A painter who brings the macabre to life, Les has won awards for his dark arts… as two different people
Les Edwards is taking stock of his 40-year career in art. “I don’t know about passion,” he says, “but I’m certainly quite obsessive. And I don’t know what I’d be like if I didn’t have art to absorb that obsessive side.”
A look at his finest horror art and we shudder to think. But obsessive is definitely the word. It’s in the delicate play of dark and light that’s more demonic aura than simple sunrise in List of Seven; it’s in the momentum of his maniacal Croglin Vampire as he peers into the viewer’s room hell bent on terror. His obsessive detail to drama is in every cavernous environment and supernatural portrait that he paints.
And it’s been his companion since the beginning. Watching the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954, Les first set eyes on the Nautilus, Captain Nemo’s submarine. “Last year I finished building a model of the Nautilus that took me nearly two years to complete. So there’s an enthusiasm lasting nearly 60 years there... Is that obsessive?”
a golden glow
The British artist has worked professionally since he left art college in the early 70s. Although discouraged by his tutor to pursue art, Les hit the ground running and joined the Young Artist agency in London. In the 70s and 80s Young Artist represented the likes of Jim Burns and John Harris, a generation of artists eager to make their mark on the books, cards, posters and private collections of the day. Les specialised in horror, bringing form to a surge in literature with shadowy demons and violent insanity.
“Ah, the golden glow of nostalgia,” he half jokes. “We definitely had a great deal more artistic freedom, and art editors actually had some clout and could make decisions. They could also communicate!” Things were more easygoing and artists could fall into a career, so the rose-tinted story goes. The flip side is that Les has got nothing but respect for artists today. “Young people starting work
these days seem to be under a lot of pressure, but then, I still feel just as insecure. You never quite know where the next job is coming from – or if there will be one.”
Things have changed. Horror isn’t the niche, anti-establishment irritant to out-oftouch politicians and terrified suburbanites it once was. Les fears that it’s been co-opted by teen girls, game producers and the mainstream Saturday night cinema crowd. You don’t need to seek it out in obscure magazines and banned video nasties anymore: take a walk and you’ll probably see it on a billboard. For the artists that made a crimson splash in the 70s and 80s, there was a lack of weird tales to electrify their imagination when they were growing up. Their nightmarish visions came first, the market followed.
“I first encountered Batman in a serial,” Les says of his beloved serialised films, which ran at the local Saturday matinees when he was a nipper. “It was years before I realised he was a comic book character.” For the price of six old pence he watched cartoons, a comedy short, the main film and then a serial: an instalment of a genre film.
I absolutely loved the serials because they often had a sci-fi theme or featured a mysterious masked villain
“I absolutely loved the serials because they often had a sci-fi theme or featured a mysterious masked villain. I remember watching The Undersea Kingdom, The Lost Planet, The Fling Disc Man from Mars, Zorro’s Fighting Legion, and my favourite Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere.”
When he got home he’d spend hours drawing what he had just witnessed. Or there was always one of his parents’ books lying around. “They were often unsuitable for youngsters, and exposed me to grownup literature at an early age. Then there were comics, which were really quite dull with the exception of the wonderful Eagle, the mention of which renders most male Brits of a certain age misty eyed.”
At the age of 10 Les’s pal introduced him to Famous Monsters of Filmland, the genre magazine edited by SF fan-legend Forrest J Ackerman. “It was full of stills from films that we weren’t allowed to see. At about the same time I discovered gothic author Edgar Allen Poe, as there was a copy of Tales of Mystery and Imagination in our bookcase. So I had both visual and literary influences working on me.” His course was set.
Les’s artwork for films includes art for John Carpenter’s The Thing, and work for horror writer/director Clive Barker. His relationship with Clive started as many do in this industry: at a convention. Games Workshop was publishing a collection of Les’s art called Blood & Iron in 1989, and was looking for someone to write the book intro. “As a big fan of Clive’s collection of short stories Books of Blood, I suggested him,” recalls Les. But then body horror film director David Cronenberg and a gang of demonic alien freaks got in the way…
Clive’s underground film Nightbreed, which featured Cronenberg in an acting role, was sapping all his time, so horror aficionado Kim Newman got the intro gig. “Clive remembered me though,” says Les, “and when it came to doing a graphic novel of his short story Son of Celluloid he suggested me for the job. We followed that up with Rawhead Rex and I also did the poster for Nightbreed. I liked the movie so it’s a bit of a shame that it seems to have
almost disappeared. I know there are plans to bring out a definitive version, but it hasn’t happened yet as far as I know.”
Jekyll and Hyde
Wading through blood and guts can take its toll, and with horror commissions flatlining Les took a trip to the light side. He invented an alter ego: Edward Miller. He could start from scratch, and with this upright and respectable-sounding pseudonym came a new audience from beyond the fringes.
“Much as I enjoy working in horror, it came to the point where clients wouldn’t consider me for any other work,” says Les, “so I invented Edward in order to do something different. While no one knew we were one and the same, it worked well. Ed did anything but horror to start with, but then slowly began to gravitate towards fantasy covers.”
Then someone spilled the beans. “I have a good idea who. I was a bit worried that clients might feel they’d been hoodwinked. But no one cared very much,” he says. Since then Les and Edward have coexisted happily, “as long as I can remember who I’m supposed to be on a particular day. I don’t feel particularly schizophrenic… but I’ll ask Ed what he thinks.”
Uncertain times Back in the artist’s cherished bloody pulp throne, things are a little strange at the moment. Although the public face of horror can be seen on prime time TV shows like The Walking Dead, and in endless literature with an eye on film adaptations, Les still sees people looking down their nose at him. “I know some writers who would use the word ghetto rather than niche,” he says. “There’s still a tendency for fans of one genre to be a bit
I find the distinctions between sci-fi, fantasy and horror a bit tiresome and irrelevant
sniffy about another. I find the distinctions between sci-fi, fantasy and horror a bit tiresome and irrelevant.”
Yet donning those rose-tinted glasses, there was a distinct horror genre that really did scare the hell out of people. Not so today. “How can you be subversive if everything’s acceptable?” Les asks. “It’s everywhere, no longer confined to a niche. If such imagery is commonplace it makes it a lot harder for writers and artists to shake people up. I’m sure horror will survive, but its natural state is as a minority interest and the boom of the 70s and 80s was something of an aberration.”
list of seven A fittingly eerie cover for Twin Peaks co-writer Mark Frost’s first novel.
Creature of Havoc
Les painted this cover art for the reissue of one of the more celebrated Fighting Fantasy gamebooks.
This is the UK poster art for the Stephen King film based
on the author’s short story.
Commissioned as a book cover, this piece was also used as an album cover.
Les’s poster art for the 1990 cult horror film, written and directed by Clive Barker.
A master class of imminent threat, this piece has adorned many a horror anthology.
Yet another stunning book cover from Les, produced for a collection
of stories by David Case.
Lovecraft in Britain
Here’s Les’s cover for the British Fantasy Society book.
Les’s art accompanies Robert McCammon’s 1980 novel The Night Boat.
Vault of the Vampire
Nope! He’s not Dracula. It’s the cover illustration for a Fighting Fantasy gamebook, featuring the charming Count Heydrich.