I am Providence
The Longest Con
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings
This past week, I finished reading two novels based on Horror Conventions, Nick Mamatas’ I am Providence, and Michaelbrent Collings’s The Longest Con. If anyone is interested in a meticulously researched and reproduced look at the behind-the-scenes events at a major con, including the hours of backbreaking work; the incredible ingenuity required to arrange logistics, rooms, panels; the care taken to ensure that every participant has the perfect con experience, two words of advice: Look elsewhere.
But if you are avid to see what should really be taking place behind those same scenes at horror cons, these two are the books for you. Both treat cons, con organizers, con participants, and con audiences with satire and with clear affection; both explore the back-stage quibbles that lead to on-stage carnage, whether real or metaphorical; and both use the time-honored trope of a murder mystery to anatomize the workings of cons and their fans.
Mamatas’ novel centers on the prime H.P. Lovecraft con, the “Summer Tentacular.” Its perennial attendees include oddballs dressed in a variety of appropriate—and wildly inappropriate—costumes, whose persons and personalities augment the satire Mamatas brings to bear. Perhaps the sanest-seeming is a new-comer, Colleen Danzig, who is at first taken aback by the extremes she immediately encounters: extremes of costuming, extremes of attitudes toward and against Lovecraft, extremes of literary and philosophical engagement with horror itself. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, when she becomes the main suspect in a particularly gruesome murder, one perfectly suitable for a con honoring the man who invented the most horrifying (non)book of all times, the Necronomicon…or holding in high esteem a writer who binds his chapbooks in the flattened skins of squids.
To complicate matters—which soon become more than complicated enough—the narrative is told in alternate chapters by Danzig and by the first victim, after his murder; it is a bit disconcerting, but delightfully so, to remember midway through a chapter that the speaker is lying dead on a morgue slab, disconnected from his body, his senses, and from any means to communicate with the various visitors (read: investigators and suspects) who come to gaze upon him.
With a second equally horrific but totally different murder, the novel moves into high gear, along the way providing Mamatas opportunities to focus on essential Lovecraftian issues, at least as they are seen among his readers, fans, detractors, and foes: his isolationism, both personal and political; his frequent linguistic opacity; his panoply of gods and not-gods that have intrigued, enticed, and captivated readers for over a century; and, of course, most devastating of all, his racial views. Never one to miss an opening for comedy and satire, Mamatas parlays this last into a series of hysterical moments as one sub-group of Lovecraftians attempt to disinter the bones of Lovecraft’s cat, whose name is—by current standards—unpronounceable, not because it is a typical HPL concatenation of inarticulable consonants but because it represents the height of political incorrectness to pronounce it. Among the characters, no one seems to know for certain what course to take when dealing with the long defunct cat or its name.
Ranging from well-crafted murder mystery to outright exposé of the near insanity that sometimes seems to overtake enthusiasts in the press of a con, I am Providence is an enjoyable romp in things-Lovecraftian, an analysis of underlying postures, and a Chaucerian-style anatomy of the pilgrims who attend the Summer Tentacular to worship at the bones of their chosen saint…or, failing that, of his favorite cat.
Michaelbrent’s The Longest Con works from a different angle to explore a similar setting. In the world of fandom that includes the WrongTurnCon in Albuquerque and the FlySwatPaperCupCon in Topeka—“(yeah, they were both invented there)”—the idea of a FanFamFunComCon seems perhaps a bit less far-fetched, so it is perfectly acceptable for that to be the venue at which Michaelbrent must solve an eerie, gruesome, and entirely inexplicable murder.
Yes, Michaelbrent must solve it. He is the main character in the novel. But he has some excellent helpers: Larry Correia, arms expert extraordinaire, New York Times bestselling horror/fantasy novelist, and “International Lord of Hate”; Blake Casselman, who in our world is one of the organizers of the Salt Lake Comic Con; Dave Butler, a brilliant writer and equally brilliant gentleman; Mercedes Yardley, gracious and also a superlative writer; and, when things get truly sticky (as in bloody, more times than not), appearances by Kevin J. Anderson and Orson Scott Card.
It helps one understand all of this, of course, to know that many of the “monsters” one sees at horror cons actually are monsters. Cons are among the few places where they can mingle, as themselves, with humans. Sometimes things go radically wrong, however, and to protect all participants, human and non-, con organizers call on Wardens, con-goers who have the magical ability to see the World, not just the world most of us know.
Michaelbrent is a Warden. It is his job to sell books at his table in the Artists Alley; to participate on panels (his first is “Religion in Horror”); to watch out for his mom, who, in full steampunk regalia, tends the table for him; to make enough new fans to keep supporting his family on his writing along; and—when occasion calls—to solve human-on-monster, monster-on-human, and monster-on-monster murders.
If things get truly horrendous, Wardens can fall back on help (although sometimes that isn’t quite the right word—try threats, intimidations, and ultimatums) from the Dead Ones, whose powers alone have maintained a balance among the Earth’s various inhabitants. And sure enough, soon enough—shortly after the telephone call from a pissed off Cthulhu—things get truly horrendous.
The Longest Con is long, fast-paced, funny (ranging from that’s funny? to funny-ha-ha to I can’t believe he actually said that!), pun-filled, and thoroughly affectionate glimpse into Michaelbrent’s World of cons, the people he knows there (who all agreed to become fictional characters for the duration, including his mother and his father—me), the real and unreal complications that come from trying to make a living as a horror writer.
As he says in Chapter 1: “My name is Michaelbrent Collings. This is what I do.”
And that’s the whole chapter—and the whole truth.
Buy both books. You will be glad that you did.