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Fantasycon XXIV - Stafford, England 21st - 23rd November 2003

Guests of Honour: Christopher Fowler, Catherine Fisher, Katherine Roberts

FantasyCon 2003 was always going to be a little different. And more than a little special.

For one thing the now famous convention was going back to the all-weekend format after a couple of years of one and two day events, which meant three days chock full of all things fantastical, science fictional and horrific - as well as alcoholic, of course. For another it was being held in a brand new location: Stafford, near Stoke-on-Trent.

In their infinite wisdom, however, those nice and reliable people running the rail networks chose that particular weekend - of 21st-23rd November - to shut down services to Stafford and generally make it as difficult as possible for the writers, artists, editors and media to get there. But, like the troopers they all are, the attendees managed to overcome all the odds and make it to the event by hook or by crook, thanks in no small part to car relays ferrying people from the nearest working station.

To top it all off, a thick blanket of fog descended upon the Midlands on the Friday. Suitable weather conditions for horror writers, but not much fun if you were driving any particular distance in the stuff! No wonder so many folk needed a drink when they arrived. But it was definitely worth making the trek, as the convention itself was based in the luxury Tillington Hall Hotel, complete with exclusively furnished en-suite bedrooms, a gym, swimming pool, solarium and even a whirlpool Jacuzzi.

The bulk of the weekend visitors arrived late Friday afternoon-early evening, although some had decided to start the party early by turning up on Thursday and in the day on Friday. As a consequence there were a few decidedly merry FConners there to greet everyone. But this was only a taste of things to come. Upon registration, attendees were given their goody bags, which included flyers for forthcoming releases, a selection of small press and mass-market books and publications, a handy pocket programme so you could plan your itinerary down to the exact minute (well, almost), and a cool identity badge.

The official icebreaker was at 8 o'clock, and this took place in the large Kings function room not a knife's throw from the dealer tables. David Howe was MC-ing and welcomed everyone to the do before encouraging people to take part in a 'getting to know you' session. This involved tracking down guests with a mysterious orange dot on their badges and bombarding them with questions on a sheet provided. Taking part in the proceedings were good sports horror writer Tim (White) Lebbon and fantasy author Katherine (Babylon Game) Roberts. This was followed swiftly by a 'Support the Small Press' slot where Steve Lockley introduced offerings from some of the very best semi-professional writers working today.

Last but not least came the mind-bending Friday night quiz, set by Sandy Auden, who seemed intent on making the whole room rack their brains until they couldn't be racked any more. Questions included: How many of Michael Moorcock's Elric, the Eternal Champion, novels were optioned this year by Universal Studios? (answer eleven - you had to get the correct number for a point!); What do the creator of Babylon 5 and both of the characters who commanded the B5 space station have in common? (they all had the same initials, JS); and in Clive Barker's Hellbound Heart what is the name of the man Frank bought the box from? (Kircher). Easy, right? As the night went on most people retired to the bar area for more drink and chat, which, as always, continued well into the small hours of the morning until the bar staff hoisted a white flag. For those who fancied it though, there was always the alternative of a vampire experience with Gail Nina Anderson in the Sandon Room. Ah, the children of the night - what sweet music they made.

Bleary-eyed, but still bushy tailed, attendees were treated to an interview with one of the Guests of Honour at 10 o'clock, Catherine Fisher, described by The Sunday Times as 'A writer of rare talent'. Author of The Book of the Crow series and the Oracle trilogy, the first part published in 2003 and the second due in 2004, Catherine spoke frankly about her works and what really came across was the passion she has for writing.

Due to its success last year, throughout the day the BFS were also giving aspiring writers a chance to talk to various agents and editors in the Lichfield and Ashbourne rooms, and show them examples of their work. Professionals being consulted included Meg Davis of MBA literary agency and Dorothy Lumley. There were quite a few smiling faces after these meetings, which bodes well for the future of genre fiction. In addition there was a writing workshop with Dorothy and panels taking in everything from myth (with speakers such as Juliet McKenna, Catherine Fisher, Katherine Roberts and Chaz Brenchley discussing the use of myth to underpin fantasy fiction, and the overuse of Arthurian myth in particular), the application of monsters and whether the old ones have any place in modern horror fiction (debated by the likes of Mark Fiddleback Morris, Tina Rath, Ramsey Campbell, Tim Lebbon and Stephen Jones), character building - in more ways than one (with words of wisdom from Mark, Chaz and Katherine again), screenwriting (featuring Stephen Gallagher's tragic story about trying to get his Dracula script off the ground, plus Graham Joyce revealing just what Hollywood wanted to do to his Tooth Fairy; not for the squeamish) and also the publishing side of things (discussed by Pete Crowther of PS Publishing). Add to this the Holmcroft library event, complimented by a reading from BFS President Ramsey Campbell, and just about every aspect of genre writing was covered.

The second interview of the day was with the second Guest of Honour, 'urban unease' author Christopher Fower of Psychoville and Disturbia fame. With David Howe putting the questions to him, we heard all about Christopher's early transition from comedy writing to horror, having his first collection accepted in the wake of Barker's Books of Blood ('It was taken on by the first place I sent it to. I thought to myself, this is easy.'), and his work for the Creative Partnership - his film promotion company. The best anecdote had to be about the filming of a cinematic advert for Roofworld where they misjudged the distance and the stuntman almost shot off the edge of the building.

After a slap-up dinner in the hotel, which served such dishes as 'Conflict of Duck's Legs', or at least that's what it read like after too much 'Turtle's Head' wine, there was a chance to celebrate Stephen - Best New Horror - Jones's 50th Birthday, where there was free drink on offer. Needless to say, this was a very well attended function. Finally, in the Kings room again, came the famous BFS Raffle, all in aid of Children in Need. Considering the sheer amount of prizes on offer (there were some real gems here, including limited edition signed books), David Howe and his team of helpers - including Sandy Auden and organisers Debbie Bennett and Nicki Robson - did very well to wrap everything up for 11 o'clock.

Straight away there were ghost story readings from Tina Rath in the Sandon, an eerie experience which took us right up to the witching hour. And then once again everyone settled in for a session in the bar area that went on until almost morning light. The highlight in this department was definitely British Fantasy Award-winner Paul Finch holding court with his police stories and silly names contest. One of the best suggestions came from Recluse author Derek M. Fox, who told us about a guy he once knew called Frank Kinnell - F. Kinnell…think about it. The last ones standing, or sitting, at the end of it all were Rob Rowntree, Lisa Negus and Tim Meads from the Midlands horror collective.

It was hardly worth going to bed, as more events were planned for first thing Sunday morning. These included the Sunday soapbox, a chance to read, rant and rave about salient topics, and the interestingly titled karaoke without the music. While all this was going on the BFS held their Annual General Meeting, where it was later revealed that Nicki Robson took over the position of Chairperson from retiring Gary Couzens. Not long afterwards, David Howe launched his new Telos titles in the Prince room - again with free drinks. Books on offer this time were a brand new revised edition of Stephen Laws' Spectre, Lockley and Lewis' King of All the Dead and Alistair Langston's Aspects of a Psychopath.

By one o'clock thoughts were turning to food again, so it was a good job there was a banquet on offer for those who'd purchased seats earlier. After the exquisite spread had been consumed, there was just time for a breath-taking speech by Christopher Fowler about his life, his influences and what horror means to him. All who heard it agreed it was one of the must-see moments of the entire weekend, and it was even dubbed: 'The best speech I've ever heard' by David Howe.

The Con was rounded off, as always, by the presentation of the British Fantasy Awards - heralded by the announcement of the World Fantasy Award winners and memorial pin recipients. The BFA winners this year were: Best Artist, the phenomenal Les Edwards; Best Collection, Ramsey Campbell, Probably (PS Publishing); Best Anthology, Stephen Jones for Keep Out the Night (PS Publishing); Best Short Fiction, Mark Chadbourn for 'The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke' (PS Publishing); and a hat-trick for Pete Crowther and PS Publishing in the Best Small Press category three years on the trot. The Karl Edward Wagner Award (Special Award) went to Alan Garner, while China Miéville's mobile phone acceptance of the August Derleth Award (Best Novel) for The Scar (Macmillan) was one of the most unique moments in BFS history! Luckily the entire thing was caught on camera by filmmaker Martin Roberts of Purple Rage Productions.

And so sadly FantasyCon 2003 was almost at an end, with only the clear up and surrealistically-named 'Dead Dog Party' left for those who remained. No one really wanted to part company, but goodbyes had to be said, hugs and kisses were given and promises made to meet up again soon - possibly at the BFS Open Night in London a couple of weeks later. But that, as they say, is another report entirely…

Report by Paul Kane and Marie O'Regan
This report will be printed in Prism, February 2004

Guest of Honour Catherine Fisher taking five.

Jo Fisher, Stephen Jones, Peter Crowther, a representative from Stafford Library and Ariel made up the book buying panel.

Dave Mathew, Chaz Brenchley and Paul Meloy seem tickled by something...

Guest of Honour Chris Fowler.

Chris Fowler and Graham Joyce.

Gavin Williams, Tim Lebbon and Jo, aka Mrs Ariel.

Paul Lewis and Keith Rees

Pete Crowther, of PS Publishing.

Ramsey Campbell, reading at Holmcroft Library.

Paul Kane, Rob Rowntree, Lisa Negus and Derek M. Fox.
All pictures copyright Sandy Auden 
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