I've managed to miss the Merrimack Valley Halloween Book Festival every time it’s happened thus far, so when my friend Dennis asked me if I wanted to go to Christopher Golden’s one-off event in celebration of the upcoming release of his latest book, I said heck yes!
The event started on Thursday and ran through Saturday, the day we were able to go. It was a blast! Lowkey, with a single-track speaker schedule, so it was pretty easy to make decisions about what to do.
On arrival we almost immediately got to meet author Brian Keene, who was running the event – he kindly signed a stack of paperbacks that Dennis had brought with him.
We arrived in time for the signing with Owen King and Joe Hill, at which point I had to kick myself for not bringing my copy of The Curator, Owen’s latest book, which is sitting right on my bedside table. D’oh! However, he was nice enough to sign the back of my name badge (hooray for creative problem solving!), so that will go in as my bookmark in his book.
Once upon a time, Joe Hill visited my shop when the International Cryptozoology Museum was in its first public location, in the back room attached to my shop space, but unfortunately that was on one of the days when it was closed and locked up. (That was the only bad part of having the museum there – having to disappoint people! Especially Joe Hill!!! Gahhhhh….)
Next we went to the panel discussion titled “My Favorite Exorcism.” Present (shown above, L-R) were authors Emily Hughes, Ronald Malfi, Philip Fracassi, Tanya Pell, Rebecca Rowland, Vaughn Beckford, Cat Scully (moderator), and Christopher Golden.
Possession and exorcism are themes that have fascinated and horrified those who know of them. They are fruitful fodder for horror writers, and this panel examined some of the reasons why. Part of what feeds this creative fire are the classification systems and rituals that are built up around them in the lore of the Catholic Church.
|[Right] Christopher Golden
Stages of possession were discussed briefly, the names evocative – infestation, oppression, obsession, possession. The addition of non-Western traditions to the known lore increases its potential. While Americans have become fairly well-versed in demonic exorcism due to a plethora of pop-culture exposure points, there are other types, and many analogues that can be utilized by writers. For example, in some Eastern traditions, places themselves have an attached demon or spirit that can possess you and cause you trouble.
Self-contained possession is another applicable theme, when a part of your existing personality rears up and refuses to be submerged again – sometimes with an effect that is in some ways liberating, as it turns out (The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was mentioned, as well as the short piece “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin). Christopher Golden mentioned John Carpenter’s The Thing as a favorite non-demonic possession flick, and Denzel Washington’s Fallen.
What makes possession so frightening? The general consensus was loss of control, although other themes pluck our nerves – “it could be anybody” – how do you tell a person is possessed? It’s not always immediately apparent, especially in The Thing. This is another aspect of the phenomena that lends itself to building tension in storytelling.
Pregnancy can be seen as possession, people can be possessed by uncontrollable rage, or unacceptable behavior.
Possession doesn’t always mean complete loss of agency, either. In Philip Fracassi’s excellent The Boys in the Valley (Tor Nightfire, 2023), the boys who have been infested with the evil were still making their own decisions, but their existing attitudes and flaws were magnified under the evil’s influence. The gloves were off.
Another facet is complicity, such as experienced by communities who found themselves under Nazi command in WWII. Will you become a collaborator, or fight and likely die?
Vaughn Beckford talked about the effect of defamiliarization – when you are a child (or adult) and something happens which causes your world, previously safe and familiar, to suddenly be yanked out from under your feet, leaving you alone in a strange and unfriendly environment, with no way to get back to where you were before. Many of us have felt that way in our daily lives, so it is easy to for us to identify with a victim of possession feeling that same thing, only magnified a million times more.
Cat Scully mentioned another favorite example in the Evil Dead movies. For her, Ash’s fight to overcome his possession stood tall as an analogue for overcoming fear and persevering. Ronald Malfi recommended we look up a 7-part article called “The Haunted Boy” about Blatty’s experiences researching and writing The Exorcist, based on a real world possession case. Tanya Pell talked a little bit about living with Type 2 narcolepsy, which in her experience includes sleep paralysis and associated nighttime hallucinations, which invoke a physical response as though the sufferer is actually fighting off a danger.
Philip Fracassi mentioned the ‘80s film The Hidden (yes! I was hoping someone would) as another example of non-demonic possession. Vaughn threw the Chucky film franchise into the ring (another great example!). Cat Scully highly recommended the Thai film The Medium, and another called The Wailing, and The Incantation, too. Christopher Golden added When Evil Lurks and Talk to Me. He talked about how pure evil is a tremendous concept, evil being “quantifiable in the way a black hole is dark.”
The “restored” version of John Carpenter’s Halloween was discussed, which seemed as though it hinted that the child (and eventually man) that was Michael Myers was being possessed by something “other.” Likewise the hints given in the tagline of Night of the Living Dead – “When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” – might be read to indicate that the zombies were not being animated by their original selves. Were they demon-ridden instead, since they were coming from Hell?
During the audience Q&A following, adolescence as a seeming possessed state was discussed. Tanya Pell recommended the YA book The Good Demon. Emily Hughes reminded the audience that hormones are a possessing force! Christopher Golden talked about the massive chemical changes in the brain that occur during adolescence, and then conversation moved onto other options – addiction, in one form or another, is another analogue, as is mental illness (Billy Joel’s The Stranger was brought up).
A great question posed (and certainly one that could be food for a good many stories) is – what “tell” would give you away to a loved one if you were possessed? What trait (or absence thereof) would give that secret away to someone who knew you really well?
After this we were psyched to run into author Eric LaRocca, who has not been able to make it into the shop in ages (but hopefully soon?). He's been busy cranking out the horror books!!
Next, after lunch at Cheese Louise -- a freezing cold but short walk away from the hotel -- we went to a reading by Paul Tremblay and Stephen Kozeniewski.
Tremblay read the first couple chapters from his upcoming
novel, Horror Movie (6/11/24, William Morrow), and Kozeniewski spoke in
extemporaneous fashion – entertaining and sharply funny. Tremblay made my day by mentioning that Horror
Movie was inspired by Gunnar Hansen’s excellent account of his work in
indie film, Chain Saw Confidential, which is apparently available as an
audiobook now (yay!) even though the book itself is long out of print.
Our next stop was “TV, Film, and the Adaptation Process” featuring Philip Fracassi (moderator), Clay McLeod Chapman, Victor LaValle, Joe Hill, and Owen King [shown L-R above]. This panel discussion ranged widely and examined the pitfalls and some helpful advice from voices of experience about the subject. This included – advantages to adapting other’s writing into script as opposed to your own, how comic books and animation can liberate you from some budgetary/creative constraints, and in general the fickle and changing nature of the entertainment behemoth, enslavement of yourself to which often times seems one of the few ways of making a paycheck (albeit sporadically) as a writer.
All in all it was a great time. I got to meet the nice folks from Copper Dog Books, who were the only vendor at the event, got a few books signed for myself, got to hobnob with old and new favorite authors, and a bunch of friends.
|Author Philip Fracassi explains he would like to come to Maine! Hint hint