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Tabula Rasa

Living With Fear

An Interview with Les Daniels

by Kyla Ward

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#7, 1995

  • Update: Go straight to the addendum, regarding White Demon.

Ah, New England, deep, black stain on America's cultural map. Providence, where most of the houses along Benefit Street are older than European Australian settlement, and people in black staggering around with maps marked 'A Lovecraftian Guide' are completely ignored by Brown University students. The guide was given to me by Les Daniels, my host and part-way excuse for lighting out of Boston and away from my partner still stuck at the conference. I should like to take this opportunity to thank Mr Daniels, and for the addresses of all those second-hand bookstores. The author of the official histories of Marvel and DC comics, and the encyclopediac Living in Fear, Mr Daniel's 'Chronicles of Don Sebastian' have recently been reprinted by Raven Books, the first three in an omnibus and Yellow Fog to come. This makes it an excellent time to explore the realm of of an author who believes in an 'old-fashioned' story...

Tabula Rasa: So, how did you become interested in horror? I think we're conducting a survey at Tabula Rasa, trying to find similarities --

Les Daniels: You know, this is odd, because I don't know. I've been asked this before and I really don't know exactly. It's something that's available in our culture to a certain extent, and I would find, as a kid, that when something like this would show up it would be interesting to me; I don't know why, that's not a very good answer. Just something you'd see, a cartoon that had a ghost or a monster or something in it, and you'd like it better than the one that didn't. And just think, this stuff, I like this stuff. And some of it came from the sort of thing everyone gets, just little kids stories with ghosts or something in them, comics, which I'm still interested in; I didn't get to see a great many horror films when I was a kid because I essentially went to films with my parents because we lived out in the country -- it wasn't really rural, it was this suburban area outside of New York City, in Conneticut. So I only went to films that they went to, and they didn't go to horror films. And there weren't many on television when I was a kid, so a lot of it did come from reading. I'd gravitate to things; like, I found out about Poe at quite an early age, I was the kind of kid who was reading a lot of stuff when he was very young, I was reading Poe when I was eight or nine; and Ambrose Bierce was another one, that was a little later, and he gave me some nightmares. And I discovered Lovecraft when I was about eleven or twelve, and that was a big thing. Because in addition to liking Lovecraft stories, he is very much a 'pied piper' kind of figure if you get into reading his non-fiction or reading about him, and the way he encouraged people around him to get into the field. I think a lot of people my age -- even though he'd been dead for decades -- sort of felt that they were also being encouraged in some way. But I didn't do anything then; I wrote little stories when I was a small kid, but as as a teenager and a college student I felt, not smart enough to do what I wanted to do, but smart enough to know that I couldn't. So, I'm like a lot of people, I wrote for school, I wrote papers, I wrote my Masters thesis; I wasn't writing my little short stories or anything. In fact, I got into fiction backwards, by writing non-fiction. My first books were like Fear, and another one on the history of comics, and I edited some anthologies, I still hadn't written any fiction. I wrote several full-length non-fiction books, and then I wrote a novel. I'd written several novels before I did a single short story, I've still only written eight or nine in more than twenty years of writing professionally. I think the first one was in 1986, which is like fifteen years since I started publishing.

TR: Yes, you've written about comics...

LD: Is that the question, am I supposed to go on about comics now?

TR: Well, you have done these huge books; first the one on Marvel, and I'm under the distinct impression you've just finished the one for DC.

LD: This will be released in America; I don't know, I think it's already been sold to England which I guess means you will get it, I don't know how that all works.

TR: No one does.

LD: But it's scheduled to come out here in the Fall of '95. And in fact, I did one earlier; my first book ever was a history of comics, a general history. It was called Comix, A History of Comic Books in America. That was in 1971. And that was to some extent based on my concerns, which you've been touching on earlier, about censorship, and the fact that when I was a boy in the 1950's, the horror comics were more or less banned in the United States; something that I'd been reading, specifically the EC comics Tales From The Crypt and its sister publications, like Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear. I liked comics as a form; when I was a small boy, again, I used to draw my own little comics and I thought, maybe I would get involved in that but I'm not much of an artist, and at the time I thought that you had to be able to write and draw them both, only later I realised. But rather than ever going into comics, in terms of writing, I just have this sort of sideline now of being a 'comics historian', in addition to writing the novels. I hadn't thought I would, I did the first book on comics in the early seventies, I thought that would be it. But, I was actually just called by Marvel a few years ago, and asked if I would like to write their official history, I guess because someone there had read the old book. And following that, the DC thing came up and I don't know, because those are the two big, active companies that have long histories, maybe I'm done.

TR: Just touching on the other non-fiction book, Fear --

LD: AKA Living in Fear --

TR: A History of Horror in the Mass Media.

LD: This followed the first book on comics, and once again was based on the fact this was something I was interested in. In a way it's dated and superceded now, there were fairly few books even on horror films back then; but what makes it more unique now is that in addition to discussing most of the significant English-language horror films made up till that time, it also tried to deal with the literature, going back to the Gothic novel and so on. I tried to cover so much ground that there's usually only a couple of sentences about anything that I mentioned, and so much written since that in a way it's superficial.

TR: And it also includes certain stories --

LD: It's partially an anthology.

TR: -- you printed Arthur Machen's The Novel of the White Powder. Thank you.

LD: Well, it's important to me. At that period, I think the concept of the tradition and what had gone before was almost the basis of horror and was of interest to horror writers and people who made horror films; there has been a tremendous leap, it was almost as though I wrote that book at the appropriate time, because since then there has been a big jump in horror in terms of its wide promulgation and acceptance, and at the same time there has been a tremendous difference in the content. In a way I guess The Exorcist and the Stephen King phenomenon; I may be wrong but I believe I have heard he is the most popular writer in American history, bar none. And this is very strange. Something to do with my generation, that more people were interested in this subject than usual, but also to do with things like his success encouraged a tremendous number of people to get into the field as writers who normally would have found something else to do with their lives, and are not really interested. Up until then, it had been a small number of obsessive-type people who kept the genre going, there'd usually only be, maybe a dozen writers in a generation who were actually seriously trying to do a horror. And now there are hundreds or thousands --

TR: And most of them are writing vampire stories.

LD: I'm sorry to say, because I started doing this before it was so popular, but in fact I am writing vampire stories, and I refuse to stop just because all these other damn people are in there writing their vampire stories! And of course, most of them are being influenced by Anne Rice which again I was not. In fact, I was writing horror before she was. It's made things very strange. Also, the contents has changed so much, it's 'dumbed down' a lot. I mean, when you think about classic horror, whether you're talking about Poe or Lovecraft, or the old Universal films, the stories are almost always about intellectuals in some sense -- they're scientists, they're weird asthetes, they're decadent aristocrats. And now, it's usually about a bunch of teenagers trying to get laid. It's not the same genre, in a sense, any more. But when it dealt with this more esoteric form, which was essentially what horror was for most of it's life, I think that's when it was more interesting; now it's just another kind of action movie.

TR: That's interesting, because one of the things I've noticed in the Don Sebastien novels, is you seem to be one of the few authors around who is genuinely working with the supernatural. Modern horror seems to be more associated with, well, serial killers, for start.

LD: That certainly is popular. Well, I don't necessarily object to that, it depends what it is, I'm very fond of Psycho, for instance. But that, although it created a little bit of flurry, a little flurry of imitation psycho-movies, that probably only amounted to about a dozen over a period of three or four years, as opposed to the imitation Halloween and Friday The Thirteenth movies which are now into the hundreds, over god knows how many years.

TR: The original series alone...

LD: I don't know. Horror films now seem to be virtually non-existent. There's still fiction, but opposed to even in the eighties when they were just coming out by the ton, most of them awful but some of them good ones like Cronenburg. But now there's almost no one making them as far as I can tell, I mean, you get, quote; Bram Stoker's Dracula; one year, and then the next year we get --

TR: Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

LD: There are many reasons for it. Partly because everything is cyclical, and there was such a glut of horror films in the late seventies and early eighties, but I think it also has something to do with the video market that, there seems to be more of a difficulty getting theatres to book low budget films, which most horror films have traditionally been, and they go directly to video, but this has not been good in terms of the quality, it seems like those films are even stupider than the stupid films we object to when we see them in theatres! We get such awful stuff; I don't know if you get them --

TR: We get them, just half a year later.

LD: But I mean, the kind of cutsey, fake comedy horror, The Sorority Babes in the Slimebowl Bowl-A-Rama, that seems to be essentially what the low budget horror films are now. They don't even attempt to be frightening, because they pretend they're being funny, but they don't really have to be funny because they're horror films, and in fact they're nothing. And there's something that not many people know. Up until the mid-eighties, we were still getting some good stuff like The Re-Animator and Return of the Living Dead. But one of the great evils, that people aren't really aware about, committed by Ronald Reagan, was that there was rule here, that went into effect in the nineteen-fifties, that major studios could not do block bookings, they could not own the theatres that showed the films; and this went into effect in the fifties, and was one of the reasons there was a big slump in Hollywood, that and simultaneously television came along, the studios for a while thought they were going to go under. But it did also open up the theatres to independent films; more foreign films came into the United States, and people like American International could get their films into theatres, because the theatres could no longer say, sorry, we're an MGM theatre, we only show MGM movies. And the companies were not allowed to do block bookings, block bookings meant, that if you want to buy our movie and it's going to be a hit, you have to buy all the rest of our movies. But the Reagan administration recinded a lot of these rules in the eighties, and made it possible for the old system to come back, meaning only big budget movies get into theatres, only big budget, studio movies --

TR: And the budgets get bigger and bigger --

LD: And the small budget people are locked out again. And I think this is one of the reasons we're not getting good horror films any more. I mean, ten years ago you could go down to the local theatre here and see some rotten Italian zombie movie, those days are just over. I guess maybe the Italians aren't making them any more, but why would they if they can't show them here any more? Regan was tied up with MCA, which is the giant entertainment conglomerate that owns Universal Pictures and all that stuff, and they were his agents back when they were an agency, before they became a -- it's all very nasty and convoluted but I think really that Ronald Regan is one of the reasons why we're not getting many horror films any more. There's some good things about both that Dracula and the Frankenstein;

TR: And they mainly involved art design.

LD: Well yes, I mean, they are nice to look at; dramatically nil, but nice to look at. The Dracula especially was just atrocious; in spite of having so many details that were accurate, to make the main thrust of it that he was a tortured romantic looking for his lost love was just so wrong. Him walking around looking like some seventies' rock star with his little glasses, just give me a rest.

TR: You just don't get people considering vampires as a supernatural entity; it's not fashionable.

LD: There's more and more of a tendancy to regard it as somehow, the magic has gone, there's an explanation for it, and so many people write books about 'my vampires', as they call them; this is their idea of being creative, trying to change what a vampire is. And then they end up telling the same old story, but their vampire, you know, sucks earwax or something instead. You see that so much; Anne Rice is surely the most popular and the most imitated, I don't know, are they supernatural or not? I can't quite figure out whether they're supposed to be regarded as supernatural or not.

TR: Well, they've got a -- it's hard to determine, but they definately don't have the superstition, the occult structure.

LD: It doesn't seem to me as though they are, although there are some indications. What I dislike about them is that they've lost the Faustian trade-off -- they get depressed sometimes, like no one else does, but there's no sense of the fact that they are parasites, there's no acknowledgment of their victims. We started writing vampire stories at approximately the same time, and there were a couple of other people who did before the fad took off, who wanted to make vampires more of the central character, and less of merely the scary monster who is going to bother the people that the story is really about. But she lost all sense of the fact that someone is getting killed if these people go on; except for occasionally they find some lovely, magic person and bring them into the club. In one of the books it's almost like, oh, but we just do it to the homeless, and that makes it okay! There's no sense that there's any evil involved in this. I don't just mean 'oh -- oh, evil'; I mean, to me, evil's interesting. I mean, you can understand why they do it, and yet they have to do something awful to do what they're getting to do, and to just leave that part of the equation out, it loses its resonance. And that's part of the supernatural part. And also some of the magical stuff. I used the most widely prevalent myths; some of which are actually Hollywood myths; you know, the general, generic, all-purpose vampires. I didn't want to try fool around, as I said, with this, I have some tricky explanation for why they're vampires, or they do something different when they're vampires. To me, it was the general, overall image we have. Well, what if there were such characters, what would they be like? What would one be like; they wouldn't all be the same. Trying to make them still be horrible and rotten, and yet wonderful and great at the same time. I had this real balancing act to try and do, and I don't know, they're not incredibly popular books, there are some people who like them. I don't know if it's because of what's in the books, or because of all the many marketing things which can make all the difference. I know it's not as though as many people have read mine as have read some of the best sellers, and said, oh well, we don't like them; well, in fact they haven't read them, so it isn't as though I know they don't like them as well. But I don't know if it is something of the content that discourages them, or not. But the vampire is not idealised, I mean, he's got a lot of fascinating, admirable qualities, but he's still very dangerous and nasty and weird. And I want to try and bring both those in.

TR: So, you're hero is a, to say, traditional vampire, and you must have done some pretty heavy research. Not content with bringing back a vampire, you bring back magic. He's a sorceror. Even in Citizen Vampire during the French Revolution, and though I haven't read Yellow Fog I can almost guess...

LD: This is partly based on studying vampires, because we now, thanks to the movies, I guess, have this idea of how people become vampires, which is they're bitten by other vampires. But this doesn't explain anything, it just puts off the problem. But in, quote, reality, when people believed in vampires in the Middle Ages, it was not generally conceded that being attacked by a vampire would turn you into a vampire. It was that certain people, because of the kinds of lives they led, were prone to become vampires after death, and the most common type was someone who practised black magic.

TR: Were you aware that in Romania, in the Carpathians, apostates of the Greek Orthodox church, converts to Catholicism, were held to become vampires after death?

LD: Well, that was almost like the Coppola film in a way, renouncing the church and renouncing God! He wasn't going to the wrong church, he was just giving up churches, but that sort of thing. I like yours, yours is funnier. So, I thought that a sorceror, that's what he'd be. And it also gave me the opportunity to tie in with a lot of historical research; I mean, from the comics, to the Living In Fear, I have a research vein, in my neck. And this is in all these novels, they're also historical novels. And the first one was set during the Spanish Inquisition, and I did a lot of work then on the witchcraft trials. My favourite part of that is the discovery that Torquemada, who was running the Spanish Inquisition was against witchcraft trials, because he thought it was a distraction from the important work of stamping out Jews and Moors! The other religions which he regarded as considerably more annoying! And so he denounced the witchcraft trials and wouldn't have them. And this is part of the book, because there's someone who's trying to get witchcraft trials going in Spain, and on one side they run into Sebastien the vampire, and on the other there's Torquemada. And the second one was about Aztecs in Mexico, and that's something that's interested me from when I was a kid, I think it's an amazing construct, as opposed to say, Ancient Egypt which everyone is so into -- something equally colourful, but much less exploited. And the third one, as you said, was the French Revolution, and that was great, I had such a great time with the guiotienne. I found books and books about the guiotienne, and how it was invented and all this nonsense they went through, the tests they made on dead bodies; and the different kinds of blades they tried, the effect they thought it might be having on the heads, and whether it was really humane, there's reams of material about this, it's just the most gruesome, insane stuff, but it was all true. A lot of people said that one of the guillotin scenes in there is the most disturbing thing I've ever written. And that's totally accurate, as to what people were doing at the time, it doesn't invlove any of my weird fantasies.

And it goes on; Yellow Fog is Victorian England and has something to do with spiritualism in that period. And the fifth one, No Blood Spilled, is set in India during the British occupation and it's got to do with Kali. That's why it's called 'No Blood Spilled', because the Thugs, as I call them, I'm not sure of the pronounciation that was there, because of Kali they were not supposed to spill blood, that was their motto; and of course, vampires also don't want to spill any, such a waste, please! And the following one, which is probably going to be called White Demon if I can ever get it finished, I should be starting it up again --

TR: Let me guess, China?

LD: Close. Tibet. The first three were set in different eras. The second three, which are really much more close to being a trilogy, are set very close together in time, within a year or two, but it's geographically different. And there's one character from Yellow Fog besides Sebastien who returns, which has never happened before either.

TR: It would be difficult.

LD: Yes, not many people survive my books. But this one character survives just so he can be tortured across three continents. And we don't know -- well, I know, but no one else knows if he will survive the third book, which is meant to be the final stage of this particular journey. I don't know what's going to happen after this; I've been so long getting the third one done, I've no real plans for what I may do with novels after White Demon's done. But I'll find out.

TR: What's it like being a writer in America?

LD: Well, I hardly know, this is all I know. I do know and see some other people. The World Fantasy Convention began in Rhode Island in Providence, the first one was in 1975. It's called the World Fantasy Convention, but in fact it was a horror convention, it was done in honour of H.P Lovecraft and Robert Bloch who was the first guest of honour, and it's been going on since 1975, and three or four of them have been held in Providence. So I've been involved with those -- I go to them, and I've been involved in working on some of those. There's one convention in Rhode Island every year called NEcon, which stands for either New England or North East Convention, no one remembers or cares anymore. It was started by this fellow Bob who was one of the original organisers of the World Fantasy Convention. So this is in Rhode Island every year, it's in a college which is out in the country, and they don't have classes there in the summer. It's small convention, but we've had all the big names, We've had Stephen King come, we've had Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell has come, Brian Lumley, Joe Lansdale; we have two or three guests of honour every year. Maybe a hundred people come, almost all of them pros who live in the New York to Massachutsetts area come. So every year we have that, and I see people there; I frequently go the World Fantasy Convention, and now we have the World Horror Convention as well. I was a Guest of Honour at that a couple of years ago, and I've been to two or three of those. So there is a lot of activity in that sense, if that's what you mean what it's like to be a writer. Nothing is like London, I mean, that is somewhere that I really envy people who live in London because it's very central, I mean, they all get to know each other, where as here some people live in New York, some people live in California, some people live in Texas, some people live in Chicago; it's a real effort for people to get together, whereas everything seems so centralised in Europe, because the countries are smaller and there's usually one big, central city that everyone agrees is the city where it's going on, and we don't have that here. I guess you don't in Australia either, really, I don't know much about Australia, but I know that it's spread out. I don't know if there's one city that everyone acknowledges as the city.

TR: There most certainly is not! Okay, one last, really difficult question. What do you think it is about New England?

LD: It's funny, I asked that question about England, when I was working on the DC book; they have something they call 'The British Invasion', with this series of British writers; Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and you know who they are. And I'm saying, what is it about the British Writer? I don't know! So what is it about New England? I don't know -- one explanation in a sense, is that for Europeans it's all new, it is New England, but for us, it's old. It's the oldest part of the country, it is the earliest settlement, it has the most history. It has the kind of dark background of these grim-faced puritains, and it has these witch hunts which resulted; it has Rhode Island, which was to some extent set up as the thirteenth colony of the original thirteen colonies by Roger Williams, who was a dissenter, to get away from the kind of rigid, puritanical religious structures of some of the other colonies. And this was the free-thinking colony, and in fact became, to a certain extent; it was called 'Rogues Island', and it was the place where all the rotten people went. In one of Lovecraft's books, if you read The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, he talks about this was where all the witches went to get away from the other places, and it has a sort of a haunted air to it. Partly, if there hadn't been Lovecraft, maybe people wouldn't be so aware of it, but I think you maybe know a little bit about what I'm talking about from looking around and seeing the old stuff; and this is the old, spooky part of this continent, except for maybe Aztec land.

TR: 'Ghosts and local spirits'.

LD: And a lot of it, maybe it comes from the English; because the British are the champs at this stuff, in a way, and we're New England, we're a British colony. And a lot of the mindset; you know now, we've had so many waves of immigration in this area now, we're predominently Italian I think. All the politicians now, are Italian-Americans and so on, but since they're the largest ethnic group now; originally, it was all English people, New England, with the English mindset, which has given you everything from Shakesphere to Frankenstein to Dracula to M. R. James, you name it. I mean, that's the place where there's the most intense concentration in a small area of weird stuff. I think we're the spin-off, we're the colony. There's a bank here called 'The Old Colony Bank', for instance -- there's some sense of the colonial -- there used to be a place called 'Colonial Drugs' down the street, it's closed. It's slowly being scraped away, but there's been this acceptance of the idea of being a colony for a long time. And it's dark, it's cold; there's the ocean which is always kind of scary. It's damp. It's grey. It's New England...

Addendum: 2001

We recently asked Les Daniels to clarify the situation of the novel White Demon, a Don Sebastian novel which has been reported in a number of sources.

LD: I'm sorry to say there is no such book as White Demon. I had intended to write it as the sixth and presumably final volume in the Sebastian series, but fate intervened when Marvel Comics called out of the blue and asked me to write their authorized history. Apparently someone there liked my first book Comix (1971). The advance Marvel offered was better than I was getting for my fiction, and I expected to go back to my novels shortly. As it turned out, the Marvel book was a big success (even appearing briefly on US bestseller lists), and it led to offers for other books on US comics, including books on DC Comics, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. These were congenial projects, and much more lucrative than my novels, but they kept me busy for a decade. When I went back to Tor Books to see how they felt about Sebastian, my editor said that too much time had elapsed for them to feel enthusiastic about publishing the last book in a series that had ceased ten years ago. I was also told that if I wrote a very successful novel for them that was not part of the series, they might go back to reprint the earlier vampire novels and then accept the sixth, but what are the odds? I have two chapters and an outline done, but without a publisher I don't know when I might be likely to finish White Demon.

The problem with all this stems from the fact that a writer who shall remain nameless anticipated the completion and publication of White Demon and included it in a list of my published works. This well-meaning gesture has been causing me problems for years, and I imagine I will be answering questions about this for the rest of my life. Maybe some day the answer will be that the book exists, but for now all I can say is "I didn't do it!"

Les Daniels Bibliography

Comix: A History of Comic Books in America, 1971.
Living in Fear: A History of Horror in the Mass Media ( aka Fear), 1975.
Dying of Fright: Masterpieces of the Macabre, ed. 1976.
Thirteen Tales of Terror, ed. with Diane Thompson. 1977.
The Black Castle, a Novel of the Macabre, 1978.
The Silver Skull, a Novel of Sorcery, 1979.
Citizen Vampire, 1981.
Yellow Fog, 1988 (this work originated in a novella published as a hardback special edition in 1986).
No Blood Spilled, 1991.
The Marvel Story, 1991.
The DC Story, 1995.
Superman: The Complete History, 1998.
Batman: The Complete History, 1999.
Wonder Woman: The Complete History, 2000.

 

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