Monday, July 25, 2022

NECON 40: It Was the Best of Times...

Old Dude and Joe Lansdale his own self

Twenty-six years. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve attended Necon, the official “summer camp for horror writers.” During the Deathrealm days —1987–1997 — Necon was foremost among my annual conventions of choice, and I missed a scant few during that decade. In those years, Necon was held primarily at Roger Williams College in Bristol, RI (once, I believe, Bryant College, in Smithfield, RI, hosted the con), in what was considered “primitive” surroundings: fairly rank college dormitories, bathrooms full of slugs and bugs, cafeteria food as our daily fare, a dearth of air conditioning... you know, the somewhat spartan environment of most college campuses. But those were some of the best con days I’ve ever experienced, and — almost amazingly — Necon is still going strong, although COVID-19 put the kibosh on it these past couple of years.

Thursday, July 21, 2022
Thankfully, this year, Necon 40 went off as planned, and Brugger and I took off to be there. We headed out before the ass-crack of dawn on Thursday, 7/21, from Piedmont Triad International airport. Happily, our Delta Airlines flights (GSO to LGA to BOS) went without a hitch (not so our American Airlines return flight). At the airport, we met friend Samaire Wynne, of Black Raven Books; picked up a rental car; and — after a brief stop for some staple items — made our way to the Umass (University of Massachusetts) Lowell Inn & Conference Center, in Lowell, MA, about 45 minutes out of Boston.

We had been hoping that, once settled in the traditionally temperate New England climes, we might find relief from the oppressive heat that has been roasting us here in the Southeast. Nope. Holy shit, it was even hotter there than down here! Thank Yog the hotel innards maintained a generally comfortable temperature; had we been ensconced at Roger Williams, we’d have all been baked into some kind of reeking horror writer soufflĂ©.

Over the course of the afternoon, the influx of horror writers, artists, and aficionados picked up steam. Simply by way of the fact I have been unable to attend many conventions over the past couple of decades, many, many of the regular Necon campers were unfamiliar to me, other than by way of social media. Still, I soon began to see friends and familiar faces from those treasured days of yore: P.D. Cacek, Nicholas Kaufmann, Darrell Schweitzer, Craig Shaw Gardner, James A. MooreJoe R. Lansdale, and others. Before things got rolling too fast and far, I decided to go after a nearby geocache, at which point I ran into Tom “Almost the Nicest Guy in Horror” Deady (see below), whom I’d met for the first time at Scares That Care in Williamsburg, VA, in 2019. He was out running an errand, but we did spend a few minutes in the oppressive heat shooting some enjoyable shit. Necon 40 was off to an excellent start.

Social media has certainly played a role in facilitating friendships, and, after returning from geocaching, I was thrilled to finally meet Tony The Nicest Guy in HorrorTremblay, whom I’ve known online for something like a couple of decades. He offered me a cigar, which I accepted since, at one time, I was known to partake semi-regularly of these naughty things. It was really good. We didn’t spend too much time with this first meeting of the minds, but we rightly figured we would see each other aplenty over the course of the long weekend. As evening fell, the temperature finally dropped to merely sweltering, so a good many campers gathered outdoors. Some excellent company by way of  Elizabeth Blue, Mike Burke, Mike DeadyKristin DearbornShannon GrantOgmios Lieberman, Thad LinsonThom LyonsPaul McMahon, Michael PhillipsWicker Stone (a.k.a. Steven LaCroix), and others added to the quality mix.

After a so-so buffet dinner in the inn’s restaurant, Brugger, Samaire, and I made our way to the quarters of the nefarious Richard Dansky, whom I had met in the flesh for the first time at my Fugue Devil: Resurgence book release party here in Greensboro back in early June. Like a number of writerly types, Richard is a connoisseur of scotch, so we hung out with him, as well as several others who dropped in, to sample a few high-end brands. It is safe to say that these were the best examples of scotch I’ve ever tasted, and I’d love to try more of them (although my budget and I will never come to a satisfactory agreement on this).

We stayed up till the wee hours, leaving a first and very satisfying day of Necon behind us.
The view from our room window
And so it begins. Checked in, badged up, and ready to wreak havoc.
The scotch begins to flow, with Richard Dansky, Mike Phillips, Old Dude, and Samaire Wynne.
Brugger, of course, is behind the camera.
You might expect some of the nice would rub off from Tony “The Nicest Guy in Horror” Tremblay,
but you would be wrong. 
Friday, July 22, 2022
Morning came early, for I had to set up the dealer table reserved for Black Raven Books in the dealers’ room. I had expected Samaire to bring some of her own books to sell, but she had not, so I set out not only copies of Fugue Devil: Resurgence but a few of Blue Devil Island, The Monarchs, all my Ameri-Scares titles, and a handful of issues of Deathrealm (one of which sold before I had even finished setting up the table). Over the course of the weekend, I moved the majority of the books I had brought with me; not that this lightened my load for the trip home because, for every book I sold, I bought at least one from some other writer or vendor.

After a quick lunch, Brugger and I took a walk in the heat, mainly to do a little sightseeing and hunt a nearby geocache. We ended up walking a fair distance, but we returned to the hotel before heat exhaustion overcame us.

At 4:00 p.m., I played moderator on a panel called “Golden Memories: What It Was Like to Work During the 80s/90s Horror Boom.” Until I arrived at Necon, I was under the impression someone else had been designated as moderator, but... nope. I was able to make a few quick notes of things I thought worthy of presenting to the panelists — Lori Perkins, Craig Shaw Gardner, Darrell Schweitzer, Melissa Ann Singer, and Joe Lansdale. All in all, it went pretty well, despite my being only marginally prepared. Now, I could talk all day about my experiences during those years but that’s not the moderator’s job, and who’d want to hear all that anyway? Happily, as with most good panels, the discussion took on a life of its own; as it was, I kind of had to pull the plug on it to keep things from running too long.

I was glad to get that behind me, and from that point on, I was able to relax a bit more. Worked in some quality time with new and old friends, including Patrick FreivaldMarianne HalbertNick KaufmannJohn Langan, Hansi OppenheimerCat Scully, and many more. Although our meals at the conference center were pre-paid, Ms. B. and I decided to walk to a nearby Asian restaurant, called Blue Taleh, just to find a bit of variety. I can’t say it was the world’s best Thai food; on the other hand, it was much, much better than eating dirt. Afterward, we enjoyed a couple of refreshing beverages at a nearby joint called Trend.

Once again, Rich Dansky’s room opened for scotch-related business. I happily partook of the available fare and contributed what I hope was a decent offering to the stock. Drink-wise, especially since Brugger and I had gone out and about, my consumption for the evening ended up being fairly substantial. However, I drank slowly and spaced out the drinks so I ended up not getting shitfaced. It’s fair to say that not everyone in the place could make that claim. Haha.
The “Golden Years” panel, starring Lori Perkins, Craig Shaw Gardner, Darrell Schweitzer, Old Dude, Melissa Ann Singer, and Joe Lansdale
Nick Kaufmann and John Langan plotting to rock.
John Foster and Patrick appear pleasant yet menacing.
Scotch... and so much else... flows at Casa de Dansky. 

Saturday, July 23, 2022
John “Mac” McIlveen mugs for the camera

Once again, I was up and at ’em early to man the dealers’ room. Somewhat to my surprise, Samaire ended up taking the day to handle other business elsewhere, so I held down the fort as capably as this old man can. Book sales were a bit slower than on Friday, but still respectable. Again, midday, Brugger and I went for a longish walk, I to hunt geocaches, she to visit a nearby art supply store that had caught her interest. In the end, we put in a full four miles (in fact, we averaged four miles of walking each day at the con); however, this day’s heat damn near did us in. Before the dealers’ room closed, I called it a day and crashed for a spell in our room.

Once again, we opted out of dinner at the hotel and walked to a nearby establishment called Warp & Weft (a reference to Lowell’s once-prevalent textile industry). She found the best burger she’d had for ages, and I killed a sizable turkey burger, which probably wasn’t as good as her Angus cow, but I did find it bloody satisfying. Well, it was bird, so it really wasn’t all that bloody. Good fries too.

No scotch room for us on Saturday night, as the con events included “All Hail the Popcorn King,” a lovely and hysterically fun documentary about Joe Lansdale. Then... for me, probably the highlight of the evening, if not the con as a whole: a nice long sit-down with Ms. B. and Tony Tremblay, which was simply among the best, most meaningful conversations with one of my peers I can remember. We talked life, love, writing, books, business... lord have mercy, to me it meant the world. After a time, we broke for the last of the evening’s official events: the traditional “Saugy” roast — hot dogs aplenty — and still more great conversations with several other distinguished attendees, such as Peter Dudar, Sephera Giron, Scott Goudsward, Tim Huguenin, Michelle Renee Lane, John MacMcIlveen, Erick Nunnally, Charles Rutledge, L.L. Soares, and many more.
Scott Goudsward and Jack Cullen peeking out from a wee portion of their wares
Lord knows how many cups of coffee at this point.
Sunday, July 24, 2022
Ms. B. doing her best Fugue Devil impression

Our flight out wasn’t till later in the afternoon, which meant we didn’t have to get up at the ass-crack of dawn to leave. Still, I got up and going promptly for the 9:00 a.m. opening of the dealers’ room. Lo and behold, Samaire was back from her excursion, and we quickly sold a few more books. At 11:00 a.m. we attended the traditional Necon Town Hall Meeting, which consisted primarily of con business, including a substantive input session from attendees, particularly the newbies. Afterward, Samaire and I spent several minutes yakking with the legendary Linda Addison. Shortly afterward, I ran into Bracken McLeod, whom I’d not had much chance to interact with. We managed a very nice little visit.

In all, this long weekend was a memorable, invigorating experience, considering I haven’t been to Necon since the dawn of man. One of the things I mentioned in the town hall meeting was that so many of the giants in the field who were the heart and soul of Necon (“back in my day!”) — such as Charlie Grant, Doug Winter, Rick Hautala, and Dennis Etchison — are no longer with us. I figure the current generation has some mighty big shoes to fill... and my thought was that they have, so far, done an admirable job of it. Since the earliest of Necon days, it has evolved into an altogether different animal, with just enough common threads to the past to still feel like — for me — a long-awaited homecoming. My hat is off to everyone who has worked like hell to make Necon a long-running and respected tradition in our chosen field of endeavor.

Immediately after the meeting, it was time for us to break down the dealers’ room, pack up, and hit the road. It was at that point, that things (not just us) kind of went south.

Samaire rode with us to the Boston Logan Airport, though she was on a different flight back home. It was only when we arrived at the airport that I realized I hadn’t brought everything I had come with from the conference center. This was a rather heart-stopping moment. A call to the hotel (which kept me on hold for a disturbingly long spell) at least gives me some reassurance that this issue can be solved more or less painlessly. One can hope.

But that was just the beginning. We headed out on American Airlines on time — 4:30 p.m. — bound for Reagan National in DC. Just as we were leaving, I got a text that our connecting flight from DCA to GSO was delayed about an hour. That would have been no big deal since it gave us time to have a leisurely dinner and some drinks. However, over the course of the afternoon, I received no less than 13 texts indicating our flight time was delayed, changed back, delayed further, and on and on. As it turned out, we didn’t even have a plane to board until almost 11:00 p.m. Then we had to wait half an hour for a ground crew to push us back from the gate. Then we apparently received a flight plan that “didn’t work,” so a new one had to be created and filed. Finally, we got off the ground and made the 45-minute flight to Greensboro with no complications.

Until we landed, a little after midnight.

As we were taxiing to the gate, the pilot informed us that, due to another plane suffering some mechanical mishap, we had no ground crew to man our designated gate. So, we had another half hour of waiting on board the plane. So close, and yet so far...

Eventually, somebody pushed some stairs up to the main cabin door. Thus, we disembarked, trekked across the tarmac, and headed to the baggage claim. Here, we found a couple hundred people crowded around the baggage carousel — passengers, we discovered, from two earlier flights, whose baggage had yet to appear. They had been waiting for over an hour, with nary a word from the airline about the hold-up. Only a single American Airlines employee could be found in the baggage claim office, and she didn’t seem particularly motivated to address the problem in any fashion. For the next hour or so, the conveyer kept circling, so we saw the same three bags coming around time after time after time.

By 1:30 a.m., tempers were beginning to flare, particularly among those who had been waiting far longer than we had. One woman went pounding furiously on the door to the handling area, to no avail. One young fellow mounted the conveyor and disappeared through the portal to the handling area. Brugger and I were kind of hoping, just for our amusement, to see him circle back through, along with those three presumably abandoned bags, but we never did. For all we know, he may have ended up in baggage claim jail, although I don’t think there was anyone back there to lock him away.

At 1:45 a.m. a couple of baggage handlers arrived on the scene and, 20 minutes later, a few bags began to appear on the conveyor. At last — at 2:15 a.m., precisely 13 hours after we left the UMass Inn & Conference Center — our checked bag emerged, thankfully in good condition. We arrived home at 2:45 a.m. and dropped into bed, wholly exhausted, around 3:15 a.m.

The thing about all this is, to my mind, the AA rep simply coming out to explain the situation, to offer some possible solution should our bags not appear at all before dawn or some such, anything to maintain a semblance of customer service would have gone a long way. It was not so much the obvious staffing shortage as the total silence from anyone at the airline that bred a red-hot cauldron of simmering acrimony.

So, it was a weird and exasperating conclusion to an otherwise wonderful convention experience. I can hardly express how great it felt to hang with dozens of old friends I hadn’t seen in years as well as to meet a whole new crew of creative souls I have only known — or known of — by way of social media. As it stands, I am determined to make attending Necon an annual priority.

I am already very much looking forward to Necon 41.

For your amusement, here are screenshots of the endless stream of texts I received from American Airlines regarding flight changes.*
*Today, thanks to my polite but very firm letter of dissatisfaction to AA, I did receive a $50 voucher to apply to the cost of a plane ticket, good for one year. To me, the money is no big deal. It’s the principle of the breakdown of even a reasonable semblance of customer service at the airport.

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