NecronomiCon 2017: The Stars Are Right, and a Little Less Male and White

Greetings friends on the Borderland! Your host has recently had the privilege of attending her first ever NecronomiCon, a bi-yearly convention in Providence, RI, honoring all things weird horror and H.P. Lovecraft. It’s a bit shocking that I’d not been previously, considering my deep appreciation for (um… obsession with?) weird literature. The stars, it seems, were finally right.

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The Old Gent outside the gates of Brown University

I’m feeling energized by my experience there, because instead of finding only the reanimated corpse of the weird horror genre on display, with old ideas rehashed and bickered over by aged nerds (not that there’s anything wrong with aged nerds—I’m not far off myself), I instead encountered something that is vital, changing, and adapting. (Side note: yes, the title of this blog is in part a reference to William Hope Hodgson’s horror classic The House on the Borderland).

A big theme for me, and my main takeaway, was new and alternate voices in weird horror. A big assumption (and I don’t want to harp on it) is that horror is, like a lot of things, predominantly white and male. I judge stories and ideas on their own merit, and so many of my favorite books are by people who are both of those things, but it’s exciting to see things shifting and transmogrifying. There did seem to be something in the air (or the stars, if you prefer) at the Con. Some highlights:

First, women. I’ve heard it again and again: “there’s not that many women writing horror.” I was standing in front of a merch table in the vendor hall and overheard a guy marveling over the fact that there was a collection of stories by women sitting there, because, according to him, “not that many” choose to dabble in the weird.

I call bullshit on this idea. First of all, female writers have always been involved in the horror genre. I remember picking up a copy of Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories when I was in grade school. In the introduction, Dahl states that while vetting stories he was surprised to note that early in the process most of the good ones were by women, though in the end he ended up with a book that’s about 50/50 between the genders. And let’s not forget the mother of psychological horror, the great Shirley Jackson (there was also a panel dedicated to her). And grandmothers of horror like Mary Shelley and Anne Radcliffe.

I won’t say that women were totally evenly represented at the Con, but they were very well represented, both in the crowd and on the panels. I personally came away with a big list of new writers to check out, either because of female panelists talking about their own work or because of panelists mentioning other writers. I just picked up collections by Livia Llewellyn and Nadia Bulkin. And Grady Hendrix, who makes magic out of everything he touches, convinced me to read some V. C. Andrews by describing her fraught and unusual life in his freaking AWESOME Paperbacks from Hell talk.

What about people who aren’t white? I’m not gonna lie. It was a pretty white convention. I was excited that Nnedi Okarafor, the American-born daughter of Nigerian parents and winner of the 2011 World Fantasy Award, was there. I’m halfway through her book Who Fears Death and liking it so far. This year’s con and the one before it both featured panels on Lovecraft and race (if anyone is not aware that Lovecraft was racist, I invite you to Google it for yourself. I also invite you to weigh whether this justifies writing off his entire body of work, particularly considering that his attitudes started changing a bit once he escaped his bizarre and cloistered upbringing. Anyway, the fact that I went to NecronomiCon at all shows where I fall). My hope is that as the discussion continues and the horror community changes, we will see more and more diversity of voices (also worth noting: Victor La Valle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is one of my new favorite all time books).

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Cultists at the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast. Ia! Ia!

Finally, there was the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast. The uninitiated are likely asking themselves “What the hell is that?” It’s a long-running tradition where fans gather for a breakfast spread, and various high priests deliver sermons invoking the Old Ones. I found it surprisingly funny—but maybe only if you’re enough of a fan to get the jokes. It was also surprisingly political. One priest, in the midst of calling on the Old Ones to come and sow chaos on earth, also took the opportunity to say “Oh, and fuck Nazis.” (The Con coming on the heels of the violence in Charlottesville. There’s bad chaos where racists clash with counter-protestors. And there’s good chaos where the Elder Gods reestablish dominance over the earth. See?).

My favorite part was when a second priest delivered a talk on the illusion of Purity. At first, I expected an admonition not to cling to the idea that Lovecraft’s legacy can only be honored in a certain way, and that the weird is only for certain types of writers, certain types of storytellers, certain types of voices. And it did begin that way. But then the talk broadened into a commentary on the state of our country right now, tying the smaller concern into the larger one. Pretty sophisticated stuff for a horror con. I’m not as optimistic about the state of the world as I am about the state of horror storytelling, but the latter (paradoxically) provides me with a bit of light in the darkness.

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The good kind of chaos!

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