Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Scares That Care V: Healing By Helping

For a horror author, at least one with a similar mindset to my own, there is one event every year that eclipses all others. That event is the Scares That Care Charity Weekend, held for the fifth consecutive year at the Doubletree by Hilton in Williamsburg, VA from August 3-5. Like last year, I went, and since I'm somewhat recovered from it--enough that I can think coherently, at any rate--I figured it was time to recount my experience there, and also to reveal the reasons behind my radio silence for the last few months, and how attending this horror family reunion helped me finish crawling out of a pretty dark place. To make everyone's life easier, I'll save the really personal stuff for the end, so you can skip it if you so choose to.

This was my second time attending Scares That Care, but that didn't mean it felt any less exciting or fun than the first time. Sure, maybe I had more of an idea what to expect this go-around, but that only enhanced my anticipation leading into it. My friend, Joe, who went with me last year, was unable to do so again, but I managed to convince my wife to come along, so I had the added excitement of introducing someone new to the wonderful event that is that convention weekend.

My wife was obviously thrilled by
my conversations during the
trip north.
We headed out on Thursday morning, about an hour and a half behind schedule, to undertake the long drive from our home just outside Nashville to Williamsburg. Once we reached Knoxville, where we would switch from heading east to heading north, rain hit so hard I could barely see past the front of the car. Remembering my rather eventful trip to see Brian Keene at ConNooga back in February (which you can read about here), I prepared myself for the worst. Thankfully, I'd borrowed a more stable vehicle from my mother, and while the rain continued most of the rest of the way to Williamsburg, it did ease off enough to make the trip uneventful. Two stops for gas and nearly eleven hours later, and we pulled into the parking lot of our hotel home for the next three nights.

Since we weren't splitting expenses this time around, we opted for cheap and decent as opposed to proximity to the Doubletree. Part of me expected a similar train wreck to what we'd endured from our room in Chattanooga, but luckily, it was nowhere near as bad. We did notice the room was lacking a smoke alarm (it was a smoking room, but still), and the hot tub (sweetening the deal to convince my wife to come along) was on carpet instead of tile, but it didn't look like a miniature, and was comfortable enough. I'd stay there again, so if I mentioned where it was to you during conversation over the weekend, I do recommend it--just don't expect the Four Seasons. We checked in, grabbed a bite to eat, and then after confirming there were people I knew up and hanging out at the Doubletree, we headed there to say hello.
Rachel Autumn Deering -
Silver Fox Edition

Right away we met up with Russell Coy and Steve Wynne, a pair of up-and-coming writers I had the privelidge of meeting last year. We chatted for a bit, and then I decided to head inside and grab a beer from the bar. That trip of maybe a football field's length ended up taking nearly a half an hour, because about the time I saw the entrance to the bar, I heard a chorus of voices calling out my affectionate nickname from last year ("Best John"), and was nearly tackled by Anna Hayward, who proceeded to try and squeeze the life out of me with her (very welcomed) greeting hug. I proceeded to become reacquainted with the Werewolves of Williamsburg (AKA The Inhabitants of the Secret Room--more on that later), and found myself becoming one of Rachel Autumn Deering's alter egos--the "Silver Fox" variant, as it were.

After a pleasant time catching up and (after I finally got my overly-expensive hotel bar beer) introducing my wife to everyone, the pair of us decided to call it an early night since the long drive was finally catching up to us. We went back to the hotel, made prodigious use of that hot tub, and then went to bed. For my wife, tomorrow was an unknown, something she wasn't sure about since, as I've mentioned before, she's not that good with people she doesn't know very well. For me, tired as I was, I could barely sleep because I could hardly wait for the fun to begin for another year.

All right, frog, I'm watching
The next morning, we headed back to the Doubletree to trade in our tickets for wristbands and then chose to explore Williamsburg until the convention actually started at 5 that afternoon. We played the role of tourist to the hilt, as my wife found a trading post / souvenir shop where she got a picture with a wooden bear and got a little too close to a "Peace Frog". A few more similar stops later, and the time had come at last. Back to the Doubletree we went, to kick off Scares That Care V.

First up was the vendor room, where I got the chance to meet back up with many of my contemporaries, chat about the business and life in general, and show off my lovely wife a bit more. Despite her previous trepidation, I could tell she was a little excited to finally put faces to names for folks I'd talked about the last couple of years, since I entered this strange and insane profession. As we talked to friends and colleagues like Matt Hayward, Patrick Lacey, Aaron Dries, Tim Meyer, Wile E. Young, and Somer Canon, I could almost see her visibly relaxing as she realized she had no reason to be intimidated by any of them.

After that, we took a quick smoke break where she caught the attention of Father Evil, who proceeded to taunt her in his amusingly evil way until we finally went back inside. For those who have never seen him, check out his site ( and imagine him walking around with his own personal soundtrack of spooky church music. He continued to taunt her every time we passed him for the rest of the day, which I found hilarious and she found mildly amusing. I only wish I'd gotten a picture, but since he was doing a photo op the next day that we missed, I never got one.

No excited tears; he'd have found them
a waste of good suffering.....
After our encounter with the Bad Father, we hit up the celebrity room. There I got to introduce my wife to some of my influences and mentors like Jonathan Janz, Armand Rosamilia, Mary SanGiovanni, Jeff Strand, Lynne Hansen, and the eternally enthusiastic Chuck Buda. I got an autograph and picture with the High Pope of Hell, Pinhead himself, the incredible Doug Bradley, and then we headed off to a panel on Splatterpunk which I quite enjoyed, as did my wife, despite her having no clue who any of the authors mentioned by the panelists were.

Yes, I did my best to educate her after the fact, but Splatterpunk just isn't her thing, I fear. Psychological horror is more her speed.

After the panel, we did a bit more wandering, catching up, and exploring the sights on display. Late that evening, we attended a live taping of Brian Keene's Horror Show podcast, which featured the actor John Anderson, who proved to be hilarious, down-to-earth, and just as big a geek as I am. I knew I was winning my wife over to the dark side when she commented how much she enjoyed that, and I think I may have turned her into at least an occasional listener (you're welcome, Brian).

Ah, the water of life.
When the convention closed up for the day, we hung out a while longer, waiting to see if there was to be a round of Werewolves that night. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond anyone's control, the game had to be postponed. Still, it was just as much fun to hang out and be with my extended horror family again, so the night was still enjoyable. At some point Rachel adopted me as her con brother (betcha didn't think I'd remember that, didya?), and then Matt presented me with something I'd been trying to get for a long time--a bottle of Writer's Tears Irish Whiskey. I wanted it from the second I saw the name, but it's only available in four states in the US, and Tennessee isn't one of them. Luckily, he was able to bring me a bottle straight from Dublin, so I finally have a whiskey that I can refill while I work. Friday was over, but Saturday--the longest day of the con--was looming large. Back to the hotel for sleep, and it arrived.
Two exceptional authors,
two exceptional readings.

Last year, since it was my first time attending, I felt like I had to do every panel, every reading, every everything, but this year I didn't put myself under that same pressure. As a result, we slept in a bit and headed to the convention a little later. After picking out a few things from the assorted vendors and getting to finally meet my 80's hair metal buddy Glenn Rolfe, we caught a reading from Jonathan Janz and Dan Padavona. It turned out to be the perfect choice to introduce my wife to author readings, because she loved both of them: Janz because of what a super-nice guy he is in real life and how sickeningly talented he is at his craft (and his pants, can't forget those), and Padavona because the excerpt he read (from The Face of Midnight) was exactly the kind of thing she enjoys.
The proud papa and the opening
shot of his baby.

We took a break to grab some late lunch / early dinner, and then headed back to catch the screening of Mike Lombardo's I'm Dreaming of a White Doomsday. The movie was incredible (even if my ass did fall asleep halfway through thanks to those brutal hotel chairs), and lived up to every bit of hype I'd seen for it. Mike (who wrote, directed, produced, and edited the movie) and Executive Producer Brian Keene did a brief Q&A afterward, where we learned that the movie might just be viewable outside of a festival setting before the year is out, as well as some interesting behind the scenes tidbits about the guerrilla-style making of the film and it's three-year long gestation. Brian stopped me as we were leaving to invite me to the author's after party, and then it was time to catch what may have been my wife's most-anticipated event: the costume contest.

I missed the contest last year since I was hitting up nearly everything on the writer's track programming I could get to without cloning myself, so I thought it would be an interesting change of pace this time around. It turned out to be, for more reasons than I imagined.

I've mentioned Brian Keene a few times during this post, and in others, but if you're not a fan of his work or part of the horror publishing world, you may not be fully aware of exactly what kind of a person he is. To readers, he is an incredible author, a Bram Stoker award winner, and one of the statesmen in the industry. To us writers, he's the Godfather of the later generations, our Batman when we need him to be, and the man who not only accepted the role left when Richard Laymon passed, but ran with it and made it shine a little brighter in the process. Beyond all that, he is one of the most caring and devoted people I've ever had the pleasure to meet, and cares very deeply not only for Scares That Care, but the mandate it represents. Last year, he ran a 24-hour live stream of his Horror Show podcast, and raised over $10,000 for the charity. This year, he did it again and more than doubled that amount.

At the beginning of the summer, Brian was badly burned while helping his next door neighbor burn off debris left by flooding and storms. As a working writer, like so many of them, he didn't have health insurance. The industry poured out its support for him through a GoFundMe page and private donations, and helped to lighten his load somewhat. Despite being in recovery from that incident, he was still there at Scares this weekend, doing all he could to help raise money for the charity and making sure the event ran as smoothly as possible.
Thank you, Brian Keene
Photo by Braken MacLeod

As the costume contest started, Brian was recognized by Joe Ripple, the charity's founder and CEO, as well as its Board of Directors. He was presented with an award for his tireless service in helping to fight real monsters, and was moved to tears by the outpouring of support. Every author at the event attended, and every one of us know how much he deserved that award, and so much more besides.

Joe Ripple gave the audience a quick run-down of the charity's history (which I'll recount in a bit), and then it was on to the kid's portion of the contest.

I'm not going to do a play-by-play here, because this post is already long enough. Suffice it to say, there was a ton of dedication and creativity on display here, from both the kids and the adults, and I am so thankful I wasn't one of the judges who had to decide who the winners would be. Of special note to me, however, were a Steampunk Mad Hatter, a father / son Pennywise and Georgie duo, and a girl trapped in the Day of the Dead who did not break character a single time while she was on stage.

Not wanting to pay the outrageous bar prices anymore, my wife and I headed out to grab a six-pack from the 7/11 down the street. While we were leaving, we got the message: Werewolves was on in the "Secret Room". We got the beer, some snacks, a couple of drinks for my wife (she didn't do alcohol this weekend, since SOMEBODY had to get us back to our hotel), and then off we went to the village to see who would be killed and who would be the killers.

The Werewolves of Williamsburg, also known as the
denizens of the "Secret Room". Photo by Rachel Autumn
I'm not going to tell you where the secret room is, nor am I going to recount everything that occurred there. What happens in that room, stays in that room, if you will (so your secret is safe with me, Mister Janz, lol). I will, however, give you this much: after I tried to explain the game to my wife, she wasn't interested in playing. After the first round, however, she happily joined in, and had a blast doing so. It was here that she earned her own affectionate nickname--proof positive she had been accepted into the "cool kids' group": "Mrs. Best John". When I get a table next year (with her as my guest), she fully intends to alter her name badge to that. So to Melissa, Rachel, and Jessica, who awarded her the moniker, you have my undying thanks for making her feel so included when she wasn't sure she would be. Love you guys for that, and for so much more.

Not long after we received a cackling lesson from what I consider an expert (I'm told they could hear it all the way in the lobby, and I laugh when I imagine the looks on people's faces at that), we retired to the author's after party, where we enjoyed some conversation and drinks and basically felt like we'd finally come home. From there, it was back to the hotel for our final night (my wife did drive, despite telling me not to drink too much because she wouldn't; needless to say, I didn't listen).

Neither me nor Chuck Buda wanted the
weekend to be over.
Sunday. Perhaps the worst day of the con. Why? Because it's the day we had to say goodbye for another year. My wife and I slept in again, almost right up to check-out, in fact, and then headed back for our final visit to Scares That Care V. We made our rounds, had our last-minute conversations that we didn't want to end, and snatched a few pictures as well, so we could continue to remember the weekend for the months to come before the next one. We did stop in for a very interactive taping of Armand and Chuck's Mando Method podcast, where all the authors in the room discussed the craft of writing--a topic my wife found exceptionally interesting, since it gave her some insight into how we do the crazy thing we do. I managed to corner Mike Lombardo to interview him about White Doomsday for my own burgeoning Schlock 'Til You Drop podcast, a few more farewells, and then it was time to begin the long and depressing journey home again.

To this point, the trip had been uneventful Naturally, it couldn't last. At least it wasn't as bad as coming home from ConNooga. We stopped at IHOP for a "quick" lunch before hitting the interstate, and ended up stuck for nearly two hours thanks to some of the slowest service I've ever seen from any restaurant. Hell, it took fifteen minutes just to get the check! After that, however, it was smooth sailing, and we pulled into our driveway at around 3:30 in the morning, unloaded our luggage, and proceeded to sleep like it was an Olympic sport. We took the next day to recover, then I had to finally take off my wristband and return to the real world until I can rejoin my family once again.

If all of this sounds like a tremendous amount of fun, it was. But it was also so much more than that.

When Joe Ripple was a Baltimore Police Detective, his partner had a little girl with a terminal illness. Sadly, she passed away, and Joe found himself one of her pall bearers. The events stuck with him, and he decided to combine his love of horror and a desire to help people like his partner and his daughter into a single grand idea with a noble and singular purpose. Thus was born Scares That Care, the charity that fights real monsters. What kind of monsters, you ask? Childhood disease, burns, breast cancer--those monsters. Every year, the charity chooses three families, and all proceeds from the convention and various appearances during the rest of the year go to them, to help lighten their load in times of trouble. This year, Joe showed up on Saturday night in tights, a light-up corset, and feather boas, fully intent on wandering through the hotel bar. Why? Because he believed that a couple of hours of embarrassment was more than worth raising money to help a woman fighting breast cancer. He raised over $2000 this way. That, folks, is commitment to a cause, and that is why we love this convention as much as we all do. Yes, we get to see friends we don't see any other time of the year, yes we get to drink and laugh and have a wonderful time, but we also get to help people who really need it, and that makes everything else pale by comparison.

On a personal note, it was something else for me, too, this year.

I mentioned my radio silence. Back in late March / early April, I found myself in a very dark place. I'd become disillusioned with writing, had hit a creative wall, and couldn't get even a single word down on paper without deleting it and giving up for the day. My stress was rising on an almost daily basis, and every problem that arose, no matter how minor, felt like the weight of another world crashing down on my shoulders. I never felt any desire to do harm to myself, but there were many times I wished I could just sleep for six months or so and then wake up and deal with whatever the new status quo was. I disconnected from social media, withdrew from writing (and knowing I'd just released a novella I needed to be pushing only added to my misery), and basically crawled inside my own head WAY too far. During this time, I was diagnosed with depression and general anxiety disorder, and put on medication to try and help with it--which ended up being a struggle all its own, too. My outlook on the future was bleak.

Except for Scares That Care. That was my lifeline. No matter what happened, I was going to go, in the hopes that being with my horror family would help me in ways I couldn't even put into words.

Then, three weeks before the convention, I found myself in the ER.

I've mentioned before on this blog how I have health issues related to my heart. High blood pressure, an enlarged ventricle, a slight murmur. Well, for whatever reason, my medications stopped working the way they were supposed to. I thought I had a sinus infection; the headache, lethargy, and what felt like a slight fever were all in evidence. So, I go to the doctor. They checked my vital signs and discovered my blood pressure was nearly 200 over 100, and my heart rate was 110 and rising. Their solution: do not pass "Go", do not collect $200, go directly to the Emergency Room. They even called my cardiologist and told him I was on the way.

The hope of going to Scares had been helping me pull out of the hole I was in, and this new setback nearly sent me right back into a spiral again, not to mention the idea that I might not even make it long enough to go. I called my wife, trying to hide how terrified I really was, and did as I was told.

Thankfully, it wasn't as serious as they made it out to be. After seven hours in the ER and a full bag of IV fluids, my pressure dropped to high normal, my heart rate went back to something resembling acceptable, and I was discharged with an adjustment to my medications. They called it "Unspecified Tachycardia", a fancy way of saying "we have no idea why your heart was beating so fast." My cardiologist clarified that it was Supraventricular Tachycardia (SVT), meaning that enlarged ventricle had begun sending out strange electrical signals for some reason. I still have some testing to go in order to figure out if the medications are all I need or if more should be done, but it IS under control again, now.

On a side note, thank you to everyone who expressed concern and asked about me this past weekend. Knowing you all care so much meant more to me than I can ever express in words, which, for a writer, is impressive indeed.

The crisis was averted, and all was back on track. Then, the money we were going to be using to pay for the trip was delayed. This time, it looked like the trip was off. The spiral began again.

My wife has often said she is the worst writer's wife ever, because she's not a huge reader and didn't know how to properly support me in my career as a writer, other than to support my desire to do it and encourage me as much as she could. Well, when that money fell through, she squeezed our budget to the breaking point, and found a way we could still go after all. Words cannot express how much that meant to me, and how much it adds to the many, many reasons why I love her so dearly.

Attending Scares That Care was my lifeline, and it proved to be exactly that. On the drive up, I had the idea for two new stories come to my mind for the first time in months. On the way back, I came up with an entire short story inspired by Matt Hayward's Welcome to the Show anthology, which I wrote in a fever pitch Monday evening. My wife, having seen what actually occurs at a convention, suddenly saw how she could offer me the support she felt she'd been lacking, and we spent the bulk of the trip home discussing business plans for my career, and how to make sure we had the money to not only get us both back to Scares next year, but me to NECON as well. Up until this point, I'd been trying to get out of my hole by jamming my fingers in the dirt and pulling for all I was worth. All of you folks I talked to and hung out with this past weekend, though? You threw me a rope and pulled me out. I have emerged from this weekend with a positive outlook on not only my career, but my life in general, and that is due in no small part to all of you, and to Joe Ripple and the Scares That Care community and family. I have to smile when I consider that by helping three families in need, I also managed to help heal myself, as well.

And THAT, folks, is why Scares That Care Charity Weekend is the best convention in the history of conventions, and why Scares That Care is a charity I will support until the day I finally enter that long sleep.

No comments:

Post a Comment