Ian Hunter reports on the 2018 British Fantasy Convention
Another year, another autumn, another Fantasycon, the 42nd, in fact. One of the joys of attending Fantasycon is that it is a moveable feast, and after Peterborough last year, and Scarborough the year before, the 2018 convention was in Chester, another new place to visit, and easily accessible by train, and very handy for the station as the convention hotel – The Queen (with a formidable statue of Queen Victoria outside) - was just across the road, and across the road from that was the Hallmark, an overflow hotel where many attendees, me included, were staying.
This was a special Fantasycon for me, as it was thirty years since my first; that was actually a combined Fantasycon with the 1988 World Fantasy Convention in the Ramada Inn in London, where the guest of honour was James Herbert and the special guest was Diana Wynne Jones and the Master of Ceremonies was one Clive Barker. Flying down from Scotland, I had arrived late and wandered into a panel made up of Herbert, Barker and I think, Ramsey Campbell and Dennis Etchison – what a start! At that 1988 event, being a combined World and British Fantasycon, there were lots of major fantasy and horror writers attending including the likes of Brian Aldiss, Karl Edward Wagner, Charlie Grant, Shaun Hutson, and the like. Somewhere in Hunter Towers there is an envelope full of the photographs that I actually took and had developed – those were the days - of that convention. In the thirty years since, I have made great friends through the British Fantasy Society, and have many memories of Fantasycons over the years, particularly the great (and not-so-great) prizes that I won at the legendary (for all the wrong reasons) raffles which went on for hours, and hours, and hours.
Fantasycon runs from the Friday to the Monday, but for those who arriving in Chester a day earlier there was an informal get together at the craft pub, The Deva, just around the corner from The Queen. This pub was mentioned in a handy section in the convention booklet on places to eat in Chester, but I had my trusty John Aitken convention pub map with me - John was a former stock holder of the British Fantasy Society and the editor of their letters page in the society newsletter, back in the day when people actually wrote letters and sent them in. John’s convention pubs maps are indispensable, not just to find good places to drink but to get around an unfamiliar place. The Chester map detailed a mere 55 pubs, although we actually went off grid, or off map, by going through the city gates, over the bridge past Chester Falls and into the Handbridge area of the city.
This year’s 2018 convention had three guests of honour – the two writers Adrian Tchaikovsky and Claire North, and academic writer and editor Farah Mendelssohn. Being a guest of honour brings with it certain requirements to take part in the programme such as being interviewed on stage, taking part in various panels, attending signing sessions and also speaking at the awards banquets, and if they are really keen they can take part in the readings strand too. The imposing figure of Tchaikovsky is a well-kent face at Fantasycons and is well known to fans for his epic, ten part fantasy series published under the collective title Shadows of the Apt, although he ventured into science fiction with his 2015 novel Children of Time which won the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke award. North is also an award winner with her novel The Sudden Appearance of Hope winning the World Fantasy Award in 2017.
Fantasycon is really a convention that has something for everyone. Writers can read their own work in the readings strand, and poets can read at open mike event on the Saturday night. Readers can buy books at various launch events and there was also a pretty extensive dealers’ room where t-shirts and jewellery and various items could also be purchased. While the registration desk and dealers room were open earlier on the Friday, things properly got started at 3.30 pm with a panel on “Crowdfunding in Publishing”. This was followed by other panels which looked at the lack of elderly characters in fantasy fiction, the role of class in fantasy and science fiction, villains that don’t seem to die, and robot companions. Panels continued to run into late evening but they weren’t all meant to be fun and entertaining, there were some “craft” panels looking at things like blogging, self-publishing and writing for film. Panels aside, Fantasycon is well known for its launches and I’ve often said it’s possible to attend the convention and just attend the various launches and miss everything else. Friday saw launches from the likes of The Sinister Horror Company, PS Publishing, Eibonvale Press and Guardbridge Books. Running alongside this was a series of readings, stretching from 3.30pm to 10pm and helpfully bundled into packages with titles like “horror”, “fantasy” and “humorous fantasy”. A similar programme of panels, readings, and launches continued for the next two days, with notable additions such as a karaoke on Saturday night and the awards banquet on Sunday afternoon, followed by the presentation of the British Fantasy Awards. There was also the AGM of the British Fantasy Society on the Sunday morning, and members of society could attend that, even if they were not at the convention.
Apart from attending panels, and book launches, I signed up for a couple of workshops, one called “Tell It Slant” led by the poet Sarah Doyle, which looked at turning a good memory and a bad memory into a poem, and then rewriting it from a different viewpoint, or setting. For the good memory, I chose to write about the first time I saw Miles Davis in concert, then rewrote it in a medieval setting, where jazz music had been outlawed. For the bad memory, I chose a relative’s funeral and rewrote it as a set of stage directions. The second workshop was led by fantasy writer, Rod Duncan and concerned “Creating Narrative Drive” looking at how other writers “drive” their stories and how to hold the reader’s attention by the use of action, shorter sentences and “literal pace” by examining the works of the late, great Graham Joyce, James Lee Burke and Raymond Carver.
As poetry editor for the British Fantasy Society, one other event that I always enjoy attending is the Poetry Open Mic run by Allen Ashley on the Saturday night, not only because it gives me the chance to read some poems, some of the “old stuff” that has been published before but rarely gets an airing, but also because it gives me the chance to talent new spot and invite some of those reading to submit a poem to the BFS, and I managed to “mug” a few people there into doing that.
I was told a couple of years ago that the 2019 convention would be in Edinburgh but not to tell anyone. Good job I didn’t because it’s actually going to be in Glasgow next year, the first time it’s been outside England, and I’m looking forward to it already.