Installment by Rick Kleffel
In 1987, the horror genre was at its peak. From splatterpunk to quiet horror, we had it all. I read lots of books, and many of them stayed with me. But few lingered in my memory as strongly as the three novels of Daniel Rhodes; Next, After Lucifer; Adversary; and Kiss of Death. In a genre that was dominated by excess—of both gory violence and obtuse understatement—Rhodes’ work stood out by virtue of being superbly well-written and thoughtful in an intellectual manner. For all that the extremes were making the headlines, Rhodes’ work seemed charmingly solid and almost old-fashioned. Of course he cited M. R. James as an influence, always a good sign.
Rhodes’ series began in Next, After Lucifer with the resurrection of Guillame de Courdeval, a 13th century Templar Knight who sold his soul to the devil. What played out in the stories that followed were lovingly crafted tales of sexual and intellectual temptation. Rhodes’ three novels, appearing in 1987 (Next, After Lucifer), 1988 (Adversary), and 1990 (Kiss of Death) were the sort of series that I hoped to see go on for a long, long time. Rhodes had a knack for creating creepy stories that oozed menace without oozing much else. His characters seemed real and detailed, his scenes believable and yet filled with a soupcon of the strange and surreal.
For a man who was getting hardcover first edition publications from Saint Martin’s Press, Rhodes was surprisingly low-key. We didn’t read about him in HWA, nor did we hear about him at conventions. I don’t recall any book signings, at least in Southern California, and I didn’t see any short fiction by him the any of the major magazines. It was strange, really, to have only three hardcover books, perfectly published, excellently written—and nought else. I searched in vain for years afterwards for his work, but to no avail. He’d vanished.
Of course, when it came time to look again for writers who seemed to have vanished from the scene, Daniel Rhodes was one of my first choices. Simple searches on the Internet turned up nothing. But I still had the books, in pristine condition, all shelved together in the stacks, so I went and pulled them to give them another look and see what I could find. Author information was sparse. Kiss of Death sports but a single line, a new level of brevity: “Daniel Rhodes lives in New York City.” Those were the only words on the back cover flap.
But in the intervening years, I’ve apparently become a bit more savvy, and the colophon page yielded up an important clue. The books were all three copyrighted by one Neil McMahon. Once I started looking for Mr. McMahon, the story became much clearer. He’s publishing these days as Neil McMahon, and has a string of (not surprisingly) well-received, understated medical thrillers that include Twice Dying, Blood Double, Revolution No. 9 and the forthcoming standalone novel, Lone Creek. I caught up with McMahon and asked him about his short and eventful life as Daniel Rhodes, 1980’s horror writer.
CD: Neil, what made you decide to write horror novels back in the 1980’s?
NM: A combination of factors, including a couple of practical ones which weren’t very high-minded: I wanted to make a living as a writer, and horror was selling well. Besides those, I’d always been interested in religion, folklore, the supernatural, and medieval history. Then I got the idea for Next, After Lucifer, and it all jelled.
CD: Why did you write under a pseudonym, and how did you choose the name?
NM: Again, several reasons, one being that if a writer gets tagged as working in a particular genre, it can be tough to publish in others, so separate identities can help. But this may be the most interesting one: for years, I’d been trying to write fiction that touched on my own life, and I kept failing worse and getting more frustrated. Finally I realized that I was trying to portray myself as I wanted to be seen, and that was hamstringing me. So I got rid of me as much as I could—came up with a completely imagined story, set in France, featuring people who’d never existed, and written by some guy named Daniel Rhodes. It succeeded in freeing me up. As for the name, my father and brother are both named Daniel, and the Rhodes, as you might suspect, is from M.R. James.
CD: When you wrote Next, After Lucifer, what novels were you aware of, influenced by or reacting to?
NM: The specific major influences were short stories—James’s “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” and “Count Magnus,” and Margaret Irwin’s, “The Book.” In general, my taste runs toward older, gothic fiction. When I was little, I loved those deliciously creepy early translations of Grimms’ fairy tales. The first Dracula movie I saw, when I was 10 or 11, scared me just about to death, but I loved that too. James remains my all-time favorite, with a couple of his lesser known stories—“Mr. Humphreys and his Inheritance” and “The Fenstanton Witch” among the best. I’m also a great Lovecraft fan; his evocations of that haunting New England countryside are unmatched. “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “The Peabody Inheritance” come to mind as favorites.
CD: Did you set out to write a series or did the books simply spring forth one after another?
NM: I didn’t start out with a series in mind—just writing a novel seemed daunting enough. But I’d started thinking about it by the time I finished Next, After Lucifer, and I set up the ending to allow for that.
CD: Were you writing other novels or non-fiction as Neil McMahon at the time? Or under other pseudonyms?
NM: I had already published a few short stories and pieces of non-fiction under my own name, but nothing full length. Once I started publishing horror, I concentrated on that exclusively until I quit.
CD: Did you participate in the world of professional horror—the conventions, the awards, the HWA?
NM: No. I didn’t really know anything about all that. I was unschooled in the publishing business, living in Montana, not exactly the mainstream, and neither my publisher nor agent ever brought it up.
CD: You cite M. R. James as an influence, a writer noted for scholarly horror. Your work has a strong historical element. Could you talk about the research you did to create the novels?
NM: Nothing much formal, unless you want to count a college degree in psychology. But I’ve read a great deal of religion, philosophy, history, and such. That provided a lot of the matrix that the stories are set in.
CD: James, of course was well-known for his short stories. Did you ever publish any short stories?
NM: A couple of literary ones. But I started working on novels fairly early on. Short stories don’t seem to be a natural form for me, and publishing opportunities are limited.
CD: You are among a very fortunate minority to have your books published as first edition hardcovers by a major publishing house. Could you tell us about how you sold the first Daniel Rhodes novel and the subsequent titles?
NM: Next, After Lucifer wasn’t an easy sell. A couple of versions, under a couple of titles, circulated for some time and gathered the usual shoebox full of rejection slips. Finally I rewrote it once more, and it caught the eye of an editor who was willing to take a chance. As I finished each book, he signed me on for a new one.
CD: Your publisher was Saint Martin’s Press. How was it to work with them? Did they ever publish mass-market paperbacks of your books?
NM: I liked and respected my editor there very much. I’ll take the fifth on my relationship with SMP in general. I will say, just to dispel any possible illusions, that I made very little money on those books—my first two advances were four-figure (yep, 4), and the third not much more. Tor published mass market editions of all three books.
CD: Saint Martin’s Press is part of the Tor group, which is now a major publisher of genre fiction, and was even then. Did you work with any who were in Tor at the time, or who subsequently went to Tor?
NM: I never worked with anyone at Tor, or had any direct contact there. SMP handled selling the rights to them, and all related business. I wasn’t in the loop.
CD: How did you feel about the small-press publishers? Did you seek publication with them?
NM: I think very highly of small-press publishers. I certainly would have approached some if I’d had more savvy. As it was, I just sent the ms. of Next, After Lucifer to an agent (actually, a couple of them, sequentially) and hoped for results.
CD: Your books seem rather perfect for movie adaptations. Was there ever any interest—or is there now?
NM: There was minor film interest in Kiss Of Death (unfortunate title, and my own fault; I was very burnt out when I settled on it) several years ago, and I wrote a screenplay for it. But nothing came of that, and nothing has surfaced since. Competition in Hollywood is fierce, of course; and I think there’s probably a leaning toward more FX-oriented stuff than mine these days.
CD: How did you feel about the high profile and literary reputation the genre gained during those years?
NM: I was pleased to see the high quality novels and films that appeared (also in related genres, like sci-fi and Indiana Jones-type thrillers). I guess I’d say The Exorcist was the one that really started the ball rolling, and made people realize that those kinds of stories could have very serious content, besides being very entertaining.
CD: Why did the Daniel Rhodes novels come to a halt?
NM: Again, there are many factors involved—some personal, which I won’t go into, and some I’ll never know. The most concrete ones are probably that I wrote a fourth, Daniel Rhodes, horror novel that nobody seemed to like much; it was never published. And—at least, this is what I gleaned—by that time (1990-91), the horror market had become glutted and was falling off, and publishers were cutting back. My books had never sold all that well, so I got sent to the showers.
CD: When you stopped writing as Daniel Rhodes, did you immediately start writing as Neil McMahon?
NM: I spent a few years trying to get my head back above water before I thought much about writing again at all. But when I did, it seemed clear that Daniel Rhodes was history. I decided to try a mainstream thriller and use a different name, and I figured that if this book didn’t make it, I was done writing, so I might as well go with my own.
CD: Tell us about your new series of books, featuring Dr. Carroll Monks, and whether we can find traces of Daniel Rhodes DNA in them.
NM: There’s nothing overtly supernatural—Monks is a hardheaded ER physician — although there are occasional, subdued, eerie touches that don’t seem quite explicable rationally. They do have in common with the Rhodes books that they’re thrillers that rely heavily on mounting suspense (or at least that’s my intent).
CD: You have a new standalone novel coming out, Lone Creek.
NM: Lone Creek is a book I’ve been trying to write for many years (a later version of the ones I kept failing at). It’s very close to my own experience of living in Montana since 1971, and working as a carpenter, with attendant lifestyle, for most of that time. I don’t want to thump my chest, but it’s wonderful to finally feel that I was able to handle that material, and I think that shows. It’s also a thriller—the main characters are a pair of construction hands on a ranch (one a Blackfeet Indian Vietnam vet, based on an old friend and work partner of mine) who get caught up in sinister doings—and features lots of action in the Montana back country, along with thriller staples like a beautiful, treacherous woman. I’m at work on a sequel, hoping to turn it into a series.
CD: Horror fiction is known for often putting forth a conservative agenda, though not necessarily what we now consider a conservative political agenda. Do you see today’s horror fiction as essentially conservative? Did you see that of the 1980’s as essentially conservative?
NM: I’ll answer that in a roundabout way. I’ve always felt that the old standbys of black magic and the like are the scariest—dealing with a secret realm, very powerful, sinister, and treacherous. In the classic setup, somebody starts dabbling for their own ignoble gain, thinking they’re on top of the situation, then gradually finds the tables turning, which adds a chilling twist. And the menace tends to remain unseen while the consequences are revealed, shock by shock. The result is something Hitchcock talked about—jacking up the audience’s excitement by letting them know something’s about to happen, then making them wait for it. Anyway, to bring that back around, I do seem to be aware of more horror these days that’s tradition-oriented at least to some extent.
CD: What can we expect from you in the future? If not the return of Daniel Rhodes, might we hope for more supernatural historical horror fiction?
NM: I definitely have one more such story in mind that I hope to write if I ever get the chance. For the foreseeable future, I’ll be working on the Lone Creek series.