The Curmudgeon

YOU'LL COME FOR THE CURSES. YOU'LL STAY FOR THE MUDGEONRY.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Les Daniels

Thomas Tessier notes the death of Les Daniels at the age of sixty-eight, and links to a New York Times obituary which expends most of its length on Daniels' work about the history of comic books and superheroes, dismissing in seventeen words his five superb novels about Don Sebastian de Villanueva.

Bizarrely, the Times refers to Sebastian as a "globe-trotting, time-traveling vampire", as though the poor devil were one of the Twilight brats caught up in a Fantastic Journey reboot; in fact, Sebastian is no more a time traveller than is the protagonist of Stephen King's The Dead Zone after he wakes from his five-year coma. Sebastian is destroyed at the end of each of the first three novels, but various relics are saved by unwary human beings, who then call him back for their own purposes. In The Silver Skull (1979), he is returned to life during the last days of the Aztec empire, and in Citizen Vampire (1981) he is reluctantly resurrected during the last days of the ancien régime; but in both cases it is the relics which have endured through time, not Sebastian who has travelled through it. The last two books, Yellow Fog (1988) and No Blood Spilled (1991), both take place in the mid-nineteenth century, and in this case Sebastian does find it convenient to move of his own volition from Victorian London to British India; but that is the only point at which he even approximates to globe-trotting, and the journey takes place between the two narratives.

Daniels' first novel, The Black Castle (1978), establishes the major theme of the series: the question as to whether vampire or humanity is the greater monster. Set in fifteenth-century Spain, it tells of inquisitor Diego de Villanueva, an ambitious and enthusiastic witch-hunter who is using his undead brother - a master of the black arts - as a means to knowledge of the Enemy. Intelligent, amoral and sardonic, Sebastian himself resembles Dr Van Helsing's admiring description of Dracula:

he was in life a most wonderful man. Soldier, statesman, and alchemist, which latter was the highest development of the science knowledge of his time, he had a mighty brain, a learning beyond compare, and a heart that knew no fear and no remorse.

Each of the Sebastian novels displays a commendable lack of King Stephen's Bloat, and all five are marked by scrupulous attention to period detail. The grisly and ludicrous machinations of the Inquisition in The Black Castle; the gory piety of the Aztecs pitted against the ruthless greed of the Spaniards in The Silver Skull; the decadent aristocrats, revolutionary bureaucrats and vengeful underlings in Citizen Vampire; the bullying sanctimony of Victorian London in Yellow Fog and the festering brutality of the Raj in No Blood Spilled are all convincingly rendered. There are occasional cameos by notable historical figures, including a chilly, wasted Torquemada and a sceptical but friendly Marquis de Sade; but Daniels applies his learning with a light touch and never degenerates into mere name-dropping. Citizen Vampire's discussions and demonstrations about Dr Guillotin's humane madame are as sharp, unsparing and mercilessly up-to-date as the lady herself.

Among his influences Daniels cited Robert Bloch, who used a distinctive, blackly humorous style in various genres and, like Daniels, was capable of combining two or more genres in a single work: all the Sebastian books are historical horror novels, but Yellow Fog also has elements of melodrama and the detective story. Another of Daniels' influences was John Dickson Carr, who sometimes used historical settings and was partial to a bit of blood and thunder, to say nothing of literary deconstruction, in many of his mystery novels. Daniels himself regarded his own work as "tragedy, in which evil consumes itself", as opposed to the melodrama common to most modern horror fiction, "in which customarily good guys meet bad guys and win in two out of three falls".

Although the first four novels can be read independently of one another, the last, No Blood Spilled, is a direct sequel to Yellow Fog; according to S T Joshi in Classics and Contemporaries, Daniels first stated and then denied that he had a trilogy in mind. Certainly No Blood Spilled ends on an inconclusive note, with the conflict between Sebastian and his latest pursuer, the delightful half-crazed cad Reginald Callender, still unresolved. The best book of the five is The Silver Skull, at least partly because of its setting (some years before writing it, Daniels wondered in print why the pre-Columbian civilisations had received so little attention from the horror genre) and its cosmic touches. The Black Castle, Citizen Vampire and Yellow Fog are not far behind, and No Blood Spilled is inferior only in comparison to its predecessors; compared to almost anything else in the subgenre, it ranks very high indeed. Taken together, Daniels' novels are among the most impressive achievements in twentieth-century horror fiction, and it is well worth your trouble to make Don Sebastian de Villanueva's acquaintance.

1 Comments:

  • At 5:44 pm , Blogger BOB BOVI said...

    FROM BOB BOVI: LES DANIELS WAS A GOOD FRIEND AND A PARTNER IN THE EARLY EIGHTIES, TO REVIVE THE SHORT MOVIE "COMEDIAC" STARRING RUDY CHEEKS, WRITTEN BY LES DANIELS.I REMEMBER ARE HARD WORK AND OUR TRIPS TO NYC TO MEET WITH PRODUCERS AND AGENTS,AND TRIPS TO CAPE COD TO MEET WITH MY FRIEND ALEX BYRON WHO WAS THE OWNER OF THE PROPERTY WHERE I OPENED "THE CAPE COD ART GALLERY" HE ARRANGED MEETINGS WITH HIS MANY CONTACTS IN THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY.ONE THAT STANDS OUT IS THE MEETING WITH HAROLD BELDOCK,OF JAVERTS AND JAVERTS LAW FIRM,OF NYC,AND HEAD OF THE FLEDGLING "HBO".HIS LAST COMMENTS WERE "IF YOU FILM IT, WE WILL FEATURE IT ON HBO. R.I.P. LES - BOB BOVI

     

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