Viking shamelessness!

Last night, I attended the Amon Amarth “Berserker” tour show in Portland. Ulterior motive for shelling out extra for the meet-and-greet ticket was in hopes of getting The Raven’s Table into their hands. Didn’t quite go as planned but still have hopes it’ll work!

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Monstrously long concert report:

The few things that could’ve gone better were, for the most part, my own doing. Misunderstood the instructions on the meet-and-greet, so didn’t check in where I was supposed to, and therefore missed the actual meet-and-greet part. Was able to pick up my swag bag though, which included a badge and lanyard, a poster autographed by the Amon Amarth members, and other goodies.

Was also able to foist the stack of signed copies of The Raven’s Table and a box of nutships off on the meet-and-greet worker, who promised to deliver them to the band. Here’s hoping! Bummer though it was to not get my goofy plastic Viking shield signed, or have a pic taken, the mere possibility that they might read and maybe even enjoy them is what matters.

(I mean, okay, sure, a response or boost-post or – dare an old gal to dream – an eventual song based on one of my stories would be beyond fantastic, but, I at least know I’m as close as I’ve ever been to achieving the main goal! Already got Professor Drout, to my astonished delight; that’d just leave Bernard Cornwell from the “inspirations thanked on the acknowledgment page!)

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Anyway, so I waited outside with the main line. The guy ahead of me noticed me wiping my eyes and was all concerned, but I explained how they’re still watery-wonky from the face surgeries, and he fistbumped me. Then, on the way in, the admittance-stamp guy is all “left inner wrists please,” and I upturn my gnarly frankenarm, and his moment of hesitation and looking at me was priceless. “Right on the scar!” I say, so, k-ponk, he does.

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Inside and upstairs, I managed to avoid the siren call of the merch tables, and staked out a spot by a support beam because I’d been here before and knew I wanted to have something to brace against when things got crowded (or hide behind if they got out of control). Turned out to be a good choice for many reasons, though I can also mention, when the music started, the building-rattling bass notes and percussion meant that beam could’ve about performed CPR on a person. I’d also made sure to bring earplugs.

Among the notable beforehand people-watchings were this one creepy roving-around dude who reminded me of a certain nickerdoodle, a young couple who were practicing their ballroom dance moves before the place filled up and who also couldn’t keep their hands off each other most of the show, a gal who looked half metal-goth and half rockabilly, and a maybe-five-years-old kid wearing ginormous headphones up on presumably dad’s shoulders. Raising them right!

The venue, the Roseland Theater, is smallish, with a balcony area of seats for the VIP big spenders and open take-your-chances floorspace below. Both were packed. We’re talking a sea of hair and tattoos, beards, black band-logo t-shirts, and stompy boots. Many big guys. Many, many, big, BIG guys.

With, as the show got underway, ALL the headbanging and the horn-throwing. And the mosh-pitting and the crowd-surfing. Roars and bellows and battle cries. Burly arms beating at the air. A mixture of sweat, adrenaline, beer, and testosterone hanging like a fog.

The first acts were Grand Magus and At The Gates, okay enough but didn’t particularly grab me. Did find it amusing that, during one of the pauses between for the roadies to swap stuff out, the background music included circus music and “Twist and Shout.” Not that anybody in the mosh-pit area rose to the challenge, for some reason …

Then, Arch Enemy came on, and I discovered a new addition to my faves. Wow. Dang. Their frontwoman, I either have a mad girlcrush or want to be in her post-apocalyptic raiding gang. Or both. Fierce, powerful, gorgeous, terrifying, sexy without being slutty, magnificent hair, dynamic energy, voice of a lioness.

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I’ve since checked out more of their music, too, and much of it is along the lines of standing strong, being yourself, owning your part of the world, taking no shit, and anyone who doesn’t like it can fuck right off. These are all sentiments I very strongly agree with. Their videos, too, seem to focus on her ferocity, strength, and power. Epic and impressive. I’m hooked.

During the scene-change break between their set and the headliners, though, the medical stresses of the past couple years caught up with me bigtime. This was the longest I’d been on my feet since the surgeries, not to mention by far the most hectic, loud, crowded environment I’d been in. And, fine, the headbanging (minimal though mine was) probably didn’t help either, but, some impulses cannot be denied.

My ever-so-helpful corporeal form decided I needed a reminder that I’m still not at 100%, and this might’ve been overdoing it for someone my age even if I had been at 100%. I went all shaky and woozy, not sure if I was going to throw up or keel over (or, again, both). This was when I was extra glad for that abovementioned beam, which I clung to. And this was when a security guy named Paul came to my rescue.

He’d spotted my distress, led me to a chair in the wheelchair zone behind the fencing, and let me sit there with my head down until the swiminess and shaking stopped. He then continued keeping an eye on me for the duration of the show, checking in to make sure I was okay. He even brought me over to the edge nearest the stage corner for a song so I could take some unobstructed pictures.

First thing I did when I woke up today? Emailed the venue to fill them in on my situation and tell them how much I appreciated his kindness and diligence. Sure, maybe it was less of a hassle than it would’ve been to have to stop everything and call an ambulance if I’d gone and passed out, but I still regard it as above and beyond. THANK YOU, PAUL!

His helpful intervention allowed me to recuperate enough to make it through the rest of the evening with only occasional steadying reliance on my trusty support beam. I would’ve hated to miss the main event! Which was, once again, as Viking-tastic as anybody could’ve wanted. With smoke, and lightning, and Mjolnir, and enormous drinking horns.

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All right, I could be a pedantic historical accuracy pain in the butt and quibble about the giant horned helmet set, but the warriors who came onstage to fight had proper helmets. As for Loki … can blame part of that on Marvel, I suppose, and who’s going to tell Loki what to do anyway?

When it was done, I retreated to a wall to wait for the horde to disperse, and watched the teardown as well as the last-minute surge to the merch table. Also saw something that reminded me of one of Carlton Mellick III’s readings … this guy was huge, shirtless, drenched in sweat, and tending to his for-some-reason very red and abraded-looking nipples. I dunno what he was doing out there, and I wasn’t about to ask.

Eventually, I made my way out, walked back to the MAX station with only a couple of wrong turns (seriously, never underestimate my ability to get lost in a city). On the train, I listened in on a conversation among some very well-dressed people that started with best self-help books, went from there to how Alexa was bringing us into the Matrix world, and then somehow to bow-hunting. I still cannot figure out how they managed those segues, but, that’s Portland for you.

Oh, I was footsore, I was achy all over, I was more exhausted than I’d been in a long time. It was well after midnight when I got home. Took half a pill since I didn’t think regular tylenol would cut it this time, had some food, cuddled with kitties, and then as soon as the food coma combined with the pain pill kicked in, went to bed.

For, what, eleven hours? Maybe twelve? Then got up and did some chores, then had a nap because I couldn’t resist burritoing myself in my fresh-from-the-dryer comforter, then got up again to shower and go to work.

I’m still tired. I still ache. But it was worth every bit. Every single bit. And next time, I won’t mess up the meet-and-greet!

Bonus Book Reviews!

Since not *everything* I read is horror, not everything qualifies for The Horror Fiction Review, but that’s no reason not to share my opinions! Here are a couple of my recent more fantasy-ish reads … the Gunsmoke and Dragonfire anthology from Aradia Press, and Spencer Ellsworth’s The Great Fae Strike from Broken Eye Books!

Title: Gunsmoke and Dragonfire

Editor: Diane Morrison

Publisher: Aradia Press

Website: http://www.dianemorrisonfiction.com

I’m mostly familiar with westerns of the horror or weird variety, but wasn’t about to turn up my nose at some fantasy westerns too, because there’s something about the themes and setting of what make a ‘western’ that blend well across many genres. This anthology, including some novella-length pieces among the shorter works, explores several different realms of possibility, while maintaining that overall spirit of grit, ruggedness, and possibility.

It opens and sets the stage with Ethan Hedman’s fun story, “Inheritance,” takes on the classic fantasy themes of enchanted items and magical shopkeepers, when a gunslinger with a family legacy strolls in to request repairs on an heirloom.

From there, we’re off to the wild country, with outlaws, marshals, mysterious riders, showdowns in the dusty streets, native legends come to life, appearances by dwarves and dragons, high-stakes card games, tenacious homesteaders, and striking scenery.

Although the introduction makes a point about distinguishing between fantasy and sci-fi or spec-fic westerns, many of the entries here did strike me more sci-fi than fantasy, not a necessarily bad thing but it was surprising to see so many involving space-tech, time travel, and eras with their own flavors and feels not quite what seemed western. And steampunk, of course; steampunk and westerns go too well together not to indulge!

Some of my faves:

The Case of the Vanishing Unicorns” by James Blakely; even if it reads a little more like a gumshoe noir, it’s a whimsical look at the hassles of unicorn ranching, and … I mean, come on, unicorn ranching!

Liam Hogan’s “Pinkerton,” giving an enjoyable steampunky twist to the idea of the famed (or notorious, depending on your view) lawmen.

Sean Jones’ “By Way of Answer,” which reads like a cross between a Viking saga and a loner’s journey of grief and revenge, with some lovely use of language and rhythm.

**

Title: The Great Faerie Strike 

Author: Spencer Ellsworth

Publisher: Broken Eye Books

Website: http://www.brokeneyebooks.com

Grimy Victorian-era London. A young woman named Jane has just been released from the asylum, after having been committed there by her mother. Half-vampire, pupil of a goblin-run school, having visited the City Beyond connected to London by magical doors … not even Jane herself is sure if she’s truly mad or not.

As soon as she’s home, she sets out to find the truth. A lifelong seeker of answers, she’s also hoping to go to work for a newspaper, becoming the gutsy and intrepid girl reporter. And she does get back to the City Beyond, only to learn it has changed a lot in her absence.

Industrialization has reached the Otherworld, combining magic and alchemy and technology. There are factories. There’s pollution. There’s corruption and commercialism. Cheap labor. Poverty. The fae rulers – Oberon and Titania, of course! – are gone, and a cutthroat family of corporate werewolves has seized control. Trolls, gnomes, pixies, fauns, vampires, and various other fae races eke out what livings they can.

Meanwhile, Charles, a somewhat disreputable gnome trying to redeem himself in the eyes of his very proper and respectable family, gets his hands on a pamphlet by Marx and is inspired to introduce Communism to the fae. Rally the workers, seize the means of production, bring down the bourgeois, all that good stuff.

Through a series of blunders and buddy-comedy goofs, he and Jane keep running into each other, with chaotic results … not least of which include making powerful enemies and developing an inappropriate attraction.

Far from the usual ideas of urban/paranormal, not your typical steampunk or dark fantasy, not a political screed or cutting social commentary … but with well-blended elements of them all, plus sly humor, almost-slapstick romance, and some refreshingly fun takes on worldbuilding. A witty, delightful, insightful, clever read!

**

KillerCon 2019

KillerCon 2019 — Christine’s Report

Several of us ran into travel problems. The hotel was a modest disaster. Texas in August is a freakin’ oven. There were some social and interpersonal issues. Trash beer. Bruises.

And yet, and yet, WHAT A GREAT GODDAMN TIME! With the fam, the tribe, the peeps. New friends and old. The love. The energy. The creativity. The recharge. The connections and bonding. That’s what it’s all about.

Plus, yeah, okay, potentially career-altering deals and selling books and whatnot … but mostly, though, it’s the being there, shared experience, togetherness. Freedom to have those conversations you can’t really have in nice normal polite society.

I was one who encountered travel problems, courtesy of “line disruptions” on Portland’s public transit system that got me late to the airport and resulted in missing my flight. They got me on a later one connecting through Seattle (seemed silly but oh well), which was a short hop on a clear day with pretty views coming in, then to Austin quite a bit later than originally anticipated.

Since I had packed some odd items – an inflatable coffin, a plastic skull, some fake body parts, two egg cartons full of nut zombies, three tupperwares of baked goods – I did leave a nice explanatory not-a-maniac-honest note for the TSA in my suitcase. Good thing, too, because when I opened it up, sure enough, there was one of those inspection slips! I hope someone got a grin on the job that night.

The midnight shuttle driver spent most of the trip from airport to Round Rock chatting with the other passenger, a nice lady who’d just come home from a fiddle camp in Maine. Only after he dropped her off and was alone in the bus in the dark with me did he ask what brought me to Austin … so I told him … poor guy didn’t freak out, and we ended up talking about zombies the rest of the way.

The venue was the same from last year, though right from the start it seemed apparent things were different. Despite the lateness of the hour, it was quiet. Too quiet. The bar area was dark and deserted. I would soon find out this was because THE BAR WAS CLOSED. The bar. Closed. At a hotel hosting a writer’s convention. They said they couldn’t find a bartender. The previous one probably made enough over that 2018 weekend from Brian Keene and Edward Lee alone to pay off his student loans, but, there we were.

I checked in after some confusion on the part of the night manager, confusion that led to a key card glitch that deactivated those of my roomies (shared with Rose O’Keefe, Carlton Mellick III, and Jeff Burk), so we had to get them all recalibrated. This was far from the only key kerfuffle, too … the hotel had ‘upgraded’ to a new kind where you just sort of wave it at your door, which made them finicky. See, kids? Newfangled tech isn’t always an improvement!

Other notable changes: all the vending machines were gone, there was maybe one ice machine left in the whole building, a few pipes sticking out of half-plastered walls, and the elevator inspection certificates were four months past due. Can’t comment on the complimentary breakfast because I woke too late for it every single day, except for raiding the mini-fridge for milk once before they locked it.

So, anyway, Thursday night. It’s late, it’s dark, it’s quiet. The manager’s finally figured out that yes, I am supposed to be here. I take my stupid wave-it key card and tiptoe up to the room all careful-like so as not to wake everybody up, only to discover the room empty. I went wandering and finally found them in a group (mostly west-coasters, the time zones in our favor) outside by the pool. Smoking, drinking, disregarding the posted rules. Middle of the night, full moon riding high above, temps finally cooled enough to be pleasant. Off with the shoes and dunk with the feet – ahh! bliss! – as we loitered another couple of hours.

(observation: Chandler Morrison could be just some hair-dye and a pair of sunglasses away from a mighty convincing Good Omens cosplay. I told him so. I hope it wasn’t too creepy. It’s probably creepier that he and Jeff both fall under my protective-instincts umbrella; while I may not be anything so effective and lethal as a mama bear, auntie raccoon will nastily fuck you up.)

Anyway, around three-thirty in the morning, we figured we should get at least a little sleep before the con officially began. Which brings us to …

Friday! Registration opened at ten (and there were donuts; take that, missed breakfast!). I got my badge and program, and a nice big hug from Wrath James White – who’d be punching people later – and many more greetings and hugs and DAMN IT WAS GOOD TO BE THERE.

Hugs hugs hugs! Ryan Harding, Kelli Owen, Bob Ford, Brian Keene, John Skipp! Shout-out to the aloha boys, Stephen Kozeniewski, Wes Southard, Max Booth, and Wile E. Young, who brightened up the usual glut of black tee shirts with some outrageous tropical prints and lively colors! Wes’ wife Katie! Ashley Davis, Sam Richard, Lori Michelle, Matt Shaw! Bad boy extraordinaire John Wayne Communale! John Urbancik, Kenzie Jennings, Jay Wilburn, Cody Goodfellow, David Barnett, Lisa Lee Tone! The ever-charming Michael Allen Rose! The ever-hilarious Jeff Strand! Laura J. Hickman! Mike and Ana Rankin! Joe Lansdale! Bev Vincent! So many people! So many hugs! So many I don’t even know if I can list them all!

Finally met in person the awesome ladies of Death’s Head Press, Petal K. Presley and Kara Barbee, as they were setting up in the dealer’s room. They are delightful and lovely and fussed and fretted and spoiled the hell out of me, did a fantastic job hosting my book release party – Dawn of the Living-Impaired and Other Messed-Up Zombie Stories, buy it now if you haven’t already! – and made lots of room on the table for the adopt-a-zombs.

Also finally met in person, after probably a decade of online acquaintance, Elizabeth Massie, who appeared perhaps the nicest and most professional of us all but still fit right in with the hardcore weirdos. She also does very cool-cute undead critter drawings!

And Kristopher Triana; so far, every single thing of his I’ve read has been just outstanding, and then he goes and turns out also to be a sweetheart (and a hunk) … was so glad for him that Full Brutal won the Splatterpunk for Best Novel! I’ve said it before and will keep saying it – most evil thing I’ve ever read! Yet, his heartfelt tear-choked acceptance speech had the whole room insisting there was dust in the air. What was it Edward Lee said when looking at Body Art? “Jesus! And I thought I was sick!”

Panels for the day kicked off with one called “Don’t Be That Asshole,” addressing subjects such as how to respond to rejections and reviews, submissions etiquette, minding your social media manners, working with editors and publishers, and excessive fanboy/girling. Next up was one on “What’s Your Talent Worth,” debating when it’s okay to give it away, setting goals and limits, talking about the elusive big advances, and generally cashing some cold hard reality checks.

I was late to the Creative Fiction Contest, in which participants were given twenty minutes to write a story of 200 words, including five judge-provided key words, but I got there in time to listen to most of the stories and was able to deduce the mystery words: grotesque, verdigris, humidity, obnoxious, and … and one other I can’t remember right now, which is driving me batty.

(for the record, though, verdigris, pronounced vurr-dih-gree, the way copper turns greenish like the Statue of Liberty)

Following a quick Opening Ceremonies came one of the highlights of the con for Wrath James White … he got to punch people, and ooh did he enjoy it probably a little too much! A few brave, stalwart contestants – Wes Southard, Erin Shaw, Jeff Strand – signed up for this. Of their own free will, I’m told. Their fiendishly-grinning host asked them trivia questions about the guests of honor and the Splatterpunk nominees, and if they got an answer wrong, HE PUNCHED THEM.

“Only in the arm!” people say. Yeah but still. This is WRATH we’re talking about. I can barely survive the abovementioned hugs from this man. Even starting off with his idea of ‘gentle’ punches, the solid meaty thwack sound was like something you’d hear in a slaughterhouse. And me? I sat my silly self right up in the front row with Skipp, where we could SEE the shockwaves traveling through flesh.

I mean, dayam. The next-day bruises were as epic as you might expect. I bruise bumping into stray air molecules. How the ‘volunteers’ stayed standing … how nobody ended up curled on the floor sobbing for their mommies … kudos, you maniacs. Major kudos. And that GRIN. Wrath’s GRIN. He was loving it. Like every birthday present ever, wrapped up in a nice punchable package.

A quick dinner break – oh, during which, I found out the Eraserhead/Deadite table had already sold out of both Spermjackers and Lakehouse, not even halfway through the first day! — was followed by readings: Elizabeth Massie’s unsettling take on obedience and tattling gone to extremes, then one of Carlton Mellick III’s always stellar performances (now that Marvel’s winding down, we can look forward to the Man-Tank cinematic universe!).

The panel “Why So Serious? The Place of Humor in Horror” was up next, and lots of fun, even if it did demonstrate how twisted we all are, and how easy it is for what’s intended to be awful or scary to come across as absurd, sometimes hard to find the lines between graphic gore and over-the-top ridiculous.

Which, speaking of over-the-top, brings us to the infamous and deadly WINGS OF PAIN CHALLENGE, in which Shane McKenzie evidently decided the suffering amped up too gradually last year, so it was six-digit Scoville right out of the gate. With several loaves of bread and full gallons of milk standing by. Really, there should have been paramedics and frost-blast fire extinguishers standing by. Really, between this and the punching, I’m amazed nobody had to sign a waiver.

The wings were coated in progressively hotter hot sauce, and then there were actual peppers, and some kind of sadistic chocolate with pepper bits in … there are colors that are dangerous, we all know this … not for nothing does yellow indicate caution and red indicate hazard … but I’m pretty sure the most dangerous color in all of heaven, hell, earth, and nature is the nuclear lava orange of these insane concoctions.

Now, the stated rules were that contestants would be interviewed and questioned while also consuming these spicy nightmares, but that plan went very quickly out the window, because within minutes, hardly anybody could even think, let alone talk or function. Lucas Mangum and (who was that young lady? I didn’t get her name!) were out first, with Wrath – who’d been talking mucho smack beforehand – swift on their heels.

The others, though, out of sheer tenacity or madness, held on. Jeff Burk had his title to defend, Michael Allen Rose and Luciana Williams were not going to make it easy on him, and all of them knew that host Shane had to keep pace with them so they’d all suffer together.

Oh, and suffer they did. You could tell. I may lack most of my sense of smell, but I stood way at the back of the room and my eyes were still watering. The sweats. The shakes. The stammers. Hideous volcanic gastric noises. Hallucinations. Religious epiphanies. At one point, Jeff – JEFF BURK OF ALL PEOPLE – slid out of his chair like a human Slinky and had to lay on the floor.

Ultimately, it was deemed a tie. How does one say who wins in something like that, anyway? Yet they’re already planning to do it again next year! I’m not sure how they can make it even worse, short of dropping live coals or acidic scorpions into their mouths. At this point, I wouldn’t rule it out …

Then it was time for an event with non-lethal snacks, the Death’s Head Press shindig for the release of my zombie collection. The ladies had outdone themselves, with meat-cheese-cracker-veggie trays, a pot of bbq li’l smokies, chips, soda, booze, and the star of the show: the meat-head, a skull covered with thin-sliced prosciutto, flayed and eerily realistic-looking, with bulging hardboiled egg halves for eyes and olives for pupils. Ghastly! Awesome! Perfect!

Plus the various baked goodies I’d brought, though the sugar-cookie cups with juicy maraschino fillings hadn’t survived the plane flight very well. The carnage crunch cookies and my roomie’s mom’s contribution of nummy cherry-chip bread made it in better shape. We ended up not having space to use the inflatable coffin as a cooler, so the poor thing never even got out of its box … and its eventual fate will be revealed later.

Was that the night we got several noise complaints from the hotel and aggravated neighbors? I think so. As for me, still not being used to actual … what? popularity? … I mingled, I probably acted like a doof when asked to sign books or be in pics, I listened more than I talked because I got very much in the habit over these past couple of mushmouthed years.

At some point, Rose found me to report that, after his own travel hassles, Edward Lee had finally arrived. We zipped downstairs to see him and say hi, not expecting him to be much of a one for room parties (he tends to go to bed sensibly early, and had had a long damn day). But we found him in the lobby and his hug and greeting of “There’s my girl!” was the finishing d’aww for the feeling-special-and-spoiled evening.

Not long after that, I toddled off to sleep myself, hoping for some rest before the big main-events day … it would turn out I’d still sneak upstairs for a nap later in the afternoon, however … and here I was surrounded by thirty- and forty-somethings grousing about getting old … oh, just, you all, hush.

Saturday! Saturday started off with the mass author signing, and a bonus hello from Wrath’s hunky friend Wolfe, doing security again. He remembered me from last year when I gave him a Viking nutship. Oh, and the two of them have started a YouTube channel discussing what we’ll refer to as ‘contemporary social issues;’ look them up to watch two beefcake besties arguing about snowflakes and toxic masculinity and stuff.

I snagged a table spot next to Edward Lee, and was again startled by how many people brought over copies of books for me to sign. Including two who had my pioneer blizzard novel, White Death, which they had to bring from home! Plus, I’d made chapbooks of my Mephistopolis-noir story, “Matt Brimstone, P.I.” to give away (and still do have some, message me, just need to kick in to help with postage!).

The “The Heyday of Horror” panel – as these panels often do, and I like it! – involved a fair bit of the seasoned pros telling their war stories, and sharing their wisdom hard-won from experience with the rising stars and struggling newcomers. It’s fascinating, and enlightening, and almost shocking to realize how much the biz has changed even just in the years I’ve been doing this.

I decided to pass on the panel about how significant others are able to put up with and support creative wacko types, having opted way the hell out of the whole relationship thing even before all the frankenfacing. But, more power to them! Anyone who can make it work, normal or wacko, good deal and well deserved! It does take a special kind of patience to put up with the likes of us, I imagine.

Instead, that was when I sneaked upstairs for my nap, returning to catch the screening of ‘Come Back To Me,’ the film version of Wrath’s book The Resurrectionist. With live commentary by Wrath himself, as well as Keene, and Shane McKenzie (who’s been off writing screenplays and doing the movie thing (check out El Gigante on Shudder, based on his extreme luchadore horror novel Muerte Con Carne!).

‘Come Back To Me’ was … well … wow … we love you, Wrath, we really do, but … yeah … ouch … for a story so chilling to be turned into such a lackluster drab … yeah. The script, the acting, the plausibility (I hope I didn’t snort-scoff TOO loud at the scene at the mental hospital) … oh, it could’ve/should’ve been so much better!

The 6:00 panel was called “How Not To Kill Yourself: What Do You Do To Stay Sane And Creative” and it very quickly got very real, the panelists sharing details about their personal struggles, talking openly with unflinching honesty. It’s so easy for us to feel isolated and alone, as if no one else could be going through what we’re going through, or understand … but then to see the heads nodding all around the room, to feel the empathy … my admiration for the panelists clicked several notches even higher (when already it had been way up there).

And kudos to moderator Kelli Owen, whose particular brand of tough love – she’s the sassy but caring fairy godmother who WILL cut a bitch, I mean, like, “bibbity-bobbety-bite-me” – helped make it a safe, trusting place for discussing those difficult truths.

To shift gears after that seriousness, there were more readings, with the masterful Joe Lansdale and then some gonzo goofiness courtesy of Keene And Friends. Then it was time to get a little freaky, with the panel on perversion and depravity.

I, um, I was on that panel. Introducing myself as probably the universe’s most vanilla person in real life, even with my twenty-plus years of sordid fanfic and pushing the Literotica limits history. There I was, sitting there with Edward Lee, Wrath, Kristopher Triana, and David Barnett. Talking about really really dirty stuff. Sex, gore, atrocities. Our moderator was Uncle Skipp, who basically floored all five of us when he, after posing some questions about how far is too far and is anything off limits, asked what’s love got to do (got to do) with it, and we stared at him like flummoxed oxen.

Okay, we’re demented, we knew this, movin’ on! To the Splatterpunk Awards! Once again, I was nominated (in the short story category for “Diabolicus Interruptus,” fittingly enough on the heels of the previous topic, the filthiest thing I’ve ever written) but once again I harbored no illusions of my chances. That Bernie went to Ryan Harding for “The Seacretor,” and as far as I know, this year, he again got it through airport security without too many awkward conversations.

Next year, though … maybe next year … Lakehouse Infernal could have a real shot … though it’ll probably be up against White Trash Gothic 2 and Chandler’s Dead Inside and Kozeniewski’s Skinwrappers and … yeah, I won’t clear a space on the brag shelf just yet!

Already mentioned Full Brutal, and the other winners were DJ Stories by David Schow for Best Collection, Kill For Satan by Bryan Smith for Best Novella, and Best Anthology Splatterpunk Forever edited by Jack Bantry and Kit Power. The second J.F. Gonzalez Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Necro Publications’ David G. Barnett, complete with cascading shower of rose petals by a trio of nubile, uh, maidens (*koff*)

With those formalities wrapped up, we arrived at the event that does to the mind what the previous night’s challenge had done to the senses, and this time no one in the room would be safe from the effects.

That’s right … the Gross-Out! Hosted by Jeff Burk, brought to you by the combined efforts of Eraserhead/Deadite Press and Section 31 Productions! In which, several stalwart performers take turns serving up the sickest of the sick and ickest of the ick, in the best crass, in-your-face, over-the-top, no-holds-barred, outrageous and disgusting, hilarious, disturbing fashion.

And oh, let me tell you, it gets every bit as vile, obscene, profane, vulgar, biological, scatological, gynecological, and many other -ogicals as you might expect. I will gloss over the details, though. Some things must be experienced to be believed. Some things must not be photographed, videoed, or shared beyond the moment. There are often visual aids. There are props. Substances. Mess.

What I will say is that Jay Wilburn smoked the rest of us like hams with his too-real personal medical horror; legs were crossing all around the room in waves like a chorus line of millipedes, even for those of us who don’t have the particular body parts in question.

Speaking of body parts, Kristopher Triana flung severed fingers into the crowd during his show; one landed near me but I gave it back because it was … sticky. Eew. Several participants got sticky with various types of congealed goo, suffering in the name of their art.

Brian Keene even came out of retirement (I’m sure, at that moment, half a continent away, Mary SanGiovanni got an eye-twitch headache, and I’m equally sure it was far from the only one that weekend), Jeff Strand and Matt Shaw fought a fierce battle for second and third place, Lucas Mangum got almost as much attention for his reactions to everyone else as he earned for his performance, the audience alternated between howls of revulsion and howls of mirth pretty much throughout.

As an additional cool touch, we didn’t have to fake drum rolls by pattering our hands; Jason Cavallero provided it live with a real drum and cymbal! The sticks and the … what do you call it, drum cover thing, I dunno, I’m not musical, but it was white and stiff-papery and round and signed by the judges … anyway, that thing … went to Jay Wilburn as part of his prize.

Yours truly even participated, bambi-eyed into it by Jeff Burk. Went up to the front of the room and – after detouring to give a mom-hug to Shane McKenzie, whom others had been picking on for some reason – plunked down a bottle of Purell. You wouldn’t think the sight of a simple bottle of Purell would make people so nervous.

Then I did a little show-and-tell about my own medical fun of the past couple years, with post-op pics of my mangled parts, and described some of the sensations I’d undergone with stitches and staples and having a chunk of my scalp relocated while still nerve-connected. For my finale, I invited the morbidly curious to come up and – after using that Purell, because I know where some of those hands have been! – touch my weird numb scalp-transplanted frankenface.

To my surprise, Rose O’Keefe was out of her chair at the judge’s table like a shot. Got to wonder how long she’d been wanting to try that but was too polite to ask. She was followed by Shane’s lovely wife Melinda, and then Brian Asman. Maybe it was the honesty, maybe the novelty, maybe the audience participation, but, in the end I went home with my second-ever Judge’s Choice award.

Although there usually are Judge’s Choice or other special/impromptu awards given for both Gross-Out and Ultimate Bizarro Showdown, longstanding custom has it that there aren’t actual designated prizes for such, so it usually winds up being whatever can be scrounged up on short notice. This time, the judges went through their pockets and presented me with packet of Emergen-C (which I gave to Chandler because he had a sore throat and offered to buy it off me), a box of Tic-Tacs (frosty mint blue), and a pair of novelty plastic diamond engagement rings.

My previous win (for utterly despoiling PG Wodehouse in 2013; which people still talk about!) had earned me a half-empty hotel tissue box, signed by the judges. The Tic-Tacs and the rings have now joined it on my brag shelf in a place of honor. Two out of three for my Gross-Out appearances – the first time, I bombed and rightly so – not too shabby!

To jump right from one extreme to another, after the Gross-Out came a display of love and sweetness as the Rankins renewed their wedding vows, officiated by Wrath, with Keene walking the bride down the aisle and Edward Lee standing best man to the groom. All the best to them! The party having their boring normal reception upstairs will not have such a cool story to tell!

(side note: do people reserving those rooms get warned about us? we’ve seen corporate meetings, a quinceanera, and most jarring of all a memorial service going on up there too, while downstairs is the KillerCon table with bloodied weapons and severed ears and strung-up organs … nicely-dressed guests, little old ladies, kids going by … of course, a mom and her kid also went by as Jeff Burk was regaling us with details of a graphic novel plot element involving masturbating on bullets … and our language tends to be atrocious … and especially when many of us are together, nobody has an inside voice … though if the hotel had the damn BAR OPEN, less of that would happen in the LOBBY …)

Ahem. Anyway. Moving on again, for another late-night party! I swear I really did only intend to show up for a little while, make an appearance, join in on the birthday silliness with hats and noisemakers for Chandler Morrison, chat some, then go sensibly to bed. Well, I did go sensibly to bed. Just, not until almost two in the morning. But there was juicy gossip going on, and a shall-we-say SPIRITED comic book debate, and some drunken ranting, and it’s hard to walk away from that kind of a good time!

Also got a hallway hug and another sincere “I’m proud of you” from Keene … how is it possible to have a big brother who’s technically younger than you? But I digress. I finally did go sensibly to bed. Still several hours earlier than my roomies; I think they rolled in around seven-thirty, when the dealer’s room opened at eleven and the first panel was at noon. Sunday programming starts late and runs light for these very reasons.

A breakfast bar of cereal and classic cartoons greeted us, and the sorrowing rounds of goodbyes had already begun as some headed back to the waiting regular world. I picked up some swag buttons and wristbands, three issues of Forbidden Futures, Sam Richard gave me a review copy of Zombie Punks Fuck Off, Lori Michelle gifted me with a cool Halloween cloth box thing she’d made (and I bought my daughter something at her table too but haven’t mailed it yet).

And I got a pillow! A nice big comfysoft pillow! From the Death’s Head Press ladies. See, some time ago, Jarod Barbee had asked what was my favorite literary quote, and I told him, thinking it’d be for a company blog post or something, but instead, it was stitched onto this pillow, surrounded by the DHP logo! (the quote, for the record, which I used to use as my sig in emails and on message boards: “Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, then for a few close friends, and then for money.” – Moliere.)

The Sunday panel was titled “This Was Really Scary! Non-Fiction Horror.” More real-life stories, in other words; I talked about the three different ways I confronted the idea of mortality during my medical ordeals … Jeff Burk described how he almost choked on his own blood after a tonsillectomy (there’s a pic of him telling this, and the expression it garnered from Edward Lee is nothing short of priceless!)… John Wayne Communale told us how even the risk of death could not deter him from celebrating legal weed … Lee himself shared some on-the-job training tales from his early days as a cop … all just goes to show, no matter how clever we are, there’s some shit you just cannot make up.

Next was the lively Clash Books reading block, hosted by Luciana Williams, and how they all had so much energy left this late in the con I cannot fathom! But then came the saddest part, the Closing Ceremonies … after which an even sadder-than-saddest development would be revealed, and thus would the phrase “trash beer” enter the lexicon.

After the Closing Ceremonies, the remaining stragglers and dragglers usually gather in the con suite for the Dead Dog Party. In anticipation of this, many snacks and much booze and various other items had been left in the con suite from the previous night’s bacchanal.

BUT … remember way back at the beginning when I mentioned the hotel being a modest disaster? Well, it was more than the keycard kerfuffles, the bar being closed, the absent vending machines and sparse ice machines, the outdated elevators, and the less-than-helpful staff.

WELL … they were apparently QUITE eager to get rid of us. Due to a misunderstanding regarding check-out time, we didn’t have the con suite as late as we thought. While we were all over attending panels and readings and closing out the dealer’s room and all, they wasted NO time hustling in there to clear and turn over the room.

You might think they’d have paused for a moment of “hey wait, there’s a lot of stuff still here, and these people are still on the premises” and maybe just maybe gone and found someone and said “hey we need to turn over the room, can you get your stuff out please thanks.”

Nope. They threw everything out. With nary a word to anybody. Or, at least, we presume everything was thrown out; it’s entirely likely some of our stuff got stashed away elsewhere by opportunistic staff (I’m told one of them also tried to stroll off with the convention’s coffee one of the mornings). Upshot? Many unopened cans and bottles of beer and booze ended up in the dumpster.

They’d also thrown out the rest of the snacks and other left behind items – I lost a couple of my bakery tupperwares, a plastic skull, AND that damn inflatable coffin that never made it out of its box; I hope someone at least took that home for funsies) – but it was the booze that was the real issue. A substantial dollar amount of it.

Needless to say, we were upset. Needless to say, we raised some hell. We’re WRITERS! We’re POOR! Talk about the final straw for taking our business elsewhere next year! I doubt I was the only one to give the manager a bitchy earful. Finally, a couple of chambermaids got sent dumpster-diving to retrieve what they could. In the Texas August heat. They returned sweaty and VERY unhappy with a trash can about half-full of cans and bottles.

Did we take them upstairs and rinse them off in the shower? (the cans and bottles, that is, not the chambermaids; sympathy for any of the employees was fairly nil at that point). I repeat: we’re WRITERS! We’re POOR! Damn right we did, even if there was other trash mixed in there. Even if there was broken glass to pick through. Even though it stank like, well, like trash beer dug out of a Texas August dumpster by unhappy sweaty chambermaids. (once again, my lack of a sense of smell came in surprisingly handy. I guess I finally got superpowers of a sort after all.)

So. Trash beer. Because, goddamn it, they were NOT going to win. Not entirely. Boot us out of the con suite? Fine. We simply took over the lobby and the pool area again and the hotel could just freakin’ lump it. One group went out for Korean barbecue. Another hung around while Edward Lee repeated his habit from last year of ordering-in way too much Chinese food.

Meanwhile, Brian Keene, who’d been away most of the day attending a film premiere with the Lansdales, returned to stock up on interviews for upcoming episodes of The Horror Show. Although I was like right there, I was not among the interviewees (le sigh, hint hint, le guilt) … but eventually I will get out to his neck of the literal woods, not leastwise because I want to hang out with his kid and meet his cat and maybe even finally meet Dave Thomas! One of these days!

A final, fading group of stragglers and dragglers made their way up to our room for a bit. I only fell asleep on them a few times, I think. It was three or four in the morning by then. Five of us had an airport shuttle scheduled to pick us up at ten.

All five of us – me, Jeff Burk, Edward Lee, Ryan Harding, Brian Asman – made it to the shuttle, and then the airport, in varying states of exhaustion and bleariness. Once there, we ran into Matt Shaw again, whose longest-flights-and-layovers-ever would put any other grumping in perspective.

(another side note: the hell, Alaska Airlines? desk didn’t open until twelve-thirty, so I couldn’t check my bag until then)

Luckily, there were food and drink places on this side of security too … got an iced coffee and THE best apple fritter, sat chatting in the bar with Jeff and Brian until I could ditch my bag, then we found Lee and sat in a different bar (which had these deep-fried sausage balls almost as good as the apple fritter!) chatting with him too, until it was time to split off for our various gates.

I had hoped/planned to sleep on my flight, so in retrospect the big iced coffee might’ve been a mistake. But then, I also got stuck in the middle seat, which wasn’t very conducive. Oh, and just as the plane was taxiing down the runway, just as it revved up for takeoff, someone on board let out a loud YEEE-HAW, which I guess is as good a farewell to Texas as any.

The rest of the trip was tedious but uneventful. I did doze some, I read some, I had decent views of three other passengers’ phones with movies on – Neverending Story (jeez, was that always that trippy and I just hadn’t remembered?), a Star Trek, and Logan – and the MAX lines and buses were working fine. As great a weekend as it’d been, it was good to be home with my kitties.

Well, there you have it, some near-six-damn-thousand words of my KillerCon writeup, and I probably still missed, forgot, or left stuff out. Deepest apologies to anyone skipped or snubbed! I’m writing this nearly a full week later, after trying to readjust to my night shift work schedule, and don’t mean for anything to slip through the cracks! If you’re aware of any glaring oversights or omissions, please let me know!

Tired and achy though I am, I’m already looking forward to next year (with, hopefully, a new and better venue where trash beer won’t be a thing) to see and hug and spend time with my favorite people again! And maybe, just maybe, win that award!

Now go buy a bunch of books so we can afford to keep this up!

— CM, Aug 2019

 

BIZZONG!

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I got to spend an hour talking writing, surgery, crafts, and such with the delightful Mr. Frank on his podcast. Had a great time! So glad to finally be able to do this! And got dubbed “the Martha Stewart of Extreme Horror,” which … y’know, I cannot totally deny 🙂

DAWN OF THE LIVING-IMPAIRED

Cover reveal for my zombie collection! Coming this summer from Death’s Head Press!

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As for the stories, check out this TOC:

“Dawn of the Living-Impaired”

“Seven Brains, Ten Minutes”

“The Barrow-Maid”

“Cured Meat”

“Be Brave”

“Family Life”

“A Tower to the Sky”

“Good Boy”

“Thought He Was A Goner”

June 2019 Bonus Reviews!

Time for some more dark fantasy and paranormal romance! In which I look at Sword Chronicles 3: Child of Ash by Michaelbrent Collings, and Wyrd Love 4: Alchemy’s Hunger by Cynthia Diamond. Really though, anything by either of these two is well worth a look; they are among those authors who haven’t let me down yet!

Title: The Sword Chronicles 3: Child of Ash

Author: Michaelbrent Collings

Website: http://www.michaelbrentcollings.com

With the thrilling conclusion of this powerful series, we follow in breathless suspense as what seemed to start out as traditional fantasy, then becoming epic fantasy, then expanding into almost a fantasy-meets-superheroes utopia-turning-dystopia, to its final phase … in which the true origins of troubled Ansborn and its people, and their mysterious gods, are revealed.

The central figures in these books are the Gifts, those who have various special abilities. The majority fall into categories: for instance, the Strongs who tend to be slightly built but possess incredible physical strength … or the Patches, who can heal others. But there are also the Greater Gifts, rarer, more unique.

Sword, the main character of the trilogy, is a Greater Gift, able to use any melee weapon with uncanny accuracy and skill. Her struggling beginnings in the Kennels where she fought for survival to the amusement of the crowds, and her rise and training to join the most elite Blessed Ones, have seen her through good times and bad, brought her hardship and victory and love and loss.

Now, with her entire world seeming about to literally come to an end – disasters, plagues, deaths, destructions – she and a few others decide that the only thing to be done is break the ultimate rule, descend from Ansborn, and confront the gods or whatever forces dwell below.

What follows is a desperate race from several viewpoints, including that of a couple of exceptionally dangerous Greater Gifts with other ideas. Everything any of them have ever stood for gets challenged along the way. Priests lose their faith, families are torn apart. And when they DO discover what’s behind it all, harsh truths are poised to shatter their very reality.

All of it, of course, done with the author’s undeniable skill with both story and plot. Even when you think you know what’s going to happen, what almost HAS to happen in terms of heroic journey and all the tropes, Collings throws in curveballs and surprises, ultimately delivering an ending that hits all the right unexpected yet satisfying notes.

**

Title: Alchemy’s Hunger

Author: Cynthia Diamond

Website: https://www.amazon.com/gp/bookseries/B014VBESM4/

Book Four of my favorite smut-mongering minx’s Wyrd Love series widens the scope of her sexy world … instead of the paranormal romantic adventures of the Constance sisters this time, we get to see the other side of bad-boy darkmage Tony Harris’ story.

He was once as close as a brother to anything the three sisters knew, closer than a brother to one of them, loved matriarch Cybil Constance more than his own parents, and was essentially one of the family. Then, swayed by a sinister cabal, he ended up causing Cybil’s death, earning the sisters’ vengeful hatred.

Taking place concurrently with the third book (Dryad’s Vine), we can now find out what Tony was up to when he got summoned against his will to pay off an old debt, and who the quirky mystery woman with him was.

Turns out, Tony bitterly regrets his earlier actions and is determined to repair the damage, even if it means risking his life and altering time. To do that, he needs power. A lot of power. The kind of power only a rare talent known as a Conduit can provide. Which is where the quirky mystery woman comes in.

Faith Conway comes across as a chaotic scatterbrained goofball: a clutterer, an eccentric dresser with a thing for blanket forts, and a total Potterhead. Below the surface, though, she’s smart and clever, runs a successful business, and is recovering from an abusive relationship. She never knew anything about the real magical world, let alone her place in it as a Conduit. Needless to say, instead of freaking out, she’s utterly thrilled.

Except, well, the real magical world also has its very real dangers. Tony has made a lot of enemies, who are equally determined to make him pay for breaking the cabal with a fate worse than death. He also never counted on falling for Faith, leading him to face a terrible choice between goals.

Packed with magic, action, conflict, and lots of sexy sexy sex, it’s another winner! Now I need Book Five.

**

May 2019 bonus reviews!

Since the HFR already covered a couple of these and the third’s steamy paranormal, here are my reviews of Glenn Rolfe’s The Window, Kaaron Warren’s Tide of Stone, and Dryad’s Vine by Cynthia Diamond!

Title: The Window

Author: Glenn Rolfe

Publisher: Alien Agenda Publishing / Hook of a Book Media

Website: http://www.hookofabook.wordpress.com

Okay, I admit it, anything with sex-demons is going to catch my interest and attention. When it gets really nasty, violent, and depraved, well, so much the better! In that regard, this book does not disappoint. If anything, given what goes on with some of the underage characters in particular, it might push well past the comfort zone into squick territory.

These demons, whose reach into our world is via mirrors and glass and other reflective surfaces, are a family of sorts, trying to reunite in the flesh. They seek out the troubled or dissatisfied, and tempt them by way of whispered suggestions and depraved visions into opening themselves up for possession.

Their newest target is Richie Curry, recently divorced, troubles with work and booze, ex-wife not happy about shared custody. Like Jack Torrance in The Shining, he’s pretty much an unlikable jerk from the get-go, a hard character to empathize with (somehow, though, he’s got a gorgeous girlfriend who puts up with his crap). Also like Jack, it’s not a surprise the demons find him an easy mark.

Luckily, much of the story is from the perspective of his teenage son, James. Who has his own problems, to be sure – with his mom and her new boyfriend, with changing schools and moving away from his friends and the girl he crushes on, bullies – but is a much more tolerable POV character.

Anyway, cue final summer visit, dad behaving weird in icky sex-stuff ways, and just keep cranking it up until James and his friends are the only things standing between the demons and their ultimate goal! With, yeah, quite a bit of disturbing content, and some a-little-too-convenient information-gathering, it’s an often uncomfortable but overall entertaining read.

**

Title: Tide of Stone

Author: Kaaron Warren

Publisher: Omnium Gatherum

Website: http://www.omniumgatherummedia.com

I don’t think the title here does this one justice. A concept this cool, and this well-executed, could do with something much more evocative.

Imagine eternal life, but with a catch. Eternal life, but as a punishment. Not happy healthy forever-young immortality, but the slow dreariness of getting more and more run down, the tedium, the decay. In which death would be an escape, a release.

Imagine the worst criminals in history, not executed for their crimes, but condemned to preservation and imprisonment. A life sentence, and then some. Locked away, unable to die, even if starved and tormented and neglected and left to pretty much rot.

That’s what the Time-Ball Tower is for, to keep these monstrous murderers in an endless purgatory of misery. Someone, though, has to more or less look after them. Being a keeper is a combination of prison guard, live-in caretaker, nanny, and custodian.

For, remember, the worst criminals in history. People with nothing to lose, no way to pass their time other than psychological mind games, no other links to the outside world. It’s not an easy job, even though the pay is good and the perks and benefits afterward potentially even better.

The newest keeper is Phillipa, whose family has included several other keepers over the generations. She’s prepared by working in a dementia facility, as well as caring for one of the first people to undergo the process of preservation, and is eager to begin her year’s stint.

Once she’s at the Tower, however, she realizes there’s more to the story and history of the place than she knew. The records left by her predecessors (as someone who’s worked residential psych for almost 30 years and done plenty of shift reports and progress notes, these amused me in a wryly grim way) shed some disturbing lights, compelling Phillipa to investigate probably more than she should.

Overall, it’s a sinisterly chilling insidiously creepy read, sure to stir thoughts on death, aging, executions, and the justice system. Really neat, really well done.

**

Title: Dryad’s Vine

Author: Cynthia Diamond

Website: http://www.cynthiadiamondauthor.com/

My favorite smut-mongering minx continues mongering that smut in this 3rd installment of her “Wyrd Love” series! This time, with some wild and woodsy lusty romance between a nature nymph and a werewolf. Well, a half-human nature nymph whose big sisters are bossily overprotective, and a werewolf who until recently didn’t even know he was one, and of course hijinks must ensue!

As if their magical lives weren’t already complicated enough, Phoebe and Harry have a history predating those revelations. She thinks he ran out on her six years before, he thinks everyone abandoned him. Their surprising reunion under whole-new-world conditions only adds to the turbulence.

Neither of them’s prepared for him to show up on her doorstep out of nowhere, injured and naked, having just escaped his dark-fae captors. They’re even less prepared for those same dark-fae to have an interest in Phoebe, as her own hidden heritage comes into play. Or to have a troll bounty hunter on their tails, or having to call upon a resentful mage.

Meanwhile, of course, Phoebe’s overprotective sisters – a siren married to a dragon, and a Valkyrie married to an angel; family gatherings are never dull when this clan is involved – think they need to charge in and save the day, while Harry’s newly-found werewolf pack won’t let anything threaten one of their own.

Admittedly, the scenario does suffer a bit from the whole rom-com thing where problems could be avoided if characters would just freakin’ TALK to each other, but it works okay here with their personalities. And, even if it didn’t, the action scenes (by which I mean both the epic fae fight scenes and the whoa-nelly-hot sex) more than make up for it.

LAKEHOUSE INFERNAL

At the end of Edward Lee’s Lucifer’s Lottery, the contents of a humble Florida lake were swapped out with six billion gallons of demon-and-damned-infested bloodwater filth from Hell. Now, with Lee’s permission and blessing, see what happened to the lake and the locals after, and see what happens when spring breakers, holy rollers, and the military get involved!

Available today from Deadite Press! With introduction by Edward Lee, who also requested to have a cameo. Fans of his works may notice some other familiar references and names.

Order yours now! 

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BizarroCon 2018 in 2019, January edition!

Due to a bunch of totally inconsiderate bridezillas hogging our venue with their wedding plans, we didn’t get to have a BizarroCon in November like usual. Since this simply would not stand, and nobody wanted to wait another whole year between them, it was decided we’d have one in January instead. To be followed by ANOTHER in November as is right and proper, getting us back on track, because Edgefield is OURS goshdarnit and we’ve got DIBS.

Anyhoo! Despite the change in schedule, despite the holidays, despite further complications caused by key figures moving house or being otherwise caught up in job-stuff and travel-stuff and general demanding life-stuff, the team rallied like champs and we had ourselves another amazing convention. One of the best yet, imho, actually. (edit note: despite and including some controversy; more on that later)

As has been explained often and elsewhere, of all the cons I’ve been to, this one is THE con, the weirdo family reunion to end all family reunions, a community of the weird joining together in heart and in spirit and in glorious shared chaos to build something awesome together. Things happen here. Organic, natural, peculiar, wonderful things. Connections are made. Bonds are formed, and reinforced. It’s love and creativity and gonzo energy. It’s being with your tribe, being reminded you’re not alone in your weirdness, maybe feeling at HOME and understood and accepted and appreciated for the magical oddball that you are.

Now, there, and look, I started off with how it’s already been explained often and elsewhere, but still had to go and try and explain it again. When that’s not what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m supposed to be giving you the rundown, the lowdown, and the scoop on this particular BizarroCon.

I take my duties as chronicler fairly seriously because I am gifted or cursed with an exceptional memory, and because I’m one of the rare non-drinkers. Some of these folks rely on such writeups and reports to piece together their weekends out of a blur of exhaustion, smoke-haze, alcohol, and lunacy. I’m here to help. You’re welcome.

This will of course not include every detail, partly because I’m old and tired and have cats at home so I commute back and forth each day instead of staying at the hotel and partying unto the wee small hours. Therefore, some stuff does go on to which I’m not privy, and only hear about later. Yet I will do my best to cover as many highlights as I can (and as many highlights as are fit for more public consumption; some inappropriate hijiinks DO go on that are perhaps best kept in a what-happens-at-Edgefield discretion).

For me, the official kickoff was when my pal Doug Blakeslee arrived at our place on Thursday afternoon. He helped me load up my stash of baked goods – I’ve established myself a tradition of bombarding everyone with cookies and such; figure it’ll help folks get at least something besides booze into their systems, and the less they have to spend on food, the more they can spend on books and beer and things that really matter. This year, I’d made a surplus during my holiday baking extravaganza, then supplemented those with rocky road cake bars, glazed mixed-fruit mini-muffins, and ‘rice trixy treats’ which are just your basic krispie treat but with trix cereal thrown in.

The overall weather was more in our favor than it has been in some years – most notably the unforgettable BLIZZAROCON deep freeze – but the wind from the Gorge was still quite a wowser. Danger Slater was half-convinced the giant trees were going to blow over onto the Ad House and crush us all during readings. The building was shaking. Windows rattled. In the main hotel itself, exterior doors occasionally whammed open and shut on their own, admitting blasts of cold air.

The brief welcoming introductory Opening Ceremonies were followed by another recently-established but strong-holding tradition: the Pickle Party, brought to you by Pickle Princess extraordinaire Lisa LeStrange. Which party, in addition to an assortment of pickles and pickle-related substances (some to haunt one’s very nightmares, such as the pickle-scented play-doh! eew!), included beer tastings courtesy of Ross E. Lockhart and brewmeisters Jason Rizos and Cameron Pierce, as well as some whiskey samplings with Michael Allen Rose. And whiskey pickle jello shots. We know how to party or what?

Plus, Jeff Burk tried yet again to kill people with peppers. I recall one moment when, as he leaned forward proffering a teensy bit of something evil-colored on a toothpick, he looked like nothing so much as an Alice in Wonderland character, some wicked pepper imp. Oh, my dears, the reactions. The redness. The sweating. The swearing. The crying. The agonized dance-in-place contortions.

It was in the middle of this I first met in person the lovely Leigham Shardlow, who was trying most earnestly to tell me how much he enjoyed my work and that Spermjackers From Hell changed his life, but he was in such a state – I believe he would have literally been on fire if not for his cascading tears – that he kept having to interrupt himself to holler across the room FUCK YOU JEFF I HATE YOU! I will always remember it fondly. I better, because I don’t think Leigham will.

Kevin L. Donihe continued his own flirtation with peppery death, though by now they’re way past flirtation. He gets to third base and beyond with peppery death. As was pointed out by a certain wicked pepper imp, one of those peppers (a shade of hot red that would make the devil himself say “whoa hey tone it down”) had a stinger. A STINGER. Like the curled barb of a scorpion’s tail.

I do love you people, but some of you, wow, some of you are maniacs for sure. Or maybe that’s why I love you. It’s sure a big factor!

Also that evening, Vince Kramer and I bonded with enthusiastic newcomer Ian Kappos over Tarot cards, and also over the coincidental fact that my plaid shirt and Ian’s plaid boxers nearly matched (there may or may not be photographic evidence). This is not the first time someone’s shown me his shorts upon first acquaintance, but this time it wasn’t a three-year-old proud of his new big-boy Superman underpants. Now that I consider it, though, you get a lot of that around here. Underpants and beyond. But, more on that subject when we get to the Showdown.

Overall attendance this time was down somewhat from previous cons, what with the schedule change and other reasons and all. I think we had maybe 90 total? It did make for more room in the Ad House; we weren’t completely packed in like rush hour commuters. I was glad to have the chance to meet in real-life many online acquaintances, such as John Urbancik, Bob Ford, and Austin James … I was delighted by the surprise appearance of Kelli Owen, whom I hadn’t known was planning to attend … remembered this time to track down Charles Austin Muir to sign the book of his I’d picked up at KillerCon … and as always, was just generally happy to hug the heck out of anyone who’d let me.

Friday morning started early; I got in on Mary SanGiovanni’s workshop, which began at 8:00. The subject was on choosing the right words, how to use the right ones for genre and setting, character, mood, rhythm, sound, etc. It turned out to be more discussion than lecture, a fun and lively time. Our three hours just flew by! For the record, by time-stamp, the first time The Professor mentioned boobs was at 9:20 A.M. See? She’s not fixated!

(side note: at one point, Brian Keene came in to bring her tea, and on his way out smooched me atop the head in passing … Skipp has also smooched me atop the head … is this a Thing and I just haven’t realized it? not that I’m complaining; I don’t get many smooches of any variety, so I never quite know what to do)

After the workshop, I hurried over to the Ad House to catch some readings. The typical mix ranges from gonzo silly to glum serious, and this year was no exception. Jeff Burke and Kevin L. Donihe wasted another half an hour of our time with Dinosaurs Attack! and Merle Haggard’s autobiography. I shared my reading slot with the eloquent Robert Devereaux, who read from his disturbing story, “Little Miss Ultrasound.”

As for me, I read from “Censered,” my story in the new And Hell Followed anthology. It was so-so, IMO. My first public reading in a couple of years, since the surgeries and the dental prosthetic and being able to more or less talk again. I managed not to spit all over the place and my teeth didn’t fly out, but I wish I’d chosen a shorter piece without so many s-sounds and plosives. Definitely need to get back in practice.

Then I attended the BWA meeting, where we talked bizarro biz, and my mouth up and volunteered me to compile a bunch of my previous book reviews to possibly post on Bizarro Central. I spent half the week after the con scouring through my backups, past issues of The Horror Fiction Review, my blogs, and Amazon. And I *still* didn’t get them all. I know for a fact I’m missing several. Even so, the resultant compilation file was some 730 reviews, making a document about 250k words long. I mean, okay, this goes back fifteen YEARS, but jeez, that’s a lot.

Also amusing/daunting was the moment when, as I was smacking the table waxing melodramatic about how I’ve pretty much damn near single-handedly kept the HFR afloat all this time (see what happens now that I can finally talk again, after nearly two years of enforced mushmouth partial muteness?), I looked around the crowded room and realized I’d reviewed something by almost every person there. In some cases, multiple books. In Carlton Mellick III’s case, more than twenty books. My mind, such as it is, reels. And not just from sheer volume. Many of those books, let’s face it, are pretty dang bent!

For dinner break, Doug and I went over to the Power Station, where I attempted coffee and clam chowder and only made a little bit of a mess because of how my lips don’t fully work right anymore. Thus caffinated and fortified, we fought the icy super-wind back to the Ad House for the Friday night Eraserhead Press party.

One of the highlights of that particular party is the special Bizarro Beers, brewed to go along with several key new releases, bottles with book cover labels. There’s talks by the editors and brewmeisters, the authors are each presented with a bottle, the souvenir pint glasses are unveiled (this year’s with art by the awesome Andrew Goldfarb, who also did the program book), beers can be sampled, and books can be bought.

(note: sometimes supplies are limited and books can only be bought if you’re damn quick; I intended to snag a copy of Jennifer Robin’s latest for my daughter but they available ARCs were all snapped up before I had the chance!)

Then, each of the authors performed. Not just read, no, this is never a simple matter of readings. We had the howling transformation of the Grindcore Werewolf, professional actor coaching, a fire-and-brimstone frogbutt sermon, manly war-nipples, NUNCHUCKS, and more! After that was live music with the Slow Poisoner, accompanied by John Skipp on the bongos, but, being old and tired and having a half-hour drive to get home, I once again sadly skipped staying any later that night.

I needed my sleep, because Saturday is The Big Day, when the magic really happens. It begins with the traditional breakfast/brunch buffet, with spicy sausage and thick peppery bacon. Other stuff too, fruit and eggs and french toast and whatnot, but oh lordy that bacon!

While the hotel staff was setting up for panels and such, I replenished my cookie trays and hung out for a while at the Ad House for the art show. Since the book I’m currently working on is a deep-sea chompy chompy, I tried to sell Andrew Goldfarb on the idea of anglerfish and other such critters; I figure bioluminescence and black velvet and toothy weirdness in his signature style would … well, okay, would bankrupt me damn fast but what the hell!

Also in attendance, the amazing Liv Rainey-Smith with her woodcuts and prints and pins, doing some cool stitchery on sheepskin … Peter Dale instructing students in digital coloring (and nekkid furries) … and Jim Agpalza, some of whose latest book covers are liable to give online booksellers absolute fits.

This year, due to some scheduling adjustments, much of Saturday’s programming took place upstairs in Edgefield’s ballroom, and personally I thought it worked out much better. We had half the room set up for panels, the other half for the ‘book nook,’ and people could wander between them as they pleased without feeling like they were interrupting. It made for an open, convivial atmosphere. The panelists having microphones helped, though I did have to confiscate the bullhorn because it seemed like the only button anybody ever could find on the dratted thing was the one clearly labeled SIREN and they were always surprised when they pushed it and – imagine! – the siren went off.

The workshop instructors offered pro tips on writing better books, then we had panels on hooking your reader, bizarro theory, advanced self-promotion, and bringing your reader there (I even got to be on that one, though again as with my reading, I was pretty out of practice).

Meanwhile, back in the Ad House, more reading blocks were going on, but I missed out on those and parked at panels all day, roaming the book nook in between. Somehow, I’m not sure how, I didn’t actually BUY anything this time (well, part of that how has to do with being staggeringly broke), but Caleb Wilson gave me a copy of his new one, Polymer, and it’s my current nightstand read … and Ross E. Lockhart slipped me an ARC of Carrie Laben’s upcoming A Hawk in the Woods.

I also signed some copies of Spermjackers From Hell (which, apparently, sold out again!), Dead Bait 4 (in which I have a story!), The Raven’s Table, and White Death (I had one left at home, which I brought in for my gal Dr. Q!). Also gave away some audiobook download codes for that one, since it was the 131st anniversary of the deadly blizzard that inspired the story.

Then they shooed us out again to re-set the room for dinner, which gave us a chance to zip down to the car and retrieve the boxes of centerpieces. I totally forgot to take any pics of them, but the theme I went with was, because we were having the con and the awards in January for a change, these would be our “winter Wonderlands” (cue Foghorn Leghorn, “it’s a joke, son, a joke, get it?”). Yeah whatever; they were pretty.

Now, in years past, few events have ever been able to compare with the Ultimate Bizarro Showdown, but I gotta say, Grady Hendrix’s live Paperbacks From Hell performance seriously was one of the best things I have ever seen. He’d already proven himself funny and cool on an earlier panel, but when he took us on that trip through horror publishing history? Phenomenal. It was nostalgia and education and entertainment all in one. Like the Schoolhouse Rock of the genre. Should be recorded. Should be on Netflix. Required viewing for fiction classes. Really, truly, legitimately terrific from start to finish.

During this, the also-traditional fajita feast was going on, and then it was time for the Wonderland Awards. Ross E. Lockhart introduced presenters Cameron Pierce and Danger Slater, and the winners were Laura Lee Bahr for Angel Meat (Best Collection) and Brian Allen Carr for Sip (Best Novel). Splendidly done and so well-deserved!

(though, Laura Lee Bahr would have the rush of her victory somewhat rudely interrupted not long after, when her penalty for recusing herself as a Showdown judge was to be zapped in front of everyone by Sauda Namir’s wicked violet wand … but she also took home one of my centerpieces as a consolation prize, and we loved her appearance in one of Sunday’s film festival pieces, so hopefully it all came out positive).

And then, oh, and then, it was time for the main event, the ULTIMATE BIZARRO SHOWDOWN!!!

After Sauda and Michael Allen Rose made me cry in public, that is. See, they’re our host and hostess with the most and mostess for the Showdown, and every year they outdo themselves with excellence in costuming, but this time they designed their outfits inspired by a Viking epic I’d written for their anniversary book. I was speechless, beyond stunned, and am honored beyond belief. Plus, they looked GOOD. Not that they ever don’t look good, but they looked REALLY REALLY GOOD. I cried like an old auntie at a wedding. I’m misting up again now just writing about it. Told Sauda later that this must be her revenge for the time I made her cry with the dolls, so now we’re even, right?

Anyway! Back to the ULTIMATE BIZARRO SHOWDOWN!!!

Now, yes, okay, there’s been some serious negative flak and fallout from this year’s event. As of this writing, I’m still mulling things over myself, having seen from the reactions of others that I perhaps underestimated the degree of discomfort. Will get to that in a bit though. All I can really say right now is from my own perspective. Indeed, all I can really say ever is from my own perspective; I certainly can’t and don’t speak for anyone else or in any official capacity.

But, yeah, later. On a happier note, for a while now Doug and I had been trying without much success to explain the Showdown to some of our friends. When, honestly, there IS no explaining the Showdown. Words fail. It’s different every time, you never know what will happen, it does have to be experienced to be believed. Finally, our friend Wade attended to see for himself, and now, at last, understands why we couldn’t adequately describe the weirdness.

Just as I will fail to adequately describe it here. Can’t be done. First off, our host and hostess introduced the esteemed panel of judges – Gina Rinalli, Brian Keene, John Skipp, Jennifer Robin, and Robert Devereaux (well, first off they zapped Laura Lee Bahr, the poor dear!).

There were, as I recall, sixteen acts in all, beginning with Jeff Burk formally announcing his and his cat Squishy’s 2020 presidential run. He even had a box brought in that turned out NOT to contain Squishy herself, but for a fleeting moment there, I believed him, the brat.

Some performances hearkened back to previous years … Ross E. Lockhart extended a heartfelt apology to a literary critic he’d unfairly maligned, while Michael Smith carried on the political theme as Mayor of BizarroCon and then won his own real-life campaign for local office.

Another recurring theme in the zeitgeist this time around – it’s uncanny the way these things tend to happen, independent of one another – proved to be music. We had a “How Bizarre” dance number, audience participation Air Supply, Garrett Cook’s ukulele torture, a maple-syrup-scented rendition of O Canada, an appearance by hip-hop megastar Young Stepdad (sponsored by Mtn. Dew Baja Blast).

Must give special mention here to one of the musical numbers, my personal favorite act of the evening. Admittedly, at first, when Danger Slater stood up there in a green bodysuit with green goop slathered on his face, and pulled on a frog hat, I felt a momentary dread that he and amphibilingus preacher David W. Barbee were about to get up to something unspeakable. Instead, though, Danger led us all in the most heartbreakingly adorable singalong of Rainbow Connection … the entire ballroom, arms up, hands swaying back and forth … it was so unexpected, so sincere and so sweet! Made all the sweeter, to me, by that earlier moment of dread.

However, the night also had its majorly uncomfortable episode, and I suppose I can’t put it off any longer. New Deadite author Chandler Morrison did a reading/performance from his upcoming book, which involved a threesome with an aborted fetus. Graphically acted out, with a fake penis and a fetus doll and everything. Even I, Edward Lee fangirl that I am, found it squicky and uncomfortable, though I was under the impression that was kind of the point.

Turns out, many others felt it was way too much. That it went too far, crossed the line. Some also interpreted it as having racist elements due to the color of the fetus doll … this was a surprising bit of news to me; I hadn’t seen it as a “brown” baby at all, more purple and grey and bloody and dead … not that that’s any sort of a decency defense either. Or that there was real nudity and real ejaculation, neither of which was the case. But yeah, it was very graphic, and in the days since the convention has stirred up considerable controversy.

I did mention to Jeff later that night that the new guy was going to do just fine, but that was before I learned how powerfully negative an effect it’d had on much of the audience. As a Deadite author, if that’s the kind of stuff he’s writing, I stand by it … compared to other extreme horror works of atrocity and grossness, he’s got the stuff to run with the big names. For the Showdown, however, as opposed to say the Gross-Out, I can see how it might’ve been out of place. I sincerely hope everyone’s concerns are heard, respected, and addressed.

For now, I’ll leave it at that because this is my con journal and I’m sure the matter will be discussed elsewhere. Indeed, as of this pre-posting edit, it’s being discussed vigorously, and will no doubt continue to be for quite a while.

So! Moving on.

Another common theme for the Showdown this year appeared to involve bribing the judges. With cash, with a sack of gold-foil chocolate coins, with beverages and other, ahem (*squints at John Skipp*) consumables. At one point, while ranting about redistribution of wealth, Maxwell Bauman strode to the judges’ table, picked up Brian Keene’s unfinished whiskey, and downed it.

If you know Brian Keene, you would understand. Even those who had only just MET Brian Keene would understand. The collective gasp of the crowd caused an ear-popping pressure change in the room. Mary SanGiovanni nearly fell off her chair (and you could see it in her eyes, the frantic calculations as to how much bail money was going to be). We’re talking sheer magnitude here, hitherto-undiscovered levels of chutzpah.

But he just up and DID it. And he survived. No wonder, then, that at the end of the evening they gave him a special “Biggest Balls” judge’s choice award. I’m ashamed to admit I don’t even remember what the rest of his act included, something about being shirtless and humping the microphone stand, I think …

Speaking of which, being shirtless that is, we did have quite a few shirts and some pants being shed during the performances. This in part goes back to what I mentioned before about underpants … I’ve seen more people in their underpants since meeting this crowd than I ever did before. Not to mention the occasional bare bottom and various other bits.

Karl Fischer even had the first row of tables chuck oranges at his bare bottom. And there we were expecting something to do with blackbirds! Furthermore, John Wayne Communale’s choice of briefs was interesting; even from the front of the room, close scrutiny was required to be sure he was wearing any at all (okay maybe it wasn’t *required* but … again, moving on, change of subject)

Technical difficulties plagued a couple of the performances, computer issues for one and a pesky stackable obelisk for the other, but in both instances the participants rallied well and pressed through. Some attention-hog diva named Chazzz craved the zappy wand such that Sauda had to fit it with a special attachment.

By the end, there were oranges everywhere, and gummi fish, and maple syrup (though, as was pointed out, at least the Canadian contingent had been polite enough to bring a tarp!). The judges once again had their work cut out for them. In addition to the “Biggest Balls” award, and two Honorable Mentions (Sam Reeve and John Wayne Communale), third place went to Danger Slater, second to Andrew Goldfarb despite the stubborn obelisk, and first to Cameron Pierce, aka Young Stepdad.

For the second time in a row, the previous champion did not show up to defend the title and deliver the ceremonial garment – we’re all looking at *you*, Shane McKenzie and Gabino Iglesias! – and so a new one was obtained, a very fetching crimson-and-gold cape with matching crown. The second place pinata of goodies was cracked at the after-party, where presumably third-place first-loser wore the required shameful disguise kit.

I say presumably, because once again I wimped out and went home to get some sleep, lingering only long enough to grab the rest of the centerpieces (one went home with Laura Lee Bahr, the other, with two big shiny silver ornament balls on top, was hastily dubbed a trophy for Maxwell Bauman). I’ve since disassembled them and saved the decorative bits with my craft stuff because I may have a slight hoarding problem.

A few hours of sleep later – well, *I* slept; others who are younger and fitter and livelier may not have done – and it was Sunday. The last day already, too soon, much too soon!

The breakfast buffet was back in the smaller Barley Room like usual, but as is also usual for Sunday morning, the turnout was much smaller. Those late nights taking their toll; some attendees wouldn’t reappear until well past noon. Ah well, more biscuits and gravy for the rest of us! If the bacon is a big draw, the biscuits and gravy are a close second.

Much of the day was occupied by goodbyes and farewells as people with various travel arrangements had to head out. Doug, driving back north, was among them and left just after breakfast. The two scheduled panels for the day flowed naturally into each other – Expanding the Bizarro Audience, and Forming Bonds on the Fringe. How do we find our fellow weirdos out there in the wider ordinary world? How do we encourage and be fearless about flying our own weirdo flags? As I mentioned to my mother some days later over the phone, I’ve always been this way, but kept a lot of it stifled and muffled for so long, and it’s been such a glorious liberation being with others who fully understand, embrace, and appreciate all that wacky shit.

The final few hours before Closing Ceremonies were occupied with the film festival, hosted by John Skipp and capably run by tech wizard Lori Bowen. Skipp spends all year assembling a lineup of the craziest most brain-bending stuff he can find, then gleefully shares it with the rest of us.

A few of the selections featured familiar faces; Laura Lee Bahr as a put-upon housewife who’s finally had enough in “The Eagles Are a Country Music Band,” and Michael Allen Rose and Sauda Namir appearing in a wickedly witty commentary on social interactions called “Spoons.”

There was musical mutilation and medical evisceration, photography and fame, bleeding for art, a summer-camp slasher classic … even the commercials … I loved the commercials … that so-very-80’s pizza-pigskins whatever it was? and the shrimp-fest? Show of hands, who’ll all flinch from now on whenever they see a Red Lobster ad?

Last but by no means least, Brian Keene treated us to a screening of Mike Lombardo’s feel-good holiday romp, “I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday,” and basically ruined Christmas for everyone forever. It was striking and powerful, far more emotional than I’d expected. And that KID! Wow, he was good. Excellent job all around. A pity we won’t be seeing it on the Hallmark Channel any time soon …

Only a couple dozen stragglers were left by then for the brief Closing Ceremonies, which were followed by a return to the Ad House for another Bizarro Con tradition – Kevin L. Donihe gettin’ up to some lunacy. Last year was a ghost hunt. This year, he taught us the deeper mysteries and truths behind hide-and-seek. Then, after learning even more about various folks’ undies, most of them hied off to the Soaking Pool.

And me? Still no Soaking Pool for me. That freezing wind, for one thing … yes, I understand the pool itself is nice and hot, but eventually you gotta get OUT of it. For another, even after my drastic post-radiation weight loss, I like everyone too much to subject them to me in a swimsuit (or undies!) just yet.

So, I rounded up my cookie trays (they had been pretty well reduced to crumbs, broken bits, and old maids), gathered my stuff, did my own quick round of goodbyes, and headed for home. My kitties were very glad to see me, even if I slept for a solid thirteen hours and only dragged myself out of bed the next day because of appointment reminder phone calls and a maintenance visit to fix our garbage disposal.

But it was the GOOD kind of tired. The kind of exhaustion resulting from enjoying an energizing, replenishing weekend in that mad whirl of fun and creativity with like-minded weird souls. Overall, even with its difficult moments, I had a grand time, I love my Bizarro family, and I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Five thousand and some words later, if you’ve read along this far, thanks; I hope it was enlightening and informative, or at least entertaining. I hope it brings some fond memories or even fills in a few blanks, and that I haven’t forgotten or missed too much. I know I did miss out on some things, like the whole egg mystery, whatever that was … and someone sneakily adding a Coldplay patch to Jeff’s jacket … though I was there for the resolution of Chazzz’s missing wig.

In conclusion, hey, buy my books! I’ve got a new one, an Edward-Lee-approved sequel to his Lucifer’s Lottery, coming in May from Deadite Press … Lakehouse Infernal, it’s called, and it’s … well, it’s demented, it’s total shameless Edward Lee fanfic throughout, it’s nasty and blasphemous and violent and gross, and I had the best time of my life writing it.