I’m Mackenzie Kiera, and I can still hear the screams. It was a dark and stormy night, that third night of StokerCon. All of us, we held each other’s hands in the dark, waiting for the inevitable. The Rains of Castamere, that’s not a song people live through.
He was there. Just a silhouette of a man, hefting himself across the catwalk of the ballroom, framed by that big, yellow, full moon.
“Don’t you understand?” he asked. “When you play the RPG werewolf game, you win or you die.”
A small, hissing sound, then a pop and I knew that GRRM had just cracked open a cold one. He’s fond of those Corona Lights. He smacked his lips, opened his arms wide. The gesture, I knew was an invitation to sit.
Sit and play.
Please understand. There weren’t enough seats. Not enough dice. We couldn’t all play, it wasn’t possible.
The ship groaned from the weight of the storm outside, the wind and hail that mercilessly flogged the deck and I wondered, how did I, your friendly neighborhood book reviewer, get into this mess? I never should have strayed. Never should have thought I could do anything more than sit behind my desk and write.
I thought I was bored but, really? I was just safe.
I jumped at the chance to not only attend StokerCon 2017, but also, cover the event. Three days before we started playing the game, I stepped onto the Queen Mary for the first time and, I need to say, that I got chills.
They were multiplying.
The ship was originally built in the 1930’s and has functioned as a major ocean liner (yes, like the Titanic) and as a military personnel transport during WWII. Yep. The Queen Mary transported soldiers, travelers and is now a common tourist attraction.
Also? It’s crazy haunted. The most haunted room (B 340) that the hotel no longer even put sheets on because something keeps ripping them off, dirtying the room up so the maids leave it as is, closed off, boarded up.
Oh! And the pool in the belly of this behemoth of a ship is off limits to tourists because it’s just that derelict and supposedly a little girl who drowned in the pool wanders around, forever suspended in the dimension of the dead. Sometimes, she comes out to play on the piano displayed in the Queen Mary’s ballroom.
What’s really cool? Everything has been gutted, revamped, remade and polished back up several times to serve whatever was currently needed. First class is now a promenade deck, and all the other decks (A, B and below) were converted into regular state rooms with plush beds and one, single port hole window leading down, leading out. So, while the ship is the same, the interior has been renovated and altered. An old house with new occupants demanding better and better quality of life.
After checking in, I got my StokerCon pamphlet from the fabulous HWA volunteers, my snazzy Press Badge and went in search of horror writers.
The guests of honor at StokerCon this year were Peter Crowther from PS Publishing, Becky Spratford, a Readers Advisory Librarian, Game Designer Bill Bridges and visiting authors including Chuck Wendig, Elizabeth Hand, Tananarive Due, Gretchen McNeil, Stephen Graham Jones and George R. R. Martin.
(Yes. That’s right. George R. R. Martin. I’ve read the books, studied his craft, lightly stalked him on social media but that’s it. I don’t worship him or have a shrine or wear his suspenders and pretend to be him or anything.)
For those of you who, like me, were unaware of what the annual StokerCon entails, it is where several writers are given the Bram Stoker award by their fellow Horror Writer Association associates, or, as they refer to it, the HWA.
I learned a little more about the HWA from new member Kathryn McGee. Apparently, the group, based in Los Angeles, gets together once a month on a Sunday night. At the meetings, they talk about what’s going on with the larger organization, discuss any local book events and markets for sending out work, and everyone has a chance to talk for a minute or two about what they’re working on. It’s an incredibly smart, fun, and open-minded group of people that Kathryn feels grateful to have the opportunity to hang out with. She’s learned a ton about writing horror and found a wonderful community to participate in and learn from. You can get involved by showing up to a meeting, where you’ll check things out and get information on becoming a member. She’d also like to thank John Palisano for his support and information on the group and I’d like to thank her for the inside information.
This year, the lineup for Superior Achievement in a Novel was:
You can find the complete list of all the various awards right here on Locus.
The Con itself was on the promenade deck and it was a hit-the-ground-running sort of day. There were lectures on Gray Aliens (why are they gray?) and a lecture on Creepy Pasta. What’s Creepy Pasta? I didn’t know either until the lecture. Creepy Pasta is what the internet has turned neighborhood ghost stories into. So, remember playing ‘Bloody Mary’ as a kid? That’s a kind of Creepy Pasta, only now, with the internet and the way stories travel, the process has become so much quicker. Spooky stories don’t trickle down through the generations. They blow up the internet and then, like a balloon, deflate.
I also had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Thomas, the editor in chief of Gamut, a new literary magazine that has become all the rage. It features accomplished and debut authors alike. It’s main goal? To acquire the different and amazing.
Dino Parenti, another editor for Gamut was a delight to speak with and he assured me, everyone on the ship was like him, a big teddy bear.
As far as food (and caffeine), there was the usual hotel Starbucks, but the best places to eat were the Chelsea Chowder Bar (get the melts) and Sir Winston’s, which had amazing wine.
I think there was food. But there was definitely wine.
After hours? A small group of first time StokerConers, including myself and Scholarship from Hell winner Billy San Juan, stayed out late and told personal ghost stories in the wedding gazebo atop the ship. After thoroughly freaking each other out, we all bid goodnight.
Did I mention, it was a dark and stormy night?
Odd for Long Beach. Especially in the late spring. Southern California, it’s just not known for its storms. Earthquakes, a disappearing coastline sure, but storms?
It felt like something people would have experienced eighty odd years ago aboard the ship, out at sea. The waves thrashed at the side of the ship, sending sea spray up against the railings and onto the promenade deck.
Briefly, the lights flickered.
One of the rooms was brightly lit, decorated with various StokerCon balloons and tablecloths. An after hours party of sorts, complete with wine and artisan meats and cheeses. Also, at one of the tables, headed by Kathryn Mcgee, was a group with a ouija board.
My mentor, Dr. Stephen Graham Jones, sat as far away as he could while still watching, wine cooler in hand.
I sat down next to him.
“Thanks again for the interview, sir,” I said.
“Ouija boards,” he muttered under his breath, ignoring my comment. “They scare me.” He stood up to leave, brushed some glitter off his jacket.
“‘’Night,” he barked.
“Have a good night,” I said back.
He nodded. “Oh. I will.” He popped gum into his mouth, chewed for a minute, then said to me, over his shoulder, “As long as all the trash cans are empty.”
The wine cooler and glitter and mention of trash cans should have given it away but I was too busy watching Kathryn. She was intent, eyes staring down at her board.
“Kat? What’s up?”
“This isn’t right.”
“What is it?” I moved closer to the board, anxious to see.
“I don’t know,” she said, tossing her blonde hair over her shoulders. “It just keeps going to Red. Red. There. Again. Red.”
And then the lights went out. The doors slammed shut and we were left in there, in the dark. In the corner of the room, I heard a chair get pulled out. The sound of something small and almost weightless sitting. The melodic but all damning tune “Rains of Castamere” began to play on the old, out of tune piano. Outside, lightning cracked and somewhere in the distance, a wolf howled.
Then the ship bucked. We fell to the floor, the ouija board scattering to the ground and old, ancient boilers and engines that hadn’t been running since the 1930’s groaned, shifted back to life. The pull, the force of it all, was more like a god had us in tow, was pulling us out to sea on long, corded ropes. I couldn’t help but recall my interview with John Langan, author of The Fisherman and this year’s StokerCon winner.
A shadow fell across the room. George R. R. Martin, my hero, my icon and everything I want to be when I grow up (especially with the hat and suspenders) stood along the windows, framed by the full moon.
The doors were shut. The Rains of Castamere echoed around the hall. Like any true fan, I knew exactly what was going to happen next.
Who here inside the room was working for GRRM? Who here had maybe been bribed, to keep us here?
So, I called the front desk for help. They’d been so polite and full of answers just that morning with room service.
Surely they could help.
The phone, someone picked it up but all I could here on the other line was a deep, bone-chilling growl. And then screams and a long, drawn out howl.
I hung up.
George R. R. Martin took a long draught from his Corona light.
“Now. It’s time to play.”
Earlier in the day, there had been an RPG event. It was called Werewolves of LA. Bill Bridges, co-designer of Werewolf The Apocalypse hosted several authors in a role-playing adventure. Maria Alexander, Stephen Graham Jones, Chuck Wendig, Nancy Holder and GRRM played as a pack of werewolves tasked with solving a decades old Hollywood murder. Their adventure included Chuck Wendig beating a werewolf with his own arm, Stephen Graham Jones nearly choking to death on a diamond ring, and GRRM’s Tommy-gun negotiations, and culminated in a fight with a giant Prehistoric Sloth. I’d like to thank Lucio Rodriguez for this information, and he’d like to thank Kate Jones for helping to set up the event.
My only thought, was that maybe, maybe Martin wasn’t quite through. Perhaps he really liked the RPG game, wanted to play again. I should have stayed at home. Shouldn’t have gone outside my comfort zone. What would I give, to just be in my office with my dogs, writing a book review on John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire?
“Play or die,” Martin growled.
Slowly, one by one, we stood up in the dark
We’d have to fight each other for a seat.
For a throne.