con — Becca, Amber, David Barbee, and G. Arthur Brown — but did I think to get a group pic or something? No. Another example of how, while I may be good as a writer and even an editor, when it comes to marketing and promotion, I drop the ball as badly as I did back in junior high gym class.

It’s never too soon to start planning for next year, which is just what I’m doing. I would like to try my own hand at taking part in the Showdown … I’ve had my idea in mind since 2014 but circumstances interfered … but now I can enlist Becca’s help for prop design. If I am called upon / permitted to do centerpieces again, how in the hell am I going to measure up to this year? Will Lisa LeStrange forget her crusade to make me finally visit the Soaking Pool? (or, can I lose like eighty pounds by then? I’m fine with these people being subjected to my exposed, unclad, unfettered MIND; making them see me in a swimsuit is rather another matter).

I’m sure there’s loads more I’m accidentally omitting … I’m sure as I read the various blogs, essays, and write-ups by everyone else, I’ll be smacking myself upside the head for leaving things out. Plus, there’s everything I missed out on in the first place by not staying late.

BizarroCon truly is as amazing and unique an experience as can be imagined, raising the bars and rising to them year after year. It’s a wonderful thing, our own personal family vacation to a theme park of fun-filled weirdness … with profanity, nudity, books, and booze.

If that sounds like your thing, I hope to see you there next November … it’ll be the TENTH BizarroCon, too, which you just know will be extra epic!