A terrific piece from Darrell K. Sweet. Where he lives in Cody, Wyoming, they call him "The Dragon Man."

I spent the whole weekend riding the dragon…

A whole day flying across the country, then two straight days running full speed from hotel-to-hotel and panel-to-panel at the World Fantasy Convention, then a fourth day flying across the country again. And I was back to work the next morning. My experience at this year’s WFC was a lot like my experience of being a teacher: I’ve never been so exhausted doing what I love.

I hit Columbus late on Thursday night, missing the first day of festivities. On Friday I taxied over to the oversold Hyatt Regency (from my room at the Hyatt Downtown) hit the con floor with a bang. I was fighting a death-duel with that old fiend, Jet Lag, so I missed the ten o’clock panel, hitting instead the eleven o’clock Supernatural Horror of the Machine Age panel.

Among the many topics of discussion was  the legendary myth of “haunted Hollywood.” I had to bring up David Lynch’s surreal yet terrifying film MULHOLLAND DRIVE. When I asked the panel if they thought the movie qualified as a “ghost story,” Michael Shea agreed that it definitely was. When it comes to the dark side of Hollywood and the  hidden horrors behind the glitz, Lynch does it like nobody else. There was no time to discuss his latest masterpiece of urban horror, INLAND EMPIRE. One of the conclusions made by this panel was the thesis that, although technology changes, people are still afraid of ghosts. I wanted to add that whole novels and films have been written about the sheer terror of what happens when Technology breaks down. That’s a whole different fear. See Cormac MacCarthy’s THE ROAD (or the film adaptation) or THE BOOK OF ELI for examples. Also, I have to say there are few things more terrifying than an abandoned old hospital…especially if it was a mental hospital. Yikes.

The next panel I attended was The Tension Between Art & Commerce, where Tom Dougherty of TOR made the great point that “Writers should write what they feel passionate about, without worrying about commercial considerations.” That’s a paraphrase, but this panel discussed that brilliant advice and looked at examples of classic works that might not be “commerical” enough to get published today. Everyone seemed to agree that the writer must follow his muse…in the end, great stories sell. (Yes, total crap often sells too. But that’s beside the point.)

The What We Swiped from Borges panel was very interesting, and was moderated by my friend (and writer/editor extraordinaire) Darrell Schweitzer. This panel left me with a hunger to seek out and devour a collection of Jorge Luis Borges stories, which apparently are works of surreal, metaphysical, narrative genius. Sadly, I could find no Borges books in the Dealer’s Room. Is he considered too “mainstream” for a fantasy con? Seems like more dealers should read the program and anticipate these opportunities to sell certain books.

Hanging out with my compadres from Black Gate was a whole lot of fun. This was the first time I got to meet face-to-face with John O’Neill (the mag’s publisher), Howard Andrew Jones (managing editor), not to mention Ryan Harvey, Jason M. Waltz, and the amazing James Enge (whose novel This Crooked Way was nominated for the World Fantasy Award and really should have won). After the autograph signing session I met up with the “Black Gate gang” again for a 90-minute round-table discussion about Sword-and-Sorcery that will soon be posted as a podcast. (I’ll announce it on this blog so everyone can hear our fascinating and slightly profane thoughts and arguments.) We had so much fun talking about writing, literature, and related topics (moderated by the lovely and talented Jaym Gates of Dragon Ink), that we kept blabbing for another hour after the microphone was shut off.

The Great Schweitzer gave me a copy of the manuscript for a brilliant new short story called “Dreaming Kandresphar.” He’s sold the tale to POSTSCRIPTS magazine, but one of the benefits of knowing Darrell is that he sometimes gives me advance peeks at his superb stories. It is an honor that I dearly cherish. Schweitzer is one of the greatest living fantasy writers, and I’ve been trumpeting his greatness to the world for years. If you don’t know why, get a copy of his novel MASK OF THE SORCERER and you’ll get it. Ask me, it’s one of The Great Fantasies of the modern age. I had the distinct pleasure of reading Darrell’s “Kandresphar” manuscript on the plane ride back to Cali on Sunday morning…it was the highlight of an otherwise grueling rocket-ride across the continent. The dragon’s back is not an easy place to sit for six hours straight (and the food sucks).

Saturday was another whiplash experience. It started with a bang at the entertaining Story Cycle vs. Novel panel, then it was “showtime”: I sat on the Continuing Viability of Epic Fantasy panel. This was exhilarating and quite fun–I was sitting right next to the great David Drake, who was already a professional writer five years before I was born. His experience and plain-spoken gravitas brought a lot of power to this discussion. All the panelists were great, and we had a great time discussing where Epic Fantasy is today and where it may be heading in the next few years. But don’t take my word for it: The entire panel was filmed and will be posted on YouTube for public viewing. The first of four parts is now available right here:

My favorite comment about the panel came from David Drake right after it was finished: “That was a good one!” Yes. Yes, it was. I won’t say too much more about it since you can watch the video for yourself.

Then it was right over to the Sword and Sorcery panel (featuring my friend and Black Gate editor Howard Andrew Jones). We had covered most of these bases in our Sword-and-Sorcery podcast the night before, but this one had an immediate audience. If I wasn’t on the Epic Fantasy panel, I would have asked to be on this one. One thing I was glad to see was Beneath Ceaseless Skies editor Scott Andrews mention the great Clark Ashton Smith as one of his favorite Sword-and-Sorcery writers.  My own love for Smith’s fantasy work is well-known (at least to those who know me). TALES OF ZOTHIQUE is one of the all-time great fantasy collections. Unfortunately this panel was in one of the smaller rooms and got stiflingly hot…I had to bug out before I passed out. I avoided the smaller rooms for the rest of the day.

The Slaughtering the Evil Hordes panel was next. A nice panel about making your villains three-dimensional…something I always try to do. I find stories far more interesting when they involve a conflict between two valid points-of-view, rather than a simplistic “good vs. evil” gag. However, sometimes you need a villain (or a whole horde of villains) who are irretrievably, irrepairably, unavoidably despicable.

A terrific Darrell K. Sweet cover for Tolkien's THE HOBBIT.

Next came a real treat: A slide show presentation by legendary fantasy artist Darrell K. Sweet, who was a convention Guest of Honor. Darrell talked about his process from reading a book, to choosing a scene, to costuming, designing, and the actual painting of his masterworks. What a terrific guy, and what a towering talent. I found it charming that his son, Darrell, Jr., was his assistant and computer operator for the presentation. The son often poses for his father’s paintings. I took Darrell’s advice to visit his art show that night, and I was utterly amazed by the paintings on display. I was basking in the presence of True Genius when I asked Darrell about his memory of painting the original THOMAS COVENANT THE UNBELIEVER covers back in the late 70s. He is all about “selling the book” with his art, and that series sold in the millions. Fantasy art doesn’t get much better than Darrell K. Sweet.

The last panel I attended also featured the Remarkable Mr. Sweet. It was The Evolving Image of the Dragon, a discussion of dragons’ appeal, evolution, and the nature of modern dragons vs. the dragons of myth and legend. Darrell talked at length about how he creates the dragons of his paintings, using photo-reference of snakes, birds, cats, and alligators to assist.

Once again I joined the Black Gate gang and we all went out for dinner at the Flatiron Grill. Great chili and barbecued beef. A leisurely trip through the Art Show and I joined the Black Gate guys for a marathon of BG author-readings. By the time I got up to read my short story “The Vintages of Dream,” my three days straight of riding the dragon was catching up to me. Weariness made my voice hoarse, and I didn’t last much longer after my own reading. However, I heard some truly terrific readings from Darrell Scheitzer (“The Dark Miracle”), Ryan Harvey (“The Sorrowless Thief”), and Howard Andrew Jones (“The Desert of Souls”), and many more fine authors. In the end, I just couldn’t hang late into the night. It was back to my own hotel to get ready for my early morning flight.

One of the coolest things I picked up was my advance copy of the WAY OF THE WIZARD anthology (featuring my story “The Thirteen Texts of Arthyria”). When I got back home, I received an e-mail from anthology editor John Joseph Adams–he has finished the official WAY OF THE WIZARD web site. You can read my story and many others from the book–all for free on the site! It’s right here: http://www.johnjosephadams.com/way-of-the-wizard/  The site will also be posting exclusive interviews with the authors of these stories. My own interview will be posted on November 10. Check it out, and order yourself a copy of WAY OF THE WIZARD from www.amazon.com

So the great dragon finally touched down in San Francisco on Sunday evening, and I capped the two-hour drive back to Napa with some nice Hawaiian barbecue. I’m so looking forward to the 2011 WFC, when the con moves back to California (specifically, San Diego). Now the dragon is settled into his cave and catching up on his much-needed sleep.

Me too.