Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Stoker Weekend Chronicles, Part 2

Friday morning. My body still hadn’t reset its internal clock, so although I was going to bed at 12:30 am PST, I was still waking up at my hardwired East Coast time of 5:30 am – which somehow also became 5:30 am PST(!). I know…I was confused, too. All I know is that I felt like I was running on fumes for most of my trip.

So, up and off to breakfast with Chad and Mike Hacker, despite a tempting offer from Nanci to join her and Tom Monteleone for breakfast at Denny’s. I don’t remember what the fellas had, but I had the most delicious Cobb omelet – basically everything that gets lumped into a Cobb Salad (minus the lettuce, thankfully) as the omelet filling. Scrumptious! We promised Lisa and John that we’d register early, so off we went to the hotel lobby to retrieve our name badges and goody bags. Great stuff in the bags – books, magazines, bookmarks galore, magnets, and more. Leisure was particularly generous, offering up one of their novels for every bag. I snagged a copy of Nate Kenyon’s THE REACH, which I had already read (great book, BTW), so I was hoping to swap with someone for perhaps something I hadn’t read (had my eye on Wrath James White’s SUCCULENT PREY). Of course, swept up in the whirlwind of Stoker Weekend, I completely forgot.

How amazing to finally meet and spend time with my friend and frequent collaborator Chad Helder. Most people we met couldn’t believe that we’d known each other since 2006, yet had never met until that weekend. Or that we’d managed to put together an entire project like UNSPEAKABLE HORROR using nothing but the Internet and telephone lines to connect when we had to. Chad is everything I’d hoped he’d be and more. Smart, personable, laid-back…he was the perfect weekend companion to share so many firsts. And we had a ball! So lucky am I to call him my flesh-and-blood friend now.

On Friday, I was scheduled to participate in two panels – one on anthology editing, the other on GLBT horror. A quick glance at the program and I saw that the estimable Stephen Jones (the multi-award winning editor of anthology series like THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW HORROR, FANTASY TALES, and DARK TERRORS) had been added to the panel that included myself and Chad, the venerable Ellen Datlow, R.J. Cavender, Bill Breedlove, and Kathryn Cramer (of the YEAR’S BEST FANTASY and YEAR’S BEST SF series). Now, I had heard all kinds of rumors and stories about Jones and, frankly, was beginning to lose my nerve. After all, what business did we have on a panel with the likes of him and Ellen Datlow and Kathryn Cramer? Hopefully, we could add something from the newbie’s perspective, but that was about it. To make matters worse, moments before our panel, I found Ellen (who was moderating the panel) in the hotel lobby and, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, asked her to please keep Jones from eviscerating us onstage if he found our presence bothersome. And, just to prove that the higher power has a sense of humor, Mr. Jones was standing right behind me when I said it. Insert foot in mouth as cursory introductions were made, slink away, and nearly die with embarrassment.

So, how’d the panel go, you ask? Considering how I’d set myself up (internally and with Jones), I’d say not bad at all. The veterans on the panel wowed with their vast experience and knowledge, while we newbies spoke when spoken to. Ellen did a fantastic job moderating, and Jones was quite astute and fair in his questions and comments. I think the audience may have winced for us a few times, but we came away from the experience all the better for it. Hey, if we’re going to play with the big fish, then we’d better learn how to swim faster, eh? High point of the panel: The spirited discussion that ensued when Ellen asserted that she reads slush and Kathryn categorically took exception, emphasizing that both Ellen and Stephen read works already published and that by virtue of their published status, these works are already pre-vetted and are thereby not true “slush” in the sense that most think of it. Interesting discussion that kept the audience (and the rest of us on the panel) rapt with attention. Low point of the panel: Jones politely calling Chad and me out for not sending him a copy of UNSPEAKABLE HORROR for consideration in MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW HORROR and internally debating whether or not it’d be poor form to correct him and tell him that I did indeed send a copy. In the end, I deferred to better judgment of not correcting him in a public forum and made mental notes to tell him privately at a later point in time (more on how that went later) and to send any future works to him via registered mail.

Next up was the GLBT Horror panel that Chad and I were participating on with the lovely Maria Alexander (whose lyrical “In Her Mirrors, Dimly” we were fortunate enough to have grace the pages of UNSPEAKABLE HORROR) and the effervescent Hal Bodner. Hal, who wrote 2005’s sexy vampire romp BITE CLUB, is the essence of a true character, the lovechild of Harvey Fierstein and Joan Rivers. An entertainment lawyer by trade, Hal now spends his days writing and as the proprietor of an “over-the-top” pet boutique called Heavy Petting. Indeed, everything about Hal is deliciously over-the-top…from his opinions (and there are many) to his warmth. He’s got stories galore with which to regale the willing listener, and he’s got more names to drop than Paris Hilton has handbags.

The panel went exceptionally well – decent attendance during which we met the equally handsome and intellectual Gabriel Novo, a first time writer’s conference attendee who’d wanted to hear more about us after the anthology panel. The questions were fantastic, the discussion lively, and the subject matter stimulating. The audience really seemed to walk away with quite a bit of food for thought, especially on the subject of whether or not the gay community should or needs to own its negative stereotypes in its literature and other artistic mediums. Mutual respect between and among the audience and the panelists for differing viewpoints was the overriding tone of the session. My little gray cells were refreshed, invigorated, and otherwise heightened during this enjoyable (albeit far too brief) hour.

Somewhere in between panels and pitches, Chad and I had the privilege of sitting in on two fantastic author readings. The first was the delightful Rain Graves, who has personality to spare and a fantastically contagious laugh. She read selections from her poetry collection BARFODDER. Stunning imagery and lyrical verse that skimmed across the mental palette with Rain’s rhythmic delivery. The second reading was by Thomas F. Monteleone. Now, if you want to learn about how an author should conduct a reading and fully engage an audience, Monteleone is your guy. He read one of his older stories – title escapes me at the moment – to a spellbound audience. Monteleone becomes his characters when he reads – wide-eyed boy, curmudgeonly grandfather, sinister grim reaper – all with equal skill and believability. Watching him move about the room and lock eyes with audience members as his voice went from a whisper to a hiss, his reading was one of the most unexpected treats of the weekend.

Dinner in the Daily Grill with Chad, Mike Hacker, Reesa Brown and her mother, Deborah. We were joined by Scott Bradley, one of the editors of last year’s pop culture masterpiece BOOK OF LISTS: HORROR. Scott and I became instant Facebook friends a few months prior to Stoker Weekend, so I was really looking forward to meeting him in person. You know, one of the things I liked most about the whole weekend was how real people were. Scott personified this genuineness – just a tall hunk of sweetness and sincerity through and through. My biggest regret is that I didn’t have more of an opportunity to hang out with Scott and his girlfriend Amy Wallace (another of the editors on BOOK OF LISTS: HORROR) – but, hey, there’s an old adage that says when you meet someone you connect with, you’re destined to meet up with them again.

The Gory Ghoul Ball hosted by Heather Graham and Medallion Press was the spectacle it promised to be. There was music and food aplenty, with partygoers decked to the nines in fabulous costumes. Admittedly, the air temperature in the packed ballroom was a bit on the stuffy side, so I moseyed in and out – alternating between watching the Slush Pile Players and sitting outside with Reesa, Chad, and Deborah and enjoying the almost preternaturally consistent Southern California weather. Wiped, I retired for the evening around 11:30 pm.

Saturday was business day. It was time to slap on some casual business attire and prepare for meetings with publishers during the pre-arranged pitch sessions. Chad and I enjoyed a low-key breakfast together while I tried to boil an entire novel down into a succinct logline that would grab the publishers’ interest by the throat until they screamed to read the full manuscript. Met up with Alex Sokoloff near the elevators and the two of us went up to my suite where she was nice enough to hear my pitch and offer some words of encouragement. I seriously adore her – she’s whip smart, an über-talented storyteller, and has the most fabulous mane of blond hair that seems to be its own life force.

The pitch sessions were coordinated by Jeannie Eddy, with help from hubby (and HWA webmaster) Mark Worthen. Pitch sessions, for those of you who’ve never done one, are the literary equivalent of speed dating. You’ve got ten minutes to pitch your novel to an editor or agent – and at Stoker Weekend, you had the added challenge of doing so in a less than optimal setting: the hotel lobby. Imagine sitting there across from an editor from a major New York publishing house with one-sixth of an hour to sell your work while just mere feet away someone’s complaining to the desk clerk that the toilet in room 617 is clogged(!). Talk about disconcerting. But, somehow, Jeannie made it all work. How she tracked whose time was up, moved people up and down the schedule when someone didn’t show, and had those editors and agents spread as comfortably as possible across the hotel lobby, I’ll never know. Anyone who pitched on Saturday owed Jeannie and Mark a debt of gratitude for their generous help and coordination. My own pitch sessions went quite well, with both publishers asking to see THE RENEWED in various configurations – one wanting the entire manuscript, the other the first three chapters and a full synopsis. Both asked about what else I had in the pipeline, with one also asking to see FINAL GIRL when that was done. One even asked that I include the blurbage for THE LITERARY SIX with my submission, so maybe a retooling will be in order for a reprint someday. Fingers firmly crossed as I frantically work on the final rewrites of THE RENEWED.

Business behind me, it was time to get ready for Dark Scribe Press’ “Unspeakable 80’s” pre-Stoker Awards Banquet party and the big event afterward. The hotel staff had the room set-up appropriately (after some last minute reminders on layout), my DJ from Joe Diamond Enterprises showed up on time and with the music I had requested (and he was cute, to boot!), and Chad and Martel Sardina and JT Cummins were on hand to help hand out 200+ feather boas to guests as they arrived. The hour and a half flew by, but I managed to get some great photos. Feather boas really are the ultimate fashion accessory! Haircut 100, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Oingo Boingo, Icicle Works, Dexy’s Midnight Runners…the music just rocked!

On to dinner, yet another wonderfully overstuffed goodie bag, and then…the Stoker Awards. Unbeknownst to me, like a tribe that attracts its own, we ended up having what someone dubbed “The Gay Table.” Chad, Mike Hacker, Matt Schwartz, Derek Clendening, Hal Bodner, and I…with Nanci Kalanta, Maria Alexander, and Martel as our requisite (and quite fetching!) fag hags. Not quite sure how Maria’s dashing gent, Shad Ow, figured into the scheme of things, but let’s just call him “eye candy” for purposes of qualifying everyone’s role. Nerves had taken over by that point, and I honestly couldn’t tell you how my vegetarian lasagna was or what one person said during dinner. I just know Hal was talking.

So, as you know, we won the Stoker Award in our category – Superior Achievement in an Anthology. The moment came upon me like a speeding locomotive, and I wasn’t ready for it. First, the idea that John Skipp and Ellen Datlow presented the award was enough to send me into giddiness. But then, to hear one of the preeminent anthology editors of our time call my name and hand me a Stoker Award, the ensuing cheer from the audience…words fail me. (I grabbed Ellen’s hand the next day and tried to articulate just what it meant to have her present us with the award, but I’m certain words failed me yet again.) I know I spoke, tried not to completely flame-out like Sally Field in her 1985 acceptance speech at the Oscars, and said something about the lights being hot. It’s on tape and will hopefully be available to the viewing public soon. But, what I do remember, was feeling incredibly humbled to be accepting an award in the presence of Bill Breedlove and R.J. Cavender – two incredibly talented anthology editors with whom I had the distinct pleasure of becoming acquainted that weekend and whose works (Breedlove’s LIKE A CHINESE TATTOO, Cavender’s +HORROR LIBRARY: VOLUME 3+) I have the utmost respect for. I remember saying that the award was really for all of us in the anthology field, those of us working within our resources to keep the anthology format alive. And I meant every word of it.

Something else came to me standing on that stage. Earlier, during the anthology panel, Stephen Jones had asked Chad and I why our anthology was “queer horror” and just not “horror”. Wasn’t good horror with gay characters or themes enough without having to add the “queer” qualifier? Thrown a bit by the question, I just sat there like a dunce while Chad did his best to articulate an answer that spoke to easier identification by our intended audience. But there, on the stage standing in front of 250 or so fellow writers and editors, the answer came to me at the oddest moment. As I thanked my partner of 21 years for his unwavering support, I realized that I would be one of only two people that evening who hadn’t thanked a wife or a husband. That the commonplace spousal moniker used so freely by everyone else simply wasn’t mine to use. Not there in a Californian hotel, not back home in New York. The legal distinction between my relationship and that of legally married couples in the room was significant, and that was the reason that our horror had to be queer horror. That was the reason why our politics has to be queer politics, why our artistic expression has to speak to its queer elements. That separate does not mean equal is the horror of the queer experience. That, like much of horror in general, we approach life and those in it as outsiders looking in.

Photos taken, an appearance at the official after party made, champagne consumed, I retired to my hotel suite and clicked on Facebook to find confirmation of my earlier thoughts. Congratulatory messages from literary heroes like Lee Thomas and Michael Rowe and Jameson Currier and Scott Heim, from publishing trailblazers like Greg Herren and Steve Berman, all confirmed that Chad and I and our wonderfully unspeakable contributors did far more than win a Stoker Award that evening. We shattered the pink ceiling by becoming the first distinctly queer horror anthology to ever take home a Stoker in the 22-year history of the awards. Suddenly overwhelmed, humbled, and so completely at a loss for words, emotion overtook me and I sat awash in actual tears staring down at my laptop until sleep beckoned.

Sunday morning arrived, bringing two strange emotions with it. The first was an odd sense of melancholy that the weekend was drawing to a close. The closest thing I could associate with this reaction was the feeling I got as a teenager when a month of sleepaway summer camp was winding down. It was almost a sense of loss…a sense of imminent detachment from some real, newly discovered part of my life. An experience that was one-time only, a fusion of events, circumstances, people, and senses that could never be recreated again in totality. Weird, I know. The second was a sense of surrealism, a sense that something important had happened with which I still hadn’t fully connected. Even as I made my way toward the HWA business meeting – tall cup of Earl Grey in hand – and someone stopped me and asked me to sign his Stoker Weekend Program, I felt like events had powered forward and I was running to catch up with the reality of them.

The HWA Board met as a group for about two hours for its annual business meeting, the first time all four HWA officers – in this case, Deb LeBlanc, Heather Graham, Lisa Morton, and I – were in attendance at a live meeting. Trustees Ellen Datlow, Del Howison, and Rocky Wood, as well as legal counsel Les Klinger, were all on hand for a very productive session. Thankfully, Heather and I had devised a secret plan to leap up onto the table and belt out our version of “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” if things got heated, but that never came to pass. The great part about this Board is that everyone on it is forward-thinking and genuinely considers the membership at large when discussing plans for the organization. I have to credit Deb LeBlanc with this. She truly represents the organization with a sense of class and enthusiasm. Watching her in front of the Board or the membership, she’s truly an inspiration — funny, warm, and always professional. She’s set a tone for the HWA, appointed professional people to the right posts, and worked with a sense of quiet conviction in leading us. As much as Lisa Morton and John Little were responsible for the incredible success of Stoker Weekend, Deb’s leadership is a key reason why the HWA has grown its ranks. Deb gets a bunch of shit from some, legitimate criticism from others, but as I was reflecting on the weekend while writing up this recap, the good she’s done overwhelmingly overshadows any missteps our administration has taken along the way.

The general meeting with membership followed. Well-attended, enthusiastic bunch with terrific questions, concerns, and suggestions. The meeting could have gone on for another hour, but we were reminded by John Little that closing ceremonies were at hand. Chad and I ran into Stephen Jones and the lovely Mandy Slater along the way, Mr. Jones offering us his heartfelt congratulations on our Stoker win. We chatted with him for several minutes, during which I got to apologize for the copy of UNSPEAKABLE HORROR that never reached him. He spoke about WHC 2010 in Brighton, England, hoped we would attend, and mentioned the gay-friendly area in which the convention would be held. As we headed toward the closing ceremonies, that sense of surrealism again: the Stephen Jones just congratulated us on our Stoker win! Following closing ceremonies and a bunch of goodbyes that I’d rather not dwell on, the personable, farm fresh Joel Sutherland (apparently safe from a weekend’s worth of Hal hitting on him!) drove Derek Clendening and I back to Dark Delicacies for a group book signing for Lisa Morton’s new anthology, MIDNIGHT WALK. Most of the anthology’s contributors were there and signed up a storm. Great to meet some of my BUTCHER KNIVES & BODY COUNTS contributors like Mike McCarty and R.B. Payne.

Back to the hotel and an impromptu dinner with Lisa Morton, Scott Edelman, Gabrielle Faust, Joel and Colleen Sutherland, Derek Clendening, Rocky Wood, and my # 1 fan Amanda Reyes and her fiancé, David Cohen. Conversation and drinks flowed, Gabrielle and I picked (and picked and picked) at a delicious Apple-Blueberry Cobbler (a la mode, of course!), and soon it was time for more bittersweet goodbyes. Then, off to pack while half-watching the season premiere of TRUE BLOOD, and off for a few restless hours of sleep before my 7:05 am flight home.

Since my chronicles began with the action and adventure of JetBlue flight #350 nose-diving into the Rockies, I find it only fitting to close with the further thrills and chills of JetBlue flight #355, which hit turbulence somewhere over mid-Nebraska that did not end until we were over Pittsburgh. Yes, there were moments of sheer terror like the aircraft’s plummet and underwater dive beneath the Great Lakes (during which I staunchly clutched my pearls like Olivia de Havilland in AIRPORT ’77), but my recollections will only be challenged by those with far less credible historical recall. Suffice to say that I survived; arriving back home to loving arms and eager dog licks and armed with all the details of a glorious, memorable weekend to share.


Gabriel Novo said...

It was a real pleasure meeting you at the Stokers. Your GLBT panel was a fantastic debate where points were intelligently discussed without the typical shouting match.

Again congratulations on your historic Stoker win. I'm happy the strength of your stories and importance of the theme were fully recognized.

And thanks for the compliments =) I had an incredible time at the conference and can't wait till my next one.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Vince -

Feather Boas are the ultimate accessory. That was a great party. Hope I'll be seeing you again soon :)


Wonder Man said...

I can't wait to read it