BY: Simon Kurt Unsworth
Part 1: Before
I’m writing this sitting on a train to Brighton, and I don’t want to be.
It’s a strange feeling, this negativity, because I ought to be excited; I’m going to Brighton because that’s where the British Fantasy Convention is being held, and FCon is an event at which I always have fun. I eat too much, drink too much and catch up with people who I don’t see often enough, whom I admire and whose friendship is a pleasure to me. More importantly, FCon is where my second book, Quiet Houses, is being launched, and I’m very very proud indeed of Quiet Houses and can’t wait for it to be available. I’ve put a lot of work into it, and early reviews have been extremely positive, and I’m excited about it. I’m also involved in the launch of the 22nd volume of Stephen Jones’ Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, and set to do a reading in support of the Spectral Press, both things I like doing immensely. Practically, the train journey is a good time to catch up on some writing; I have to proof my story ‘Q is for Qiqirn’ for Dean Drinkel’s Phobias anthology and I have a new scene to write for the opening chapters of my novel in the hope that an editor I’m meeting this weekend will like it and take me on as a client. So, why don’t I want to be here?
There are a few reasons, I suppose. The first is money – I haven’t got much, and I don’t enjoy being somewhere and worrying about whether I can afford another drink or whether the meal I’m eating is going to be more than the cash I have in my pocket. Perhaps worse, FCon might as well be subtitled ‘Temptation Alley’ because of the sheer amount of things for sale all of which I want! Books, DVDs, artwork, possibly people’s souls, all are available in the nooks and crannies of the hotel if only you know where to look and have the means of purchase. Which I don’t.
The second reason is that I’m not feeling particularly well. For the first time in ten years (except for planned absences for hospital stays), I’ve been off work for a couple of weeks; it’s nothing I can put my finger on, nothing serious, I’m simply weary, absolutely exhausted for some reason, and find myself unable to concentrate or do anything without feeling dreadful afterwards (although, secretly, I’m also terribly excited that my doctor’s sick note reads ‘Lethargy – Viral?’ in the ‘nature of illness’ section. Lethargy! Marvellous!!). Travelling, tiresome at the best of times, seems all the harder now and getting to the station this morning was hard work despite the unexpected and unseasonal sun and warmth.
Both of those are irritants, though, not enough to stop me looking forward to the coming weekend, so what, you might legitimately ask, is my problem? Simple: this is one of those rare moments I’m able to share some element of writing and what it leads to with other people, and the person I want to share it with isn’t here. Let me explain: writing, contrary to what some authors say, is not hard work. It’s difficult, to be sure, can be complex and tiring and frustrating and time-consuming, but it’s not physically damaging (unless you accidentally stab yourself in the eye with a pencil) or dangerous (unless you write something unpleasant an author who’s bigger than you. People’s lives do not depend on what we write, yet some authors talk about writing as though it’s akin to brain surgery or mining or bare knuckle fighting, and you know what? It’s not, and they need to get a sense of perspective about what they’re doing. It is, though, a mostly solitary occupation; not lonely, exactly, but internal and closed in. I spend more time inside my own head than anywhere else, in places that no one else can follow me, and you know what? That’s fine. Honestly.
What that means, though, is that on the rare occasions when I can share the experiences, it feels important to do it with the person who probably most deserves to be there. My wife, Wendy, puts up with my moods, with my clattering around the house muttering to myself about story details, with my swearing and with pimping my good reviews upon her, so it seems only fair that she gets to join in the few good bits that are available to her. She puts up with me, supports me and keeps me sane. She comes to my readings, and was at the launch of my first book, Lost Places. Hell, she took the cover photograph that Jason van Hollander then used to create his startling, beautiful cover image. Those of you who were there will remember the cake she made to celebrate the launch; those of you who weren’t will have to settle for imagination and jealousy. My second book is a big deal for me and I wish I could share its emergence into the world with Wendy, because she’s been, in lots of ways, as important in its creation as I have. However, finances and childcare have prevented her coming with me.
So, I’m not in the best frame of mind for Brighton, not really. Right now, it feels like a chore rather than something to be excited about. Oh, I’m sure I’ll enjoy it when I get there, and that it’ll all go smoothly, but at this point I feel old and tired and I miss my wife and son. I know, I know; I should stop moaning, think positively and basically cheer the fuck up, but I’m can’t. Well, okay, I won’t; for now, I’m going to wallow, in the hope that all my sourness is wallowed out by the time I hit Brighton. Call it gathering myself, if you want to put a more positive spin on it; call it whatever you like, but it’s something I need to do. FCon is fun, yes, but it’s also work, a public performance lasting two days or so, where I represent my writing and Dark Continents Publishing, and I need to be able to give a good account of myself. I have to have my game face on every time I leave my room.
We’re approaching London, and then it’s an hour to Brighton. Enough time to drag myself together? I think so. I know myself well enough to know that these moods tends to be short-lived, and that they’re curable with good company and beer and pizza, all of which I know FCon can provide. Already, I can feel a little bead of excitement, twisting and turning and growing inside me. Do I wish Wendy was here, that I had more money, that I felt better? Yes. Will I enjoy this, be able to feel pride at what I’m achieving with my writing? I hope so. Watch this space.
Part 2: After
So, it’s all over. I’m on a train back from Brighton, and the first question is, do I feel any better? And the answer is, Yes and No.
No because I’m still feeling lousy, although not as lousy as I did. The weariness is still with me, so much so that I thought I might fall asleep before my reading on Friday night, and I had to go for a sleep on Saturday afternoon – and no, it wasn’t alcohol assisted. I have missed my wife and son, and still wish they could both have been with me, and I’m looking forward to seeing them later. There’s wine chilling and I’m looking forward to slumping on the sofa and having a drink and a hug.
It’s Yes, of course, because I have had an absolute whale of a time, despite my initial misgivings. I think I always knew I would, and yes yes yes I know I was being a moaning arse on the way down, but there’s always that worry, isn’t there? Would my mood not lift? Would I feel too ill to really enjoy it? Would anyone buy the damned the book or come to the damned reading? These little uncertainties come with me everywhere I go, as much a part of me as my breathing or my taste in shirts or my grouchiness. This might be horrible, this might the time that it all goes to shit. Well, it might.
…but it’s never like that, not at FCon anyway, and it starts before I even get there because I met with the impressively tattooed Simon Marshall-Jones and his wife, the equally impressively tattooed Liz, on the train out of London. Simon is the brains behind the relatively new Spectral Press, and is publishing my chapbook ‘Rough Music’ next year and a full collection of my stories in 2013, so it was good to catch up with him. Within minutes of the getting to the hotel, I’d met up with Gary and Emily McMahon, DCP’s Adrian Chamberlain (and, it has to be said, sneaked in to the dealers room and checked out Quiet Houses, but more on that later!), Ray Russell and too many other people to mention. What it’s easy to forget (or, perhaps more accurately, what I sometimes forget) when you only see them once a year is that this is a community of people who are, in general, incredibly supportive, smart, witty and fundamentally damned nice. Going to FCon feels, in a weird way that I’ve not been able to completely down, like going to a second home, finding myself in a space where I feel safe and trusted and welcomed and wanted. Lovely.
Friday was the harder of the days, because my reading (shared with Gary McMahon and introduced by Simon Marshall-Jones) wasn’t until half ten in the evening, so I had to stay awake and sober for that, which I did. Before then, I was interviewed by Peter Bell for the Impossible Podcast, which was fun (note to self: don’t bother moving your hands about when being interviewed for radio of podcast, no one can see you and they just be confused by the sound of your shirtsleeves flapping). In a surprisingly full room, Gary read part of his new novel, and it’s as bleak and brilliant as his work always is, and then (assisted by the guest voice of Emily McMahon) I read my story ‘Borough Station’. We had a good crowd, who laughed and groaned in all the right places, and it all seemed to go down well. I signed a copy of Lost Places that someone had bought along specially, which was really nice, and then it was off to the bar and then a relatively early night and sleep.
The first thing I had to do ‘officially’ on Saturday was the signing for the Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 22, but before then I sold the very first copy of Quiet Houses at just after 10 in the morning! Quiet Houses has turned better than I could have hoped; it’s a really nice looking book, and the cover certainly seems to be catching people’s eyes and going down well. I managed to spend some time with Mistress of Ceremonies Sarah Pinborough (the sweariest woman I’ve ever met, which is saying something, but entirely lovely as well as being a great Mistress of Ceremonies), Adam Neville (who was being very nice about my writing without me prompting him) and loads of others. FCon is a continual blur, wandering from room to room and knowing people everywhere; here a Mark West, there a Simon Bestwick, here a Roy Gray, there a Steve Volk, and Oh look, there’s Rob Shearman and Tim Lebbon. It’s impossible to keep track of who you’ve spoken to or what you’ve said, and I know I’ll get home later and wish I’d had more time with this person or that, but it’s fun anyway pinballing from friend to friend and knowing that, just for one weekend everyone’s in the same boat.
The Mammoth signing was as much fun as they always are; we’re fed wine and sign books – what more can we ask for? I was wedged between Thana Niveau and Vinnie Chong, a spit away from Joel lane and Ramsey Campbell, in the same line as Kim Newman, Mark Morris and the great Stephen Jones (who also gave me cheques). What’s not to like?
And then we come to the launch.
We always knew we had a hard job, as we were up against the launch of Jo Fletcher’s new imprint for Quercus, but despite that, we did pretty well I think. People came, and they bought. The free wine was pretty rough, the cake was good and we made a good impression of ourselves, I think. Dave Jeffery (who’s small and slight in real life, and a really nice guy) and I both introduced our books briefly, and then we sat and tried to look like we knew what we were doing, and mostly I’m pretty sure we got away with it. Peter Mark May’s Alt.Dead launched alongside us and that seemed to sell well, so we were all happy by the end. I have two books out now; it’s official, and I like it.
Afterwards, I had the enormous pleasure of watching the world-shatteringly good Teattro Proberto (Lord and Lady Probert’s theatrical company) perform the entirety of the 1970s horror movie Blood on Satan’s Claw as a pantomime and, a little later, their take on the 1960s movie Corruption. I laughed so hard that it made my eyes hurt, and I may never be the same again. John Probert is a man whose sartorial elegance runs ahead of my own, and was one of the first people I spoke to at my first FCon 3 years ago; he and Ray Russell and Reggie Oliver were my FCon welcoming committee in 2008, and I genuinely can’t imagine a nicer group of men or a better way to start my FCon life than drinking in a bar with them. I didn’t watch much of the burlesque, although I may never forget the look of joy on Graham Joyce’s face as he intoned the words, “Contra-directional tassle movement! Amazing!”
And then there was the disco. Now, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m not really a dancer – I tend to dance like a goth with its arse on fire, a situation made worse by the fact that I wear cowboy boots, which aren’t what you’d call boogying shoes. However, within minutes of getting in there, Sarah Pinborough (who’s small and blond but impossible to refuse to when she’s decided something needs to happen!) had dragged me onto the dance floor and, if I’m honest, I stayed there most of the evening. I can honestly say I’ve not danced that much in years, mostly because every time I tried to slope off to the side for a quiet drink, some bugger would drag me back onto the floor. I finally quit at about 2, but I’m told it went on until after 3. Rio Youers, spinning the wheels of steel alongside Guy Adams, was a cheesily impressive DJ, and I can only hope that FCon turns the disco into a tradition because it massive fun.
And now it’s back home, and I’m a bit down about that because I know it’s at least a year before it all happens again (in Corby, if you’re interested; I’m hoping to go because I think my PS collection may launch there and besides, it’ll be fun, and I think curiously important for me to be there, because there’s a weird sort of grounding to be had at places like FCon). I’ll miss the sheer cheerful chaos of it all, of being able to walk from one room to another and see 10 people on the journey that you know and another 10 that you don’t and speak to all of them, of being, for just a couple of days, in a place where you can share the stupidities and irritations and joys of writing with people who not only understand but live them as well. Of being among friends, able to share their good news and successes and commiserate their frustrations and share your own. Would I want to do FCon every weekend? No, but once a year is good, a healthy shucking off of our responsibilities and real lives for a weekend, a place to recharge and vent and grin and stagger and eat and like and love and sell and buy and sign and boast and let the guards down. And drink, let’s not forget drink.
So, after all of my grousing and worrying on the way down, was it worth it? Yes, absolutely; I met old friends I don’t see often enough and made new ones I want to see again, I’ve sold books and signed books, bought a few books (not many, though, I promise), won some books in the raffle, eaten fish and chips, danced until I was breathless, talked to an agent, shaken the hand of the man who wrote and then directed Oktober, been asked to contribute to an anthology and attend a ghost story telling weekend, been complimented and given out compliments, drunk beer and overpriced coke, slept in, told stories, heard stories. This is FCon in all its mad glory and you know what? I wouldn’t miss it for the world.