So I went to Providence. It looks much more glamorous on that television show.
Every two years, the NecronomiCon convention occurs there, an event dedicated to the works of H.P. Lovecraft and ancillary matters. The first one was in 1993. I’ve been to all of them except for 1999, when I had to attend a wedding that weekend. One year the convention was the same weekend as the GenCon game convention. I went to GenCon and flew from Milwaukee to Providence early Saturday morning, spent the day at NecronomiCon, and flew back to Milwaukee early Sunday morning. It was pretty hellish, but worth it.
The first two times out, NecronomiCon was in Danvers, Massachusetts. If you’ve heard of the Salem witch trials, what you may not know is that the alleged witchcraft crimes actually happened in Danvers; it was just the trials that were held in Salem.
That year when I did my fly-through visit to NecronomiCon, I spent Saturday evening with a gaggle of Call of Cthulhu writers. They’d rented a Colonial-era house in Salem itself, a great rambling structure with something like eight bedrooms and four staircases. Any two given bedrooms might well have two different staircases between them, because the whole place was so rambling and confused. The furnishings included a lot of antiques and so forth, since the place was more or a less a bed and breakfast. It was creepy as all hell, both because of its advanced age and the fact that you were never really sure just where you or anyone else was in the building. Keith Herber rented the place, not long after he resigned as Call of Cthulhu editor at Chaosium. The other guys there included Kevin Ross, Scott Aniolowski, and I believe Gary Sumpter, Fred Behrendt, and C.L. Werner, all of whom were writing CoC material for Chaosium and Pagan in those days. The creation of THE UNSPEAKABLE OATH really helped catalyze a new Lovecraft Circle of gaming writers back then, a circle that eventually drifted apart to some extent as the years passed and life went on. That night as I awaited my 4am flight, I sat up the last couple hours with Werner, a guy from the southwestern states who showed up in cowboy boots, big black hat, string tie, and an endless supply of cheroots. Really, he was rather like a whip-thin Robert E. Howard.
This year’s NecronomiCon was a different time. I was the only one of that old writing circle to show up, though happily enough I got a note from Mad Kevin Ross last night demanding details.
Scott Glancy and I arrived Thursday evening. We met up with Ann and Jason from Catalyst Studios (http://www.mortorium.com/), who produce creepy sculptures and weird books here in Seattle and who were sharing part of our booth space just as they did at GenCon. Also present was Thomas Ryng, who wrote a play called THE KING IN YELLOW that we published a year or so ago. We all piled into our hotel room where Jason materialized a bottle of Fighting Cock Bourbon. This proved to be a terrible error. Jason and I had far too much Cock–uh…–and at some point I began ranting on various topics, which seemed to boil down to how my great-great-grandfather, General Joe Johnston, was the only Confederate military leader with a brain in his head. After that I went outside and sat on a bench in front of the hotel, where I produced a small quantity of ectoplasm and had a rambling, one-sided conversation with H.P. Lovecraft.
So the weekend got off to a great start. By the time I finally emerged the following afternoon, Scott and the rest had the booth up and running and were selling stuff. Meanwhile, I’d had a very late breakfast with Andrew Leman. Andrew is a long-time live-action gamer in the Cthulhu genre; he and his associate Sean Branney wrote a long article in an issue of THE UNSPEAKABLE OATH about their games. In short, live-action gaming is a roleplaying game where you walk and talk as your character, interacting with real props and real people in a real environment, rather than sitting around a table and imagining all this stuff. Andrew’s crew went to incredible lengths to produce their games. For example, their last game happened a couple years ago in Los Angeles. The players took the roles of LAPD detectives, and received an urgent summons to a nearby airfield. When they arrived, there was a helicopter waiting for them. They got aboard and flew out into the desert, where they arrived at a cracked, dry area upon which was inscribed a 300-foot-long occult sigil. They landed and were greeted by deputies and so forth, then exhumed and examined a body that had been revealed by an earthquake that morning–the desiccated corpse of what proved to be a long-dead sorcerer. Having pulled the body out of the earth, examined it, taken photographs, etc., they got back on board the helicopter and returned to LA, where the game continued in various urban locales.
All of this really happened. Andrew rented a helicopter, set up the gigantic sigil, made a fake mummy and buried it, got some friends to trek out to the site and play the roles of various officials, and so on. At no time are there any kinds of game rules or stats or dice or whatever; if you find an occult manuscript written in Spanish, either you can read Spanish or you find someone who can. If you want to search a room for a secret door, you start moving furniture.
Needless to say, these games can be fiendishly expensive to produce. But by all accounts, the results are worth it. You can read about their games and see lots of photographs at their web site: http://www.cthulhulives.org/.
Having disposed of breakfast but, happily, not Andrew, I got to the convention and we started selling stuff. And we sold a lot of stuff. By the end of the show, our total sales were more than half that of GenCon, even though GenCon has 30,000 people and NecronomiCon has 300. I think being away from the con for four years probably had a lot to do with it.
Normally the first night of the convention brings a reception, but due to a screw-up with the hotel this was canceled. Instead, the place to be that night was at a panel called “John Dean’s Necronomicon,” a staged event that was actually a kick-off to a live-action game that concluded the following night. Set up by CTHULHU LIVE author Mac McLaughlin, the panel had a (fictitious) Dr. John Dean of Brown University presenting what he believed was an authentic edition of the NECRONOMICON, which he claimed to have found in some of Lovecraft’s belongings just recently. He convened the panel to assemble assorted authorities to discuss this revelation; we all played ourselves.
Present on the panel were Robert Price, ecclesiastical scholar and editor of CRYPT OF CTHULHU magazine; Edward P. Berglund, editor of the seminal DISCIPLES OF CTHULHU anthology and a veteran of Lovecraftian publishing; Daniel Harms, author of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA CTHULHUIANA and THE NECRONOMICON FILES; Scott Glancy, president of Pagan Publishing; Thomas Ryng, “translator” of the notorious play THE KING IN YELLOW; and yours truly.
We went back and forth over the validity of the book. Price talked about various early Christian manuscripts that were of controversial origin, Berglund covered Pelton’s MALIFICARUM (which we published in A GUIDE TO THE CTHULHU CULT), Daniel Harms explained how this alleged NECRONOMICON was obviously a fake, Scott said how much he was looking forward to publishing it fake or real, Thom discussed his finding of the KING IN YELLOW manuscript in a Paris bookseller’s stall, and I postulated that HPL might have gotten the book during his long apprenticeship to Aleister Crowley. (When Harms cried foul, I yelled, “But I read it on the internet!”)
An NPC plant in the audience dressed as a preacher began asking annoying questions and waving his Bible. Other audience members challenged him. Eventually he began praying in front of the panel table, and Dr. Dean responded by reading a random ritual out of the Necronomicon. Suddenly a cloud of mist poured out from under the table and a green light shot through it. A security guard tried to grapple the crazy preacher, who grabbed his gun and shot Dean in the shoulder. The panel and the room erupted in chaos. Scott Glancy grabbed Daniel Harms and shoved him in front of himself as a human shield, and then the preacher shot Harms (who, like Dean, was wearing an explosive blood squib that made quite a mess). The guard subdued him, Thom Ryng and I hit the floor, and shortly the event ended in fog, blood, and chaos. Though not before I stood up, looked aghast, and cried, “Oh my God, they’ve killed Daniel Harms!”
So that event kicked off the con and was great fun. People talked about it all weekend, and non-gamers mentioned they wanted to go to the wrap-up session Saturday night to see how it all ended. A video camera crew there, posing as journalists from the supernatural tabloid TV show Phenomen-X (see DG: Countdown), interviewed con-goers about the shooting and so forth. A team of FBI agents proved to be Delta Green operatives, and they eventually triumphed.
That was one of the weird things, actually. I created both Delta Green and Phenomen-X and here they were, running around the place in something resembling real life. It was just bizarre as hell to have a TV crew come up to me, shove a camera and microphone in my face, and say “We’re from Phenomen-X. What do you think about this shooting?” Mainly what I thought was that I wished they would stop mispronouncing it as “Phenomenon-X.” Media jackals!
I saw a number of writers and editors there whom I hadn’t met in person before, or hadn’t seen in years. There was Paul Berglund, who brought us Pelton’s GUIDE TO THE CTHULHU CULT and whom I’ve spoken to numerous times via phone and email; Joe Pulver, a great guy who told Thomas and I a lot of sad things about the disposition of the Robert W. Chambers estate; C.J. Henderson, showing off his amazingly huge new guide to fantasy and SF films published by Facts on File; Philip and Scott from Fedogan & Bremer, one of the best small-press publishers around; Marc Michaud from Necronomicon Press; Joan Stanley, author of EX LIBRIS MISKATONICI; Peter Cannon, author of PULPTIME and the inimitable H.P. Lovecrat/P.G. Wodehouse pastiche SCREAM FOR JEEVES; Gary Myers, author of HOUSE OF THE WORM; Chris Jarocha-Ernst, author of the CTHULHU MYTHOS BIBLIOGRAPHY & CONCORDANCE we published; Donovan Loucks, keepers of the H.P. Lovecraft archive (http://www.hplovecraft.com/); Bob Murch, sculptor of the fantastic RAFM miniatures for CALL OF CTHULHU, with his cheerful wife Susan and charmingly precocious son Spencer; Aaron Vanek, the director of RETURN TO INNSMOUTH and THE YELLOW SIGN, the latter of which I scripted and will get to in a minute; and undoubtedly others I’ve forgotten.
The evenings were spent mostly in the hotel bar, laughing and drinking and talking to beat the band. On Saturday night, we wracked up a $180 tab in the bar, buying drinks for all of the Delta Green agents who played in the live-action game and assorted others. Then we retired to the hotel room of Aron Anderson, a friend of ours from Seattle who runs a gaming/comic shop and will soon be the publisher of GODLIKE, and we had a room party there that lasted until about 5am. Rum, vodka, and even a bottle of absinthe imported from the Czech Republic were the order of the evening, and I capped it off by relating my lengthy tale of the severed dog’s head and all its consequences.
Scott’s friend Rachel visited from Boston and helped at the booth. She was a great gal, and fast with a neck rub which was a tremendous blessing.
The thing I was most looking forward to at the con was the short film screening. Friday Jones, who runs the video room, assembled a collection of new shorts. Most of these either have or will play at the HPL Film Festival this October in Portland, Oregon (http://www.hplfilmfestival.com/). There were only a few I hadn’t seen, including Christian Matzke’s NYARLATHOTEP (a very good adaptation, marred only by the fact that he really should have gotten at least a semi-professional actor to do the voice-over; DIY isn’t always the way to go); a CGI adaptation of IN THE VAULT that was amusing; and Aaron Vanek’s THE YELLOW SIGN.
It was this last film that I’ve been eagerly awaiting for ages. I wrote the script for it in early 2000, “inspired by” the Victorian short story of the same name by Robert W. Chambers, and Aaron shot it over two weeks in Los Angeles that summer. It’s been in post-production ever since, moving slowly but surely. The version he screened at NecronomiCon was still not quite done; some of the CGI effects weren’t finished, much of the audio still needed work, and a couple of scenes still didn’t have music. He showed me an early rough cut in October of 2000, so I was eager to see how it had advanced since then.
The short answer is that it’s looking really good. He’s trimmed it a bit, so it now runs about forty-five minutes. In particular, he cut out some scenes that were sort of spacers between the main action. I don’t think they’re much of a loss, actually, even though I’m fond of them. Less fortunate was an abbreviated scene with the ghost of a clergyman; he had some interesting things to say, but I don’t think the actor really worked out that well and so Aaron trimmed it down. (That’s my opinion; Aaron may have had other reasons for cutting it short.) The result is that it ends kind of abruptly, but on the other hand the CGI effect where the clergyman disappears is damned cool.
Watching it now, so long after writing it, was a strange and occasionally chilling experience. I still find the conversation about Tess’s childhood to be creepy and intense, which is a good thing. I do think I got too precious with the dialogue and would write it simpler if I did it now. But the result is that the dialogue is dense and layered, and the more you pay attention to it the more you learn about the story. I believe the end result is a film that people will genuinely enjoy more and get more out of by watching it several times, and I think it’ll hold up well enough to make that worthwhile. I was impressed by my own thematic unity, in that the major scenes between Tess and Aubrey actually mean something that overlaps and resonates and builds as the film goes on. I just hope the audience makes sense of it, because it really is dense and the core concept of the film is not clearly explained. It’s all up there, though, if you pay attention, and I’m proud that we’ve made something that both demands and stands up to analysis rather than hurling out massive chunks of exposition. The film is full of exposition, but it’s presented in the form of allegory–sensibly enough, given the whole King in Yellow mythology I built it on top of.
The music is also quite good. Mark Fauver, a friend of Aaron’s, is doing the soundtrack. I wasn’t that fond of his work on Aaron’s RETURN TO INNSMOUTH, where I thought it sounded too synthesizer-ish. For YELLOW SIGN there’s still some of that synthy-stuff, but there’s also some nice use of the sitar and some lovely backwards sound elements that make for a solid piece of work. I think Aaron would do well to assemble a CD of Mark’s soundtrack music on these two films, and I might well be silly enough to publish it. Aaron, are you reading this?
Anyway, the film will debut in October at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, assuming Aaron gets it all done in the next six weeks! On the downside, a release on video looks unlikely for a while. Andrew Migliore, the organizer of the film festival, has done a stellar job of putting out videotapes of the films from the festival, and I assumed that eventually THE YELLOW SIGN would get this treatment. But there’s a problem. Because some of the actors were members of the Screen Actor’s Guild–for example, the lead actress, Shawna Waldron, appeared in THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT and a CBS sitcom–Aaron made the film under a special SAG agreement for small productions. This agreement lets the actors work for free, but if the film ever gets any form of paid distribution–whether a theatrical release or a 500-copy videotape run for sale by mail order–then the SAG actors involved have to be retroactively paid their normal wages for the work they did. In the case of THE YELLOW SIGN, this means about $5000 total that would have to be paid before a video relase could happen. Under the current releasing plan, it’s unlikely that Andrew could make such a deal profitable.
So chances are decent that the film won’t be widely available for a while, if ever. We may find a solution at some point, but I don’t know what it will be. Aaron is planning to at least make dubs of the film to anyone who sends him a blank videotape and a SASE, so it won’t be impossible to find. But that may prove to be unworkable, depending on demand. We’ll see!
Also on the downside, the problematic nature of a video release for the film may scuttle one of my projects. I’ve been planning to produce a small book called THE YELLOW SIGN: STORY TO SCRIPT TO SCREEN. This would include the original Chambers story, and then several progressive drafts of the scripts by Aaron and myself to show how the project evolved, along with commentary, on-set photographs, and stills from the film. I think this would be pretty interesting for anyone interested in filmmaking or in the nature of adapting a literary work into the medium of film. But without an accompanying video release, the book moves from borderline-vanity-project to obviously-vanity-project, and I just don’t know that I can justify publishing a book about a film that almost no one is going to see. If you feel otherwise, or have $5000 burning a hole in your pocket that you’d like to give away and never see again, send me a note.
Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in October. If you have any interest in seeing this film by myself and Aaron, you should make plans to be at the festival. Not only will you get to see it, you’ll see it on ye big screen to boot.
We didn’t leave Providence until Monday evening, but Scott took off for Boston to visit with Rachel and her husband Sunday night, returning by train the following afternoon. Jason, Ann, and Aron all scattered to the four winds, so Thom Ryng and I spent Sunday night hanging out with the guys from Fedogan & Bremer and assorted other ne’er-do-wells, including Jared Wallace who will beat me if I don’t mention him.
Philip Rahman from F&B told us about a party he’s been throwing for about fourteen years. Philip and his family live in rural Wisconsin, so every summer they host the Ed Gein Barbecue. (Ed Gein was a notorious cannibal, necrophiliac, and murdered in rural Wisconsin; Norman Bates is loosely based on him.) The premise is that the party is Bring Your Own Meat, No Questions Asked. Some years they’ve had little graveyards set up in a sandbox, with party trinkets buried in each grave for the guests to dig up and take home. Philip’s a lot of fun. At one NecronomiCon I stayed up most of the night sitting with him and book editor D.H. Olson, drinking wine and talking nonsense.
Prior to our Sunday night in the bar, I went to Lovecraft’s grave with Scott, Thomas, Andrew, Rachel, and the TV crew, who wanted to shoot some footage of us having a moment or something. I found the inspection a little awkward. We took some nice grave rubbings that will soon be framed in our various domiciles.
Monday afternoon, Thomas and I took the walking tour of Lovecraft’s old stomping grounds on College Hill. He hadn’t been to Providence before and came away much impressed with that old town, so free of raw new things.
Ah, that’s more than enough about NecronomiCon. Next up for the Dispatches: the Project Project, where I start trying to describe the various things I’m working on or not working on. I did this in the Blog I lost recently, so I’ll try it again with a more piecemeal approach.