The StokerCon 2023 Keynote Speech

Good evening, horror family.

I’m going to start this by asking for your indulgence, because I’m about to do something tonight I rarely do in public: I’m going to brag a little.

I’m going to brag because as I look around and see some of the best writers in ANY genre gathered together in a city whose university holds possibly the world’s most important horror archive, I’m very proud of my part in creating this thing called StokerCon.

It all started about ten years ago, back when I was serving the HWA as Vice President under a remarkable President named Rocky Wood. At that time HWA had never held a gathering bigger than a two-day event centered around the presentation of its awards. Usually the awards dinner was held in conjunction with another convention.

But under Rocky’s guidance, HWA had started to grow, and our members were coming to us and saying, “Why don’t we have our own convention?” So Rocky and I started to talk about it. We had a dream of horror writers coming together the way science fiction and mystery and romance writers had for decades, to share craft and business, and to interact directly with the other half of the writing equation – the audience. We had these wacky notions of emphasizing education and networking and camaraderie, of genuinely helping other horror writers. We decided on the name StokerCon, to both honor one of the genre’s legends and our awards. We talked to people who wanted to work on it. We knew we wanted to go big for that first one, so we signed a deal with a hotel in Las Vegas, and let me tell you – that wasn’t easy. I think we spent a year trying to nail that down, and we signed it two years in advance.

Sadly, Rocky succumbed to ALS in December of 2014 and so he wasn’t there in 2016 to see how our dream played out. That first StokerCon did indeed take place in 2016 at the Flamingo in Las Vegas, and to call it a learning experience would be the understatement of the century. Even though HWA had run Bram Stoker Award Weekends and World Horror Conventions, this StokerCon was a whole new monster. I will confess right here and now that it nearly broke HWA and there were a lot of discussions about scaling it back, or stopping it altogether.

But I was President then, and although I suffered from a whopping helping of guilt over the amount of money that first convention cost us, I wasn’t willing to give up on what I saw as an important part of HWA’s mission. So we learned and refined and grew. A year later, StokerCon was held on the legendary Queen Mary and incorporated the essential components that make it work: Becky Spratford organized Librarian’s Day, Michele Brittany and Nicholas Diak put together the Ann Radcliffe Academic Conference, and Jonathan Lees produced the Final Frame Short Horror Film Competition…and best of all, we didn’t lose a boatload of money.

There were more things happening in 2017 than just StokerCon, though. That year the #metoo movement went viral, continuing seismic cultural shifts that had started several years earlier. When I assumed the Presidency after Rocky’s passing at the end of 2014, I almost immediately found myself sitting atop controversies and conflicts birthed out of these massive changes. I will be the first to admit that I made mistakes as I tried to steer HWA through these challenges, but they were necessary challenges and the mistakes led to some great things, like increased awareness of women horror writers and LGBTQ+ horror writers and horror writers of color and disabled horror writers. And if that sounds like a lot of use of the H-word, that’s deliberate because I like to believe that we’ve finally moved beyond having to hide behind labels like “dark fantasy” and “occult fiction” and “supernatural thriller.” We are all horror writers, and we should all proudly claim our identity as horror writers.

Although I don’t belong to the other groups in any way except as ally, I can tell you that as a woman writer of horror, things hadn’t always been so out of the shadows. When I started writing horror fiction in the early 1990s, you could count on your fingers how many women writers were in the genre; names like Elizabeth Massie were rare. It wasn’t at all unusual to open a new anthology or magazine and see two, or one, or just plain zero female names. A lot of us just didn’t even submit to certain markets that we assumed were not at all interested in what we were writing.  Content was a problem, too: it was not at all uncommon to open a new horror book and be offered a sexual assault right in the first chapter; in fact, it was so common that I suggested a few times that it was one of the genre’s most overused clichés.

It was also slow to change: in 2010 I did a blog entry (which you can still find in the pixel graveyard known as LiveJournal) in which I surveyed the six major small horror presses at the time, and I came up with the astounding fact that only 7.07% of their authors were women. I also don’t mind telling you that certain male authors wrote me private messages in response to that post insisting that I take it down. My answer to that was to initiate private conversations with certain small presses about including more women in their rosters.

I’m very pleased to say that thirteen years later things are much better, but we still have a long way to go. Remember those mistakes I mentioned making when I became HWA’s President in 2015? Well, here’s why no one should ever regret mistakes they’ve made: because as soon as you realize you blew it, that means that you’ve learned, and once you’ve learned you have a chance to fix things. Those mistakes eight years ago led to things like HWA’s Diverse Works Inclusion Committee and the monthly newsletter column “The Seers’ Table”; they led to new HWA scholarships, and blog series, and our Other Terrors anthology, and increased commitment to making all of HWA’s members feel like our events are safe and welcoming spaces for them.

But we’re not there yet; we’re still making mistakes, and we’re still learning and working to improve. There are questions I struggle with, and I know I’m not alone. How do we protect ourselves and our friends from examples of hate in a society that seems increasingly to celebrate it? Is it possible to educate those who express racism or misogyny or homophobia or transphobia or ableism…and should we even try? How do we balance condemning behavior and beliefs expressed by writers in their personal lives with acknowledging the importance of the work they’ve produced? Where does forgiveness, and a belief in someone’s capacity for change, fit into all of this? In an age when the internet makes sure we can never forget, can we ever forgive? If we remove compassion from judgment, what do we become? We are the creators who best understand monsters and the darkness that lurks in the human soul, but are we willing to stop and ask ourselves if we might not have become the monsters even a little?

These are questions I can’t answer yet, but I’ll keep working on them because that’s how we get better. I do know that we can never forget or bury our past, because then we deny ourselves the ability to move forward…and we must always keep moving forward. This year’s gathering is happening in a city where there are some everyday heroes attempting to create the world’s largest horror archive, a mission which I think is tremendously important, given that our world seems increasingly intent on erasing parts of its history that it finds uncomfortable. Archives like this protect our future by first protecting our past.

Horror is an art form that is ideally situated to point out our fears and our flaws, which is one of the reasons I’ve always loved the genre and always will. It’s been tremendously gratifying and exciting to watch the genre evolve over the last thirty years, and I for one cannot wait to see where StokerCon and HWA and horror fiction go in the future. I believe that, as horror writers, our voices will only become louder and harder to ignore as we move into the same future that we’ve been warning everyone about for decades, but that we know how to fight. We’re the ones who always stared into the darkness and forced it to serve us, but we know that we must never serve it.

Now let’s get back to celebrating who we are and what we do. Thank you and in the immortal words of George Romero, “Stay scared.”





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