A Newbie Shares His Experiences of NECON 33

by Nicholas Conley

 

NEHW member Nicholas Conley holding his book, "The Cage Legacy."

NEHW member Nicholas Conley holding his book, “The Cage Legacy.” Photo by Jason Harris.

For writers, the process of actually writing a book is one of the most painfully brutal tasks imaginable.  It’s a meticulous, painstaking, heart-stopping (and often heartbreaking) procedure that truly changes a person.

See, once the plucky creative-minded person decides that he or she has aspirations to become (of all the things in the world) a writer … and once that foolish, foolish person decides to embark on the god-awful,  painful task of writing a book, well … that creative person quickly becomes wrapped up in his or her own world.  And inside that world, it often seems like the only thing you’re working toward is that last page, that final period.

Once you finish the book, you’ll be done, right?   The world will just end, won’t it?  Everything will be complete! Your life is finished!

No, not quite.

As it turns out, completing your book isn’t the end of the story.  No, not by a long shot.  Now that your work is out there – now that this collection of inner demons that you’ve been carrying around in your head is finally out in the world, and it’s available for people to read — now, it’s time to get YOURSELF out there.  It’s time to meet people, form new friendships and make new connections.  You’ve done the introverted part, and you did it well — but now, it’s time to gather up your extroverted energies and, uh … mingle.

But … mingling?  How are a bunch of socially awkward WRITERS suppose to MINGLE?

See, this is why going to fiction/horror/comic etc. conventions can be difficult, but it’s also why the good conventions are so much fun.  Conventions force all of us introverted writers, artists and other creative types to get to know each other and interact.  Above all else, these conventions force us to get out of our writing shells.

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Photo by N. Conley.

This is also why NECON (short for the Northeastern Writers Conference) is by far the most entertaining, lively and just plain entertaining convention I’ve ever had the opportunity to attend. Yes, it certainly features a smorgasbord of genre authors, artists and publishers, as well as plenty of enthusiastic genre fiction fans. But what makes NECON unique is that, really, it’s a surprisingly small, personal con; within a few hours, it’s as if you’ve known everyone there for years.

At NECON, the walls are down. It’s a highly casual affair, wherein all the big names (for example: Jack Ketchum, F. Paul Wilson, Kealan Patrick Burke, Christopher Golden, Brian Keene, etc.), small names and middling names are all on equal ground, and everyone freely interacts with one another. Everybody shares beers, trades corny jokes and gets to discuss their passions. Throughout my NECON experience, if there was one thing I heard quoted over and over again, it was this:

“Necon isn’t just a con, it’s a family.”

Yes, that’s definitely the feeling that one gets from attending. It doesn’t feel like a conference at all. Really, it just feels like a family reunion – the good kind, the kind where everyone cheerfully pokes fun at each other and catches up on what they’ve been doing for the last year.

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Photo by N. Conley.

For genre writers, the Northeastern Writers Conference in Rhode Island is something you hear a lot about, and always in highly enthusiastic tones. Put on every year by the Booth family, including founder Bob Booth (who is affectionately referred to as Papa Necon). Booth is a truly inspirational figure; currently battling lung cancer. Bob and his family’s perseverance is absolutely amazing to see.

NECON is the Booth family’s baby, and what a creation it is; most people I’ve spoken to refer to NECON as “the best con,” or “the only con I go to every year,” and now that I’ve attended, I can definitely understand why.

(Before we move on, allow me to insert an embarrassing side note and a tip: Yes, NECON is pronounced Knee-Con, not En-E-Con, Neck-on and definitely not Neeh-Cone. This seems obvious, but I’ll admit I actually made sure not to say Knee-Con out loud until I’d heard someone else say it first. Oh, the shame, the shame…)

Now, how did my weekend get started?

Okay, so I made the two-hour drive down from New Hampshire on Thursday afternoon. Immediately upon opening the doors, the welcoming nature of the whole event was made extraordinarily apparent. Once I got my badge, collected my bearings and started emptying all the empty candy/chips/highly-stereotypical-road-snack wrappers out of my bag, I was immediately greeted by Mark Angevine and artist Duncan Eagleson, both of whom did a terrific job at explaining everything, telling me the history of Camp Necon and showing me around. Seriously, I really can’t emphasize enough how great these guys were; I enjoyed many intriguing conversations with both of them throughout the weekend. From there, Mark offered me a cup of coffee – very, very strong coffee. I got the pleasure of enjoying a brief demonstration of his talented musical abilities, in particular his undeniable skill at playing the shakuhachi, an ancient Japanese end-blown flute.

From there, I met up with Scott Goudsward of the New England Horror Writers, a great guy who really does an admirable job at organizing all of these group events. There was a whole slew of NEHW members all over NECON, so all of us got to freely navigate throughout the convention. Sometimes at the table, sometimes at the panels or sometimes just walking around, you could always spot an NEHW member somewhere. Among those in attendance were Charles Day (The Legend of the Pumpkin Thief), Bracken McLeod (Mountain Home), Tracy L. Carbone (Restitution), David Price (Dead in the USA), Kristi Petersen Schoonover (Bad Apple), Michael Arruda (In the Spooklight), Eric Dimbleby (The Klinik) and Scott and Trisha Wooldrige (UnCONventional), as well as Jason Harris and Stacey Longo Harris, owners of the horror-themed Connecticut bookstore Books and Boos, which I’ll be doing a reading at on August 24.

Now, NECON is a four-day event , so naturally, there’s an enormous amount of great moments to talk about. However, since I’m far too aware of my own tendency to turn every article into a novel-length work (yes, I’m one of those guys, ugh), I’m going to force myself to whittle this down into a neat, tidy, manageable length. To accomplish this daunting task, I’m going to write out a concise list of highlights:

Rick Hautala

Rick Hautala

1. The Rick Hautala memorial.  Rick, who was famously known as “Maine’s other horror writer,”  was the author of over 30 novels and short stories; his recent death this past March was an enormous shock to many in the literary community. As a regular attendee of NECON – an event that was, according to his close friends, “Rick’s Christmas,” – most of the first night of NECON 33 was devoted to a moving tribute of the man and his work. Touching speeches were given by many of Rick’s friends and loved ones, including Christopher Golden and Rick’s wife, Holly Newstein Hautala. I’m sorry to say that I only had the opportunity to meet Rick once, back at Anthocon 2012. However, even in my limited interactions with him, Rick’s kindness and generosity were truly remarkable, especially for someone who so many young horror writers (myself included!) have looked up to for so many years; he was truly one of a kind. Rest in peace, Rick.

2. For the next highlight, going back to speeches; I can’t go without mentioning that every speech given by Mike Myers and Rio Youers was absolutely gut-bustingly hilarious. Great job, guys.

3. The Hawaiian shirt contest! Ridiculous as it might sound, this was totally one of my most anticipated events of the weekend. Since I consider myself to be something of a Hawaiian shirt connoisseur (and with that, the crowd groans), I was excited to give this a whirl. As it was, my shirt – a white and red number – placed in third, winning me a set of googly eyes. I was happy with third place, since my fellow top fivers (including the winner, Barry Dejasu) had some really terrific shirts. My personal favorite was probably Errick Nunnally’s Spider-Man number, which displayed almost all of the major Amazing Spider-Man issues of the last fifty years.

4. “That Damn Game Show,” hosted by Craig Shaw Gardner and Doug Winter. This is the sort of event that could only happen at NECON; a relentlessly silly “game show” with a head-smacking number of “simple rules.” Truly, an enormous amount of fun.

5. The artists’ reception – complete with coffee! – where everyone got to chance to spend some time exploring all of the amazing art pieces at the show, and discussing them with the artists themselves. Artists in attendance included Jill Bauman, Caniglia, Stephen Gervais and the aforementioned Duncan Eagleson. Overall, I probably spent the most time speaking with him. Duncan is an exceptionally interesting guy with a lot of great insights, as well as being a truly remarkable artistic talent; his Lovecraftian “Homo Avis” piece was absolutely fascinating.

6. …and finally, the courtyard! Why the courtyard? Because when it comes down to it, those nights in the courtyard – the long, late nights spent drinking an ocean of alcoholic beverages, chatting with friends and eating saugies – are truly where the warm, beating heart of NECON becomes most alive. The friendly, even affectionate atmosphere of the whole event is truly something special.

Photo by N. Conley.

Photo by N. Conley.

Special. That’s what NECON is, really — special.

And this, right here – right when I’m beginning to really, really enjoy reminiscing about what an amazing time NECON 33 was – is where I’m going to cut myself off, before I go into the aforementioned novel length territory. I’m already sailing ahead at almost 2,000 words, so I’d say it’s time to call it a night.

But in all seriousness, I just want to thank everyone who organized, contributed and attended NECON this year for creating an absolutely extraordinary event, one which even a “NECON newbie” like myself will never forget. Necon doesn’t just live up the hype, it surpasses it. There’s no other con like it, and I guarantee that I’m going to make a point to come back.

Chiller Theatre: Then and Now

Chiller Theatre: Then and Now

By Nick Cato

Although I’ve been going to horror film conventions since 1985, it wasn’t until 1991 when I attended my first Chiller Theatre expo, which at the time was called Son of Horrorthon.  I’m guessing Horrorthon had been the name of an earlier version?  Either way, back then the convention was held in Cherry Hill, NJ, at a small but accommodating campus.  Then they began to grow, and eventually moved to a couple of hotels in Secaucus, right across the highway from Giants Stadium, where they held court until about five years ago, when they wound up in the Hilton Parsippany in Parsippany, NJ, where I’ve just returned from their “2012 Spring Spooktacular.”  Chiller runs two conventions a year, in April and again the weekend closest to Halloween.  While the conventions run one evening and two days, I usually attend on Saturday, meet the couple of guests I’d like to meet, cruise the huge dealer’s room, and then leave.

And here’s why Chiller Theatre—at one time my favorite convention—has come to me doing an in-and-out appearance:

At the aforementioned Son of Horrorthon, while crowded, it was still under control.  I was able to meet a couple of my horror heroes (a particular fan-geek moment goes to my discussion with director Herschell Gordon Lewis and his lovely wife) and get some photos and items autographed FREE of charge.  In the early days of Chiller, guests gladly signed anything for free and happily took pictures.  The talk of the day at the 1991 convention was guest star Butch Patrick, the actor who had played Eddie Munster on the 60s sitcom, The Munsters.  People were openly complaining that he was charging $30.00 for an autograph.  I remember countless people bad-mouthing him for his audacity … and yet 21 years later, this practice has become the norm at both Chiller and Fangoria conventions.

A few years later (mid 90s) you saw guests starting to charge $5.00, then $10.00 for an autographed picture, or to sign your own item.  Most of them usually still had no problem taking pictures with their fans for free.  I didn’t have a problem shelling out the five or ten bucks to meet some of my favorite actors, directors, and FX people, but by the late 1990s, EVERYONE seemed to be charging $20.00 for an autograph … and today the norm is between $20.00 and $30.00.

Suffice it to say, what was once a great, fun time has become a way over-priced event that STILL somehow manages to draw some of the largest crowds this side of Comic Con.

But what’s more questionable than the prices are the majority of the guests: Chiller Theatre is named after an old TV show, where classic horror and sci-fi movies were played late on Saturday nights.  Chiller has since become an anything goes convention: over the past ten years there’s been more former wrestlers and non-genre TV stars than there’s been horror and sci-fi people.  There was even an F-Troop reunion a few years ago!

I’ve been saying for years that Chiller seriously needs to change their name.  While the dealer’s room is still mainly horror oriented (and as far as I’m concerned, the main reason to attend this convention), Chiller’s guest list reads like a who’s who of has-been’s and have never been’s.  “Actors” and “directors” sit at booths selling their cheap, shot-on-video productions, attempting to lure people in with scantily-clad women dressed like Vampirella ; Former wrestlers justify Mickey Rourke’s depressing convention sequence in his film The Wrestler; Former TV stars attempt to show interest in their fans (thankfully most seem interested, but there are many gems, including a certain cast member from Star Trek—charging $30.00 an autograph—who once sat there reading a book as he signed some poor schmuck’s photo); and possibly the saddest of all, self-published writers who have NO CLUE how the business is run, hocking their horribly-edited novels and wondering why no one is stopping by their table.  In fact, aside from Doug Winter and Jack Ketchum (who stopped attending Chiller a few years back), Chiller is simply NOT for horror writers.  It’s a film expo full of people looking to find horror film T-shirts, rare DVDs and theater posters.

I’m often asked, “Why do you still attend?”  There are two reasons: the dealer’s room and the one or two guests they usually have on hand who I find interesting.  As mentioned, Chiller’s dealer room is one of the largest and best of any film convention I know of.  There’s an endless array of horror-related merchandise that anyone can spend an entire weekend browsing through.

Nick Cato with actress Luciana Paluzzi from the 007 classic Thunderball and the the scifi classic The Green Slime.

At the latest Spring Spooktacular, I found a couple or films I had been hunting down for some time now, and there were two guests I was interested in meeting.  One was Luciana Paluzzi, the beautiful actress who starred in the 007 classic Thunderball as well as the sci-fi classic The Green Slime.  She was every bit as classy as her on-screen personas suggested. And when she found out I was a fellow Italian, she graciously signed a picture of herself for me in Italian.  It’s personal little things like this that separate the thankful guests from the couldn’t-be-bothered types.  Also on hand was actor Laurence Harvey, star of the controversial The Human Centipede 2.  Not only was he a soft-spoken English gent, he had no problem signing anything you wanted, and even hammed it up by donning the bloody lab coat he had worn in the film.  You’d never believe a man this nice could star in such a depraved film!  It’s rare meetings like this that still make Chiller worth fighting your way through the over-priced crowds.

Nick Cato with actor Laurence Harvey from The Human Centipede 2.

At this particular Chiller, the largest line was to meet actor Norman Reedus, who was there as part of a Boondock Saints reunion, and of course to represent The Walking Dead.  I can’t remember the last time I saw girls walking around with autographs so taken aback by someone … you’d think the Beatles were doing a reunion show.

Being a fan of the low-budget stuff, you get to meet the smaller stars a lot quicker as they rarely have long waits to see them.  Of course there are exceptions: the first time Ken Foree from the original Dawn of the Dead appeared, I think I waited close to 40 minutes to meet him. But the wait was well worth it and I’ve since had the pleasure of meeting him several more times and have even exchanged several emails.

The glory days of Chiller Theater are long gone.  It has become an over-crowded, over-priced convention that is more of a nostalgia-fest than a horror con.  But as long as they keep their amazing dealer room, and the one or two genre guests who grab my interest, I’ll probably continue to attend, even if it’s only to pop-in for a few hours during one of the three days. That is, until every guest jumps on the current trend of “photo ops,” where you have to pre-pay $50.00 to meet with a particular guest in a private room to have your picture taken with them by a pro photographer.  Thankfully only a few of the bigger guests have been doing this, but if it becomes widespread there’s a good chance it will mean the end of Chiller.

Then again, everyone said the same thing in 1991 when Eddie Munster started asking money for his signature …