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.