NecronomiCon: An Acolyte’s View, part 3

In the first part of my (entirely-subjective) review of NecronomiCon Providence 2019, I tried to capture some of the overall impressions I had of Providence and the convention overall. One of the key observations in that overview was that in many ways NecronomiCon felt to me a lot more like multiple concurrent conventions — a literary/HPL conference, a game convention, a trade show, and a bunch of affiliated weird-fiction-y events and performances. In part two I talked a little about my impressions of the gaming aspects of the conference — in this final part I’ll focus on the literary angle, and the even more important topic of extracurricular social activities!

Once again I should emphasize that my account of NecronomiCon is necessarily idiosyncratic, based purely on what I was personally able to cram into my 4 days at the event. There was so much other material I wanted to see but couldn’t, and a vast number of other sessions and auxiliary events which happened in parallel with things I saw.

Literary and Biographical Panels

Somebody perusing the website for NecronomiCon Providence 2019 might be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the event is a literary show first, and a more general appreciation of Lovecraft-inspired things second. Based on lurking around different parts of the conference/convention I would say this is a fair conclusion. There are certainly a great number of people who come to NecronomiCon to listen to fiction publishers, authors, Lovecraft scholars, and other folks who delve into weird literary criticism.

Pretty much all of the literary aspects of the convention take place as a jam-packed schedule of panel discussions and presentations (with a few author readings thrown in for good measure). While I say “literary,” it’s probably more accurate to say that there are a couple of different flavours of such sessions — some aim to be true literary discussions about weird fiction (either the fiction of a particular author, or fiction covering a theme or topic) while other sessions provide handy educational information about Lovecraft and the world he inhabited. I tried to sample a little of each type of session, but as a new visitor to Lovecraft’s hometown I especially wanted to make it to the sessions about HPL’s Providence.

Undoubtedly the absolutely most essential informational sessions presented at NecronomiCon 2019 (and I imagine at previous incarnations as well) were those run by Donovan Loucks, concerning Providence locations important to H.P. Lovecraft. Donovan is a national treasure of Lovecraft scholarship, having set himself up as the premiere authority on “Lovecraft Geography” — real world places that played a part in Lovecraft’s life, or upon which he based fictional locations in his tales. Donovan created the walking tour map/guide of Providence’s College Hill that appears for free in the NecronomiCon guidebook (also available online) and runs 3-hour guided walking tours during the conference. I had been told previously that the tours personally led by Donovan are wonderfully informative — but for the 2019 event only one of the walking tours was led by him personally, with the rest being run by other knowledgeable colleagues.

Instead of booking into one of those, though, I dropped by the two back-to-back presentation sessions (each ~90 minutes) where Donovan took the audience on a photographic “sitting tour” through locations of significance. The first of the timeslots was devoted to locations around Providence, with the order or presentation linked to a chronological walk through HPL’s life. The second timeslot was a virtual tour of other New England locations of importance to Lovecraft — especially focussing on coastal Massachusetts places (e.g., Marblehead) that held especial fascination for him. Both of these sessions were fantastically informative, and I would definitely recommend any newcomer to Providence and NecronomiCon have them on their calendar.

Another biographical-type session I went to was a panel session on Sonia Greene, the remarkable woman who was Lovecraft’s wife for a few years and who enticed him to leave Providence and briefly move to New York City. This session was more of an information-dump than a true panel session, with one of the panelist (who I assume has done some detailed research on the topic) delivering a monologue recounting Greene’s life with other panelists chiming in occasionally with observations or personal impressions. While it was an enlightening session, the mode of presentation felt like it could have been a lot more dynamic.

Leaving aside the biographical sessions, I also dipped briefly into both the more “academic” parts of the NecronomiCon programming (the so-called Armitage Symposium) and the general literary sessions. The former I found a little light-weight (at least by the standards of true academic conferences), but that might have just been the specific session I attended. As a taster of the general literary panels, I sat in on a session entitled “Endarkenment: Nihilism as Liberation in Weird Fiction.” This was quite an intriguing if somewhat heavy session, which touched on philosophy, existential angst, the fiction and non-fiction of Thomas Ligotti, and darker more personal topics. This was probably the best of the panels (literary or gaming) that I attended.

The Unstoppable HPL Historical Society

The NecronomiCon “External Programming” schedule is quite a formidable beast in itself, being made up of all the events that aren’t organized by the Necro conference committee but take place at the same time, sometimes in locations in the main conference hotels. Of the many and varied things that are on this program, some of the most well-attended must surely be the performances by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS).

For the 2019 convention, the HPLHS had two scheduled slots for live performances of recent radio drama adaptations of Lovecraft tales — drawn from their incredibly well-done Dark Adventure Radio Theater range. The first of these was a live version of their recent CD rendition of “The Lurking Fear” while the second was a live version of their newest CD title “Mad Science” (which rolls in elements of 3 shorter HPL tales). Both of these live sessions were held in one of the large side ballrooms on Level 2 of the Graduate/Biltmore … and both were absolutely packed-to-the-rafters. Clearly the HPLHS performances — a staple at all recent NecronomiCons — have built up a dedicated following. I was only able to make it to half of “Lurking Fear” and none of “Mad Science” (because of clashes with gaming sessions I was scheduled to run) but from what I saw the live performances were top notch and the method of engaging the audience as a source of “special effects” was both fun and effective. I can certainly see why these live radio drama performances attract so many convention-goers … they are unmissable spectacles (which, sadly, I largely missed).

On Saturday night the HPLHS folks also put on another event, the “sea shanty singalong” in the basement of a nearby Irish Pub. I tried to get into this also, but had no luck — the basement was jam-packed with people well before I arrived. I heard later that the “sea shanty” singing was more than a little difficult with so many people packed into the venue that Sean and Andrew could scarce be heard. Such is the price of popularity I guess.

Tours of Lovecraft’s Providence

The opportunity to visit Lovecraft’s local haunts while in Providence is a tantalizing proposition. Thankfully, there are a few different ways of satisfying that urge while at NecronomiCon. Firstly, as noted above, there are 3-hour guided walking tours of College Hill. These sounded fantastic, but with the conference schedule being so crammed already, finding three hours (two panel slots, or most of a gaming session) free is pretty challenging. For this reason, I opted not to book into one of these walking tours instead hoping that I could use the map and information on Donovan’s website to trawl College Hill on a post-conference day when things are less hectic. This plan turned out to work quite well, although a long trawl up and down the streets of this part of Providence left me with pretty sore legs thanks to its many steep hilly roads.

Lovecraft’s Grave

As a complement to the walking tours, the NecronomiCon extended schedule also included shorter (~90 minute) bus tours. These are a bit more geographically far-ranging, heading out past the locations on Angell Street where Lovecraft lived for most of his life, dropping by the Ladd Observatory, and making a stop at HPL’s grave in the Swan Point Cemetery. I booked into one of these tours early in the convention and found it a pretty handy way to get a quick overview of the College Hill area and some of the key sites of relevance to Lovecraft. The Ladd Observatory — still owned and run by Brown University — had made special arrangement to be open during the times when the bus tours were operating, which meant groups could go into the observatory and climb up to the telescopes where a young HPL had spent some of his formative teenage years staring out into the inky uncaring cosmos.

An FAQ on the NecronomiCon site answered the question as to whether the walking tour or the bus tour is “better,” by saying that both are quite different experiences and if given the opportunity convention-goers should do both. I would second that assessment!

Weirdly Social

While there was plenty of NecronomiCon things to do during the day (and, for the Gaming Hall, late into the night as well), quite a lot of additional socializing took place after things had wound up at the official venues. I am sure that different groups of conference goers convened at various different Providence drinking establishments; the gaming crew seemed to mostly gravitate to a pair of Irish Pubs — Blake’s and Murphy’s — a couple of blocks from the Biltmore. Most evenings there was lively discussion, drinking, and general stupidity of the kind you’d probably expect. It was quite a privilege to hang out and drink with some of the great writers of Lovecraftian RPG titles, as well as meet up with some of those who publish such games. Truly a joy …. even if it did lead to a kind of happy sleep-deprivation which only got worse as Necro went on.

On the Sunday morning, there was a separately-ticketed “Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast” which was quite an unusual event where convention-goers could grab some (marginally uninspiring) breakfast food, juice, and coffee and sit and watch while several “priests” of Cthulhu provided “sermons” and led the assembled hordes in some “hymns.” As tongue-in-cheek jokey things go it was kind of fun, but I don’t think I’d be in a hurry to wake up early to get to another one. NecronomiCon attendees who signed up for the special (Gold Key or Silver Key) limited levels had the “privilege” of dressing up in robes and being in the choir for this prayer breakfast.

On the very last night of NecronomiCon, a special event was held at an old movie theatre a mile or two from the convention hotels. This was the Dunwich Horror Picture Show, which was … rather a surreal affair. The basic idea was that convention-goers could go along to watch the (rather terrible) 1960s movie adaptation of The Dunwich Horror (the one with Dean Stockwell). To make this a more bearable experience, though, there was a live score played by a band perched below the silver screen. Audience-goers were also encouraged to call out amusing riffs or quips to offset the film’s general awfulness. The movie has some extended “trippy” sequences at various points throughout — and kindly the organizers had arranged for weird person-sized Lovecraftian puppet things to burst forth from the boxes to the left and right of the screen and cavort menacingly. It was … quite an experience.

The NecronomiCon-Vibe

One thing I wasn’t too sure about heading into NecronomiCon was what the general vibe would be like. I mean *some* of the folks who go to the event are serious scholars of Lovecraft who regularly write serious books on the subject. Would that mean that the event would be organized in a way which treated the Old Man of Providence in a “hagiographic” light? Well … turns out that is definitely *not* how NecronomiCon works. As an event it actually embraces a lot of different attitudes to Lovecraft and his work, and if anything is quick to bring out a lighter side to his horrific vision of the university whenever possible. I guess this is a good thing in that it allows a vastly diverse community of different people — all of whom are united by their enjoyment of weird fiction (even if they otherwise don’t have too much in common). In that sense I think that NecronomiCon does actually live up to its somewhat lofty goals of being an inclusive home for all kinds of weird.

The Wrap-Up: So … Would I Do It Again?

In the final analysis, my exercise in getting half-way around the world was a rather complex and costly thing … but the experience of being at NeconomiCon for 4 days of gaming, panels, tours, and events more than made up for that expense and hassle. The real icing on the cake, though, was the socializing and networking — just being able to spend some time chatting with so many key gaming industry types.

If the stars align again for me in 2021, I will definitely look forward to repeating the experience! Always assuming that the Great Old Ones haven’t devoured the world before then . . .

 


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