Les Daniels' The Black Castle

When I was a kid, I collected almost anything to do with vampires—not memorabilia, not objects, and this was long before the very idea of owning copies of actual movies, unless you wanted to buy a 16mm/Super-8 camera system (thus risking the attention of the child-stealing demon Bungool, according to recent horror film Sinister)—but short story collections, comics, nonfiction books, magazines . . . and, of course, novels. Few books remain in my library from that period, though I'd give a surprising amount of money to once more track down a copy of Crimson Kisses, an insane hybridization of a fairly accurate historical recounting of Vlad Tepes Dracula's career as Romanian freedom fighter/serial mass murderer with a full-bore para-rom that saw him turned into a vampire by a sexy Roma witch on the orders of Satan himself . . . but I made sure to retain my absolute favourite of the crop, Les Daniels's The Black Castle, pilot book in a subsequent series of tales starring Don Sebastian de Villanueva, “the vampire horrified by man.”

Daniels, who died in 2011, was a polymath and a scholar, probably far better known for his work in nonfiction than his stories. He was the author of a seminal survey of narrative art, for example—1971's Comix, “the first critical study to take the art form seriously,” according to Bob Booth's 2012 obituary essay, which twenty years later led to him being tapped by both Marvel and DC to write their official histories. He also wrote studies of “the big three,” DC's iconic superheroes Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. His 1975 book Living in Fear: A History of Horror in the Mass Media was the first book to recognize that horror fiction and horror film didn't have to be treated as two separate genres, but would benefit (especially in an increasingly cinematically-literate culture) from being analyzed together. Along the way, meanwhile, he both edited horror anthologies and wrote his share of short stories, in and between charting Don Sebastian's seemingly infinitely extensible fictional afterlife.

Much like Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Hotel Transylvania, published the same year, The Black Castle broke with the quasi-documentary tradition set by Bram Stoker's Dracula and removed its vampire narrative from contemporary society altogether, as well as refiguring its supposed monster-antagonist as at least protagonist, if not (in Don Sebastian's case) entirely hero. But while Yarbro's essentially sympathetic Count Saint-Germain can be seen as paving the way for Anne Rice's melancholy, human-envying vampires, Don Sebastian comes from a crueller, less revisionist tradition—indeed, the only way his coldly dissociative brand of eternal damnation looks like the better option, even from his own point of view, is when juxtaposed with the various equally soul-destroying sorts of filthy human darkness perpetrated by those around him.

The book opens during the post-Reconquista reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, in a remote Spanish district in the Pyrenees, where Don Sebastian's little brother Friar Diego de Villanueva has gained as great an amount of temporal power as his position in the Church will allow for by becoming the local Grand Inquisitor. Times are good for the Inquisition, since potential heretics are literally everywhere—Conversas or “New Christians,” the Jews who were forced to become Catholic in order to stay in Spain , plus the defeated Moors, who are drifting closer and closer to also being legally commanded to convert or flee. Every day, more people are informed upon, seized by the Church's secular arm and consigned first to torture, then the auto-da-fé; their good go to swell the system's coffers, split between Crown and Church, and the intermittent bacchanal of public penance vs. incinerated flesh grinds on. Even the dead aren't safe, since people can be judged heretics after death, dug up and burnt at the stake, with their living relatives forced to pay the cost of their “punishment.”

Diego, however—inspired by the Malleus Maleficarum or “Witches' Hammer” of fellow Dominicans Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger—has his eyes on an even richer prize: he longs to franchise witch-hunting to Spain, and believes that his home-town, located as it is in a hotbed of Basque mysticism, is the perfect place to start off such a crusade. Naturally, this means he needs to write his own book about the powers of darkness; a difficult task, since he's far more a civil servant than a scholarly researcher. Luckily, he always has his supposedly-dead elder brother to fall back on . . . nobleman and soldier Don Sebastian, who studied natural philosophy after the death of his beloved young wife, and learned secrets which allowed him to transform himself into a vampire, after a badly-cast Spanish cannon took off half his face during the siege of Malaga.

Every night, the siblings meet at Don Sebastian's titular castle to play chess or read tarot cards, nasty little cat-and-mouse duels of personality during which Diego quizzes Sebastian on when the book will be ready, before allowing him to prey on the prisoners in the Inquisition's dungeons. Meanwhile, the threads of fate reel a score of unwitting supporting characters into these contentious siblings' private struggle: Diego's “familiar” Pedro Rodriguez, a retired mercenary who once served under Don Sebastian, and knows his secrets; his surprisingly innocent vicar Miguel Carillo, who genuinely hopes to save souls rather than destroy bodies; distant de Villanueva cousin Antonio Manetti, whose claim to Don Sebastian's castle might derail Diego's ambitions. And most importantly of all, Margarita de Mendoza, Diego's first officially-arrested witch—a Conversa who truly does worship the Devil, if only because the squalor and tragedy of her life has left her with an unshakable appetite for revenge.

Attracted by her fire (as well as the taste of her blood), Don Sebastian saves Margarita from the Inquisition, thus breaking his bargain with Diego. And from there, the brown stuff merely continues to hit the fan, sketching a sharply plunging downward spiral that's alternately intimate, epic and—seemingly—final. But Daniels’s own success ensured that Don Sebastian would continue to be appalled by human behaviour through at least four more historical eras: Hernan Cortes's conquest of Central America and the fall of the Mexica (The Silver Skull), the French Revolution's culminative Terror (Citizen Vampire), the upper-class obsession with Spiritualism and crime-ridden underbelly of Victorian London (Yellow Fog), and the British Empire's extirpation of the Kali-worshipping cult of Thuggee leading up to 1857's Indian Mutiny (No Blood Spilled). He was apparently working on a sixth instalment, to be called White Demon and set in World War I-era Tibet, when he died.

From the outside in, The Black Castle—much like the rest of Daniels's fiction—seems pulpy, almost crude; it has a Robert E. Howardish tone, half poetical and half sardonic, and an underlying humour that's as black as its main character's castle walls, firmly rooted in a study of mass-scale historical evil as seen through a supernatural lens. Its true strength, however, lies both in its streamlined Gothic intensity, borne along on a wave of cleanly chiseled and blessedly compact prose, and Daniels's skill in character creation. Just as Don Sebastian—a classic Spanish grandee, haughty and practical in equal measure (not to mention the only vampire I've ever heard of to figure out that there's nothing dishonourable in putting on armour to fight humans, especially when they've got wooden arrows)—always remains far too aware of his own monstrosity to give way to self-pity, those around him are as recognizably flawed as the reader and all the more memorable for it, even in the face of an increasingly nihilistic universe. At almost every turn at least a few of them continue to hope, surprising not only Don Sebastian, but themselves.

In conclusion, these are great books, undeservedly obscure, and well worth the repackaging. So seek them out if you're looking for something with both accurate historical detail and literal, as well as metaphorical, teeth.

Cover of The Black Castle

Cover of The Silver Skull

Cover of The Yellow Fog

Portrait of Les Daniels

Les Daniels c. 1980

About the Author

Gemma Files

Gemma Files was born in London, England and raised in Toronto. Her story “The Emperor’s Old Bones” won the 1999 International Horror Guild Award for Best Short Fiction. She has published two collections of short work (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart, both Prime Books) and two chapbooks of poetry (Bent Under Night, from Sinnersphere Productions, and Dust Radio, from Kelp Queen Press). A Book of Tongues, her first Hexslinger novel, won the 2010 DarkScribe Magazine Black Quill Award for Small Press Chill, in both the Editors’ and Readers’ Choice categories. The two final Hexslinger novels, A Rope of Thorns and A Tree of Bones were published by ChiZine Publications in 2011 and 2012.

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