It’s An Honor to Be Nominated



Park Ave & E 42nd St, New York, NY 10017

Neighborhood: The Bram Stoker Awards

“Congratulations!” read the subject heading of the e-mail. But no, I hadn’t won a free cruise, or a much larger penis. My short novel, Northern Gothic had made the final ballot for the Bram Stoker Award. The Stokers, managed by the Horror Writers Association, celebrate horror fiction, poetry, comics and “alternative media” by holding a banquet and giving out statuettes to the winners. It’s just like the Oscars, except that nobody notices. This year the banquet was in New York, and I was invited. Invited to pay $65 for a weekend of panel discussions, pitch meetings to mass-market paperback publishers and dinner at the Helmsley hotel on June 8th. What the hell, I thought, why not? I had no hope of winning, but there are seven words in English which are never untrue when said all together: “It’s an honor just to be nominated.”

Northern Gothic is dark fiction. It’s a timeslip story, the racial hatreds of the Civil War Draft Riots drift over into modern day Chelsea and victimize a gay black wannabe dancer named Ahmadi. It was my poison pen letter to Manhattan and to all the people I’ve known who came to the city to make it big, sent the rents skyrocketing and infested the scene, only to run back to Ann Arbor or Columbus or Fresno once mama’s money ran out. You know the type. They struggle along in publishing or the music industry for a few years and decorate their apartments with strings of chili pepper lights and mannequin torsos. They own (and sometimes actually wear) feather boas. And nearly all of them gained their romantic notions of Manhattan and life in it from dog-eared high school library books. Northern Gothic was supposed to be an antidote for that, my way of saying, “New York is full. Go home.” But it was the horror and science fiction communities that picked up the book, not the hipsters. Fat guys in beards and Buffy The Vampire Slayer T-shirts, not those cute young women with bobs and Buddy Holly eyeglasses who never give me the time of day.

I wasn’t the next Dennis Cooper after all. And if the sales reports are true, I’m not the next Stephen King either. I’m the first Nick Mamatas. So of course, I had to represent New York at the Stokers. I’m not really a hotel banquet sort of guy though. More of a Gray’s Papaya sort (at least I was until those porkbelly-trading fatcats upped the price to 75 cents for a frank!) I didn’t even own a suit. I found one a few days before the event, though, in Chinatown, fresh off the truck. There was still sweatshop sweat on the jacket. I borrowed a tie from my housemate, who did the dyke thing a few years ago and had plenty of semi-formal wear to spare. I passed on the shoes though, since I wasn’t going to win. I was going to lose the Bram Stoker Award, and lose it really bad.

It became a joke and a PR thing. “Not only am I going to lose,” I told my friends and even to two interviewers, “I’ll come in fifth out of five. The only drama for me is whether I score the lowest vote total in Stoker history.” I was about as confident as an Iraqi general, and for good reason. Within the horror community the Stokers are sometimes known as “the Strokers.” Members of the HWA publicly vote on a preliminary ballot and then a final ballot. Since everyone knows who votes for what, logrolling is legendary. My own nomination sneaked in through the back door, thanks to the Additions Jury, whose job it is to make sure that deserving but obscure work gets noticed. Northern Gothic qualifies as obscure: it came out six weeks before the end of the year, from a publisher — Soft Skull Press — that never prints horror and rarely prints fiction, and I utterly failed to do gloryhole monitor duty at any of the many horror conventions held throughout the year. Clearly, I had no chance at all.

It gets worse. In the Long Fiction category I was up against the legendary fantasist Harlan Ellison, hot young writer Brian Keene (who was nominated in four categories!), popular Steve Rasnic Tem who won the category last year, and Nancy Echtemendy, whose story appeared in a widely read magazine. Plus, she’s the treasurer of the Horror Writers Association. Would you buy new shoes to lose this badly? I wore my ratty old Doc Martens and my navy blue suit, to properly represent, Notorious B. I. G.-style.

I failed to represent, though. I was utterly anonymous. The woman running the registration desk gave me my badge and then said “Want to buy a Stoker? The campaigning is horrible. ‘Vote for me and I’ll vote for you. ‘Vote for me and I’ll put you in my anthology.’ Nominees should hand out twenty dollar bills with For Your Consideration written across the top.”

“Wow, I’m nominated and I didn’t do any of that!”

“Congratulations,” she said, her smile not wavering for a moment, “and good luck.”

Horror fiction has been in the sales doldrums for much of the past decade, and as such only a small community remains. There’s an upside. The terror of the science fiction convention — the bearded know-it-all who smells of cat piss and denounces authors to their faces — has no Stoker banquet analog. Horror folks are normal, intelligent and friendly. The downside was that everyone seemed to know one another. Except me. I recognized a few names from bylines and the Internet, but the only conversations I managed to have were about how expensive the drinks were. The Helmsley charged $5.50 for a splash of ginger ale poured over a glass of ice. Even booze, the writer’s friend, had abandoned me at seven bucks a bottle and two long lines, one for tickets, and then one for the bar to turn tickets into alcohol. It was like buying Russian toilet paper or something.

And “Good luck.” Everyone who recognized my name from the final ballot wished me good luck. I made my ego-defense joke. “Oh, I’m doomed. Last place here I come!” And the same people who moments before were decrying the corruption of the Stroker Awards would just smile and say “Hey, you never know. Good luck.” Of course, almost nobody I spoke to read the book — the few who did liked how I described the city. “Reminds me of why I’m staying in the hotel all weekend,” one of them said.

Invisibility was an asset when it was time for the banquet. I had hidden my suit in the lobby bathroom and changed there. My tie, which my housemate had tied, had come undone. How un-punk rock! It took me a dozen tries to replicate the knot. I yanked all the tags I could see off the sleeves and saw that I was already fifteen minutes late. The dinner was underway!

Two other horror fans spotted me in the stall. They were in New York for the weekend and wanted to know if the lights were still on.


“You know, for 9/11.”

“Ah, yes, the Batsignals. No, those are gone. The hole is still available for viewing though.”

“Is it by the hotel?”

“No, it’s still where the World Trade Center used to be.”

They didn’t think I was funny. It was all too horrific, that someone might have to take the subway to see neatly swept up carnage live, rather than on TV. Stick to the vampires, boys!

I hit the banquet hall fifteen minutes late, and slinked to a mostly empty table in the back of the room. I sat with more out-of-towners. They’d already been to Central Park and Grand Central Station and wanted to know what else they could do that was close to the Helmsley.

“Well, you can go back to Grand Central, go to the little Junior’s they have in the basement and have a black and white cookie. That’s New York.”

“A black and white cookie! Yes, just like Seinfeld!”

I asked one guy if he was a writer. He was, and he had just had his pitch meeting. His book idea was confusing. A psychic detective who works for the cops and takes the form of the crime victims before the crime is committed but then he experiences the crime but can also stop it if it isn’t supernatural. And that’s just the first few pages.

I told him about Northern Gothic. He thought it sounded political. He asked if I was working on something else.

“Yes. H. P. Lovecraft’s On The Road,” I said, describing a book idea I had come up with as a joke, but which is actually turning out to be quite writeable.

“Wow! One sentence,” he said, excited. “Now that’s a pitch.”

A pause.

“They’d never take that in a million years though.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Well, good luck. Maybe you’ll win a Stoker tonight.”

“Oh no, I’m doomed.”

“Hey, you never know.”

The appetizers came. Prosciutto & fresh mozzarella with artichoke hearts, black olives and sun-dried tomatoes. I tried to distract myself by observing the Nazi efficiency of the servers, the long Stalinist lines of the cash bar (I sneaked a can of Coke in my jacket pocket. “Never again!” was my response to high-priced drinks) and the very odd choice of pork and cheese for an appetizer in a town with a fair number of Jews. But I couldn’t. I was thinking about winning.

A Stoker Award of my very own. A stylized haunted house with my name on it. The little gray shack of success. Maybe it could happen. Harlan Ellison is a legend, but also a well-known asshole, and his lawsuit against online pirates had cost him some net-savvy fans. Brian Keene was nominated in four categories. Surely, he wouldn’t win them all. Maybe he’d lose mine. Ecthemendy’s story was more magical realist than horror, and plus, as treasurer she may have made a few enemies within the HWA. Tem’s novella was strictly small press, and plus, he had his time last year. Clearly, the ‘you never knows’ had gotten to me. My New Yorker cool had melted into sweat — my own sweat — not cheap factory sweat, and my cheap suit was soaking in it.

I didn’t have to wait long. I had barely eaten my appetizer, and those of the empty seats on either side of me, when salad was dumped into my plate. Then not four minutes later, my chicken marsala (this was a low budget banquet, everyone got the chicken), a twice-baked potato and some green beans came. I wondered what the vegetarian choice was. Probably more green beans and an extra dirty look from the food service Gestapo.

The cheesecake came and I saw why they snatched away the appetizers so quickly. The cheesecake tasted just like the stale mozarella of the first course! It must have been some bargain basement recycling deal. No way was this proper New York cheesecake. I wanted to get up and shout, “Don’t eat the cheesecake! It’s from out of town!” but instead I just turned to my tablemates and said, “Listen, when you go to the Junior’s annex in Grand Central, get some real cheesecake. I wouldn’t feed this to a dead man’s dog” (I don’t normally talk like that, but I was in horror mode). They nodded. Then our coffees were snatched away.

Long story short. I lost. Tem won. My name was pronounced correctly though, which is always a happy surprise. And I got a certificate. It was embarrassing, though — I saw that all the other finalists were holding manila envelopes, but nobody had given me one. What’s worse, being so anonymous that I had to remind the organization that nominated me that I had paid $65 for toejam cheesecake, or just getting a loser certificate in the first place? I got my envelope and was agog as I saw those immortal words of darkness inscribed upon it: BETH ISRAEL MEDICAL CENTER First Avenue at 16th Street, New York, NY 10003.

Stealing office supplies. Now that’s New York! And when I was leaving the hotel to retreat back across the Hudson to walk my dog, someone called my name. She was a cute redhead, with a short bob and a backless dress decorated with cherries.

“Nick?” she asked, smiling widely. Was it a fan? A real indie rockin’ New York fan of Northern Gothic?

“You still have a clothing tag on your pants,” she said. Then she ripped it off my ass.

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