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Horror Is Still Grappling with the Long, Dark Shadow of H. P. Lovecraft

A hot weekend in Atlanta with Victorian killers, zombie celebrities, and the genre's leading authors and most decked-out fans.

by Adrian Van Young
29 July 2015, 6:00pm

Stan the Zombie and legendary horror writer William F. Nolan at the 2015 World Horror Convention in Atlanta. Photo by Beth Gwinn. Courtesy of the Horror Writers Association

I have been a horror fanboy for as long as I can remember.

When I was in the second grade in sunny, sporty San Diego, I won a class prize for a "book" I wrote. Its title was Night Man , a story of werewolves, and it centered around one Old Man Realyan, who turns into a lycanthrope to menace a cadre of neighborhood boys.

As a burgeoning hot-weather goth in eighth grade, a Punky Color green streak embossing my butt-cut, I saw

The author at ten, with his mother. (Note: This photo was not taken on Halloween.) Photo courtesy of the author

Tales from the Crypt's Demon Knight three times before it even left the theaters.

Today, while most of my fiction and nonfiction have been published in places unallied with horror, almost all of my stories, essays, and novels have trafficked in horrific themes. Ask anyone who's read my first book, The Man Who Noticed Everything (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), which is a pulp opera of the Gothic and bleak.

So it makes sense I'm in Atlanta on a hot weekend in May at the 25th Anniversary World Horror Convention (WHC) and Bram Stoker Awards, the biggest horror-specific genre convention held annually in the US. My new publisher, ChiZine Publications, had suggested I come to promote the release of my forthcoming book, Shadows in Summerland (2016), a revisionist historical novel with supernatural underpinnings about the 19th-century "spirit photographer" and cad-about-town William H. Mumler.

I'm curious to see how horror posits itself—as a genre distinct from other genres, as a community of craftspeople in thrall to the weird. Do they buck the term genre or hearken unto it? How do they see horror fiction evolving? Who are they as people who walk through the world?

Performer Miss Spooky with Stephanie Schmitz Tryda and Cecile Grimm-Cabeen at the 2015 World Horror Convention. Photo by Lisa Morton. Courtesy of the Horror Writers Association

The convention itself makes my task slippery, because it's a mixture of writers and fans. As opposed to a number of other conventions that are horror-friendly, such as the World Fantasy Convention, say, which limits its attending memberships to 850, or Readercon, which centers exclusively on the concerns of "imaginative literature," the World Horror Convention has something called "Professor Morte's Silver Scream Spookshow Creepy Costume Ball," an annual "gross-out" contest, and guest appearances by cult celebrities such as Michael Massee ( The Crow)—about whom I find I am far too excited—and Stan the Zombie, "the only internationally trademarked zombie celebrity."

The Horror Writers Association, which sponsors the con, was also one of the first writer's associations to recognize the membership of self-published authors. Strolling through the dealer's room, this policy makes for a beguiling mix: slick-looking Penguin Random House titles next to paperback glossies with photoshopped art.

Brad Hodson and Rajiv Patel at the registration table at the 2015 World Horror Convention. Photo by Lisa Morton. Courtesy of the Horror Writers Association

On the first night of the con, I sit on a panel. It's a 10 PM time slot, and many are buzzed—not excluding myself—from the cocktail-hour mingle. The panel in question, "Dark Carnivale: Freaks, Geeks, Magicians, and Spiritualists," goes down in the "Dunwich" room on the nethermost floor of the Marriott Marquis Hotel in downtown Atlanta. This floor is roped off for the WHC, and all of the rooms are homages to Lovecraft: Sarnath, R'lyeh, Innsmouth, Redhook.

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At the end of the "Dark Carnivale" panel a young woman with auburn hair dressed in an outfit that I would call steampunk—tiny top hat and accordion sleeves—comes up to the panelists to present us, each one, with a single tarot.

The following night, Friday, at the Creepy Costume Ball, set-dressed by SFX artist Shane Morton, of Mastodon fame, is like Halloween prom where the punch needs more spiking. Cosplayers toddle about. Music thumps. I ask a vampire with a glass of red wine—which is funny, I guess, because they never drink it—to show me his game face. He raises his glass, steps back a pace, and exposes his fangs.

The costume contest rolls around. The final five are a murderous clown, a "Victorian gentleman" (see: Jack the Ripper), plague mask and her zombie beau, and the auburn-haired woman who read my Tarot and who is now wearing nothing but pasties and boy-shorts. "The boobs are pretty hot," broadcasts the MC.

Still, it's plagu -mask for the win, a fannishly endearing gesture. The con attendees didn't come here for flesh—they came to see flesh in resplendent decay.

Two attendees. Photo by the author

Such earnest morbidity isn't confined to the WHC's more theatrical moments. Panels and interviews, keynote addresses, and one-on-one interactions en route through the halls have an air of improbable sweetness about them, considering the theme is horror.

Take, for instance, John Urbancik, a mild and contemplative man with a passing resemblance to Billy Bob Thornton. We served together on the "Carnivale" panel, and I later find him sitting to the side of one of the panel rooms, notebook before him, the fountain pen with which he writes intent above a busy page. A writer of fantasy, dark fantasy, and horror, Urbancik has put it to himself to write one story a day for a year by hand with "only one day off every month." The stories, which he calls Inkstains, he collects every month in a self-contained volume.

Urbancik offers to read me his most recent story. Considering it's unrevised and written earlier that morning, it's a surprisingly elegant, Borgesian tale about a Kali-like figure Urbancik calls "She" who fashions snow globes in which humans are trapped. For kicks, She shakes them up. When I ask Urbancik where he's from (Tallahassee) and what he does for a day job (Florida Medicaid worker), something of a shadow comes over his face.

"That's just my day job. This is my life."

Poet and writer Linda Addison, who was the first African-American winner of the Bram Stoker Award, which she has won twice. Photo by Ellen Datlow via Flickr

Community, not cliquishness, announces itself as the weekend's motif. This applies to the HWA itself as well. From president Lisa Morton down, most of them are volunteers—administrator Brad Hodson is the only employee who takes in a salary—and they have put in many hours precision-building what takes place. Though HWA Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Jack Ketchum ( The Girl Next Door ), when asked one on one, diagnoses horror writers as sometimes feeling marginalized and "beleaguered" by the greater literary community, he explains they're a "passionate group" and are, in many ways, "content with their niche." Community breeds acceptance.

"The old saw about horror," Morton says, "is that it's the most transgressive of genres." You see this reflected not only in content—Morton cites a sub-genre that horror is, thankfully, moving away from that she describes as "fuck-the-stumps," rife with rape and mutilation—but also the politics governing horror. This is because writers of horror are largely progressive. And when they really miss the mark, as in the case of H. P. Lovecraft, whose likeness has recently come under fire as the bust that adorns the World Fantasy trophy, horror seems quick to interrogate why.

"Look around the room,' said Usman T. Malik. 'There are around 50 to 60 people in this room. I'm one of two brown faces in this crowd. There's not a single black person. This is where the problem with the dialogue about Lovecraft in the 21st century begins."

In fact, the most fascinating of the panels I attend is earlier that afternoon, called "H. P. Lovecraft in the 21st Century: The Problematic Legacy of the Great Old One of Horror and the Weird." Lovecraft is horror's old-bastard grandfather. He's written such classics as "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Colour Out of Space," and "The Whisperer in the Darkness." He also wrote a despicable poem that goes by the title "On the Creation of Niggers" that refers to black people as "beasts" "filled with vice."

I know how I personally feel about Lovecraft, a figure that hangs super-sized over horror. While his tales can be critically smart and arresting, if a little prolix in the way they're deployed, his racism lurks as a constant distraction. If nothing else, such hateful views reinforce a comprehensiveness of awfulness in Lovecraft, coupling the prospect of human extinction at the tentacles of Elder Gods with a dose of incredibly fucked politics. It's misanthropy to the max.

This doesn't—shouldn't—can't excuse him. Horror's decidedly working on that. On one hand, he's the patron saint about whom it likes to elide certain facts; on the other, he's still that old-bastard grandfather whom horror can't seem to kick out of the house.

"At a recent World Horror Convention, I was on a panel with S. T. Joshi [the preeminent scholar of Lovecraft] and some others, about Lovecraft's legacy," explains the Canadian writer David Nickle who moderates the Lovecraft panel. "I was very interested in talking about Lovecraft's racism—but I really felt like I was the only one. Everybody was quite pleasant about it, but that was the message I got."

Nickle isn't alone in his guarded suspicion that horror launders Lovecraft's sins.

"Look around the room," says 2015 Stoker Award-Winner and Lovecraft panelist Usman T. Malik. "There are around 50 to 60 people in this room. I'm one of two brown faces in this crowd. There's not a single black person. This is where the problem with the dialogue about Lovecraft in the 21st century begins."

He's right. The WHC skews white and male. There is even a panel the second day out called "Three Guys with Beards Talk Show," which at first, anyway, provokes an eye-roll until I settle in to listen only to find that the subject at hand is "powerful women" in comic-book fiction.

Which is to say that horror tries, even if it's not there yet.

Authors Jonathan Maberry and Charlaine Harris. Photo by Ellen Datlow via Flickr

On Saturday night, the final full day of the convention, we are gathered for the Stokers, an awards ceremony for horror-book people that honors its winners with bronze statuettes of a gargoyled old house with a high chimney piece. Lisa Morton makes a statement.

The Horror Writers Association, which has sponsored the World Horror Convention since 2013, will be striking out on its own next year with the first iteration of Stokercon, to be held at the Flamingo Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas in May. The World Horror Convention will continue independent of the HWA and is set to take place in Provo, Utah, in late April.

Before you file this under Who Gives a Shit, consider the life of the horror convention. World Horror has never been in it alone. Readercon, Anthocon, Cthulhucon, Necronomicon, Monsterama, the World Fantasy Convention, and so many more have long given horror writers a forum for networking, paneling, drinking cocktails—cohabiting space where bizarre is the norm.

"There are only a few regularly published horror magazines," explains Ellen Datlow, the 2015 Stoker winner and editor of the acclaimed anthology Fearful Symmetries. "Usually there isn't enough fiction published in each issue to satisfy the avid reader of short horror stories. Only in anthologies can a reader find 100,000 words or more of the kind of short fiction they love all in one place."

Authors James Dorr and John Everson. Photo by Ellen Datlow via Flickr

Andrew S. Fuller, Ellen Datlow, and Linda Addison. Photo by Beth Gwinn. Courtesy of the Horror Writers Association

At the end of Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu," the bat-winged monster the adventurers are chasing by boat rises "above the unclean froth" to block the way ahead. But the heroes, like all of horror's heroes, don't stop. Cthulhu dematerializes, reforming again in the wake of the ship. "For an instant the ship was befouled by an acrid and blinding green cloud," Lovecraft writes, "...the scattered plasticity of that nameless sky-spawn was nebulously recombining in its hateful original form, whilst its distance widened every second as the [ship] gained impetus from its mounting steam." Proliferate, reform, repeat. It's horror's biochemistry.

It could be the invading cells that ride in on a vampire's bite, the ravenous spread of a zombie infection, the tentacles of an Elder God, the madness in a killer's mind—unchecked proliferation is a motif in horror. It's how the scariness evolves.

Datlow, who goes to anywhere from six to seven cons a year, says that people in horror can feel "isolated." She pauses a moment, considering something.

"My life is a floating convention of friends," she says.

Adrian Van Young is the author of The Man Who Noticed Everything (2013) and Shadows in Summerland, which is forthcoming from ChiZine Publications. Follow him on Twitter.