ChillerCon UK 2022 emerged from the ashes of the Covid-struck StokerCon 2020, miraculously held together by the heroic organisers who had to deal with cancelled hotel rooms, refunds, and much else I’ll never know about. The original idea when I bought the ticket in 2019 was to find my tribe and network with other writers off the back of The Complex being published. I wasn’t sure I wanted to still go. Almost three years on, since Salt are not a genre-specific publisher, and The Complex didn’t get much attention in the media, I knew nobody would know anything about me, and as much as I love horror films and weird fiction, I don’t read any contemporary horror. On top of that, I’d lost those all-important in-person social muscles, and Covid was still very much around.
Getting the virus in April made me more open to the idea, and realising that my friend Tim Major was going to be there too, I committed to it–and I’m so glad that I did.
The Royal Hotel was an amazing venue with the perfect atmosphere, right down to the closed spa in the basement from which I’m sure sometimes I could hear screams. I arrived a little late on the Thursday because of train delays, then threw myself into the panels, soaking up panellists’ thoughts on comedy in horror, podcasting, the nature of folk horror and horror science-fiction. When the evening dinner break arrived, conference newbie that I was, I thought people would eat together, and I cast awkwardly about for someone to go to dinner with. I think one guy thought I was making a pass at him and ran away (wasn’t I, in a way?), and another just looked pityingly at me, so I ate the very disappointing fish-and-chips-of-shame on the beach with the gulls. As an introvert, I can turn charm on in short bursts, but I get quickly overwhelmed, and looking back I wonder if I was a tad manic. Desperation is not attractive.
I stayed in a hotel in the Scarborough valley beneath the main bridge Thursday night. The stairway walls were unexpectedly covered in framed old film posters, like Tombstone, Smokey and the Bandit, and The Way West. It was almost classy. I loved it. My top floor room was quiet and clean, the bed was comfortable, the breakfast was fine, and I slept well. I would find out the next day from guests at the main hotel that sleep was in rare supply.
Anyway, on Friday I launched myself back into the fray, sleep and a greasy breakfast giving me courage to have another shot at socialising with the tribe I was becoming increasingly eager to join, but first there were more panels: on horror anthologies, having an online presence, and the role of reviewers. Having no idea what a Kaffeeklatch was, I’d bought a fiver ticket with a podcasting hero of mine, Mick Garris, and hilariously it was just Mick Garris, the lovely Steven Volk, me, and a Spanish Mick Garris super-fan (if you’re reading this, we didn’t introduce ourselves, you were fab), drinking tea and chatting amiably about horror, before all getting lost on the mysterious fourth floor of the Royal Hotel that can only be reached by a single lift. That was an hour I’ll never forget.
Tim arrived on Friday and, determined not to eat dinner with the seagulls again, I got him to introduce me to a few people. We ended up in a lovely crew of six at Thai Orchid, a splendid spot a couple of streets from the Royal Hotel. It was so nice to feel normal and social. Even if you are fundamentally a nice person with decent social skills, conferences are a bit of a lottery in terms of who you end up spending your time with, and whether you make new friends. This time I was blessed.
Friday night I was in a different hotel, which had a wonky bed, creaking floorboards (and creaking wallboards, which was new to me), and a man next door who spent the whole night hacking up a lung (I wonder if he managed it?). That left me going into Saturday a little frayed, and it turned out most people had been sleep-deprived for various reasons–gulls, a nightclub next door, fighting outside, etc. I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself, because I had a two-hour masterclass with another hero of mine, film producer Jennifer Handorf, about film-making. What a joy that was. It almost made me want to make a film and leave the novel-writing behind, and maybe I’ll write a screenplay from The Complex or Signal in due course. I’m ruling nothing out. Jen was an inspiration.
After the adrenaline rush of a film-making masterclass, the come down was severe. I decided I couldn’t face another night in the grim hotel, and there were rumours of a rail strike the next day, so I headed home. Frankly, I was burnt out. After getting used to the delicacies of working from home, with next to not physical proximity to people, ChillerCon fried my social synapses. There probably won’t be another, but my appetite is wetted for writer conferences as a concept. It would be even nicer to be able to go as a writer that people know about. That’s a goal for 2023.