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I just got back from the 31st annual Dragon Con, and boy is my everything tired.
For the uninitiated, Dragon Con is a huge, sprawling 4-day festival of all things science fiction, fantasy, and pop culture, held every Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve attended off and on–not only as a regular fan attendee, but also as a guest and attending pro–since 1995 or thereabouts, and I can tell you it gets more big and sprawling with each passing year.
I’m not going to go into a blow by blow of each and everything I did, because honestly that’s only mildly interesting to me. What I felt the need to do, however, was just give some of my general thoughts on the show as a whole and how it relates to my journey as a fan and as a writer. It is subtitled My Dragon Con Experience, after all. Your own mileage may vary.
THIS IS MAAAAARTA!
This year marked a first for us, in that we took MARTA, the Atlanta rapid transit, down to the show for the first time. Despite being a Georgia native, and living less than 60 miles northeast of the ATL, I’d never taken MARTA before, so I didn’t know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised, though, and the experience was a pleasant one. I definitely recommend it as an alternative to not only driving, downtown, but finding a place to park and paying an exorbitant fee for the privilege.
Another hassle we didn’t have to contend with was staying in a hotel, which offers many advantages to be sure, but comes with a lot of strings attached, most of them monetary. So while I was disappointed I wouldn’t get to stay later in the evening and participate in barcon–where the writers meet at a hotel bar to network and commiserate–I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to deal with the usual jiggery-pokery of the hotels putting up ridiculous hurdles to deal with them, like not accepting cash or surprise intentionally vague fees on top of the already sky high hotel bill. Nothing’s more fun than being charged a 13.9% tax to pay for a stadium I’ll never visit being built for a sports team I have no interest in owned by a billionaire. So I was content to just take MARTA there and back for three days.
And what a busy three days it was. Even though I wasn’t on as many panels as I have been in years past. I was fine with that too, because I’ve spent many years running back and forth from panel to panel, often between hotels (and even this year we ended up visiting all five host hotels, and had panels in all but one of them). But this year I felt a little aimless wandering around, even though we could be more flexible with the schedule than usual, which was nice.
Now, let’s talk about the stuff that was awesome. Getting to hang out with awesome people who like the same things I like and whose minds are stuffed with useless nerd trivia. Getting to shoot my mouth off on panels. Getting to meet (or reconnect with) famous science fiction writers and my colleagues in the writing field. Those are general things and almost always happen whenever I go to any con, not just Dragon Con. Some specific bits of awesomeness for me at this year’s show included:
Doing a kaiju literature panel for the Horror track with moderator Eric Asher and writers Jake Bible, Larry Correia, and David Boop, as well as noted writer and artist on IDW’s Godzilla comics Matt Frank. We had a great time talking kaiju books, movies and comics, and several people came up afterward and wanted to know how to get hold of the Monster Earth books. I gave them my card and told them how to find them, and when I checked Amazon yesterday I had sold a few copies. Not too shabby.
I’M A MENTAT
The Writer’s Track at Dragon Con started a cool new thing this year: 15 minute mentor sessions with their author guests. It’s kind of like speed dating, but for career advice. I signed up for a session with multiple award-winning Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer. I interviewed Rob during his first visit to Dragon Con way back in 2008, (and interviewed him Sunday of the con this year on a panel. More on that in a bit), and he was very gracious. He gave me some good, solid advice on where to go next with my career, and called me his mentat, which was cool. Rob even appeared about ten or fifteen minutes before our session, where I was sitting outside the designated mentor room talking to successful indie military SF author Doug Dandridge, and the three of us had a very nice chat. Indie dark fantasy author, and head honcho of Falstaff Books, publisher of a novella series I’m writing, John Hartness walked over as well to tell me his editor loves the first one and gave me the (secret, for now)release date.
On Sunday, I interviewed Rob on a panel. I thought it was a decent crowd for the Sunday morning of con, especially since my friend and fellow author Van Allen Plexico was interviewing SF authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in one of the ballrooms at the exact same time.
We didn’t have time for all of my questions, but I had planned for that. Rob talked about his TV work and a Star Trek fan production he’s been involved with, as well as his writing habits and the big ideas he uses in his novels. The audio will be available as part of Van Allen Plexico’s White Rocket Podcast.
Also, Larry Niven was in the audience at a couple of my panels, Significant Short Stories, and Remembering Roger Zelazny, which was very cool. Word is the Ringworld author doesn’t like doing panels, but he attends a lot of programming. It was great to see him in the audience.
Careless Whisper Guy
Dragon Con has been around long enough to have developed its own mythology if you will. And things occur there that simply do not occur at other conventions. One of these things is the Careless Whisper guy, a mysterious personage who stands around outside the Hyatt Regency somewhere and belts out Careless Whisper on his sax. I’d heard of him before, only in legend, but this year I finally saw him, in a most amazing way.
Now I won’t go into the sordid details here. What happens at Dragon Con stays at Dragon Con after all. But suffice it to say it involved an itinerant street preacher with a megaphone and no grasp of irony. It almost made up for not seeing Megan Follows. Almost. I’ll get to that next.
THE LOW LIGHTS
And now for the things that didn’t go off as well as I’d hoped. It’s Dragon Con. Them’s the breaks. You pays your money, you takes your chances. No one can possibly see and do everything there is to see and do at this sprawling event. You just plan the best you can, and hope for the best. This year was no different. The only saving grace with these things is that these failed moments are sometimes offset by something really awesome that you just lucked into, but never expected. Here then, are the things that didn’t go well.
I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE COSTUMES ARE ANYMORE
There’s a running joke with cosplay that if you don’t know what it is, it’s either from a video game or an anime. Well there must have been a whole lot of video games and anime at this year’s con. The costuming just felt a bit off this year, and I think this is part of the reason. I’m just getting old. This is the part where I start yelling at clouds and telling you kids to get off my lawn. The other part, of course, was the crowds. It was simply too crowded to see many of the cosplayers, even if I would have recognized what they were wearing. Evenings in the Marriott were like a mosh pit. The cool costumes I did see I was unable to get pictures of, because we were headed in opposite directions and it was too crowded to stop and snap a pic with my phone.
I CAN’T FIND PEOPLE
I’m not talking about not being able to connect with your friends. I’m talking about when you enter a room where you know someone will be and you still can’t find them. This happened to me in the vendor halls, where I had friends who had tables set up. While I saw a couple of folks I know accidentally, I didn’t see the guys I was looking for. Seriously. Where were they? I walked all over that place.
This also happened to me in the Walk of Fame. I don’t go out for the big media guests much, unless they were in something I enjoyed years ago. Such was the case this year with Canadian actress Megan Follows, who starred as Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables, which I think is a wonderful, timeless classic and I don’t care what you think. She was also in Silver Bullet with Corey Haim and Gary Busey, and a great episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater called “The Dwarf.” So of course I felt compelled to meet her.
No such luck. I walked all over that Marriott ballroom checking out the names hanging above each table. We saw Nathan Fillion and his huge ass line. We saw Michael Rooker, who played Yondu in the Guardians of the Galaxy films. We saw John Wesley Shipp, of both the 90’s and current Flash TV shows. But no Megan Follows.
Then two of my friends post selfies of them with her in the Walk of Fame. It’s maddening, I tell you.
But beyond that, overall the whole thing just felt a little off. Yes, it was more crowded than ever, and that’s part of it. But I think it’s because I’m older and my relationship with the con has changed, or needs to. I still love it, and I’m already planning to attend next year. But the things I get from it now are different. I’m older and wiser. No longer am I the starry-eyed waif who will fall for Dragon Con’s pelvic sorcery. I realized when I had the most fun, and it wasn’t when I was ogling costumes are even walking through the always awesome art show. It was when I was hanging out with my fellow writers, and talking about significant short stories, and the work of Roger Zelazny. So next year I want to spend more time doing that. I want to attend barcon. I want to network with writers and editors. At Dragon Con, you can do all that and more. So thanks for an awesome time, Dragon Con. See you next year.
Here’s what I’m hoping will be a weekly feature, time permitting. I thought it would be fun to post a snippet of something I’ve been working on. This time out, I picked something I did quite a while ago and never quite finished. But I love how it came together, and one of these days I just might finish it. Please let me know what you think in the comments. Here then is Chapter One of an urban fantasy about a former horror host turned late night talk radio DJ who is also a vampire. I call it Penny Blood. I hope you enjoy it.
The first thing everyone wants to know about is the blood.
Was it real? How long was I really in that tub? Was I actually naked? So, to answer: No; about forty-five minutes; and yes.
The blood was totally my idea. I had read about the infamous Countess Elizabeth Bathory, and how she supposedly drank blood, and even bathed in it. So I thought it would be cool to host an episode of Twilight Theater from a bathtub filled with red corn syrup, while being shot so it appeared I was naked, of course. The ratings went through the roof on that one. At conventions, autographed black and white stills of me in that tub go for twenty-five bucks a pop.
My Twilight Theater days are long behind me. Infomercials killed off the market for late night shows that played crappy horror movies, and I stopped being Mary Midnight and became Rebecca Thorne again. These days I’m the darling of late night radio, host of the Midnight Files, broadcast live five nights a week from coast to coast on AM 640, midnight to 2pm. Together with my producer Phil, I listen to weirdos swap conspiracy theories, alien abduction stories, and bigfoot sightings. It’s not the greatest gig in the world, but I am number one with males eighteen to thirty-five who live in Airstreams in the desert and make forts from their toenail clippings. I certainly give Art Bell a run for his money.
But the most interesting thing about me can’t be found on IMDB or in my resume. The most interesting thing about me—the most secret thing—is that I am a vampire. A real, immortal, “I vant to suck your blood” vampire. I’ll be one hundred and seventy-two on my birthday. I sleep all day and only go out at night. I have to have blood—preferably fresh, human blood—to sustain me.
And I’d give anything to have that life back again. As crazy as it was, it was mine, and it’s been taken from me. My closest friend is dead, and one of the few people I’ve ever given a damn about in my long life will probably never speak to me again. I’m not a monster. But now I’m surrounded by monsters. By Garrison and his damned Echelon. By the Pact.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The whole thing started when my ex-boyfriend decided he wanted to destroy the world. Oh well. At least I have this flaming sword.
It all started easily enough. I was at a science fiction convention in downtown Atlanta called Dragon Con. It’s a sprawling, four-day, multimedia affair that attracts thousands of people. I sit at my table, selling autographed glossies of myself done up as Mary Midnight—imagine if Morticia Addams had a spunky, emo kid sister—smiling while mouth-breathing fanboys pretend they aren’t looking at my breasts and answering the same dumb questions I have been asked thousands of times over the years, like the blood in the bathtub thing. It’s easy work with no heavy lifting, and I really get into it, flirting and speaking in my best breathy, phone sex Mary Midnight voice, making even the most innocuous of statements sound dirty. The guys love it, and this helps feed me in a sense. I’ve never figured it out for sure, but I think some vampires can feed on adulation as well as blood. When I was in that T.V. station’s basement in L.A. back in ’68, introducing schlock like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman or The Thing that Wouldn’t Die, I felt all those thousands of eyeballs watching me. And I feel these people now. It’s like they leave little pieces of themselves with me when they leave my table, and it fills me up. I smile my best black-lipsticked smile, show them my all too real fangs, and they just eat it up. And I eat them up in turn.
It’s a completely victim-less crime. They get something they want, and I get something I need. It’s a win-win. Everybody’s happy. It’s not like I’m a creepy succubus, giving someone the best sex of their life only for them to feel like warmed over shit the next day.
I love it here, all the madness and weirdness. Every other person is dressed in some elaborate costume straight out of a movie or comic book, and the ones who recognize me are genuinely glad I’m here.
But it’s broad daylight and I’m weak. Even indoors, with tons of glass, stone and steel between me and the glowering, hateful dayball outside, I still do not feel like myself. These events always throw off my internal clock, and I get through it by promising myself a nap in my comped hotel room, then at oh dark thirty I’ll get up and do my thing. I check my watch and grimace. It’s a long time until then.
My agent Mindy sidles up to me. “Would you like me to watch your table while you take a break?” She’s all of five feet tall, with close-cropped reddish-blond hair and a smile perpetually frozen onto her face. She’s way overdressed in a navy blue pantsuit, and she looks a bit wilted from the Atlanta heat, but she appears otherwise unscathed by the controlled chaos going on around us.
I return her smile. How did she know?
“Actually, I would like to step out for a minute,” I say. “Get some fresh air.”
Mindy bobs her head about a thousand times. “OK. Super.”
I get up and Mindy immediately takes my place. No one will come by with an unknown face sitting there, but Mindy will keep my valuable glossies from walking away. As I walk out of the huge ballroom us so-called celebs are sharing with the con-goers, I wonder if they still make dopplegangers, even golems. A body double would come in handy at times like these. I take one last glance back at Mindy, shake my head, and leave the room.
Mindy’s great, but she’s perpetually perky for no reason. At first I thought it must be drugs. I know absolutely nothing about her personal life, and she could spend her downtime freebasing Preparation H for all I know. But I never smell any drugs in her system. In the end I decided her perkiness is part of what I like about her. After all, I’d rip out a guy’s spine for looking at me wrong, but I already have me.
The convention hotels are large, labyrinthine, and crowded with fans of everything from Star Trek to video games. But I’ve been enough times that navigating has become almost second nature. I weave in and out, my crimson velvet dress making quiet swishing noises. Most people don’t recognize me, even here, even though my picture is in the convention’s programming book. The crowd gets younger and younger every year, and I fear yet another career change in my immediate future.
I step into a habitrail—a climate-controlled tunnel between one hotel and another, where I’m sandwiched between a guy in vacuum-formed armor carrying a six foot-long plastic sword, and a young girl with not enough clothes and a gigantic set of fairy wings. Then I’m out and through another maze of tunnels to Peachtree Center, which is basically a mall food court sitting atop a MARTA stop. It’s crowded too, but not overly so, and I can get away from the con and clear my head a little without going outside. I duck around a corner, pull an insulated flask from the folds of my dress, and take a little swig. The blood is flat, hardly fresh, but it reinvigorates me. My stomach growls, reminding me I’m hungry, and I try to decide if I want a sandwich before heading back to relieve Mindy.
Yes, Virginia, vampires do eat. It helps us to blend in. Besides, blood is not very nutrative, unless you’re a tick or a leech. The blood we imbibe only sustains our immortality. And vamps that try to subsist solely on blood don’t last for very long. They transform into ravenous, monstrous beasts, Nosferatu’s ugly redneck cousins, and thus an easy target for frightened villagers wielding wooden stakes and pitchforks.
Speak of the Devil.
I feel a twinge, and turn around slowly.
I can always tell when I’m being hunted.
It’s a feeling you get. The hairs on the nape of your neck start vibrating, and there’s a smell in the air of pheromones and fear, along with a sense that something’s not quite right with the world. The only questions are who? And why now? It’s been more than seventy-five years since someone wanted to drive a stake through my heart. I’ve not only been off the supernatural radar, but I’ve been a good girl. No drinking without asking. No turning folks against their will. So what was this clown doing here?
I sense the guy almost at once, walking several steps behind me. I stop at a glass-and-chrome kiosk selling cell phone cases and look into a mirrored surface to check him out. He’s trying way too hard to look like he isn’t doing anything at all, but I’ve been around long enough to know better. But he also doesn’t seem that interested in me.
I breathe a sigh of relief at my false alarm. So if it’s not me he’s after, who is it? Something about the way he’s dressed, the way he carries himself tells me he’s definitely a vamp hunter. He’s got on a leather jacket, Harley-Davison t-shirt, faded blue jeans and black boots, an attempt at bad ass avant-garde that just gets lost in a crowd full of anime Lolitas and 80’s cartoon characters. He could be just some guy here to pick up an I’m-sorry-I-screwed-your-sister card at the CVS on the other end of the food court, or a fanboy dressed as Wolverine.
I realize immediately that Wolverine’s out, as he’s not wearing a convention badge. They’re big, shiny, covered in comic book art, and easy to spot (mine has a lovely blue ribbon dangling from it that reads Guest).
Which means he didn’t follow me over from the hotel. Dragon Con is a private event. Their security checks for badges with a TSA-like zeal, so there’s no way Wolvie came in that way. Yet more proof that I’m not his target. I scan the room. I don’t see any familiar faces, and I certainly don’t smell another vampire. That’s another thing about vamps I bet you didn’t know; we have a smell, at least to other vampires. It’s hard to describe. It’s like something that is still in the process of dying that hasn’t quite given up the ghost yet.
Wolvie’s on the move, shuffling past me. I shove myself into a group of kids who seem to be headed in the same direction, letting the throng of teeny boppers carry me through the food court, but when I duck around a corner and peak out he’s still there, scanning the crowd from underneath his Ray-bans.
It’s been a while since I’ve fed, and the irony of draining a vamp hunter like a wineskin has a certain appeal. But we’re in broad daylight in a crowded food court, and I’m trying to keep a low profile; as much as a guest of the convention going on all around us can. Mostly I’m just curious to know what he’s doing here, and who he’s planning to ash.
A young goth girl looks as if she’s almost on the verge of recognizing me. She’s too young to remember me from my Twilight Theater days. Maybe she thinks I’m Laurell K. Hamilton. It wouldn’t be the first time. I ignore her and concentrate on Wolvie. He’s definitely following someone, a woman of average height, her blond hair in a ponytail, wearing a short leather mini skirt, red silk top, black fishnets and motorcycle boots. A woman after my own heart.
She’s definitely a vampire too. I can sense her now. Man, I must be getting soft in my old age. There’s something…familiar about her too. More intrigued than ever, I break from the crowd and get right behind Wolvie.
The vamp girl enters a pair of glass doors in the back corner of the food court, next to a couple of fast food places. She’s heading downstairs toward the MARTA tunnel. Wolvie follows. There’s no one else around. I go in right behind, and Wolvie doesn’t even register me at all. Amateur. We’re going down the steps now, and I’m trying to keep the swishing of my dress to a minimum. The girl goes across to the stairs leading up to Peachtree Street, so she’s not taking the train. A spot the tiny pocket umbrella she’s holding unopened in her right hand. Wolvie seems to get desperate now, thinking he’s about to miss a chance to stick her in private, and he speeds up, his boot heels clicking on the tiles.
He reaches out his hand, about to grab her.