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We wind our way up to the Grand Summit Hotel of Summit, NJ. It’s a little after twelve o’clock, and it’s drizzly out. The hotel sign depicts a smiling fox in old fashioned clothing.

I’m nervous. We step out of the car, gather our things, and start to walk towards the door of the hotel. My dad tells me I’ll be fine. We step inside. The hotel is actually really nice, with old-fashioned values and a good cozy feel. There’s a birthday party or bah mitzvah or something going on, since I figure all the cheery little kids and well-dressed men can’t be here for KrallCon. I walk up to the front desk in my Elder Sign shirt. A receptionist asks if she can help us.

“We’re here for an event called KrallCon,” my father intones. She looks at the list, then calls over her colleague. My dad repeats the name. They say that the event isn’t here. “Maybe it’s under the Dunhams Manor Writers’ Retreat…?” I say. “Ohhh,” says the receptionist. “The Writers’ Retreat.” She gives us directions.

We walk down the hall. I’m quite frightened at this point. We approach a group of three men chatting with each other. There’s a man in a Dunhams Manor t-shirt, a man wearing all black, and a man in a faded red t-shirt whose face I cannot see. As I approach they stop and look at me. The man in black asks if I’m Brian. I say, nervously, “Yes.”

The man greets me warmly, suddenly smiling. “Hi!” he says. “I’m Dave Felton.” Dave Felton? The gent who’d convinced me to come to this convention in the first place? The artist who does amazing scratchboard illustrations? I shake his hand. The man in the Dunhams t-shirt turns out to be Joe Zanetti, the man who inspired me to start this blog. I get a good look at the man in the faded red t-shirt. He’s Jordan Krall – head of Dunhams and organizer of this convention. He greets me and lets me into the conference room.

The room is long. It is comprised of a row of small circular tables, ending on one end with a projector and on the other – the end I am standing at – a table stacked with weirdly illustrated gift bags. There’s a youngish man with a Baphomet t-shirt standing nearby. Dave introduces me to  him – this is Travis Neisler, the man who will be publishing one of my stories in the inaugural issue of his periodical Ravenwood Quarterly. Another man introduces himself as Christopher Ropes, the macabre poet whose work I am sharing a table of contents with. He then proceeds to bustle about to set things up.

“You ready for your reading?” says Dave. I don’t really know what I said in response, but it must have been along the lines of “I don’t know…”. “You’ll do fine,” someone – either Travis or Dave – says, and my father starts to speak on my behalf, because I’m just too nervous. I sit down.

As I do another man approaches. I immediately recognize him.

“Brian?” says Matthew M. Bartlett.

The group is complete. There I am with Dave Felton, one of my favorite artists; Travis Neisler, who is publishing my work; Joe Zanetti, whose blog inspired mine; and Matthew M. Bartlett, my favorite writer, living or dead.

Cordialities are exchanged and conversation starts to begin. I sit down and pour myself a glass of water. As I raise it to drink I see that my hands are shaking and that I can’t hold it steadily. Matt comes over from his seat and sits down next to me. I’m still freaked out. He hands me some stuff – including a fantastic print of Aeron Alfrey’s cover art for Rangel – and I hand him one of my younger brother’s drawings, a drawing of one of Matt’s most sinister characters.

Gift bags are handed out. Mine includes Fatally-Colored Glass by Joe Pulver, The Anti-Everything by John Claude Smith, Organ Void by Jon Padgett, and Spettrini by Matt. “This is the first time I’m seeing this,” he says, smiling. He gets his bag – which has a crudely drawn phallus on the bottom – and pulls out his copy. Chris Ropes runs by and hands him the King Amulet in preparation for the invocation of Medusa. Dave suggests a picture. We agree and lean in.

Oh, and in case I didn’t mention, I’m fourteen.

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As you can see in this photo I am completely frickin’ terrified. In the back Joe Zanetti and Chris and Steph Ropes chat around.

The invocation of Medusa begins. Ropes lights black and red candles around the idol while small amulets sculpted by Felton are passed around. I don’t get one. Matt asks if I need one. I say no. “Are you sure?” he says. “All the cool kids are wearing them.”

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I eventually get my amulet. Krall chants, followed by Ropes, followed by us – the Congregation. After the invocation is done, Krall reads his introduction and then asks who would like to read first. He calls on his nemesis Phillip LoPresti who brazenly refuses. Matt steps out for a minute. Chris volunteers, and to great applause he reads his story from Ravenwood, “Cruel World”. As someone who had read the story prior to the convention, I can tell you that it is a nasty little gem. Matt returns a few minutes later and is handed a copy of “Cruel World”. Chris and Steph sit at our table.

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Krall proceeds to read from his book Nightbreed Sucks and Other Love Poems to Phillip LoPresti that Fuck. It is hilarious. He will continue to read excerpts from Nightbreed Sucks throughout the con. It is truly one of the funniest things I have ever heard read. I laughed, but I’m still nervous.

Eventually – after, I believe, another hilarious tale by Justin Grimble – I am called up to read. Matt, Dave, Joe, and Travis have all read the story previously, and though the entire room seems supportive, they are the people who motivate me to get out of my seat and go to the podium. Krall gives some short words of encouragement. While he does this I’m just standing there thinking holycrapholycrapi’mactuallydoingthisjeeeeeeesusthisisfrightening

But when Krall finishes, and I’m standing up there by myself, at the podium, I think:

To Hell with it.

So I read an abridged version of “My Mother’s Skin”, a story that’ll be published in Travis’ zine. I think I’m horrible. I think I mumble. I think that I’m taking too long. I think that people are pissed off that some kid gets to take the podium instead of real writers. I make quick cuts from the story as I read, not reading sections I deem unnecessary, fixing typos and the like.

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I finish. There is applause. I walk back to my seat. I feel dizzy. Krall says…something. Appreciative. I take a loooooooooooooooooong drink of water. Travis has already posted a photo on Facebook.

But I’m not shaking anymore.

Thing is, after you do something like that, it really can’t get much worse.

There are more readings. Donald Armfield reads unpublished poetry. Michael Faun reads from the English Dictionary. Matt reads two short stories – one of which is unpublished and is complete gold.

We break for lunch a little after two. I do not partake of the pizza that is offered. Many people come up and shake my hand. I am very happy.

And everyone talks. That’s a fond experience. Chris compliments me on my reading, saying that my nervous voice added to the “chilling” effect. Dave and I talk about my younger brother’s artwork. Matt and I talk about everything from Tom Breen to creepy photographs. It’s a community. Everyone enjoys it.

Around three comes my favorite part of the convention – the Guest of Honor Ceremony. In case you haven’t guessed, Matt is the Guest of Honor. There are four people giving tribute to him.

The first is Dim Shores publisher Sam Cowan. He could not be there, so Jordan reads it for him. Sam’s speech is by far the funniest. A Lovecraft parody (of sorts), it wonders what the true origin of Matthew M. Bartlett really is.

The second is Jordan. After reading Sam’s tribute, he gives a short speech about the creepiness and originality of Matt’s work, and how everyone should be reading his stuff.

The third is me. I am not scared at all this time. I deliver my speech and I mean every word. As I leave Matt beckons me over and thanks me. My favorite moment of the convention.

Before the fourth tribute, Matt is presented with a Felton award – a decidedly creepy little idol of green stone.

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The fourth is Jonathan Raab, who could not come, but who made a video. I had seen this video beforehand. I have no words to describe it – watch it for yourself. You may also see the rest of the ceremony here.

Another break. More talk. I am given a creepy goat skull statue by Dave and am given a copy of Gorgonaeon by Jordan Krall. Matt leaves, as the traffic is starting to build. Warm goodbyes.

The ceremonies begin anew. Music is performed. There are more readings – and it is there that I see that Jordan Krall and Phillip LoPresti, despite their enormously entertaining rivalry, really do influence each other.

Shortly after, we leave. Dave and Travis walk me out to the parking lot. I am given info on the video readings I am missing, and am told that Jon Padgett’s story is not to miss. There are hail Ravenwoods and sincere goodbyes.

I sit back in the car. I am exhausted. I am tired and overwhelmed.

But I’m not scared.

I’m happy.

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From left to right – Brian O’Connell (yours truly), Matthew M. Bartlett, Travis Neisler, Joe Zanetti, and Dave Felton. April 2nd, 2016; Grand Summit Hotel, Summit, NJ.

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