Except for the masquerade ball — about which more in a moment — there aren’t any costumes at NecronomiCon, “the international festival of weird fiction, art, and academia.” Held in Providence, R.I., every two years, this wide-ranging “horror” convention originally focused on the city’s most famous native son, the Weird Tales writer H.P. Lovecraft. Its unusual name echoes the title of an ominous book of spells, frequently alluded to by Lovecraft and other writers in his circle, “The Necronomicon” of Abdul Alhazred. Miskatonic University Library owns a copy, but only the foolhardy ever ask to see it.
This year’s con ran from Aug. 22 through Aug. 25 at two hotels, the Omni and the Graduate. The programming began, appropriately enough, in a darkened, candlelit room. With a few simple props, the English actor Robert Lloyd Parry performed two of M.R. James’s most chilling “ghost stories of an antiquary”: “The Ash-Tree” and “ ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.’ ” Afterward, Parry told me that he had 10 of James’s tales of demons and revenants in his repertoire — his own favorite being “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book” — and was currently memorizing his 11th and 12th. If you ever have a chance to see his one-man show, don’t miss it, though DVDs of his performances are available through Nunkie Productions.
Way too early on Friday I hurried to the Omni, having agreed to join two morning panels. The first focused on Welsh writer Arthur Machen, whose complete fiction Hippocampus Press has just issued in three hefty volumes. In his finest work, Machen blends the sinister and numinous, most unforgettably in “The White People,” the first-
person account of an adolescent girl drawn inexorably into an evil, yet strangely magical Other World. Lovecraft maintained that this chilling story and Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” were the two supreme masterpieces of cosmic horror.
Following the Machen panel came “Songs the Sandman Sings: The Legacy and Influence of E.T.A. Hoffmann.” An early-19th-century German pioneer of the weird tale, Hoffmann created characters who are pulled back and forth between the world of the everyday and realms of dream or nightmare. His stories later inspired Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” Offenbach’s opera “Tales of Hoffmann” and much of Freud’s essay “The Uncanny.” While I spoke briefly about “The Sandman” and that phantasmagoric mind-boggler “The Golden Pot,” one of the con’s seven guests of honor, Sonya Taaffe, dazzled with her insights into Hoffmann’s influence on contemporary film.
Because NecronomiCon runs a half dozen simultaneous tracks, you can’t help but miss wonderful-sounding panels and events. On Friday alone I would have liked to have heard “Unsung Authors,” “Pulp History,” “Providence in Weird Fiction,” “Children’s Horror Anthologies of the 1960s and 70s,” and a discussion of the lushly decadent fantasist Tanith Lee, which featured, among others, her bibliographer Allison Rich, science fiction writer and critic Paul Di Filippo and popular Washington author Craig Laurance Gidney.
Still, along with my friend Robert Knowlton — a Toronto book collector who has read more weird fiction than anyone else alive — I did catch the program devoted to the specialty publisher Arkham House. Its participants included Donald Sidney-Fryer, who in his youth got to know that most poetical of Weird Tales writers, Clark Ashton Smith. Donaldo, as he likes to be called, generously inscribed my copy of “The Sorcerer Departs,” his memoir of that friendship. Not surprisingly, among the many films shown during the con was Darin Coelho Spring’s superb documentary “Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams.”
Two outstanding panels were moderated by prominent Washington scholars of the weird. “Post-Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror” was led by Douglas E. Winter, author of books on Stephen King and Clive Barker and editor of the groundbreaking anthology “Prime Evil.” Later that afternoon, Rusty Burke — president of the Robert E. Howard Foundation, which honors the creator of Conan of Cimmeria — oversaw “Eldritch Excavations: Weird Archaeology and the Mythos Writers.” In a mesmerizing slide-show, archaeologist Jeffrey H. Shanks surveyed the use of ancient ruins and lost civilizations in horror fiction and crackpot scholarship.
After touring the bustling merchants’ room, I bought two NecronomiCon prints from their creator, Dean Kuhta, who lives in Richmond, as well as — I couldn’t resist — a “Make Cthulhu Great Again” button. For the uninitiated, Cthulhu is the most powerful and loathsome of Lovecraft’s demonic aliens. I also acquired “The Chronology Out of Time: Dates in the Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft” by another guest of honor, Peter Cannon, author of that notorious mash-up of Lovecraft and P.G. Wodehouse, “Scream for Jeeves.”
Late Friday night I groggily meandered into the “Dreaming in Carcosa” masquerade ball, named for an imaginary city in Robert W. Chambers’s “The King in Yellow.” If you’ve never read this melancholy and terrifying 1895 classic, seek out publisher Arc Dream Publishing’s new edition with annotations by yet another NecronomiCon guest of honor, Kenneth Hite, and haunting illustrations by Samuel Araya. At the ball itself Victorian explorers, steampunk aeronauts and Edwardian courtesans, as well gender indeterminate figures wearing antlers, long commedia dell’arte noses and yellow feathers, danced the night away to the eerie, pagan music of Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores.
And so closed the first full day of NecronomiCon. Saturday and Sunday brought just as much fun, what with a panel on shrunken heads in popular culture, programs devoted to Edward Gorey and Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo, a discussion of weird fiction from the African diaspora — featuring still another guest of honor, Victor LaValle — and the launch of Les Klinger’s “New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft: Beyond Arkham.” And did I mention the author readings and the art show?
Anyone who attended NecronomiCon 2019 will certainly agree: Cthulhu really should have arisen from the ocean depths, where he lies dreaming and waiting, for — in Providence, this August — the stars were right again.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.