Friday, October 7, 2016

Con-Volution 2016 Report

Con-Volution is a medium sized (700 ish members) convention in the Bay Area. I first attended a
couple of years ago and was pleased to be invited to return. This year’s theme was “Monsters,” so many of the panels and other events centered around Things That Go Bump in the Night, creepy-crawlies, and the like, a fitting greeting to October.

I arrived in time to attend part of “An Aviary of Beasties,” moderated by Juliette Wade and held in the parlor of a hotel suite, making it cozy and very difficult to find. Nevertheless, the small space was filled, and as I walked in, Juliette was discussing the difference between the wings of a bat and a pterodactyl. Panelists shared myths of flying creatures from many cultures. In wandered one of the residents-in-costume, wearing a marvelous kirin head, whose timing made a perfect introduction to tales about that creature.

My first panel was “Authors: Going to that Dark Place,” with horror author Fred Wiehe, Margaret McGaffey Fisk, Loren Rhoads, and Guest of Honor Ann Bishop. We approached the relationship between authors and “that dark place” from two directions. One involved delving into our own nightmares and using them to fuel our stories, and the stories then become cathartic or therapeutic in lessening the hold those catastrophes have over our lives and (hopefully) those of our readers. I was reminded of Octavia Butler saying she took her worst night mares and put them down on paper. This is also what I did in a number of stories (“Rite of Vengeance,” “Beneath the Skin,” “Crooked Corn”) following the murder of my mother, and also used for my hero’s journey in The Seven Petaled Shield. Others take another approach, which is to start with the story and find the darkness within ourselves to give it depth and power. Ann Bishop observed that horror stories are like a journey through a spooky forest with various companions that may survive or not, but we have faith that someone will make it through. “There is no light without darkness,” Fred Wiehe pointed out. Does the dark keep us sane?

For “How Cthulu Became Cuddly,” I was joined by Artist Guest of Honor Lee Moyer, Laurel Anne Hill, and Jennifer Carson.
We began with Lovecraft himself and his circle of followers, as well as authors who followed, who borrowed his mythos, sometimes made it their own and imbuing it with their own interpretive vision. Charles Stross’s “Laundry Files” and the “Lizzie Borden” books of Cherie Priest continue that tradition today. Laurel Anne Hill had brought a soft Cthulu hand puppet, which contributed its own nonverbal commentary, and we discussed the plushification of “nameless horror.” Lee Moyer shared that he had been on a panel with the same topic, where many held the vehement opinion that domesticating or making-cute the monsters that once terrified us is an unacceptable travesty. No one on this panel or audience agreed: we loved the various “takes” on The Elder Gods, vampires, and the like, pointing out that there is no dearth of things to be afraid of in today’s world. Someone—I think it was Moyer—pointed out how the drawings of Charles Addams shifted the view of vampire from an incomprehensible evil to a creature who was once human. Moyer recommended the HBO series Cast a Deadly Spell and the comic book series Zenith.

I attended a wonderful discussion on “Fear of the Other” with Juliette Wade, Lillian Csernica, Gregg Castro, Garrett Calcaterra, and Sumiko Saulson. Recently, much attention has been devoted to how to write respectfully and realistically about people who are different from you (race, religion, gender, ability, etc.), and this panel focused specifically on how we fear or don’t fear those “others.” It was particularly good to hear minority voices in the discussion.

Sunday morning (10 am) is not the most popular time to hold a panel, so I was pleasantly surprised to find a roomful of attendees for the topic I moderated on “Writing in Someone Else’s Universe.” The room was a “boardroom,” a big oval table with executive chairs around it. This limited the number of people in the circle, but was perfect once things got going. Co-panelists Valerie Estelle Frankel and Sarah Stegall helped get the discussion off to a lively start. We talked about the different ways you might end up creating stories in a world someone else devised. You might use a public domain world and characters (as many have done with Lovecraft’s mythos—a wonderful way of tying in to earlier panels—or Sherlock Holmes or the many Jane Austen mashups). You might be part of a senior/junior author collaboration, with the senior author creator supervising the work. Shared worlds like Wild Cards use a bible to ensure continuity. Parody and satire open possibilities for works still under copyright under the “fair usage” rules. Finally, there is fanfic and its cousins, media tie-ins and novelizations. Here is where the “audience” and “panelist” divisions broke down in a wonderful fashion. We all had different relationships to fanfic (from readers only to this-is-the-only-thing-I-write, to deep roots in media tie-ins to both original and derivative writing. In addition, Valerie Frankel has written a significant number of nonfiction treatises on various worlds. As moderator, I felt comfortable letting the conversation bounce around to whoever had interesting things to contribute, and as a result, enthusiasm soared, fueled by a shared love of our common fan subjects. There was not a smidgeon of “my favorite is better than yours” (Star Trek vs. Star Wars); instead, we all got to appreciate what we have loved and discover new worlds to explore. It was a wonderful way to end the convention, with such a strong reminder of how we all got here and gratitude to the creators of the worlds and characters that have enriched our lives.

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