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Fantasycon XXV - Walsall, 24-26th September 2004

Guests of Honour: Muriel Gray, Robert Holdstock

Could it really be that time of year again?

Apparently so, because FantasyCon was upon us again, after months of organisation - mainly by Nicki Robson and Debbie Bennett, without whom this event wouldn't have happened. I was particularly excited because, although last year's had been a blast, this year there was the Calendar to launch and I would get the chance to interview Muriel Gray live on stage.

I set off on Friday morning, only just making my connection at Birmingham New Street which would take me to Walsall, not to be confused with Warsaw - a much longer journey altogether. At the station I hooked up with Martin Roberts and Helen Hopley of PurpleRage Productions, who were filming the event for a future Special Publication, and we split a taxi to the Quality Hotel: the venue for this year's con. The hotel looked huge from the outside and didn't disappoint on the inside, corridors stretching into the distance a là The Shining. There were several people waiting to greet us when we arrived in the bar, including Chris Teague of Pendragon Press and Paul Finch - both there to promote Paul's new book The Extremist and Other Tales of Conflict.

The registration desk was the next port of call - manned by the very hard working Jenny Barber and Deb - where goody bags were being given away which contained books (most notably Mark Chadbourn's nominated novella Wonderland) and magazines (Pete Crowther's digest-sized Postscripts featuring Ray Bradbury), posters, and the FantasyCon booklet with articles on the Guests of Honour inside. The dealer room was also being set up, and Martin was the first to buy something even before they'd finished unpacking - but he certainly wasn't the last by any means because traders like Elastic Press, Alchemy, Telos, The Talking Dead and Waterstones had brought with them a vast array of new and classic genre books.

There was just enough time for a drink before the all-important Friday night ritual, 'Welcome to FantasyCon', hosted by David Howe. Here we were all told about the events that were coming up, competitions running over the weekend - including an art one to be judged by Les Edwards and a 'Finish This'-style writing comp (the best opening line had to be 'He was a dark, stormy knight'). The launch of the 2005 Green Knight Calendar came next, during which myself and co-editor Marie O'Regan explained the genesis of this Arthurian project - pairing up some of the best artists and authors around and featuring a Clive Barker introduction. Copies of the calendar then went on sale, so people could get theirs signed by the various contributors

Marie O'Regan and Paul Kane at the 2005 Calendar Launch

Some attendees went off then in search of food either in the hotel itself or down the road where there was a choice of curries or pizzas. Steve Jones told me the following morning that he'd managed to find a restaurant with an aquatic feel to it, surrounded by fish-tanks and waterproof menus. For those who wanted to test their genre knowledge though, there was the annual quiz written by Sandy Auden with SF, Fantasy and Horror sections. Enormous fun, with some real mind-melters in there ('Who said "Get that Cheese to Sickbay?" And which incarnation of Star Trek was it in?). After the aforementioned Pendragon Press launch, came a 'Focus on' the British Fantasy Award Nominees

Paul interviews Steve Jones and Les Edwards

This gave writers, editors and publishers a chance to talk about their work and inspirations - and for this one I was happy to be joined by Ariel of The Alien Online, Andrew Hook of Elastic Press (both up for best Small Press), Mark Samuels (nominated in the best short fiction and collection category for The White Hands), David Howe (Telos were up for best short fiction for their Wonderland novella), Les Edwards (for best artist, obviously) and the very prolific Mr Jones (nominated in the best anthology section for Best New Horror and for By Moonlight Only).

Classic fantasy readings followed, and the usual Friday night bar sessions which went on well into the wee small hours. My favourite moment had to be chatting to Stephen Gallagher and Chaz Brenchley about films, old word processors and writers clearing their throats (in an editorial sense). Finally it was time for bed, while we could all still find them, and by 3:30 everyone was safely tucked away. The only problem with the late night had to be getting up in time for breakfast the following morning - the hotel stopped serving at 10:00am - but everyone seemed surprisingly chipper and I loaded up on full English whilst discussing the ups and downs of the genre with Marie and Sarah Crabtree.

For those who were into gaming, there was a Role Playing session from 10-11 hosted by the BFS's PR man Wayne Mook and Jonathan Oliver. And at 11 the first guest of honour was interviewed by Sandy, the superb Robert Holdstock.

Sandy Auden interviews Robert Holdstock

The best anecdote by far had to be the one about the time he'd met Michael Moorcock at another convention and his rather vocal reaction to a question he hadn't liked. Witty and entertaining, Robert's insights into writing Fantasy were fascinating. This led nicely into more panel discussions: one about Overseas Markets with Steve Savile and Ramsey Campbell; one about critiquing services; an Arthurian legends debate with Cherith Baldry and Juliet McKenna; an 'Everything you ever wanted to know about comics…' hour; and finally the audience were shown step by step how to create their own fantasy worlds…

While all these were going on, Christopher Fowler arrived at reception with a big smile on his face as usual. Hardly surprising as he was up for three awards himself. And then the second Guest of Honour, Muriel Gray arrived - fresh from Birmingham airport. I was delighted to find that she was such a nice person, with a great sense of humour. After only a couple of minutes I was in fits of laughter - and I don't think I stopped until it was time for bed that night. After eating, having a tarot reading, and going for a quick swim in the hotel's pool, Muriel joined me on stage to be interviewed where we both attempted to be serious - and failed miserably. It made for a fantastic hour, with some cracking responses to questions about her horror books (The Trickster, Furnace and The Ancient). The funniest had to be a retelling of a ride across the US with a huge trucker as part of the research for Furnace ("He had a twitch and we couldn't understand each other's accents.").

Paul interviews Muriel Gray

Strangely enough no one had volunteered for Horror Idol: a chance to pitch your ideas to experts Steve J, Muriel and Jo Fletcher, and have them 'evaluated'. So, the FCon raffle was brought forward to 9 o'clock. It took a couple of hours to get through, and Muriel did really well - thanks in no small part to her expertise at bartering, swapping items to get her hands on a 'Feel the Fear' t-shirt and a selection of Buffy books, although she just missed out on one of the best prizes: a talking head skull donated by Steve. Taking us past midnight were some horror story readings by Ramsey Campbell (who read Poe), Mark Samuels (a tale by MR James) and Muriel (reading a story by Ronald Chetwynd Hayes - one of her all-time favourite authors). Once again, the bar kept open until late and I was able to have chats with Mark Morris, Graham Joyce, Chris F and co. before the clock stuck 4am.

But no lie in the next morning again, as there was a pre-AGM meeting for members of the committee over breakfast and then the Annual General Meeting itself at 10. Here reports were made about what had happened over the last year, including the setting up of author readings at bookstores, the new Special Publications ideas and the Awards Showcase which was held in July. A couple of very good ideas for the future were also suggested by BFS members and a new Chairperson was appointed, with Marie taking over from Nicki after a successful year. David Howe and Nicki have now left the Committee for a well-earned breather after all their hard work for the BFS. The next panel was at 11:30 and I found this extremely interesting: Mark Morris, Steve Jones, Jo Fletcher and Ramsey Campbell all talking about Mainstreaming Horror and how much the industry has changed over the last 20 years. The thing I found most shocking was the fact that some publishers in the mainstream put 'bestselling' on the books even before they've come out so - as Steve pointed out - it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was also worrying in some respects as it left you wondering if there was any place for mainstream horror in today's climate of global fear. Thank heavens for the small presses.

Into the afternoon and the banquet began at 1pm, which was about the time Muriel was surfacing after a late night and a tipple or two with the rest of us. It was a lovely dinner consisting of soup, chicken in a tarragon sauce and veg, and a choice of gateau or torte and conversation ranged from the hilarious (Chris F commenting on how close together the place settings were: "They should serve us long food, like chips and runner beans.") to the bizarre (David and Muriel discussing whether they'd like to be transported to work of a morning like they do in Star Trek). Then came the moment everyone had been waiting for, the announcement of the winners of 2004's BFS Awards. Peter Jackson won the Karl Edward Wagner Award for his work on Lord of the Rings - quite rightly so - best novel and short fiction went deservedly to Chris Fowler ("You people really seem to understand what I do."), Stephen Jones picked up best anthology for Best New Horror, while Les Edwards won best artist, Ramsey Campbell won best collection and PS Publishing continued their unbroken record for winning best small press.

Christopher Fowler accepts his award for Best Novel, Full Dark House

With the awards meted out, it came time to say goodbye to everyone. Muriel had to dash to catch her plane, Chris F had a long drive ahead with his business partner Jim, while others were leaving in various assorted transportation. I travelled so far with Martin and Helen again, who had captured a lot of the event on film, and by Sunday night I was back and able to flop down on the sofa. It had been one hell of a great FCon, one I'll never personally forget, and already I was looking forward to the next - which I know will be upon us all much sooner than we think...

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