A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend NecronomiCon Providence for the first time. This particular conference/convention has always held some special intrigue for me, as (from the outside at least) it looks to be the coming together of pretty much all the divergent “flavours” of Lovecraft-inspired fandom. Not to mention also being a haunting ground for Lovecraft and associated weird fiction scholars and game designers.
For various personal reasons, I haven’t been in a position to attend any of the previous “rebooted” NecronomiCons (which started in 2013 and are held every second year). Coming from far, far away – almost literally the opposite side of the world – makes the pilgrimage to Providence a significantly complicated undertaking from both a logistical and financial perspective. But in 2019, the stars were finally right.
Because I have been a “curious outsider” to previous NecronomiCon Providence events, I thought it might be nice to write a couple of blog postings which aim to capture my impressions of the conference/convention – as a first-time attendee. Hopefully these posts might be useful to other folks who haven’t been able to make the event, as well as anyone who is contemplating making the journey to Providence for the next (2021) NecronomiCon.
Some Words About Providence
Pretty much every account I’ve ever read about fan visits to Lovecraft’s hometown of Providence have described the city as a beautiful place. That was also my impression of the downtown areas of Providence: charming and elegant in their own way, and with just the right mix of greenery, historical buildings, and modern facilities. The central part of Providence – where NecronomiCon is held – is also surprisingly compact, meaning that all the conference venues places of HPL-significance are within easy walking distance of one another.
The majority of NecronomiCon is held in a pair of hotels – the Biltmore (now the Graduate Providence), a large 1920s high-rise gem, and the Omni Providence, a modern-style high-rise. The two locations are about 3- or 4-minutes’ walk apart, and during the event there is a steady stream of people moving back and forth between the two. Both hotels are in the downtown area of Providence, quite close to a large and greenly-attractive park which also doubles as a kind of public transport hub.
The part of Providence where HPL spent most of his life is immediately to the east of the centre of town, just across the water. This is College Hill, the site of Brown University and all of the various places where Lovecraft lived while in Providence. It’s a charming and picturesque neighbourhood made up almost-entirely of different styles of historic architecture, most dating back to the Victorian age, some well into the 18th century or earlier. The NecronomiCon opening ceremony was held in the stunning First Baptist Church which is located in this part of town. It is very easy to walk to College Hill from the central part of town – it’s maybe a 10 minute walk – but be warned that exploring the neighbourhood can be strenuous as some of the streets are steep.
Getting To Providence / Accommodation Options
Because Providence is a smaller US city, the number of flights that fly direct into its airport are fewer than for major destinations like nearby Boston. For this reason, some NecronomiCon attendees fly into/out of Providence directly but many journey to Boston and complete their trip by road or rail. I took the latter option, choosing to end my international flight in Boston and then (after a day’s stopover there) take the train from Boston South Station to Providence – a trip of about 40 minutes. This worked out very well and brought me right into the heart of Providence, a short walk from the convention hotels. Other people I spoke to at NecronomiCon rented cars from Boston and drove down themselves.
Because most of the activity at NecronomiCon takes place in the Biltmore/Graduate and the Omni, the most convenient – but probably also the most expensive – option for accommodation is to get a room in one of those hotels. The conference had a limited block booking in both, but I didn’t get in early enough to take advantage of that rate. Regardless I decided to book some nights’ accommodation in each of the two. The Biltmore/Graduate is by far the more luxurious (and expensive), having gorgeously appointed rooms in an artsy/preppy kind of theme. My room at the Omni was a typical example of a modern hotel room, but was more spacious than my room at the Graduate. The convenience of being able to stop by your accommodation in-between conference sessions, or to drop off purchases made in the vendor hall, was great – but obviously comes with a cost.
Speaking with other attendees, it seems that a lot of groups band together and hire out AirBnB house accommodation to share among everyone. Some of those AirBnB’s seemed to be quite conveniently located to the convention, a short bus ride away or similar, but others opted for places that were a little more distant. Given that most days the convention started around 8:30 or 9AM and socializing frequently stretched late into the night (I was out til ~2AM on Friday and Saturday nights), sleep is already at a premium. I would imagine that adding travel to/from outlying AirBnBs might exacerbate that even more.
One Convention? Two Conventions? More?
NecronomiCon bills itself as a kind of one-stop event that takes in all aspects of literature, games, media, and … miscellaneous stuff … all which is somehow associated with Lovecraft. Actually, it’s even broader than that, encompassing anything with a “weird fiction” pedigree. With such a broad (some might say catholic) focus, I was quite interested to see how a single event could somehow roll in everything from hard literary criticism, through new weird fiction, through Lovecraft-inspired games, through art and film projects, through to heavy-metal music. Of course the answer is that while all of those things are included in some way … the resulting amalgam doesn’t truly feel like a single homogenous conference or convention, but more like a conglomerate of a few independent “sub-conventions.” A thing of many semi-independent parts, if you will.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the relationship between the literature/biographical stream of NecronomiCon and the gaming stream. Both are sizeable, but are run as largely independent events (with the main cross-over points being the rather sparse and lacklustre programme of gaming panels). That’s not to say that attendees entirely go for one side of the convention or the other, but there definitely seems to be some degree of separation between “literary nerds” and “gamer nerds.”
In addition to the two major streams of the convention, there is a very active “trade show” type vendor hall where folks sign up to sell their weird-horror wares – some game-related, some fiction-related, some altogether unrelated to either.
At the same time as the very active programme of literature talks/panels, gaming sessions, and vendor selling is happening, NecronomiCon also has a very full programme of “external events.” These include things like live podcast recordings, performances by the HPLHS of their audio dramas, film stuff, art stuff, weird masquerade balls, tours of HPL sites in Providence, meet ups of different communities, life-sized weird horror puppets, and metal music performances. And probably more too.
Weirdness, Weirdness All Around
With all those different streams of Lovecraft (and weird-fiction) inspired stuff going on at the same time, it’s fair to say that there is never a shortage of things to do. I was warned ahead of time by folks that had been to previous NecronomiCons that it is very easy to overcommit on one aspect of the convention (e.g., booking into lots of game sessions) and missing out on other things because their timings clashed. On the other hand, there are some things – like the bus tours of Providence – that tend to sell out quickly, so there’s a need to commit to some of those well ahead of the convention.
So … how did it feel to be awash in such a sea of interesting “things to do” (most of which are included in the cost of the convention sign-up)? Well, speaking as someone who came to NecronomiCon hoping to dip into parts of *all* of the different streams of activities … I found the experience rather overwhelming. One could liken it to trying to drink from a firehose … although I would probably go further and say it’s like trying to multitask between drinking from three or four firehoses at the same time. While I’ve been to lots of academic-style conferences and a fair share of game conventions, I don’t think I have ever felt this torn between different things that I wanted to see and do. I guess that’s an endorsement of the richness of the NecronomiCon programme … but it also has the effect that no matter how you dash from session to session to best use your time, you’ll inevitably still miss a fair number of things you’d really like to have seen or been part of. Ultimately, I guess it’s better to have “feast” rather than “famine” even if that means a certain amount of disappointment.
Speaking with others whose travel plans caused them to leave a little earlier – missing part of Sunday (a quieter day, but still pretty hectic) – the general sense is that its preferable to stick around until the last hurrah, even if only for the opportunity to network and socialize. Thankfully my own plans were made based on the wisdom of friends who were old Necro-hands, so not only was I able to take in the full 4-day experience but also to stick around for additional “rest days” in Providence afterwards.
Watch This Space
In the second part of this NecronomiCon wrap-up, I will attempt to try to capture some personal impressions of the game-related elements of the convention.