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FantasyCon 2011

So, on September 30, my wife and I set out for Brighton in order to attend the event that I (along with many others) have been looking forward to for the past twelve months – FantasyCon 2011, a three-day get-together of readers, writers, editors and publishers in a hotel, to celebrate everything to do with genre. And over those three days there were triumphs, there were disappointments and there was controversy – but more of that later.

Within half an hour of my arrival at the Royal Albion Hotel, situated on the seafront, I was sitting on the stage on my very first panel discussion, along with Elizabeth and Deirdre Counihan, and moderator Adrian Chamberlin (the fifth panel member, Trevor Denyer, was unable to attend due to unforeseen circumstances). For me, this was definitely a personal triumph, as I’ve never been asked to do anything like this before, and it went very well, in my opinion, certainly judging by some of the comments I received afterwards. I am certainly looking forward to doing something similar in the future… if they’ll have me, that is! Another personal triumph, albeit a minor one in the scheme of things, was seeing the postcards I had produced advertising Spectral in everyone’s goodie bags, given out to all attendees who’d bought convention memberships. This was the first year I had attended in my capacity as a publisher and seeing those postcards gave me a small thrill.

Then it was back down to the panel room, to the ‘Has Crossover Overtaken Genre?’ panel, chaired by Sarah Pinborough and featuring panellists Gary McMahon, Mike Carey, Steve Mosby and Suzanne MacLeod. If nothing else, it bore testament to the nature of the fluidity of genre writing, that elements of each are borrowed from the other quite freely and that this is all to the good of the scene. Plus, I am of the opinion that this kind of cross-fertilisation has gone on for millennia, right from the moment there were storytellers. In that sense, then, I suppose one could say that crossovers are merely carrying on a venerable tradition.

And so on to Friday evening and the Spectral Press showcase reading, featuring Gary McMahon and Simon Kurt Unsworth. Gary read from the novel he’s currently working on, The Quiet Room, which is essentially an expansion of the theme in the Spectral chapbook What They Hear in the Dark – excellently thrilling stuff, with that trademark McMahon unrelenting grimness that we’ve all come to love so much. Following that was Simon’s Borough Station, a spooky tale of an Underground station and a lift going down – spooky, but not without flashes of dark humour. This tale will be appearing in SKU’s Spectral Signature Edition in 2013.

Saturday evening however, was truly spectacular, simply because Teatro Proberto, aka John Llewellyn Probert and his lovely wife Kate, treated us to a diversion of the most comedic and highly entertaining kind – a pantomimic reimagining of the weirdest of 70s British horror movies, The Blood on Satan’s Claw. It was, quite simply, one of the funniest things I’d seen in a long time, and the two of them played all their parts to perfection. There was much enthusiastic audience participation, riffing off all the usual traditions and tropes of pantomime. I sincerely hope that something similar will be on the programme next year as well. That was followed by a Burlesque, which was in turn followed by another play by Teatro Proberto, this time, Corruption. Liz and I left during the Burlesque, mainly because we were both tired and needed an early night, although most went on to the disco hosted by DJ Sarah P.

I spent the rest of the weekend chatting to people in the bar area or browsing through the Dealer’s Room. The crowds at these particular events tend to be very warm and friendly, and very inclusive – this was my wife’s first ever con and, before getting there, she was more than a bit apprehensive as to what it would be like. Thankfully, she had a thoroughly enjoyable time of it, and is already looking forward to going to next year’s FantasyCon. Additionally, it was a time to catch up with old friends (admittedly, and sadly, there were more than a few I didn’t get the opportunity to talk to) and also to make new friends – and there were plenty of the latter.

Anyway, in my ‘downtime’, I managed to get hold of a few books to add to my collection in the Dealer’s Room, specifically Ramsey Campbell’s Dark Companions and Paul Finch’s Sparrowhawk. I’ve been meaning to get more Campbell books for a while: I remember reading his Incarnate many years ago, and thinking what a great writer he was. Sparrowhawk I looked out for in particular, as Paul told me it was a Victorian-style ghost story, which I am an absolute sucker for. My main disappointment was not being able to buy quite as many tomes as I’d promised myself, although I did manage to get a couple extra while visiting a second-hand bookshop in town on the Monday.

As noted above, I spent most of the event in the main seating area, just talking and nattering about books in particular and genre in general. This is one of the strengths of the event – the coming together of people bound by a common love of fiction and books. As I mentioned earlier, the attendees were extremely friendly and were all, without exception, incredibly inclusive (however, there was one person who pissed me off on the Sunday afternoon, with his know-it-all attitude and dismissive stances – I might tell you about him one day). But Liz especially felt welcome, so much so that she instantly felt like a participant rather than an outsider.

Now, remember I mentioned some controversy in my opening paragraph? That came as a consequence of the Award Ceremony results, which took place on Sunday afternoon after the banquet. I won’t concern myself on commenting on the quality or otherwise of the winners (and let me assure you, I thought there were some worthy winners, plus there were some books I hadn’t read so I can’t really say anything regarding their merits), but it appeared that the choices of some of the award winners left many with a sour taste in their mouths. This is not a fault of the winners – they won simply because they were voted for by the BfS membership. That isn’t the issue here – it’s the system itself. There were some excellent nominees put up this year, but the general feeling I got after the conclusion of the ceremony was that of disquiet and disgruntlement. I am always loath to get involved in any kind of controversy, simply because I’m not really engineered to participate in such things, but I have to agree with the general sentiment expressed by those I talked to afterwards. But, like Amanda Rutter of the Floor-to-Ceiling Books blog intimated, this may be the wake-up call needed to persuade the Awards Committee to look at alternative systems. That could only be a good thing, in my opinion.

I wanted to see a balanced set of winners, from both the mainstream and the small-press – each particular arena has something valid to offer. This year, unlike the last, was heavily and almost exclusively weighted toward the small-press. Some may see this as a good thing, elevating and promoting the quality now part and parcel of the small-press scene – but it isn’t the whole picture. There were some absolutely stunning mainstream nominees this year whose work was overshadowed by the triumph of the smaller concerns. I am small-press myself, but I recognise that it’s the mainstream that inspires many to start writing in the first place. There was very little recognition of that aspect of professional publishing beyond the nominations. This is an issue that desperately needs to be addressed in time for next year’s event.

This has already had some negative fallout: in view of the reaction, Sam Stone, winner of the August Derleth Award for Best Novel with Demon Dance, has decided to hand back her award. She shouldn’t really have to do this because, whatever people actually think of the book, it still remains the fact that it was voted the winner. Her gesture is entirely admirable, but unnecessary – let’s hope, instead, that this controversy has a deeper and more lasting effect in that it gives the Committee an inescapable reason for overhauling the voting system. That would be a good start.

Anyway, I want to end this on a high note – I would like to publicly thank Paul Kane, Marie O’Regan and Alex Davis, who ably organised the whole event, plus Stephen Jones for stepping in when Alex couldn’t attend due to the arrival of his and his wife’s new baby. I would also like to thank all the red-shirts for helping to make things run so smoothly all weekend. I would also like to thank ALL the brilliant friends, both old and new, for welcoming Liz so fully into the fold and for making the event such a fantastic success! Last, but certainly not least, much gratitude is extended to Mike Powell, who graciously put us up for the whole weekend and fed us (his scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and parmesan on toast was legendary).

All I can say in conclusion is: roll on next year, wherever FCon happens to find itself!


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