Galad Elflandsson & Leslie Whitten (TSF #15)

Welcome to the latest installment of “What The Hell Ever Happened To…?,” in which we track down authors who at one time achieved a certain degree of success and/or notoriety in the genre, but who have since hided from view (or at least from the genre).

Since there was no installment of What The Hell… in the last issue of TSF, we’ll attempt to atone by tracking down not one, but two, authors this time around. And— since this is TSF‘s special “all werewolves” issue—we’ve appropriately chosen two authors who have published werewolf novels in the past.

Our first subject is Galad Elflandsson, a Canadian writer who made a few appearances in the small press in the late ’70s, went on to have his first nov­el, The Black Wolf, published by notable small press pub­lisher Donald Grant, and later wrote a few stories for var­ious Charles Grant-edited anthologies. Elflandsson’s last story was published in 1988, and his sole published nov­el appeared almost ten years prior to that, leaving us with a fair amount of catching up to do with the author.

But let’s begin at the beginning…before he had even had a single story published, Elflandsson submitted a col­lection of tales, tentatively titled The Exile And Other Tales of Carcosa, to Donald Grant in late 1977. One might find it strange that a beginning author would choose to sub­mit his first book to a small press publisher, particularly someone like Grant, who in his pre-Stephen King days, was primarily doing Robert E. Howard reprints.

“The reason I submitted it to Donald Grant/ was sim­ply because I was in a bookshop and saw one of his books. At that point, I was very new to [the field], and I look at the book and thought it was a nice piece of work and thought ‘hmm, maybe I should try this publisher,’ not realizing who it was I was targeting.”

Most of the stories that the author included in his initial Exile submission would eventually appear in the small press, and, looking back on them now, Elflandsson is more than a little dubious about their quality. The col­lection was not purchased by Grant, and Elflandsson never submitted the collection to any other publisher.

However, amongst the stories in the collection was a shorter version of The Black Wolf, which Grant liked so much that he asked Elflandsson to expand it for possible publication as a novel. Elflandsson complied, rewriting and lengthening the story in early 1978. “It really wasn’t that much work,” says the author, “it was only about 22,000 words to start with and I only added about 50% more to it.”

Nonetheless, Grant was impressed with the result, and The Black Wolf was published in 1979, in both hard­cover and trade paperback editions.

In his introduction to The Black Wolf, Charles Collins discusses how the book came to be, and makes reference to the fact that the collection The Exile was more obviously influenced by Ambrose Bierce and Robert Chambers, while the revised Black Wolf is more Lovecraftian in tone, an opinion with which Elflandsson concurs. “Don’s slant was a little more toward the Lovecraftian stuff, so I thought he might be more com­fortable with that approach. I think he might even have suggested that I give it more of a Lovecraft slant.”

The earlier Bierce and Chambers influences certainly make sense, since at the time that Elflandsson initially wrote the stories in The Exile, they were among his favorite authors.

“At that time, they were…My history with science fiction, fantasy, and horror began back when I was read­ing Edgar Rice Burroughs in the little Ace paperbacks in the late ’50s and early ’60s. But once I exhausted the Burroughs books, I pretty much stopped reading entirely, for maybe seven or eight years. And then, by chance I picked up a couple of anthologies—once of them was The Spell Of Seven, [edited] by L. Sprague de Camp—and after that I just sort of went hell-bent for leather, reading any­thing I could find. In the process, I discovered there was all this earlier material that these writers had gotten their inspiration from, so I decided to start at the beginning, and went back and read Gilgamesh and all that stuff. Basically worked my way up until I got up to Walpole and Beckford, writing the Gothic thrillers of the late 1700s, and basically gave myself a grand tour. I hap­pened upon Bierce and Chambers, and ‘The King In Yellow’ at that point just fascinated me, because there was so much unsaid about it. Chambers was sort of a dilettante writer, and he was basically just hanging out carrots for people. ‘The King In Yellow’ was one of the most marvelous things I’d ever read, because so much was left unsaid, there were so many holes left in the mythology. So I decided that I wanted to expand on it.”

Despite Elflandsson’s thorough steeping in the genre, he reads very little honor these days. “Almost none at all. I’ve pretty much gone through [the genre] to my satisfac­tion. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, either, and only occa­sionally read mysteries. Having recently moved to [Arizona], it’s opened up an entirely new world of read­ing material for me, and I’m pretty much focusing on regional historical stuff.”

After The Black Wolf appeared in 1979, Elflandsson continued writing, albeit sporadically. “I puttered a lot. I didn’t really hit stride until late ’84. For about two years after that I was writing pretty regularly. I sold a cou­ple of short stories to Charlie Grant for the anthologies that he was doing then, and wrote three novels as well, only one of which actually sold.”

That novel, an adventure fantasy for young adults, sold to Ace, but after it had sat on Ace’s shelves for almost three years, Elflandsson decided to pull the book.

“It was another of my sterling career choices. They phoned me up and asked for a three-month exten­sion on the contract, and I was so ticked off that they’d already let it sit for two-and-a-half years that I said ‘forget it, I’d rather that it just collect dust like it has been. Send it back to me.’ And I really haven’t written anything since then.”

Of the other two novels that Elflandsson wrote dur­ing that period, one was a detective novel with supernat­ural overtones and the other was an out-and-out horror novel. However, he never attempted to aggressively mar­ket them to publishers.

“I sent them out sort of tentatively. I didn’t get a lot of positive feedback at that point. And after a couple of years of trying to write full time, and then Ace basically scuttling the whole thing for me—by taking the one book but then never even bothering to look at anything else—my bank balance zeroed out and writing just ceased to be fun. So I just stopped writing and everything that I wrote is just sitting here. I keep toying with the notion of polishing some of it up, but I just never have the time.”

Although Donald Grant published Elflandsson’s only book, the author has never really tried to place another book with Grant. “After The Black Wolf came out and I realized the magnitude of what I had done—getting him to publish my first book, surely by chance, dealing from a position of ignorance as it were—I sort of felt like I would be imposing on him. He had a bunch of other projects that he was working on, and then the Stephen King [limited editions] came along and started making a lot of money for [Grant] and putting a lot of gray hairs on his head. So, while we did talk a little [about another Elflandsson book under the Grant imprint], we only did it in a roundabout way and I never actually submitted anything else to him.”

The Black Wolf is also notable for the unusual and striking illustrations by Randy Broecker. Elflandsson admits to being quite taken by the illustrations himself.

“To be quite honest, I didn’t know what to think of them at first, because I’d never seen anything quite like them. In the end, I really liked them, because they did more justice to the story than it deserved. The Black Wolf was such a derivative story, but Randy’s artwork for it was unique. I think the artwork was bet­ter than the story, quite honestly.”

Coincidentally, not too long before we tracked down Elflandsson for this column, he was ferreted out by another unexpected source, as the author explains.

“About eight or nine years ago, Stephen Jones asked me if I wanted to do some odd poetry for this little volume that they were doing [Now We Are Sick]. They didn’t have a publisher, they didn’t have anything at the time, but it was a neat idea, so I wrote them a poem.

“The funny thing about it is…the book finally came out a few years ago, but I never knew about it. [When the book came out] I didn’t have much to do with the horror and fantasy fields, and the people at Dreamhaven [the publishers] lost my address, and Steve Jones didn’t have it anymore either, so they didn’t know how to contact me. It was purely by chance that they found me, because when I moved to the Phoenix area, I sold a bunch of stuff off to a local bookseller, who in turn looked at his want list and found that somebody wanted one of the books that I had sold him, and that somebody worked at Dreamhaven. So…the guy at Dreamhaven was curious where the book had come from, got my name, and said ‘wait a minute, we’ve been looking for this guy.'”

Speaking of Phoenix, Elflandsson is now running a bookstore in the area, having moved there two years ago from his native Canada, a move prompted by both the bleak Canadian economy and an accident suffered by the author’s wife, with resulting injuries which made the bone-chilling Canadian winters equally inhospitable. Given Elflandsson’s content­ment with his new home and job, and his negative experiences with Ace, a return to fiction writing seems unlikely.

* * *

Our second subject is an author whose work in the honor genre dates back more than two decades. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Les Whitten pub­lished three novels of interest to genre fans—Progeny Of The Adder, Moon Of The Wolf, and The Alchemist. All achieved both critical and commercial success, but the author moved on to other topics and— until recently—hasn’t looked back.

Both Progeny and Moon have remained popular over the years, each appearing in three different paperback editions, the most recent being an omnibus edition of the two from Leisure Books. The success of that book led Leisure to ask Whitten if he had any other genre material that they could team with The Alchemist in a similar omnibus style volume. To which Whitten replied: “Well, I’ve got this 25-year old movie treatment that I did for ABC that I kept the literary rights to.” Leisure asked to see the movie treatment, liked it, and according to Whitten, said ‘”convert this to a novel­la and we’ll bring it out with The Alchemist.’” Thus was born Whitten’s first contribution to the genre in over two decades, the novella The Fangs Of Morning, which should be out—bound together with The Alchemist—from Leisure shortly after you read this.

Although the werewolf tale Moon Of The Wolf is cer­tainly the most apropos of Whitten’s output to discuss for this issue of TSF, it’s Progeny Of The Adder that has generated the greatest acclaim for the author. For exam­ple, listen to what David Schow had to say about the book:

“From punk vampires to porn vampires to gay vampires to vampirism-as-AIDS, vampire fiction has become conven­tional, a category unto itself. As a genre it is by and large ultraconservative, mori­bund, demographic, derivative, totally safe, and utterly dull, dull, dull. Grave wavers who wet themselves over today’s endlessly recycled bloodsucker might do well to exhume and rediscover the only two fundamental American vampire nov­els of this century—Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and Les Whitten’s Progeny Of The Adder. From them sprang, ultimately, the entire culture of pop vampirism as we know it today.”

High praise, indeed—especially for an author’s first novel! Whitten explains how he came to write his vampiric masterpiece.

“What led me to write [Progeny] was…I had recently read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and I thought ‘this is one helluva book.’ It’s just a wonderful novel. And after read­ing Stoker, I was really curious about where he’d gotten these ideas, so I went down and read everything in the Library of Congress about vampires. And it was on that basis that I wrote the novel.”

At that time, Whitten was writing for The Washington Post, where some of his work entailed interaction with the local police. “I knew a really great homicide detective there, and I made him the hero— with a different name—of the novel. The [real-life] detective wasn’t terribly well-educated, and he wasn’t brilliant, but he was very dogged, and he was a very decent man. His character in the novel, not knowing what it is that he has on his hands, goes to the library of Congress and reads everything he can find on the subject of vam­pires, and he realizes that what he has is either a vampire or someone who thinks he’s a vampire. He uses the 17th century admonitions of how to deal with a vampire against this creature, and finally realizes that he’s dealing with a real vampire.”

Some of the research that Whitten performed for Progeny has clearly left an indelible impression on him, especially since, as he puts it “I was raised a Protestant— against my will…

“The vampire is, in fact, an embodiment of the anti-Christ. For example, the cross symbolism is obvious, and the stake [the vampire’s nemesis] is made of Ash, which is supposedly what the cross was made of. The vampire can’t cross water and of course Christ walked on water. The vampire is often portrayed as being 40 days under­ground before he pops up, and Christ supposedly walked 40 days before he got into heaven. You can vanquish a vampire by putting holy wafers around his coffin lid, or by putting briar roses around it—the briar roses being sym­bolic of a crown of thorns. I found one thing after another indicating that those who put forward the vampire myth were really relating it to Christianity.”

For a while, it looked like there may be a cinematic version of Progeny, but Whitten’s creation never made it to the screen—or did it?

“I sold the movie rights but they never made the movie. It later seemed to have been parodied—at least according to one newspaper—by [the made-for-TV movie] The Night Stalker…and I do think that movie was awfully close to my plot.”

In the course of doing his extensive research for Progeny, Whitten came across a great deal of material on werewolves as well. “I thought ‘geeze, I’ve got all this damned research material, why don’t I just write a werewolf novel?’ So Moon Of The Wolf was really a by-product of my vam­pire novel.”

Set in the Mississippi delta, Moon involves a community that’s suddenly beset by several violent killings, the lawman who investigates the deaths, and a local wealthy family that seems to somehow be involved. The book was generally very well-received, but there were exceptions, as the author notes.

The New York Times, when they reviewed [Progeny], said ‘oh this is the most wonderful book anybody ever wrote about vampires, blah, blah, blah.’ So I thought I was really going to get a great review of Moon Of The Wolf. Well, the same reviewer who thought Progeny was so great said that Moon Of The Wolf was a ‘museum of clichés.’ He may have been right, but the book is still selling long after he’s dead.” [laughs]

After Moon Of The Wolf, Whitten left the genre to write a mainstream novel, Pinion, The Golden Eagle, and a non-fiction book on famed attorney F. Lee Bailey.

“I was just outraged about how people were shooting golden eagles, and I wrote Pinion because of that.” The Bailey book, meanwhile, grew out of Whitten’s “day job” at the time as an investigative reporter for the Hearst Newspaper Group. “Hearst wanted a series of articles on Lee Bailey, and…Hearst owns Avon Books, and so Avon said ‘if you’re doing a series on Bailey, why don’t you turn the series into an instant book for us?’ That’s how I came to write the Bailey book—it was really just part of my work.”

Whitten’s next book, The Alchemist, grew out of a great deal of research that the author had done in the area of black magic, along with extensive political reporting that he was doing at the time. Whitten describes the book thusly:

“It’s about a somewhat timid government lawyer who, as a hobby, starts building an alchemical furnace, which is also called an athanor. In fact…an athanor is sup­posed to turn lead into gold, and when I incorporated a few years back, I called my company Athanor, Inc., think­ing that my leaden novels might turn into gold! [laughs]

“Anyway, the lawyer’s wife has left him for a much more brash, interesting man, and the lawyer is down in his basement, farting around, building an alchemical fur­nace. He knows it won’t turn lead into gold, but it’s a hob­by. Through a fluke, he does a favor for a Deputy Cabinet secretary, a beautiful woman named Anita, and they become lovers. She’s heavily into black magic, and her “real” boyfriend is also into black magic…The whole thing is based on the Faust myth.”

After the publication and success of The Alchemist, Whitten gave up his newspaper job and became a full-time novelist “That book liberated me, in a sense, because an editor at Doubleday, who saw and liked [The Alchemist] before Charter House bought it, was determined to publish a book by me. So Doubleday wound up buying my [next novel] Conflict Of Interest, and the paperback rights to that damned book wound up selling for $360,000 to Bantam.”

The proceeds from that sale allowed Whitten to give up his newspaper job—which by that time had grown into a part­nership with famed Washington columnist Jack Anderson. “I loved Jack, he was very good to me. I gave him three months’ notice and told him that I wanted to try writing novels for a living. So he said ‘I had hoped you would stay, but…if you can’t cut it [as a full­time novelist], and you want to come back, then if you promise never to leave again, you can have back the by­line.’ He was just wonderful about it. I still see Him; he’s still very dear to me.”

At the same time that Whitten left his newspaper job, he left behind the supernatural motifs featured in three of his first four novels. “I left behind the arcane stuff with The Alchemist, and went on to political novels. In other words, The Alchemist was an arcana/political novel, and I just shed the arcana aspect and began writing political novels.

“A lot of people told me that I should have kept my character from Progeny Of The Adder and written a series of books around him, but…I strayed from the field. Since I wrote The Alchemist, I haven’t read any horror novels or seen any horror films…In fact, until I wrote this new novella—The Fangs of Morning—I’ve been away from the field for a long, long time.”

In addition to The Fangs of Morning, Whitten has been in the last couple of years working on two other novels, both of which represent something of a departure for him

“I don’t know that I’m shallow, but I think my writing has been. So, I’ve tried to write two very serious novels, and I don’t know if they’ll sell [to publishers] or not.”

The first of these two novels has been submitted to several publishers without success, and is currently being re-written. The second, more recent, novel has garnered more enthusiasm from Whitten’s agent, but has also not sold yet.

Given the so-far lukewarm response received by the author’s two recent “serious” novels, and the continuing sales of his horror genre work, would he consider doing more work in the field?

“Only if it were a really strange damned book. I don’t think I want to write about vampires; I don’t know what I’d write about. It’s conceivable, but it’s not likely.”

Horror fans can always hope…

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