By Ahimsa Kerp
2010 was the fifteenth year that the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival was held in Portland. This was its last year, as the current festival director, Andrew Migliore, is stepping down. He was starting to fail his sanity role, he said. Highlights of the 2010 gathering included director Stuart Gordon presenting his film Dagon, author Catlin Kiernan reading some of her work and editor Ellen Datlow explaining what editors really want. (Hint: It’s not paranormal romance.)
The only con I’ve been to before was Comic-Con, back in 2004 and 2005. This obviously is much smaller in scale and more focused in nature. There weren’t as many goodies here and far fewer shops, of course, but there were still plenty of great toys and amazing art.
The Hollywood Theater was built in 1926, during Lovecraft’s lifetime. It’s an imposing, dramatic building that calls to mind 19th-century Paris or Edinburgh. There were three main rooms where the movies were shown and panels were held. A fourth room was used as the Mall of Cthulhu for the vendors.
Upon arriving, I was handed a free copy of Lovecraft Unbound. This compilation features Ellen Datlow’s handpicked stories from authors such as Michael Chabon, Catlin Kiernan and Joyce Carol Oates. In her introduction, she states the criteria for her selections: “I’d prefer not to have any direct references to Lovecraft or his works. No use of the words ‘eldritch’ or ‘ichor’, and no mentions of Cthulhu or his minions. And especially, no tentacles.” I’ve read a few of the stories and, while they aren’t exactly re-inventing Lovecraft, the tone and content are of the highest quality.
Dark Horse was giving away a small Hellboy comic, including the famous pancake episode, and an Abe Sapien poster.
For those who bought the extra special weekend pass, a t-shirt and poster were included as well.
Items for sale included a plethora of independent books from companies like EraserHead Publishing and Centipede Press. Lovecraft products abounded in every variety, including dolls, t-shirts, shotglasses, Cthulhu underwear, and the soundtrack to Shoggoth on the Roof.
In addition to the basic games (Pagan Publishing’s Call of Cthulhu RPG, Munchkin Cthulhu, Arkham Asylum, Cthulhu dice, etc) on Saturday, there was a version of a Lovecraft-inspired Monopoly, called The Doom That Came To Atlantic City, available for play-testing. I didn’t get to play it, but everyone who did seemed to enjoy it.
One of the highlights was artist Mike Dubisch’s amazing portfolio called ‘The Black Velvet Necronomicon’. The Cthulhu-inspired Christmas carols were also amongst the most tempting wares available. A sample:
“Rudolph the Red Nosed Cultist” had a few insanities and if you ever saw him, he’ll be chanting with great glee.
SighCo Graphics had some amazing Lovecratian t-shirts with some of the best Cthulhu illustrations I’ve seen.
For the big spenders, there was a limited-addition “Casino R’lyeh Poker Set” for 250 dollars and some amazing compilations of art books that sold for 400 dollars.
Guerrilla Productions offered something very novel – a Lovecraftian story starring yourself. The original stories sold for 20-30 bucks, depending on what part of the weekend they were purchased.
The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society had a preview of Whisperer in the Darkness and copies of their silent Call of Cthulhu available for sale.
A looping nine-minute presentation preceded the films. They featured Lovecraftian art, books, bas reliefs, and graphic novels. A highlight of this was the fake promos:
Ipswitch Cosmetic Surgery: Tired of that Innsmouth look? Ready for a new you?
Louvokraftis: Greek Taverna. You won’t find any “old ones” here – our cthulhumari is always fresh.
Dunwhich Cattle Wholesalers: Discreet deliveries.
Before the second movie of the night was a series of clips of people like John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, Neil Gaiman, and Guillermo Del Toro, discussing Lovecraft. I assume it was stock footage, but it must have been shot recently, as Gaiman mentions how much he’s hoping Del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness will be the first great Lovecraft adaptation.
This Horror-Western hybrid was introduced as a virtual Call of Cthulhu scenario and it was indeed a well-told, tightly plotted movie. Clancy Brown (of Kurgan fame) stands out amongst a bevy of good acting. Like a lot of good horror movies, it is just as much about the interaction of the survivors and their intra-conflict as much as their inter-conflict with the antagonists. Quote of the movie: “I like my soft parts” [Walnut].
The Unnamable II: The Statement of Randolph Carter
This 80s classic fits into the ‘so bad it’s hilarious’ category. The audience laughed a lot at the ridiculous plot and character actions. It does star John Rhys-Davies of Lord of the Rings fame and has a pretty amazing ending that included a demonic chair. Quote of the movie: “I’m going to study the Necromonicon, then I’m going into those tunnels” [Randolph Carter].
This has replaced Wolf Creek as my favourite Australian horror movie. It does nothing particularly original, but really plays the horror movie tropes as well as I’ve seen in a long time. It is an almost-perfectly-constructed-and-executed movie, and the acting is surprisingly top-notch. It also boasts the best-ever cinematic use of the wallaby. This one got a lot of audience participation, but in this case, it was because they were into it. Quote of the movie: “That freaky-ass mutant rabbit will think twice before attacking you again” [Warren].
Stuart Gordon flew in, and both introduced the film and took questions after. He praised the Portland Lovecraft Festival and said that “every time I come here, I learn something about Lovecraft.” Dagon is creepy and much more somber in tone than his earlier work. The Spanish setting is inspired, as wandering through small, Mediterranean alleyways is eery and the movie drips with wetness. The priestess character is supercreepy as well. Quote of the movie: “You want my face? Come and get it, f***er” [Paul Marsh].
There were 3 blocks of shorts; I was able to attend the first.
Frank DanCoolo: Paranormal Drug Dealer
This is a highly-stylized, loose adaptation of “Hounds of Tindalos”, done in the style of Neil Stephenson. Director Andrew Jones spoke to the audience after the films about this crowd favorite.
I can’t recommend this. It is overly-long and doesn’t have much payoff.
To My Mother and Father
A gruesome movie with a pretty fantastic concept. I wish the twist would have made more sense, but this nine-minute short caused at least five people around me to leave the theater.
This French film was genuinely creepy and actually spine-tingling…maybe the closest to Lovecraft I’ve ever seen on the screen.
A festival favourite, it is as slick and polished as a mainstream Hollywood flick. It’s a top-notch production, although the story is a little underwhelming. Director David Prior was available for questions after the film.
One thing that surprised me about all the panels was that many people talked about the differences between horror, fantasy, sci-fi, dark fantasy, and crossed genre. It’s all specfic, right? Another thing that struck me was how polished the writers were. The image of a misanthropic, shy writer typing away in his room somewhere is an anachronism now; because writers have to do so much marketing on their own, they can’t afford not to be dynamic and charismatic.
Writing Horror Fiction
The panel was made of five successful writers who are influenced by Lovecraft. They had a great discussion and gave some useful tips. The panel talked about the “why” of writing, and how isolation and primary fears are important to horror fiction. They opined that cosmic horror is best captured by the medium of writing, since it can allow us to see the thoughts of those concerned. They also discussed how Lovecraft got away with stating that the horrors were too frightening to describe, but then used a slew of adjectives to do just that. Quotes of Mailer (writing as the “the spooky art”) and Gibson (“Sci-fi as an approach to narrative, not a genre”) were discussed.
The most successful writer on the panel was Bill Nolan (co-writer of Logan’s Run), who has written and sold exactly 188 stories. He said he liked writing horror because it was fun to write about people going crazy. He also said that, while someone like Raymond Carver could write an interesting story about a man coming home and having dinner with his wife, for everyone else, it would be more interesting to write a story about a man who came home, stabbed his wife and ate dinner over her dead body.
The other panelists were Andrew Fuller, Ed Morris, Cody Goodfellow, and Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire, who talked of how he was “captivated by the spell of Lovecraft.”
Cody Goodfellow, Cthulurotica contributor and cofounder of Perilous Press, had some insightful thoughts about writing. He talked of how Lovecraftian fiction is going through an unprecedented golden age. His best quote was to someone who asked how to distinguish their fiction: “Break out. Use cyclopean as a verb.”
Ed Morris talked about how Lovecraft and cosmic horror grew more popular when the world was going through major socio-political troubles.
Sean Branney of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society read from “Call of Cthulhu”. As you’d expect, he was pretty amazing; his tone and control were pitch perfect.
Scott Glancy read from his short screenplay – a movie that he hoped to get made for the festival, but at an estimated 30,000 dollars, was beyond his reach. His script was really good, sort of Dresden Files-lite.
Jemiah Jefferson read from a similar story. It was touching and creepy and made me want a beer.
Cody Goodfellow read from his story, “Rapture of the Deep”. The prose was really excellent, as he had a high-concept look at R’leh and baby cthulhus.
Andrew Fuller read from “The Circus Wagon”, which was interesting, but seemed to be overtly allegorical.
Ed Morris read from his story, “Sinners in the Hands Of An Angry God”. It had the rhythm of beat poetry and captured the horror of the eldritch really well.
What Editors Want
This panel was narrated by Ellen Datlow, one of the Festival’s Guests of Honor. Scott Glancy from Pagan Publishing, Scott Allie from Darkhorse and Victoria Blake of Underland Press were there as well.
They lamented that they weren’t their own target audience and that marketability was more important than they would prefer. Though they encouraged original work, they said a great story can transcend a tired theme and that even zombie and vampire stories can find success if they’re brilliant. They talked about how editors can recognize the requisite control of structure and language by reading the first paragraph and that less than ten percent of what they get is even potentially marketable.
The best quote of the panel was from Victoria Blake, who said that “awards are the best marketing.”
Most people were here because they were fans of Lovecraft, but not many people were dressed up. (There were some who were here with minimal knowledge of Lovecraft. Two people behind me wondered which Lovecraft story Hellboy was from).
A few notable exceptions were Cthulhu Girl, whose costume was definitely homemade and definitely awesome. She was affiliated with the con, though. There was a guy with a green face who might have been a Deep One and a lady with a white jacket that said ‘cultist’ on the back. One guy had a cane with a skeksis head on it from Dark Crystal.
Nearly everyone at the con was genuinely friendly and there was a strong sense of camaraderie here that might not exist at larger cons. From some other long-term attendees, I learned that Paper/Rock/Scissors here is played as “Tentacle/Necronomicon/Shoggoth”, as an initiation rite for noobs. It’s a pity that this is the last year of it, but there will be in one in Los Angeles next year. While it’s not as weird a location as Portland, LA has a unique, eldritch horror all its own.
Bio: Ahimsa Kerp has lived on four continents, but has currently returned to his hometown of Portland, Oregon. His screenplays have won awards, his travel writing is published throughout the web, and his contribution to the Cthulhurotica anthology and the mosaic novel, To Baldairn’s Motte, are forthcoming. You can read his blog at http://obscureclearly.wordpress.com/.