Invasion of the Horror Writers: StokerCon 2021 Recap

               How do you move a writing conference online? How do you replicate the multi-faceted experience of panels, readings, pitch sessions, an expo hall, academic presentations, ceremonies, a film festival, and an awards show with the wanted interaction between attendees? (Let’s not forget the bar). The answer, for the team who made virtual StokerCon 2021 possible, was Hopin. This platform, perhaps more than Zoom, is able to replicate and organize many of the organic materials of a conference in a somewhat coherent manner. It’s not without its glitches, faults, or issues but—for loading over 400 horror writers, librarians, academics, and more into a digital event—I was still able to do all I wanted and more. This year StokerCon ran from May 20 – May 23, with an extended access period from May 25 – May 28 due to demand. So it was kind of like getting two conferences for one, and I appreciated the extra time to go back and see what I’d missed.

               Normally, fine-tuning your schedule during the conference is imperative because so many things are going on at the same time from early in the morning to super late at night. Sometimes you have to choose between seeing an author you love reading or a panel that would be helpful to your writing because they’re scheduled at the same time. With the virtual format, some of the material was prerecorded and uploaded prior to the conference and available the whole time. Other sessions were live, recorded during, and available shortly afterword. You might miss the live Q&A opportunity, but you wouldn’t miss seeing it at all. So, in this way, it was like having access to the entire conference, full of choice, and being spoiled but short on time (even with extended access). Still, I was able to see as much—if not more—than I had before and the presenters this year felt really strong, even with some of the technical difficulties.

               I spent most of Thursday watching the thirteen other presentations for the Ann Radcliffe Academic Conference, since I was part of that track again. These presentations covered things like multiplicities in Twilight Zone and mummy comics, Jewish exorcism films, discussions of Otherness across different media, and subversions of the mammy in horror films to name a few. I like that StokerCon makes room for critical voices within writing and media and the variety in the presentations was fascinating. With the digital format, I felt more comfortable and had time to formulate my thoughts and questions for presentations or think of other references, which can be helpful in research. The ongoing chat function, within each individual session and in the larger con, was nice and allowed con-goers to interact with presenters and each other in real time. On Friday, I had a meet and greet with the other academics and it was great to see the people behind the research. Normally during an in-person con, we’d take questions for fifteen minutes after a panel, but, instead, we were organized into Q&A sessions. I had fun answering questions about my presentation, “Bathing Beauty: Violence and Vulnerability in the Showers of Horror” and listening to the others. Overall, this felt like another decent year for academic presentations and, through the virtual format, I think at least twice the amount of people were able to watch mine as would in-person.  I can’t wait to (hopefully) do it again.

               Overall, between the primary and extended access period, I was able to attend ten readings, including one live reading by guest of honor Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Normally, these readings (with the exception of guests of honor) are grouped together in twos or threes, with about ten to fifteen minutes each and a Q&A after. So this allowed readers to take more time if they wanted, create a different experience than would be had in a conference room, and share their work in a variety of ways. Some even used background music or atmosphere to build the suspense. I was happy to view readings by Andy Davidson, Christa Carmen, Cynthia Pelayo, Gwendolyn Kiste, Jessica Ann York, Kaaron Warren, Sara Tantlinger, EV Knight, and T.J. Tranchell. It’s definitely added more than a few titles to my To Be Read list.

               The panels, in some ways, felt like watching people talk over a video call, only guided by a moderator, but the use of the chat allowed for an ongoing interaction and sense of connection that would otherwise be lacking. The cool thing about the virtual format here is that, if you weren’t feeling the topic or needed to go do something, you could leave the session without having to physically stand-up and feel like an asshole. Overall, I attended nine full sessions: The Current State of Publishing, Short Fiction Crafting, Women as Villains in Horror, American Female Gothic, How to Make a Career out of Writing, information on the Horror Writing Association’s Archive, History of the Gothic: Folklore in Horror, Portrayals of Mental Illness in Horror, and Reinventing the Classics. Each of these sessions gave me new things to think over or ideas, but also solidified the learning and writing I’ve already accomplished in many ways (which is a great confidence-boost).

               I also participated in some of the more social aspects of the con. For the first time, I signed up and did pitch sessions (where you try to convince an agent or publisher your book is awesome), and had a good experience with that. I’d recommend it for other authors. One of the formats I think was somewhat strengthened by the virtual format was the Final Frame Film Competition. Normally, you’re in a darkened expo hall, hushed movie-theater style, and enjoying film after film as the judges vote. This year, it was nice to be home with my snacks, and have an interactive chat to see the ‘live’ reactions to the films. While I watched most of them without the chat, I liked booting it up at the end to see that final oomph and how it hit. Plus, this year they had an audience award and we were able to vote for our favorite. The films I really enjoyed were: “Abracitos”, “Sundown Town”, “Patron”, “Safekeeping”, “You Wouldn’t Understand”, “Antikk”, and “Joanne is Dead.” They were all the perfect mix of what horror can be: suspenseful, terrifying, funny, confusing, beautiful, or tragic.

               Lastly, on two of the nights of the con, I ventured into the virtual bars. I’m awkward enough in person but I’m doing my best to get out there and, luckily, online can feel more comfortable. I tried the bar thing in 2019 but spent most of the night at the same table, making stilted conversation and boring people (I’m sure), so this felt a little better. It was a shared room where up to twenty people could be on-screen (with more in the chat) and it was sometimes surreal to be in the same space or conversation with people who I admire or to hear their advice. While I probably didn’t add much to the vibe, I know I didn’t take away from it. Maybe by the time we’re in-person again I’ll be better at the socializing.

               While I’d watched the Opening Ceremony in 2019, this was the first year I watched the Bram Stoker Awards on YouTube all the way through (with a live chat) and the Closing Ceremony. If anything it has solidified some personal goals for myself, but it was also great to see how people celebrate the books and writing within horror. And the pre-recorded speeches were a lot of fun, including music, drama, or chainsaws. Even though it was not planned, one of the presenter’s power went out (scary but ambiance). So, in many ways, this is a StokerCon and award ceremony to remember.

               So, what are my thoughts overall? While it would have been nice to see everyone in Denver and get the most from those in-person interactions, this was definitely the safer, best alternative and the experience was as close as I could imagine it being replicated. While there were definitely bugs, eventually I enjoyed the way those same issues became in-jokes among the attendees or how we tried to help each other solve them rather than constantly bothering the people running the con (who answered questions all the time. They deserve major kudos). It felt like the community and people I remembered. And I was inspired to write again, to create and play and try, which is more than could be said for the last year. I attended roughly thirty-two readings, sessions, and presentations; spent at least four hours in the bars; and basically was attached to my computer non-stop for three days. So, for $75, I more than think I got my money’s worth. And in-person I wouldn’t get to cuddle with my cat while watching a panel, so there’s that.

               In the end, it wasn’t a horrifying experience and I’d do it again, but I’d prefer to invade the halls of some poor hotel with my horror fellowship.