The “Alien” in Genre Fiction

As a writer, I tend to think that my fiction doesn’t quite fit neatly into any specific genre —  but my work is definitely “genre” fiction, because otherworldly elements play a huge part in my storylines. Now, as a reader, this is also the case with many of my favorite novels. I’m a big fan of books that straddle the line between genres, dancing back and forth between literary fiction and genre fiction.

But what is genre fiction, exactly?

Leopard Printed Slug Pale Highway Nicholas Conley

Generally, I think that the genre element of the tag “genre fiction” is referring to a distinct kind of “alien” presence existing in the narrative, this “alien” being something abnormal, something unusual, something outside of normal life.

Using genre fiction as the umbrella, we can then fit horror, science fiction, slipstream, fantasy, bizarro fiction, and so on all into the same grouping. While these genres are all very distinct from one another, they all have that “alien” factor in common, which literary fiction does not. Whether it is bloodthirsty monsters (horror), cyborgs (sci-fi) or a wardrobe that leads to a magical alternate dimension (fantasy), all of these fantastical things are simply well dressed narrative devices, doorways which allow the author to take the protagonists outside of their usual lives.

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The only difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is the existence of the “alien” as a narrative device. The alien is the tool that the genre author uses, not for the sake of itself, but rather because the use of the alien can bring greater illumination to real life fears, woes, and insecurities.

There’s a strange sort of idea out there that genre fiction is somehow inherently lesser than literary fiction, which is rather foolhardy.  Any story can be great, no matter what genre it springs from: it just has to mean something.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

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“Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”
― Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Reading through Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road is not a comforting experience.  Though not quite as bleak as some of McCarthy’s other work — it’s hard to get more bleak than Child of God, for one — The Road is pretty far from a fun jaunt, and not even something that the reader necessarily “enjoys,” as such.  Instead, the rather gut-wrenching action of traversing The Road‘s pages is a perfect mirror to the depressingly futile journey that the protagonists, a boy and his father, must go on: a hopeless trek through an expired Earth, in search of a mythical coastline that may or may not be worth the trip.

Why the coastline?  It doesn’t matter. Even in the beginning, this goal seems inconsequential. The true point of their journey is so that McCarthy can demonstrate that, even in the brutalized world that he predicts, there is still one thing worth living for: love.  And this love, flawed and painful as it may be, is the one thing that is strong enough to carry even the most emaciated victim of an uncertain apocalypse to the next day; the kind of incommunicable trust that a man and his son can share, as together they brave the wilderness of a world that seeks to destroy them.

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The Road is the story of a man, his boy, and the incommunicable trust that they share in a world that seeks to destroy them.  Within the narrative, both characters are never named.  This sort of feature is fairly normal in McCarthy’s fiction — his minimalism is one of the most distinctive features of his prose — but here, it further serves to demonstrate that, in the world McCarthy depicts, names no longer matter, only archetypes. We learn very little about who these two characters were before the apocalypse occurred, which only reinforces that they could be any father and son.

The love between these two characters is what allows them to persevere, resulting in a novel that, despite its vehement bleakness, ends up being one of McCarthy’s most oddly hopeful works, and one of his greatest triumphs.

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The Walking Dead: How Long Until Rick Snaps?

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So as we all reel from the implications of The Walking Dead‘s season finale—particularly those last few minutes—it’s time we step back for a moment and examine how the show has brought us to this point.

The Walking Dead, which just concluded its fifth season, is something of an anomaly.  It’s not entirely surprising that the show succeeded initially; it first hit when the zombie wave was its hottest, and it was based off of an already successful comic book series.  Now, the climate is different, and the show’s tone has evolved quite a bit.  What the show has turned into, and how successful it’s become with the public, defies all explanation.

How so?  Well, consider this: when you remove the zombies from the equation, what is The Walking Dead about, exactly?

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It’s about humanity.  Survival.  Depravity.  It’s an excellently written, deeply depressing,  frequently uncomfortable look at the moral degradation of a small, ragtag group of survivors who are struggling to remain afoot in the aftermath of an apocalypse that has killed almost everyone they know.  The zombies provide the background dressing, sure, but they could just as easily be a nuclear meltdown or an ice age; what the Walking Dead  is really concerned with is people.  It’s about what happens when good people have to make terrible decisions, and the heavy toll that these decisions take upon their consciences.  Nearly all of the characters are suffering from PTSD, and their moral compass is constantly on the verge of crumbling.  It’s hard to watch, because it’s written—and performed—so damn well.

At this point, the series has moved away from its Dawn of the Dead roots and found more in common with Stephen King’s The Stand.  Certain storylines and sequences have even approached the dark intensity of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. 

And right there at the center of the show, we have the one character who carries the biggest burden of all: Rick Grimes.

Now, as a disclaimer, I should state that I’ve only read the first volume of the Walking Dead comic series, titled Days Gone By, so my analysis here is based completely on the TV series.  I don’t know whether my conclusions line up with the character’s arc in the comics, as I’ve avoided reading any spoilers.  Now, moving forward with that in mind…

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Rick Grimes.

There are few television characters who have changed so much since the audience first met them. The only immediate comparison who jumps to mind is Walter White—and that’s not a character anyone wants to be compared to.

When we first met Rick, he was the goody two shoes.  He was the clean cut southern police officer, completely idealistic and devoted to doing the right thing.  He was a bit bottled up and struggled to emote to his wife, but he strove to find good, friendly solutions for every problem.  He was the kind of cop who had probably only drawn his gun a few times, and would be hard-pressed to do so.

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It’s terrifying to watch, in retrospect, how much the traumatic events of The Walking Dead’s five seasons have reshaped the old Rick Grimes.  Since the walkers took over, Rick has faced the betrayal of his childhood best friend, the death of his beloved wife, the supposed (but later refuted) death of his newborn daughter,the violent destruction of multiple places he had thought he could call home, and the horrifyingly grim situation of being locked up by a bunch of human cannibals who wanted to eat him and his adopted family.  Rick has never lost his devotion to protecting his family and friends, but that same devotion has forced him to do a lot of terrible things that the old Rick would’ve been appalled at.

Rick isn’t the same man he once was.  Never has that been more obvious than it was in the final minutes of this last season finale, as Morgan—the man who helped Rick at the beginning, and has been searching the countryside for him—walked into Alexandria just in time to watch Rick perform an execution.

Not that Rick is a bad guy, necessarily.  But he’s not really a good guy, either.

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Rick’s intentions are coming from the right place, certainly.  Unlike the aforementioned Walter White—who masked his selfish, egomaniacal drug lord aspirations with dubious claims about “doing it for his family”—Rick Grimes is a man who is truly, desperately devoted to protecting the people he cares about.  His every waking moment is consumed by his need to protect his loved ones by any means necessary.

But to protect one’s family in the blighted world that The Walking Dead depicts, a man must possess a violent immediacy, quick instincts and cold blood.  Rick has been forced to kill, shoot, maim, cripple and bite out the throat of people who have tried to kill his family.

Because his ideals are still in place, Rick has—so far—managed to keep from completely eroding his moral compass.  His soul, while perhaps smudged and frayed, has not yet been torn apart.  Up to this point, he hasn’t completely tipped over the edge.

But he’s getting close to it.  Damn close.

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He knows that he’s close, and the audience knows it. This underlying tension has made this season of The Walking Dead the best one yet.  Rick is constantly on guard, for good reason, and constantly alert.  But what if at some point, finally, the tension gets the best of him?   When an entire group depends on one man, how long can he keep going before he snaps?

In one of many brilliant moves this season, Rick recently shaved his beard.  On the surface, the reasons are obvious; since the characters have landed in Alexandria, they’ve essentially returned to civilization, and the familiar scene of shaving one’s beard is pretty well-recognized cinematic language for “getting back to oneself.”

But The Walking Dead, largely due to Andrew Lincoln’s excellent performance, deftly inverts this trope.  Though this new clean shaven Rick should look his old self, he doesn’t.  His tense body language, his shifty facial expressions, his gravelly voice…all of it demonstrates a man so far removed from the man he once was that, at this point, he may not even remember that the old Rick even existed.

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When season six arrives, Rick will have a lot of new trials to overcome.  Between connecting to the residents of Alexandria, dealing with this new tribe of “Wolves,” the constant menace of walkers, and the tragically timed reconnection with his old friend Morgan, Rick will be challenged like never before.

But even with all of this external factors at work, the true challenge will be internal.  Rick Grimes has come a long way from his humble beginnings, but he has an even longer road ahead of him.

Review of Blood for the Sun, by Errick Nunnally

The traditional werewolf legend is so firmly ingrained in our collective psyche that even the youngest children can recite the tale by heart: a full moon appears in the sky, a man howls…and by the light of that moon, he is transformed into a creature that stalks the wilderness.

We all know the deal. It’s a staple in horror fiction and spooky campfire stories, alike.  So why are werewolves so overlooked?

Right off the bat, I’ll admit that the werewolf is probably my favorite of the classic supernatural monsters—but I’ve found most media portrayals of them to be fairly lacking.  Lazy werewolf depictions are a dime a dozen, and this has resulted in an overall lowering of the werewolf’s standing in the great monster pantheon.  Though werewolves certainly have the potential to become the new mainstream monster any day now – like vampires paved the way for zombies, zombies will eventually be usurped by a new big bad– werewolves are generally given the shaft.  All too often, werewolves are relegated to being boss-style monsters, minor henchmen, or sometimes the pawns of vampires.

Really, werewolf mythology has been badly in need of an update for the last few decades, ever since An American Werewolf in London shook things up back in 1981.

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But how does one approach werewolves in a whole new light? Is it possible? Is there still fresh, untapped blood in the legend?

After reading Errick Nunnally’s debut novel, Blood for the Sun, the answer is a resounding yes.

Blood for the Sun is the story of Alexander Smith, a werewolf—in the novel, referred to as a shapeshifter—of 140 years, who is now suffering from a supernatural mental ailment that causes him to continually become disoriented and/or lose pieces of his memory. Struggling to overcome the hungry carnivore inside him, Alexander keeps himself focused by tracking down the murderers of children and bringing them to justice. But when his investigation of one such murder leads him down the trail of a vast supernatural conspiracy, Alexander’s response will decide the fate of the world.

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What immediately draws the reader into Blood for the Sun is how unique it is. Set in contemporary Boston, the book creates a world that believably sits right underneath our own. Though it uses familiar themes and mythological creatures, Nunnally’s take on them is intriguingly off-kilter, and all of the disparate elements of this new world fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Tired concepts are given new life. Shapeshifters are portrayed as the pack animals of the supernatural world; animalistic, hungry creatures barely contained within the body of the human being they occupy. Vampires are slick, wiry and reptilian, followed around by fetishistic followers. Wizards and witches are curious scientists with disturbing addictive tendencies. There’s even a fascinating take on the idea of dragons, a concept which rears its head in several of the book’s best scenes. Of course, the running thread through all of this is Alexander, and he proves to be one of the more interesting antiheroes in recent memory.

Errick Nunnally.

Errick Nunnally.

At the beginning, Blood for the Sun has the tone of a noir detective story with a dark supernatural bent, and this is what hooks us. Alexander is very much the grizzled veteran of the streets, and his narration forms a perfect introduction to the world that Nunnally has created. But as the story goes on, it evolves to be much more than that, with influences as far and wide as ancient Mayan mythology, horror, fantasy, superheroes and martial arts. Noir suddenly gives way to urban fantasy, and by the novel’s conclusion the story transports us to the realm of metaphysical science fiction.  It’s a thrilling ride from start to finish.

Somehow, it works. The concoction is expertly brewed. Blood for the Sun is a thinking man’s page turner, and leaves one breathlessly anticipating a sequel.

Halloween with Reinheit

Happy Halloween, everybody!

Just in time for the most haunted holiday of the year, I recently finished reading Thomas S. Flower’s rather intense new novel, Reinheit.

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Flowers’ Reinheit—which in English translates to purity, or cleanness—is the story of a schoolteacher who blows her budget on an expensive armchair, hoping that the present will ease the tension between her and her hideously abusive husband.  The gesture goes badly, but the husband’s rage soon gives way to morbid obsession; the chair, as it turns out, is merely the external form of a deeply malevolent, potentially sentient evil. Throughout the course of the novel, Reinheit flashes back and forth between the present and the past, as the armchair’s unsettling effect on human history is revealed piece by piece.  Political, social and humanitarian issues are deeply woven into the storyline, presenting a horrifying menace that is both supernatural—and at the same time, all too human.

Chilling, memorable and potent, Reinheit makes for excellent horror reading.

KIN, by Kealan Patrick Burke: The Story After the Story

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With some degree of variation, almost every slasher movie ends with the same scene.  It’s a scene that we’re all too familiar with.  A climactic moment that has been permanently etched upon our collective subconscious.  It’s a a common trope, a sequence that has become so familiar that even those who’ve never watched a horror movie know this scene by heart:

Once the carnage is done and all of her friends have been killed, the lone survivor – always a girl, usually a virgin, usually covered in blood and either sobbing or desensitized – stumbles away from the defeated killers, and she finally escapes from the horrific place she’s been trapped in.

That’s how all slasher stories end. It’s how they always end.  The basic formula has varied little since Tobe Hooper’s classic ending to the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and one of the more recent movies in that franchise – the 2006 prequel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning – pulled out a surprise ending by deliberately subverting the audience’s familiarity with this famous sequence.  Still, for the most part, slasher movies tend to follow a pretty steady formula.  Sure, sequels happen, but these sequels will usually repeat the same formula with little connection to the prior entry, and usually with a brand new cast of teenagers for the killer/s to slaughter.  Lather with blood, rinse, repeat.

There’s a lot to recommend about Kealan Patrick Burke’s excellent 2012 novel, Kin.  It’s terrifying, moving and uniquely put together, with masterfully-worded prose and a storyline that absorbs the reader’s full attention like a sponge.  But the immediate thing that sets Kin apart, from the very beginning of its opening paragraph, is its take on the famous bloody girl running away sequence.

Unlike most slasher films, which end on this sequence, Kin makes the intriguing choice of setting that sequence at the very beginning. 

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Burke’s novel opens up with Claire Lambert, the only survivor of her friends, who after being tortured by the Merrills – a psychopath family with cannibalistic tendencies, ala Texas Chainsaw‘s Sawyers – escapes from their clutches half-dead, naked and bloody. She stumbles into the road, where she is picked up by a boy and his father – a father all too aware of the potentially dangerous consequences of his actions, but unable not to help. Now, tensions are ramped up. The Merrills know they have to get out of town fast, but first they have to quickly kill anyone who could testify against them.

As all of this goes on, Kin also introduces two parallel storylines that eventually tie into the main narrative. In one, a waitress with a dark past is brought back to her old life by an unexpected visitor. At the same time, a soldier—fresh out of Iraq and plagued by PTSD—finds out this brother was one of the victims of the massacre that Claire escaped from, and he readies himself to engage in a vengeful war against the Merrill family.

Kealan Patrick Burke, author of Kin.

Kealan Patrick Burke, author of Kin.

Kin begins where other stories end—after the slaughter, after the war, after the pain has already been inflicted—and it tackles the questions that any such violent incident would undoubtedly raise.

Seriously, what happens after the girl gets away from the psychopaths? What happens to the homicidal, cannibalistic family that accidentally let her escape, now that she’s surely going to tell the cops? What happens to the girl, who would have to be pretty damn traumatized by this point? What happens to her family, who now has to take care of her? And what happens to the innocent people who picked her up and saved her? If the family wants to get rid of all the evidence, are the father and son also at risk?

By asking these questions and placing this post-slasher scenario inside what is essentially a Southern Gothic novel, Kin brings new depth to a tired genre. It shakes up the format, explores characters that could’ve been stereotypes, and brings a full scope of emotions to the proceedings; yes, this novel is scary and yes, it’s violent, but it’s also a novel that isn’t afraid to create characters that the reader deeply cares about. It’s a book that can both grab your heartstrings and then rip them out in the next moment.

At its core, Burke’s Kin is a novel about the pain, stress, anxiety and devastating grief that follows a traumatic event. It shows what happens after the scars are inflicted, and how the pain of trauma has a residual effect that trickles down through one’s life and impacts one’s loved ones. Every violent action has consequences, and Kin pulls back the curtain on the aftermath.

Top 10 Blog Posts

So, in celebration of this blog finally reaching 50 (50!) posts, I figure that now is a good opportunity to look back on the posts that have, over time, proved to be my favorites.  Since Writings, Readings and Coffee Addictions began, I’ve blogged about a pretty big variety of topics, so narrowing it down was difficult…but it’s always fun to look back and reminisce.

So, starting from #10 (and with pictures!) here are my top 10:

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10. MBTI Typology – a recent post, but a lot of fun.  What I really enjoyed about this post was less the post itself, and more so the comments, interactions and replies from you guys.  Learning about other people’s types generally makes for a good time.

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9. Why David Lynch’s “Dumbland” is Smarter than it Looks – David Lynch is one of the most interesting, bizarre filmmakers around, and so writing about his work is always a unique experience, to say the least.

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8. Transhumanism in Deathlok: The Demolisher – Since this review was posted, Deathlok has jumped into the spotlight, thanks to his role on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series.  Still, I think that Marvel’s original cyborg is one of the most underrated characters in comicdom, and the 2010 limited series, Deathlok: The Demolisher is one of the best takes on the character yet.

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7. The True “Hero” of Breaking Bad – When the Breaking Bad finale came out, it was pretty much the only thing anyone could talk about – and with good reason.  This was my take on the series’ climax.

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6. Page 133 – One of my first posts, and still one of my favorites.  A short look at the writing process, writer’s block and how to push through it.

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5. Spider-Man 2: Because We Found the Rubber Band – Though the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man 2 looks excellent, I don’t think there will ever be another Spidey film with the depth, quirkiness and heart of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, still one of the most unique comic book films ever made.    

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4. Chapter One, Page One – And here it is…my first post!  I remember struggling to figure out how to start, and once I was hit by the idea of just writing about the two voices debating back and forth in my head, well…all the pieces fell into place quickly afterward.

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3. Confronting the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster – As creative individuals, we all know this voice and have dealt with it in our own ways.  I just gave mine a name.

Art by Bernie Wrightson.

Art by Bernie Wrightson.

2. The Writer’s Role in Society – Easily one of the most popular posts I’ve ever written, this is an in-depth look at what motivates the writer to create, where the writer’s crazy, crazy passion comes from, what drives us and finally, what our role in the world really is.

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1. Why I wrote The Cage Legacy – Definitely the most personal post I’ve ever written on this blog, “Why I wrote The Cage Legacy” is the story of how The Cage Legacy was created, where the idea came from and the struggles I went through in its years of development.  Out of every blog post I’ve ever written, this one was by far the hardest to write – and also the most worth it.

And so, there we are – the top 10.  As usual, if you guys have any thoughts/opinions/replies/concerns about my mental well-being/et cetera, always feel free to comment!

Hey, what’ve I been up to?

So, other than currently levitating somewhere between Mars and Earth while my astral projection explores Pluto, where have I been?  What have I been up to?  Quite a bit, actually.  I’ve spent a lot of time down in the Earth’s core, recently; in addition, I recently was bitten by a radioactive spider, struck by gamma rays and spent a weekend at some weird place called Crystal Lake, where hockey masks are apparently not too popular.

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The writing life is always a busy one.  As a writer, so much of one’s life is spent engaged in the most introspective activity imaginable – sitting alone in a room, reconstructing one’s most private thoughts – and somehow, while all of one’s writing projects are going on, the writer must also find time to experience life to the fullest – because that’s where writing inspiration comes from, of course! – and so one must regularly go out into the world, have new experiences, meet people, understand the fabric of society, the backbone of society, the guts of society, and all that other good stuff.  In addition, the writer must also go out and promote their work, although doing so is a challenge, since it requires a skill in extroversion that might initially be foreign to the introverted writer.  After a few runs, though, you slowly get the hang of it.  It’s actually pretty fun, and interacting with your readers is really one of the more amazing  experiences a writer can have.

So now, my friends, let me give you guys the update of what exactly I’m working on.

Since The Cage Legacy was finished, I’ve been privately slaving away here at the keyboard, actively developing multiple new novels.  I’m crazily enthusiastic to share these stories with you guys – when the right time comes.  I’m the sort of person who gets my work done way ahead of schedule.  I like getting a lot of work completed and packaged before I fully reveal my hand…so when it comes to writing, one might say I’m a bit of a workaholic.  This work ethic can get exhausting at times, but I do absolutely love writing, so it’s a very satisfying form of exhaustion.  Much better than other forms of exhaustion, anyway.

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So, without spilling too much, these are currently the three main projects that I’m actively developing:

Novel #2: Working on getting this one published. It’s insanely tempting to tell you guys all about this one – it’s an extremely exciting project, for me – but I’ll hold back, for now.

Novel #3: I’m currently editing this one, right now.  I can’t wait to share this one, as well.  It’s a pretty offbeat story, for sure.

Novel #4: First draft complete!  Looking forward to editing this one, sometime soon.

Since The Cage Legacy was released, I’ve often been asked – whether by emails from my readers, real life acquaintances and/or online contacts –  what I’m working on now, or if I have any other books coming out.  Ideally, this blog will explain things in a way that both answers the question, and more importantly, simplifies my often confusing and complicated answers.  From this point forward, I’ll try to use the above three “working titles” whenever I refer to one of my upcoming novels-in-progress.

Cheers!

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Post-AnthoCon

…and another amazing AnthoCon draws to a close.

A big cheers goes out to everyone who made it out to Portsmouth this weekend, and I hope everyone there had as excellent a time as I did. As usual, it was great to see a lot of familiar faces – including publisher extraordinaire Eric Beebe, and such genre presences as G. Elmer Munson (Stripped), Scott Goudsward (Trailer Trash), Andrew Wolter (Nightfall), David Price (Dead in the USA),  Marianne Halbert, Stacey and Jason Harris (the owners of Books and Boos) and of course, the Four Horsemen themselves…not to mention, plenty of new faces as well, including authors Brian Dobbins (Jasmine’s Tale), Marshall Stein (Rage Begets Murder), and Rob Watts (Huldufolk), all of whom are terrific people who I hope to see again someday in the near future.  There are so many names I’m forgetting to mention – you see so many great people at an event like this!

But anyway, in closing: AnthoCon is an absolutely remarkable convention, and I’m sure it’ll get better and better with every year.  Here’s to the next gathering, guys!

-Nicholas Conley

This Weekend: AnthoCon 2013 in Portsmouth!

That’s right, I’ll be attending AnthoCon this weekend, November 9th and 10th- the Anthology 2013 Conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire!

Held at the Holiday Inn, AnthoCon is celebrating its third year this time around.  Access to the dealer room is FREE (!!!),  a day pass for all panels and readings is only $20 and as usual, there will be a literary ocean full of terrific horror/sci-fi/genre authors swimming all over the place.

I’ll be there on Saturday and Sunday with my publisher, Post Mortem Press.  More information on the convention can be found on its official website, anthocon.com.

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-Nicholas Conley