I’m writing this from my hotel room in San Jose, California on the day after The Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird, which was held at the Winchester Mystery House, of all places. But more on that in a moment…
The day before yesterday, I got up at 4 in the morning, after staying up until much closer to that point than I would have preferred, and got on a plane bound for Los Angeles. On the way, I watched Blade Runner 2049 for the first time, a movie probably better suited to a bigger screen than the back of the seat in front of me, but one that seemed thematically appropriate for an early morning flight into LAX, and one that was almost exactly the length of my flight.
Unfortunately, my flight was delayed by just a few minutes, and the shuttle system at LAX delayed me even further, causing me to miss my connecting flight to San Jose by a mere 5 minutes, which was still enough. I was booked onto the next connecting flight, which was scheduled to leave some three hours later. After some more juggling around from terminal to terminal, I settled in to wait. Being stuck in LAX for three hours was an adventure, though not always of the most pleasant sort, and those who follow me on social media may have already heard about the guy I was sitting next to who was on what was clearly a business call, discussing Google search results for how to kill a werewolf. “The public knows why they’re searching for how to kill a werewolf and not a leprechaun.”
After a handful of other misadventures, I finally made it into the San Jose airport, where I was picked up by Sam Cowan, of Dim Shores fame, who was also going to be my roommate for at least the first leg of the weekend. Before we could get settled into our room, however, we were given a key card and a room number, as is the style at the time, and when we swiped the card and opened the door we found a room in disarray. Fold-out couch partly folded out. Children’s water wings lying on the floor. Half-empty glasses strewn about the place. A very distinctive black cowboy hat perched in a position of prominence atop the half-folded-out bed. (Ross Lockhart later reminding us that a hat on the bed is, distinctly, bad luck.)
We backed out of the room that was, clearly, not ours, and explained the situation to the front desk. They apologized profusely, gave us another room that was, in fact, ours, and things went on from there, though I can’t help speculating on the whereabouts and, indeed, the fates of the people who once occupied that room. Thoughts of Lowlife and other movies about low-rent criminal enterprises gone terribly awry flitted through my mind. Mostly, though, I just kept kicking myself for not swiping that very specific and almost certainly cursed hat.
Friday night was readings and mind-expanding, sometimes mind-altering discussions. But the real festivities began on Saturday morning, when we all carpooled over to the Winchester Mystery House. It was my first time attending that fabled structure, though it has been one of the places in the world that I most wanted to go at least since reading about a (renamed and fictionalized) version of it in Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing.
Because of our special status as part of the Symposium, we entered through the gift shop, rather than exiting that way, and literally the first thing I saw when I walked in the door was a Drunkard’s Dream-style penny (actually quarter, in this case) arcade. One of those animatronic dioramas, this time a drunkard in a cemetery, sprawled atop a grave as devils and witches peered at him from behind the tombstones. For those who have read my story in Terror in 16-Bits, you’ll have some idea of why this delighted me so very much.
Ross (whose perspicacity is, you may have noticed, a running theme throughout this account) was perhaps the first to point out the… irony? The dissonance? Of having a symposium in a house built from a fortune generated by America’s history of gun violence – and, perhaps, if you believe the (probably apocryphal but always compelling and narratively satisfying) legends about the origins of the strange structure, built by the guilt or the ghosts or both that came from those deaths–on the very day that the March for Our Lives was kicking off. I don’t think the juxtaposition was lost on any of us, especially when, right outside the window of the room where the symposium was held, we could watch the public play at a shooting gallery, or pose in front of a green screen with what I assume were prop rifles, though I never looked close enough to find out for sure.
The Symposium itself: Like last year, it was as if you took a normal, weekend-long convention and compressed it, leaving behind something midway between a writing convention, an academic summit, and a discussion salon. Call it the essence of a con; convention extract. Or, perhaps it was just a writing convention run through Cody Goodfellow’s ingenious literary vaporizor, so that we could all inhale its most potent elements and get them delivered into our bloodstream that much more quickly.
I moderated a panel on the Weird in film, television, and video games; a panel in which I found myself in the unusual position (where discussions of cinema are concerned, at least) of being hopelessly outclassed, surrounded by actual filmmakers and those who labor behind the scenes to get movies made or distributed or both. It was a fascinating discussion, I think, and perhaps even an illuminating one? Time may yet tell.
After the panels and the readings we all filed through the house itself on an abbreviated tour. I took a number of photos from outside, which you can find on my Instagram, but photos inside the house were, sadly, forbidden. It was strange, as promised, with stairs and doors leading to nowhere, though some of the more extravagant items of legend were nowhere to be found, at least in the part of the tour through which we were conducted. (The seance room, for instance, was quite small, and lacked the thirteen fireplaces with which Alan Moore’s story populated it, though there were plenty of instances of the number thirteen throughout the rest of the house.)
It was also not the least bit spooky, which was both disappointing and not. Partly, it felt like what it is: a tourist attraction, whatever air of mystery or menace it might once have held dispelled by years of gradual conversion to a sort of amusement park. More, though, I think that it is just that there is perhaps nothing ominous to feel within the walls. The story that Sarah Winchester built the house at the behest of the spirits is a good story; compelling and filled with thematic potential. And of course that beautiful line, “The sound of hammers must never stop,” which has been used so well by so many over the years.
But the other explanation, that Sarah Winchester was a frustrated amateur architect, prevented from expressing herself in any other way than through the constant modifications and experiments of her own home, a form of expression that her vast wealth afforded her even while society denied others, tells a story that is just as compelling, and within the walls of the house, feels more likely, more real.
By the time we left the Winchester House, night had fallen over San Jose. We drove back to the hotel, had a few drinks at the bar, and retired to one of the rooms to continue our rambling discussions long into the night. Then, finally, we all slept, we all awoke again, and most departed, leaving me to type these recollections in my hotel room while they are still fresh. As is always the case in a situation like this, it was a delight to see everyone, and a shame, always, not to see everyone more. Thanks to Scott and Anya for putting this one-of-a-kind experience together, and to everyone who supported it, who attended, who read or did panels, and anyone else who in any way helped this happen. It is unique, and it is special, and it is, above all, Weird.
Now it’s time to get ready to go home, to get back to writing, reinvigorated by the thoughts and words that have passed through me during this time, in this place. Typing is not unlike hammering, after all, and the sound of hammers must never stop.