Last October, I had the great privilege to attend the World Fantasy Convention in my home city of Montreal at the Hôtel Bonaventure. It was a relief to be able to meet writers from the United States and across Canada after nearly two years of pandemic shut-down. If it had been held in another city, I probably would not have risked travel or asked for the time off work to attend.
Years ago, I planned to take advantage of this con by having a novel published. Unfortunately, this did not pan out, but I did participate in my first ever con panel on “The Rules of Fantasy” with co-panelists Farah Mendelsohn, Joshua Palmatier, and Yves Menard.
I was deeply honoured to be on the same table as Mendelsohn. Her study Rhetorics of Fantasy proved crucial to my BA honours thesis and also my Master’s thesis. It had a profound influence on how I think about the genre, as I’m sure it has had for many scholars in the field.
Being on a panel with Mendelsohn, one has to step back and let her do most of the talking. Due to this fact, and the absence of our moderator, I was unfortunately not given as much time to speak as I would have liked. Our panel slid onto interesting tangents.
I had prepared for the panel all week, gathering twelve pages of notes about magic system guidelines and genre expectations, not quite knowing what to expect, though I was prepared to go with the flow of the conversation. After all, it wasn’t a lecture. I just made damn sure I was prepared.
During the actual panel, I had to assert my voice, but I did manage to bring up Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy Stories” once and Brandon Sanderson’s magic system laws, though the discussion I wanted to prompt did not really catch fire.
The tangents were interesting, however—of course they would be with Mendelsohn steering the ship. She brought up the whole issue of cultural relativism in terms of genre exceptions. Non-western fantasy operates by different “rules” because of the different cultural contexts from which they emerge. She also raised the issue that much fantasy contains an unspoken Christian subtext—not just with C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and co., but with many other not-necessarily-Christian writers. She draws attention to this tendency in Rhetorics of Fantasy as well.
While some readers might draw inspiration from the subtext of salvation and sacrifice in a “Christian” writer’s novel, she does not come at fantasy from this angle. From her own Jewish standpoint, she does not feel at home in Christian/Gentile fantasy universes, which is understandable. She expressed not merely her dislike but disgust with certain trends in “Catholic” fantasies in which significant bodily sacrifice is required to create magic, and in which feelings of guilt usually follow assertions of power over nature.
She conveyed that in works of Jewish fantasy, using magic to exert power is seen as nothing to be ashamed of. She brought up the story of the Golem of Prague, who is created as a guardian for the Jewish community. It costs Rabbi Loew nothing to inscribe “Emet” (“Truth”) on the Golem’s forehead, thus allowing God to animate it. God takes care of the magic; all the community has to do is ask for it.
Evidently, the “rules” of fantasy was a more complex issue than I had thought at first. Going in, I knew almost everyone at the con would know there were scare quotes around “rules.” That said, my audience was not necessarily filled with beginning writers searching for advice—most of the people in my audience were published authors or editors who already had some idea of the “rules.” I went in with a more craft-centred mindset, but the panel led to a conversation we would not have had otherwise. It was just my hope that there could have been more moderated back-and-forth between panelists.
Also at the convention, I met John Picacio, the Artist Guest of Honour at the con. His claim to fame is that he was hired by George R. R. Martin himself to paint Game of Thrones character portraits for a calendar that was also used in the casting process for the HBO series. His current project is painting his own series of Mexican Loterìa cards, which are stunningly surreal and beautiful. To support him, at auction I bought a big print of Ned Stark and his Loterìa card “La Valienta,” his gender-swapped adaption of the traditional “Le Valiente” card, meaning “the brave one.” (You can check out his art at his website.)
Another excellent panel was “Horror Short Fiction to Read.” During my first World Fantasy Convention, Usman Malik hooked me on horror fiction (and weird fiction) and ever since then, I have been fascinated by this genre. Brandon Ketchum, Matt Moore, David Damchuk, Arley Sorg, and Ellen Datlow recommended short stories that stand out from the crowd.
At the end of the panel, while I was talking to Brandon Ketchum, Ellen Datlow spontaneously handed me her notes for the panel—some of which might make it onto her list of the Year’s Best Horror, due to be published this fall. She told me she didn’t need it anymore.
With her permission, I am republishing the list of Ellen Datlow’s Horror Short Fiction to Read—it’s not her final Year’s Best list for 2021, but her notes for this specific panel. It contains a list of stories published in magazines and a list of short story collections.
Ellen Datlow’s Horror Short Fiction to Read (WFC 2021, Montreal)
Barron, Laird. “Tiptoe,” When Things Get Dark
Bestwick, Simon. “Redwater,” The Alchemy Press Book of Horrors 3
Conyers, David. ‘Supersymmetry Blues,” Cthulhu Deep Down Under Volume
Duffy, Steve. “The Other Four O’Clock,” Finding Yourself in the Dark
Gilbert, Lyndsay E. “I Exist,” Terrifying Ghost Stories
Gray, Muriel. “From Life,” Ars Gratia Sanguis.
Hirshberg, Glen. “Black Leg,” Tor.com July 14
Key, Justin C. “Now You See Me,” Lightspeed #135 August
MacLeod, Bracken. “Weightless Before She Falls,” Fright Train
Rogers, Ian. “Shards,” Tor.com, January 27.
Smith, Michael Marshall. “The Motel Business,” Prisms
Starnes, T.M. “Prisoner,” The Half That You See
Chapman, Clay McCleod. “Stowaway,” Southwest Review, Autumn
Dead Hours of the Night by Lisa Tuttle (Valancourt Books) features twelve dark stories originally published between 1980 and 2017 including two reprinted in earlier annual volumes of my bests of the year. With stories notes by the author and an Introduction by Lisa Kröger, co-author of Monster, She Wrote.
Thanatrauma by Steve Rasnic Tem (Valancourt Books) has twenty-one varied stories, four new, published by a master of quiet horror whose best work explores grief and how personal tragedy can unmake us all.
Finding Yourself in the Dark by Steve Duffy (Sarob Press) is the author’s fifth collection. It showcases twelve weird tales that are often horror, four of them new. One story won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novelette, one was reprinted by me in The Best Horror of the Year Volume One.
A Maze for the Minotaur and Other Strange Stories by Reggie Oliver (Tartarus) is the author’s eighth collection of darkly weird stories published by Tartarus, and as always it’s a very fine collection. Most of the twelve stories were published in the last few years. Also included are two new ones.
The Ghosts of Who You Were by Christopher Golden (Haverhill House Publishing) features ten stories and a novella published between 2013 and 2020, with an introduction and story notes by the author. Two of the stories were originally published in anthologies edited by me and one reprinted in an earlier volume of my Best of the Year.
The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell by Brian Evenson (Coffee House Press) is as always with Evenson a mixture of the weird, fantastical, and sometimes dark captured in twenty-two stories, two of them first published in 2021.
Things I Didn’t Know My Father Knew: The Best Short Stories of Peter Crowther (Cemetery Dance Publications) collects twenty-seven stories of several genres, including the powerful, harrowing horror story “Befordshire,” that appeared in one of my YBFH anthologies. It’s a lovely, hefty hardcover volume, with story notes by the author.
The Ghost Sequences by A. C. Wise (Undertow Publications) is an excellent collection of sixteen stories (all but one reprints) of ghostly dark fantasy and horror, published since 2013. I originally published several of the stories and reprinted a couple in my Bests of the Year.
I am grateful for the chance to publish this list and hope it gives you a robust reading list. Dig in! I’ll certainly be keeping a look out for Ellen Datlow’s Year’s Best Horror when it comes out this summer.
Overall, I enjoyed the convention, despite its smaller size. It felt closer to CanCon in scale than the 2016 World Fantasy in Saratoga Springs I had previously attended. Its smaller size made it more intimate. We had a safe convention and it felt excellent to reconnect with writers from CanCon and meet some new faces from out of town as well.