Guest Blog by Matt Bechtel of Necon E-Books
As promised in the title, this is going to be a short blog.
Per the bibliography on his official web site, Les Daniels only published eleven short stories throughout his career (and one of them really shouldn’t count, but I’ll get back to that). That’s right, eleven; not even enough to fill a standard egg carton. Running with that analogy, with so few stories scattered amongst some hard to locate anthologies, appreciating the short fiction of Les Daniels is something akin to a literary Easter egg hunt (and I’d be lying if I claimed to have found all the eggs yet myself).
Naturally, I have my personal favorite of Les’ stories, and in the interest of full disclosure I’ll admit that I’m probably biased towards it because it appears in two of Bob Booth’s anthologies that also featured a work of my own (2000’s Necon XX and 2009’s The Big Book of Necon). Regardless, “Loser” is an amazingly powerful piece which flips the reader’s expectations numerous times over the course of its relatively few pages and then culminates in a horrific, disgusting twist which is utterly shocking … and even more impressive because, in hindsight, you can see that Les told you what was coming halfway through. Originally published in Dark Voices 5 in 1993 (edited by Stephen Jones and David Sutton), “Loser” is, in the simplest of terms, the story of a young woman with an eating disorder. Of course, as any fan of Les’ work will attest, nothing he wrote was ever simple, as even the most basic elements of his work were nuanced and layered. Take the story’s title, for example — is it a reference to the weight the main character has purged, or a commentary upon her lonely life portrayed? Not to mention, the pearls of poetry nestled amongst Les’ prose tend to jump out more in such a short piece, especially when juxtaposed by disturbingly frank language. “If you stuck your head inside the refrigerator, you had to stick it down the toilet,” he bluntly declares, only to then describe “the white of plate and bones and toilet and refrigerator blending in her brain” as an “alabaster blur” a few paragraphs later.
Another “story” of Les’ which frankly stuns me, and which I’m (again) honestly the wrong person to judge, is “The Dead Man.” “The Dead Man” was published in the premiere issue of Tekeli-li!: Journal of Terror in 1991; in fact, a link to the complete magazine, which also features articles about and an interview with Les, can be found on Les’ official web site here. However, most of Les’ fans (myself included) will more commonly recognize this “short story” as Chapter Four of No Blood Spilled, his fifth novel of The Don Sebastian Chronicles! That’s why I have such a damnable time judging it; on one hand, I find it impossible to consider it as a stand alone piece, while on the other, I’m utterly amazed at just HOW WELL it stands alone as its own story, taken not only out of context of its novel but of the entire series. In this way, “The Dead Man” is reminiscent of the short story “Battle Royal” … a.k.a. Chapter One of Ralph Waldo Ellison’s masterpiece, Invisible Man. Of course, Ellison’s “story” was the opening scene of his novel; if one considers The Chronicles as one continuous tale, “The Dead Man” would be scene number eighty-nine! Impressive as “Battle Royal” is, it’s much easier to separate the beginning of a long work than to pluck out a passage that’s been preceded by over four novels and have it work as its own piece. As such, since my eyes were obviously colored by having read Les’ novels, I humbly request any reader who has yet to read The Chronicles to please follow the link above, read “The Dead Man” first, and report back to us in the comments section on how you feel it stands alone. And then by all means, please go buy The Complete Don Sebastian Chronicles; you owe it to yourself!
When studying Les’ short fiction bibliography, two things stood out to me the most. The first was how, in typical Les Daniels fashion, his career didn’t follow the conventional path. As most writers (including this article’s host) will attest, writers typically begin their careers with short stories. You make a few sales, start to establish a name for yourself, and then graduate to novels. In fact, Bob Booth (who adored the short form) used to refer to short stories as “AAA ball” (i.e. where top prospects hone the craft of their trade before hitting the big leagues). Les’ first published short story was “They’re Coming For You” in Cutting Edge … in 1986. That was fifteen years after Comix and eight years after his first novel, The Black Castle. Heck, Les had edited three anthologies himself in the late ‘70s nearly ten years before his own fiction would ever appear in one (but we’ll get to Les’ anthologies in a future article).
Which brings me to the other aspect of Les’ short fiction bibliography that jumped off the page to me — the editors who bought his work. Even holding republications out for the moment, the list of names who published short stories from Les isn’t a who’s who of the best editors of the genre … it’s a who’s who of the genre’s best WRITERS. Cutting Edge, the anthology I previously mentioned as the first to ever feature a Les short? Edited by Dennis Etchison. Les’ story “The Man in the Mirror?” Published by Ramsey Campbell in his 1993 anthology Deathport. “The Good Parts?” John Skipp and Craig Spector’s The Book of the Dead in 1989. “By the Light of the Silvery Moon?” Thomas F. Montleone’s Borderlands (1990). His story “Room Service?” Yeah, that would be at The SeaHarp Hotel, which just so happens to be located in Greystone Bay (i.e. the third anthology of the shared world series edited by the venerable Charles L. Grant). It’s a shame that Les didn’t even publish a dozen short stories in his career, and it’s a DAMN shame that many of them are difficult to get your hands on nowadays, but should you find one of his short works in your hands, please don’t let go; a simple glance at the name who published it should tell you all you need to know.
Just a friendly reminder — The Complete Don Sebastian Chronicles are now available as e-books at http://neconebooks.com, so please order your copies today!