Scary Castle Ruin

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Real Monsters

We don't typically think of fiction and physics as overlapping, but they do share one principle in common: for every action there's a reaction. If you're an aspiring writer and you ever publish a book, you will quickly discover that many people have opinions about it—family and friends, interested parties in the publishing / bookselling business and related circles, and a fair showing of folks you never knew existed. (Customer reviews have added a whole new dimension to all this. Most are smart and sincere—barring occasional cranky rants and plants from writers' friends—and while I don't have any way of measuring their effect on sales, I suspect it's profound. When you shop on Amazon or B&N, the first thing you look at is the number of stars, right?) Anyway, as with a number of other things, the first time can be a little startling.

The high level literary world has traditionally looked askance at genre fiction, although that line has gotten increasingly blurred (it's been discovered that a lot of readers like it when something actually happens in a book, and that translates into sales). But I was fine with making the jump from being a literary failure to a genre hopeful—by my lights, what matters is a compelling story, well told—and most of my friends saw it the same way. (Jim Welch and Jim Crumley were particularly encouraging.)

There were exceptions, however, who apparently felt that I'd violated some shibboleth of literary purity, and that was compounded because this wasn't genre "realism" like detective fiction, but ventured into horror / supernatural. I won't belabor the point—just say that it bothered me a little at first but not for long, and it drove home another point that aspiring writers might want to note: if I'd let those kinds of pressures push me around, I'd never have gotten out of that self-constructed cage. Put another way—and I think this is a common sentiment in any field of creative endeavor—if you don't piss somebody off, chances are you're not doing much of a job.

The world also weighs in more officially on published books, of course, in the form of reviews. Writers tend to have love-hate relationships with them. Bestselling heavy hitters can safely ignore them if they so choose, but most of us have to pay attention. They're the basis for many readers to decide whether to buy your book, and they can provide valid criticism to help you improve your work. But if you take them too seriously, slams can hamstring you and praise can go to your head, with unfortunate effects on your writing either way.

Luckily, most of the reviews of my first book, Next, After Lucifer, were pretty good. I remember being struck, as a first-time novelist, with the realization that my book was truly out there in there world. People who didn't know me from Adam were actually buying the thing, reading it, hopefully being entertained. I was delighted to come upon reviews like this one from the Houston Chronicle (1987):

"It seemed as if the genre of horror and the supernatural was about—you'll pardon the expression—to die a natural death, what with the summer reading list lacking even one decent supernatural shocker to properly chill one's blood.... Well, fans of the genre, you can breathe a little easier now with the debut of Next, After Lucifer, a well-turned tale of supernatural terror in which lurks one of the best—or worst—monstrous creations to come along in a month of Black Sabbaths."

Kirkus Reviews criticized the plotting of the book, but said, "First-novelist Rhodes writes like the devil...," a quote St. Martin's Press ended up putting on the back cover of my second book, Adversary.

Adversary is a sequel to Next, After Lucifer. It wasn't reviewed as much, and a couple of critics took it to task. It's a more ambitious novel. Whereas Next, After Lucifer is set entirely in a small French village and adheres fairly closely to the tenets of "gothic horror," Adversary takes place mostly in and around San Francisco, blending medieval black magic with the urban excesses of the 1980's. That mix wasn't to everyone's liking, but it was at the heart of the story I wanted to tell.

About Adversary, a reviewer for the Evening News in Norwich, England, said, "Daniel Rhodes is a storyteller of exceptional depth. Not strictly a horror writer, rather a writer who happens to have chosen to deal in horror." That was nice to hear.

My pals at Kirkus gave Adversary what has become my favorite bad review (although, believe me, it took a while to come around to that):

"Rhodes' occasional spates of lickety-split, scary writing don't make up for his lackluster imaginings and his shrinking of the previously majestic de Courdeval into a cartoon baddie spouting occult inanities. At book's end, Rhodes leaves the door wide open for another sequel: better that he had bolted it shut."

It turns out the next book—Cast Angels Down to Hell (originally published as Kiss of Death)—wasn't a sequel, but it too deals with the occult and demonic possession—and, like Adversary, takes place mostly in the US (not San Francisco, but nearby Sonoma). Publishers Weekly called it "Rhodes' best yet—a haunting work," and Fangoria magazine (that arbiter of all things horrific) gave it a quite thoughtful review:

"If you crave good, solid storytelling involving pagan and occult themes (and who doesn't), check out this latest offering by Daniel Rhodes.... The book's strongest part is the subtext which explores the idea of the Jungian anima—the unconscious feminine principle within us all. His recurring images of the moon, blood, silver, serpents, and sexuality are all universal symbols of Woman...and at least this author attempts to show how complex we goddesses really are. Rhodes has done his research and given us a fresh phase of the moon goddess myth."

More write-ups of all the books can be found on their respective pages. At some point back when these books were first hitting the shelves, I decided that I simply wouldn't allow myself to believe I was as bad as some reviewers said, even if they were right (I owe those folks for invaluable aid in developing a thick skin), and conversely, that I couldn't afford to buy in too much to praise. Now, twenty years on, I look back on these original reviews—good and Bone Pilebad—with real amusement, and maybe a touch of nostalgia. The books they critique marked my entry into the publishing game, which was an exciting time indeed.