This year at Necon we buried Les Daniels. Not literally of course, though I think he would have liked that. It was the most unusual, most original funeral celebration I’ve ever attended. And maybe the most moving. There was no set program, simply an open mike. Chet Williamson sang one of Les’ songs, Cortney Skinner unveiled a magnificent portrait of Les commissioned by Mark Angevine, and one by one his sister, a few dozen friends, artists, and writers came forward to tell of his influence on their lives. Some were strictly professional but most were intensely personal and his importance became apparent to all in the room. The memories lasted longer than we planned but even at that I was told by many in attendance afterward that they would have come up also but weren’t sure they could add to what had been said by those who did. If they had, the celebration would have lasted long into the night.
The celebration was held in the main lecture room at the Baypoint Conference Center, part of Roger Williams University. That too was appropriate, in an odd way. Les lived his entire adult life on Benefit Street, within a few blocks of where old Roger settled when he got kicked out of Massachusetts, and of the church he founded, the First Baptist Church in America. It was within a block of The Golden Ball Inn (where Poe drank after being rejected by Sarah Whitman); The Atheneum Library (where he wrote his name in a book); St. John’s Cemetary (where he sat forlorn and watched the sunset); and The Shunned House, famously used by Lovecraft in his story of that name. Benefit Street is also within walking distance of both Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Les was like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, living in a basement at the heart of a vibrant, cultural center yet almost invisible — almost.
During the day he stayed in his cool subterranean lair and rested. At night he prowled the bookstores, moviehouses, nightclubs, comics stores, and record stores of Providence. When they finally closed he would return home and write late into the night. He was by no means like those young writers of similar habits who always dress in black and affect the look of a rocker. No, he was old school. He always looked like he was dressing for the author photo on the dust jacket of a 1970’s novel. Blue (not black) jeans, a brightly colored sports shirt open at the collar, no tie, and a tweed jacket, sometimes with the iconic leather elbow patches. It was a look that suited him. He was not alone. A whole generation of young literary men of the late ‘70s – early ‘80s dressed that way. Find pictures of early World Fantasy Conventions and you will see it was almost a uniform. Stephen King, Charlie Grant, Alan Ryan, Chet Williamson, Tom Monteleone and countless others wore it proudly.
Les was a polymath. The only one I’ve ever known. He studied, absorbed, and mastered rock & roll, bluegrass, comic books, horror fiction, literary criticism, film criticism, film noir, horror movies, comedy, journalism, teaching, and (strangely) the Boston Red Sox. Let me try to give you some idea of his enormous intellectual range.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s he was a rock critic, interviewing such giants as Peter Townsend, Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix. He wrote a column for the Providence Eagle called “Mind Rot” which he used to review films of various genres and to comment generally on the pop culture he saw swirling around him. He reviewed books for the Providence Journal and he taught courses on film at Rhode Island College.
Les was also a performer who did not shy away from the spotlight. He had a night club act for awhile in which he would screen bad horror movies and comment on them for the audience. It was hysterical. And it was years before Mystery Science Theater 3000 became a hit television show.
He sang in a band with comic actor Martin Mull and bluegrass legend Sam Tidwell. They performed at Club 47 in Cambridge. Some of the other performers at Club 47 in those days were Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Judy Collins. On the liner notes for their CD All Around the Mountain country performers Tom Akstens and Neil Rossi tell this story:
Cleveland 2:20 by Les Daniels and Martin Mull
When Mull appeared much later (as a star) at the Providence Civic Center he called Les up on stage to perform a few of their numbers together. At Necon, he frequently used his banjo and his wit to compose “witty ditties” about the roastees.
He wrote at least two screenplays that I know of, maybe three. The one I’m not sure about is Ghost Rider. Les’ college friend and collaborator (on Comix) John Peck told me he’s sure Les had done a “treatment” for it. If so, it would have made sense. His encyclopedic knowledge of scary stuff and superheroes would have been the perfect qualifications for the job. I do know he wrote a screenplay for The Comediac Movie. Co-authored with legendary Providence rocker, comedian, and satirical columnist Rudy Cheeks it is the story of a serial killer who disposes of his victims using skills learned from the Three Stooges (think an eye poke is really an eye poke). Parts of it were actually shot (with Cheeks as Comediac) but the film was never finished or released. Fresh from the success of King Kong Dino De Laurentiis hired Les in the ‘80s to write a “disco horror movie.” He flew him to London, put him up in a hotel, and told him to write. He hired three writers as I recall — all at the same time. It was a competition. I believe Ramsey Campbell was one of the others and I’ve heard that Dennis Etchison was third, but I don’t know that for sure. In any case they turned in their scripts, got paid rather handsomely (by Les’ standards), and came home. There were a few follow-up meetings at the Paramount offices in New York but Dino dithered and dithered. Finally the disco craze passed and the film was shelved.
As interesting as all these sidelights are, it is in the fields of comics and horror fiction that he excelled. I’ll cover comics first. It 1971 Les published his first book: Comix. It was the first critical study to take the art form seriously and is venerated even today for the ground it broke. Twenty years later the two giants of the industry, Marvel and DC, both hired Les to write their official histories. Following that he wrote studies of three of the iconic DC superheroes: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
In 1975 he wrote Living in Fear: A History of Horror in the Mass Media. It was not the first history of horror fiction nor the first study of the horror film, but it was the first book to recognize that they should be viewed together, and not as two separate genres. For that book he scored an appearance on The Today Show.
Living In Fear was also a fine anthology. To illustrate the critical points he was making he included key stories by an array of horror writers. The book was illustrated by the legendary artist Lee Brown Coye. Coye also illustrated a companion anthology: Dying of Fright. With his sister Diane, he edited Thirteen Tales of Terror.
As a critic he frequently appeared in World Fantasy Convention program books with appreciations of the Guests Of Honor. He wrote his Master’s Thesis on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. When Steve Jones was putting together Horror: The Hundred Best Books he asked Les for an essay on Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk. E. F. Bleiler asked Les to write three essays (Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long, and Bram Stoker) for his massive Supernatural Horror Writers (1985). He also wrote for academic journals specializing in horror such as Lovecraft Studies and Tekeli-li!
For something like twenty years Necon held an annual trivia contest. It was called “The Game Show” and was hosted by Douglas E. Winter and Craig Shaw Gardner — two very funny and very knowledgeable writers. Writers Tom Monteleone and Chet Williamson each won once, as did comic writer/artist Steve Bissette. A fan from Texas snuck in one year and took away the laurel wreath. They may have been a few more random winners here and there. Memory fades. One memory that does not fade, however, is that Les won the rest of the time — over a dozen victories.
Still, it is as a horror writer that he is best known. He wrote five novels in the “Don Sebastian Vampire Chronicles” beginning in 1978. The same year as Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Hotel Transylvania (first in the series about the vampire Saint Germain). Together they reinvented the vampire novel, giving it a historical rather than a contemporary setting. But there was a difference. Quinn’s vampire is at least somewhat sympathetic, paving the way for Anne Rice. Les’ is not, but you admire him anyway. Les had the vision to make his vampire as nasty as could be but still less despicable than his human antagonists. An Inquisitor in The Black Castle, the Spanish invaders of South America in The Silver Skull, and Robespierre in Citizen Vampire. It was a wry comment on what Les thought human evil was capable of.
The Black Castle is pure Gothic. It has a dark, foreboding castle, a damsel in distress, an evil protagonist, an even more evil antagonist. It is a masterpiece. The prose is so clean and chiseled it sings. It appears on virtually every list of “must reads” by critics who compose such lists. It was nominated for a World Fantasy Award.
The series ran to six novels, five of which were published. Friends report that Les had written at least a draft of the sixth (to be called White Demon), but a search of his filing cabinets, hard drive, CD’s, external hard drive, and zip disks have so far not born fruit. He was also interested in collecting his shorter work. At the time of his death I was helping him put together a collection of his short stories.