I am pleased to be able to feature a guest post by the witty and knowledgeable Matt Bechtel of Necon E-Books on A Writer’s Life. Today, he brings us a post about the varied roles of women in author Les Daniels’ seminal work.
I apologize in advance if anyone finds this article sexist; heck, I even apologize if anyone considers it sexist of me to have purposefully chosen Mary SanGiovanni, one of horror’s foremost female authors, as its host. If so, I sincerely hope your sensitivities don’t prevent you from reading the rest of this piece.
I’ve never been one to ignore any proverbial “elephants in the room,” so today’s offering on our Blog Tour looks to tackle a massive (and often justified) criticism against the horror genre — its use and depiction of women. It’s a sad fact, but a fact nonetheless that all genres of literature are predominantly male-centric; that’s simply a reflection upon centuries of a male-dominant culture. However, even when compared to other literature the horror genre frequently gets slapped with labels like “sexist” and “misogynist” because, quite frankly, we sometimes deserve it. By definition, horror writers do horrible things to their characters; combine that with the aforementioned male-dominant societal influence, and you’ve got an easy recipe for atrocities against female characters.
So, how did Les Daniels, one of the most revered authors in the horror genre, handle the female characters throughout his seminal series The Don Sebastian Chronicles? In my humble opinion, as any professional author should — in every way possible. Those expecting this article to launch into a glowing appreciation of Les Daniels as a “feminist” writer who was a decade ahead of the “politically correct” and “women’s empowerment” curves are about to be sorely disappointed; however, those who recognize that a writer’s characters are the tools he uses to construct his story will hopefully gain an even greater appreciation for these works, because when it came to his female characters, Les Daniels used every tool in the box. And while I wish I had the space to examine more, three of Les’ female characters truly leap out to me and illustrate his varied approach throughout The Chronicles.
If a novel’s plot can be considered like a chemical reaction, then Margarita de Mendoza is the enzyme that sparks the action of Book One: The Black Castle. Accused of witchcraft, Margarita opens the book in the practically-clichéd role of damsel in distress, sentenced to burning at the stake by The Inquisition. Then Don Sebastian, drawn to Margarita for a number of reasons, saves her from her fiery execution. Their subsequent sex scene is, both literally and figuratively, Margarita’s transformation; it is erotic, dark, graphic and violent, and she reaches climax precisely when Don Sebastian’s teeth sink into her shoulder. Needless to say, Margarita de Mendoza is a victim no more, as Les Daniels seamlessly folded expectations upon themselves to turn a seemingly-clichéd, shallow plot device into one of the principal characters (and monsters) of his novel.
As I discussed in my last article on Nicholas Kaufmann’s blog (here), Book Three: Citizen Vampire is set during the French Revolution and features Robespierre, Dr. Guillotin (the inventor of his ghastly eponymous device) and the Marquis de Sade. Yet amongst such a cast, one of the novel’s most evil, terrifying, and ruthless villains is the Countess de Corville; in fact, it is the meddling, manipulative Countess who resurrects Don Sebastian to set the story in motion. Take the following excerpt, upon their first meeting —
“I am a monster,” he shouted into her face, “not one of your playthings.” He ran his icy fingers over her face, and caressed her naked shoulders menacingly, yet she sensed something in his touch that was less a threat than a promise. She put her hands over his and held them to her.
“Monsters can be tamed,” she whispered, “or so the stories say. Sometimes they are even transformed into wonderful lovers. A man should be part monster, or he is hardly worth having. Stay with me, Sebastian.” Her pulse was racing, and she felt her flesh grow hot under his hands. “You are what I wanted, and you need me to survive.”
I still find that exchange chilling. Telling Don Sebastian “monsters can be tamed?” Moreover, that any man who is not part monster is not worth “having?” It is not just the Countess’ attitude, but her certitude, that makes her such a memorable character.
In my humble opinion, Les Daniels saved his very best female character for last. Book Five: No Blood Spilled brings Don Sebastian to India and into league with the Thuggees who revolt against the Imperial British. Why? Because the Thuggees worship Kali, the Hindu Goddess of Death, with whom Don Sebastian’s true motives lie. Although she only appears in a single chapter, the meeting between the Goddess and the vampire is so impactful that I feel it literally informs and shapes the narrative of the entire series; looking back across the novels, one could argue that everything Don Sebastian does over the centuries has been leading him to this encounter in a shrine outside Calcutta. And most striking to me, after reading almost five full novels of the powerful Don Sebastian de Villanueva, is his immediate change in countenance when confronted by the Goddess of Death.
There are other female characters throughout The Don Sebastian Chronicles, of course — Teresa and Dolores in The Black Castle, Madeleine in Citizen Vampire, Felicia in Yellow Fog, just to name a few — and they all illustrate how individually Les Daniels treated his characters regardless of their gender. Some were strong, some were weak, some were essential, while others were used for comic relief. But all were used exactly as Les needed to use them, whether that was to initiate the plot, twist it, or even bring his iconic vampire to his knees. Just as any good builder will use every tool at his disposal.
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!