ONE DAY IN LATE MARCH, WHILE WORKING AT MY TEMP JOB, I received a call from my editor at St. Martin’s Press with the news that my novel, The Suicide Collectors, had been nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. He went on to tell me that there would be an Academy Award-like ceremony in Burbank, California in mid-June, where the winners would be announced. Bram Stoker Awards (or “Stokers,” if you’re a hip librarian) are given out by the Horror Writer’s Association (the H.W.A.); they’re the equivalent of Hugo or Nebula awards in fantasy and science fiction, the Edgar Allan Poe Award in mystery fiction, and the National Book Award for those great books most people will never read. Of course, I was excited and honored to receive the nomination, if slightly confused. The Suicide Collectors is set in a post-apocalyptic near future version of North America and, if anything, falls more in the category of science fiction, though it does cover horrific events (turns out a suicide plague is no picnic). And, I guess, the book does have a spooky, hand-pressed-against-glass kind of cover.
But we are living in the age of genre blending, where both fiction writers and movie producers are more than happy to slap a few different genres together and call it a slipstream smoothie. So, who cares, right? You show me a debut author who won’t show up to win an award, and I’ll show you a writer who’s either incarcerated or has a trust fund.
Thus, I found myself flying out to Burbank in June, wishing alcoholic drinks were still free on planes. The only person I could rope into traveling with me was my college roommate, Noah. He loves horror movies, so I thought he’d like coming; but I wasn’t convinced I could fully trust him as a travelling companion. There was an incident, years ago, on another trip we took together — he literally vanished while we were making a connecting flight in Phoenix. Noah ended up missing the flight altogether; I remember shouting hysterically at the flight attendants that NOAH WAS NOT HERE as we taxied toward the runway.
Happily, this time I managed to keep Noah from wandering off, and we arrived in Burbank on time.
The Stokers are given out as part of a three-day Horror Writers’ conference, and as we checked into the airport hotel where the conference was taking place, we passed through a lobby filled with men and women wearing name badges and typing away on laptops in a very Hollywood way. Later, we learned that the lobby was the only place with free Internet access and that, in addition to the H.W.A. conference, the hotel was also hosting a pitch session conference, which involves hundreds of screenplay writers paying a registration fee to be shuffled past dozens of movie producers and film directors in the Hollywood equivalent of speed dating. So our hotel was overrun with both horror writers and screenplay writers, everybody pitching ideas to each other alongside annoying dudes talking on cell phones about “the Industry.” The hotel bar, despite its outrageous drink prices, was always packed.
Noah and I laid low our first night in Burbank, exhausted by the long day of flying, but we did stop in at the Gory Ghoul Ball. At first glance, the ball seemed like somebody’s themed wedding reception, with a costumed cover band rocking out to horror-themed songs like The Cranberries’ “Zombie,” and just plain creepy tunes like “The House of the Rising Sun”. Each table had a cool centerpiece — ours was a graveyard covered in cotton fog upon which a tiny Frankenstein patrolled. Sitting there, the two of us alone at a table for twelve, I understood with bitter finality that a) Noah and I were strangers in this strange land, and b) there was no way, in the name of Count Dracula himself, that I was going to leave Burbank with a Stoker.
Sitting there, the two of us alone at a table for twelve, I understood with bitter finality that there was no way, in the name of Count Dracula himself, that I was going to leave Burbank with a Stoker.
Once I buried my hopes and dreams in the cottony graveyard of despair, I was able to pass through the next day as easily as any other ghost. I went to a marketing panel in the morning and, after that, I had an appointment in a hotel room at 11 am for an interview with someone from a horror website. My interviewer was a small, dark-haired man wearing a black suit jacket, unbuttoned, with a rainbow striped shirt beneath it. He told me he was from Hungary, and as our interview progressed it became apparent that he hadn’t read my book. I doubt he even looked at its dust jacket. Somehow he’d consistently steer the conversation to Hungary, and then I’d turn it to Japan and its culture of honorable suicide. Eventually, I asked the Hungarian if he could imagine the Bush administration, after all its many failures, falling on its collective sword. He smiled and made no comment.
After the interview I headed across the hotel to my scheduled reading (most of the Stoker finalists gave readings). Lo and behold, Noah was the only audience member to appear. We waited for fifteen minutes before abandoning the empty room and heading over to the Richard Matheson panel, where the author of I Am Legend spoke about working with Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone. After this, I headed over to the “Getting That First Novel Published” panel I was sitting on; this time the same room that had been empty for my reading was packed. All the “Superior Achievement in a First Novel Award” finalists were sitting on the panel; all of them were very nice, and as I chatted with my competition, I realized it didn’t really matter who won, that eventually we’d all end up broke and crazy anyway.
That evening, the awards banquet was held in the same room as the Gory Ghoul Ball. The weekend’s organizers (who seemed like very sweet people, and who I’m sure worked very hard to make the whole event possible) had gone all out for the Stoker banquet. Cloth tablecloths, sparkling decorations, and a SWAG bag filled with horror-themed promotional stuff for everyone in attendance. Noah and I drank heavily as we waited for dinner. By the time the food arrived, everyone was merry — we award finalists were possessed with a sort of feverish gallows humor. After the preliminaries, when the ceremony actually started, I was content to sip my drink and stare into our table’s rose bouquet centerpiece. The roses sat in water that had been dyed blood red, an eloquent yet creepy touch, and as I waited for the Superior Achievement in a First Novel Award to come up on the program I tried to discern my literary future in those crimson waters.
When the winner of my category was announced, I clapped along with everyone else, genuinely happy for the winner and even happier that I wouldn’t have to make up a drunken acceptance speech on the spot.
The next morning, hung over and ready to depart the Burbank smog, I found that Noah had left a rose on my pillow, its stem stained red. I suppose true horror lies not in being a runner-up, the slog of air travel, or even the superficial drivel of an overheard Hollywood conversation — real horror is not having anyone to laugh about it all with.
About the author: David Oppegaard is a novelist living in St. Paul, MN. His post-apocalyptic debut novel The Suicide Collectors was a finalist for a Bram Stoker award, and his second novel Wormwood, Nevada will be released this December by St. Martin’s Press. Feel free to visit his website at www.davidoppegaard.com