Owl Goingback is becoming to Orlando what Jack Skellington is to his town in the film "The Nightmare Before Christmas:" the toastmaster general of Halloween, the man who leads the annual parade of carefully coordinated frights -- and who is called upon year after year to top himself. The supernaturally inclined author of six novels (the latest, Breed, was published last August by Signet), Goingback last year assumed more of a caretaker's role as the organizer of "Halloween Horror Fest," an all-day gathering of writers and other genre professionals that was held at the Borders Books & Music store in Winter Park. This year's "Halloween Horror Fest II" sees Goingback raising the stakes with more guests, more special features, more fan interaction -- and more of the same self-directed, terror-to-the-people spirit that gave last year's conclave the allure of a morbid tradition in the making.
Like a zombie emerging from a newly dug grave, the idea of "Halloween Horror Fest" arose from an annual get-together of Goingback's peers in historic St. Augustine. For three years, he and his fellow masters of fear have met there to sign books, socialize, have dinner and take walking tours of one of America's most haunted cities. The assembly has gradually become a social nexus point for members of Horror Writers of America, the professional organization to which Goingback belongs.
"Each year," he says, "it's gotten to be a bigger and bigger party" -- big enough that Goingback soon hit on the idea of instituting an additional rendezvous closer to his own backyard. (He lives in the greater Orlando area, though we're loathe to say exactly where; his conversance with all things deadly makes the writer as imposing a presence as his 6-foot-3-inch carriage and Choctaw/Cherokee bloodline.)
"I wanted to bring the readers, authors, publishers and editors together with the writing hopefuls in a friendly atmosphere," Goingback recalls. He found a willing host site in Borders Books & Music, an operation he says is unlike other chains in its willingness to work with "some of the smaller authors who have only been published by a small press." Relentlessly plugging the event in the HWA newsletter and on his website (www.owlgoingback.com), Goingback was able to secure the involvement of some 31 guests and field inquiries from as far away as Canada.
"To `persuade` the members, I said, 'Come down here and do this one-day event,'" he remembers. "'Take a week, and spend the other six days at the theme parks or out on the town. It's a business expense.'" The pitch, he summarizes, was "Come to Florida for a tax deduction."
Though exact attendance figures from the resultant "Halloween Horror Fest" are impossible to determine (some of those wide-eyed, zombified types you saw might merely have been hopped up on cappuccino), area marketing manager Karen Dunlap says the sheer magnitude of the event was unparalleled in the history of a store that's more accustomed to hosting one author at a time.
Topping the guest list was nonagenarian writer Hugh B. Cave, the author of more than 40 novels and the winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from HWA. Cave will be back for the sophomore go-'round, headlining an expanded roster of about 40 authors, publishers, artists, actors, special-effects experts and other shock specialists. One participant has even "passed over" from the realm of the observer into that of the full-fledged guest: David Toy, who attended the 2001 gathering as a budding but unaffiliated author, hit it off so well with a representative from Barclay Books that he scored a deal for for his first novel, "The Palindrome Conspiracy." This year, Toy is one of six authors who will be reading aloud from their published works.
"Writing is like anything else," Goingback says. "It's who you know."
Other visitors on the schedule include Barry Anderson, a makeup man/FX wizard who has provided faux-human fodder for the Ripley's Believe it or Not and Madam Tussaud's attractions, as well as the film "Jeepers Creepers" and its forthcoming sequel. ("They send him photos from a crime scene or a morgue, and he duplicates the body parts," Goingback explains.) Taking the festivities beyond the walls of Borders, invited guests and civilians alike will convene at Townsend's Plantation in Apopka for a Saturday-night mingle, knocking back spirits of a more mundane variety as guides from Orlando Ghost Tours lead spook-hunting parties through the allegedly febrile grounds.
It's a lot of activity to oversee, but this time, Goingback has help: Members of the Florida chapter of HWA are aiding with promotion and store set-up. (Just what any dark master needs: minions!) Future editions may be even more involved. Goingback is pursuing a possible collaboration with the representatives of one of America's largest horror conventions, who he says have turned an interested eye toward his efforts. Were the two operations to partner, "Halloween Horror Fest" would likely have to expand to three days and charge an admission fee, like a standard convention. That prospect instills mixed emotions in Goingback, who for now revels in his event's free-of-charge status. (The Townsend's soirée carries a ticket price of $15 or $20 per couple; a portion of the proceeds is earmarked for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.)
No, you can't call this a cash-in move. "I want to give something back, because writing has been pretty good to me," Goingback says. Having arrived on the scene with 1996's "Crota" -- which not only won HWA's Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel, but was also nominated in the Best Novel category -- the author has since settled into a comfortable pattern of releasing a new work every 12 to 18 months, perpetually drawing on his Native American ancestry for material and his own travels for background. The new "Breed," for example, postulates evil doings in that favorite haunt, St. Augustine. (Think of it as synchronicity with a scythe.)
True, there's been no breakout into the saturation-level multimedia success of a Stephen King or a Clive Barker: Movie adaptations of Goingback's work, though often discussed, haven't reached the green-light stage. But he finds job security in the field of printed horror, calling it a classic form of "escape fiction" that is relied upon to provide both diversion and solace in difficult times.
"If you're accepting ghosts, that means there is a life after death," he muses. "It's comforting and reassuring to know that there is something beyond this life, and that people don't just 'not exist anymore.'"
As long as he keeps the printed creeps coming, Goingback is ensuring his own continued existence as a horror-industry player -- though there would be substantial irony in seeing his public persona change from that of a writer who throws Halloween parties to an accomplished ghost host who also dabbles in fiction. If that metamorphosis ever occurs, of course, you can be the first to tell him.