Kim Newman’s field of knowledge is so dense that the only reason I know he is a human being is the delicious sense of humour pervading all his writing. It’s not just the diversity of his wisdom that is so dauntingly impressive, but the insight he gains from the most moribund film (OK Connery anyone?).
His website (www.johnnyalucard.com) contains a plethora of other forgotten works, given new life by his enthusiastic, witty analysis. The broadened remit of his updated Nightmare Movies (Bloomsbury, 2011) further reveals his evident joy in climbing impossible Everests of research. I hope one day he takes a photo of himself sitting on top of the books, DVDs, and so on that he’s read or watched, because I’ve a sneaking suspicion it would resemble Tom Cruise atop the Burj Khalifa from that last Mission: Impossible film.
It’s unsurprising that fiction should only extend Newman’s prowess. Anno Dracula, newly reprinted by Titan Books with several juicy appendices, was written circa 1992. I’m unsure how deliberate was its coincidence with the early-90s renaissance of vampire themes (particularly Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula), but its clear positioning in that zeitgeist (Anne Rice looms large in its construction) is as potent as its playful use of an alternate 1880s to critique the real-life 1980s. But only Newman could have crammed so many characters real and fictional into its pages.
Parts of Anno Dracula resemble a prose Sgt. Pepper’s cover, as the reader struggles to figure out who that matronly vampire nurse or the agitated American newsman might be. He is understandably coy about revealing every reference, but it was the inclusion of Vardalek (sic, from Alexei Tolstoy’s The Family of the Vourdalak (1839)) that first showed me Newman really knew his Ruthvens from his Draculas. My amazement increased further at the inclusion of Kate Reed—a character Bram Stoker deleted from Dracula, and thus a true royal flush of literary obscurity.
The central premise—that the suspiciously easy defeat of Dracula chronicled by Bram Stoker was unsuccessful, leading to a vampire-ruled English police state headed by Dracula as Queen Victoria’s consort—provides a plausible context for every vampire from Carmilla to Graf Orlok to Barnabas Collins to appear. It also creates a paranoid, sinister environment that is somewhere between film noir and the Nazi-occupied Britain of Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here (1963). The way Stoker’s heroes have been executed and shamed (bar a vampirised Arthur Holmwood and an unhinged Doctor Seward), and a sybaritic aristocracy runs riot through the streets of London, lends a prosaic bitterness to Stoker’s triumphant conclusion.
There is clearly a sideswipe at Thatcher-era shallow nostalgia in the vampires’ acceptance among upper-class polite society, as well as the government’s sabre-rattling crack-down on homosexual behaviour. Against this dystopia, heroic icons of the age both fictional (Sherlock Holmes) and real (George Bernard Shaw) are packed away as dissidents, the vampire-run Sussex prison chillingly described as a concentration camp.
This ever-expanding background is given a perfect spine with a plot concerning Jack the Ripper. Whereas most vampire-centred Ripper pastiches have dully used the blood-sucker as the perpetrator, Newman twists this by having vampires as the victims. This allows a proper exploration from all levels of society—from Whitechapel squalor to the silent splendour of the Diogenes Club. It also frames the personal story, of the romance of vampire investigator Geneviève Dieudonné and gentleman spy Charles Beauregard, who are both manipulated in their duties by the opposing machinations of vampire society and Diogenes Club anarchy.
While Geneviève’s characterisation as a benevolent though conflicted vampire is, amid the novel’s unflinching portrayal of Un-dead wickedness, credible and striking, Beauregard is harder to get a grasp on. He’s not distinctive enough from the gentleman heroes who inspired him (and it shouldn’t surprise you that one such inspiration, Adam Adamant, is among the book’s legions of cameos), and his remoteness tends to make him fade into the background. Arguably, against such a vivid backdrop, any protagonist would have to bellow to be heard. More damaging from a sympathy point of view is the indifferent portrayal of his dashed fiancée Penelope—he pays so little attention to her that her fate is blatantly telegraphed (all that’s missing is a fate-tempting “What could possibly go wrong?”).
Additionally, little is made of the potential opposition of the Charles/Geneviève relationship—which could have been an interesting platform to discuss several of the intriguing issues the novel raises.
But any qualms about Newman’s remoteness from his own characters are allayed by a shocking gear-change near the end. No sooner has the Ripper murder been solved (and cynically complicated by other agendas) than the grand conclusion hinted at in the title comes about. Newman’s Sadean, vampire-defiled Buckingham Palace is a truly Grand Guignol touch. It pays off the long delay in meeting Dracula himself—his appearance is, in a neat evolution of his shape-shifting abilities, literally and figuratively skin-crawling. Furthermore, it is a potent symbol of the time-honoured, and oft-forgotten, horror of the vampire: a celebration of decay and perversity.
No true Briton could read Dracula’s subjugation of Queen Victoria and not share Beauregard’s revulsion—not merely for its exploitation of fear, but its resonant cultural and personal tragedy (I can imagine those pages could constitute a kind of Voigt-Kamp test of Britishness, should one ever be needed). The concluding battle it precipitates ends the novel with tarnished optimism, but has the hint of Hammer Films’ Dracula series in its wry refusal to emphatically destroy the Count himself.
Finally, Anno Dracula’s weaknesses carry the enthusiasm and passion of a new novelist eager to cram everything into his opus—and are thus easily overshadowed by the passion and verve of both the writing and the world. Furthermore, the sequel novels (now all available together under the Titan Books label) smooth and enhance this one’s omissions and occasional over-embroideries.
Ultimately, Newman leaves us with a revolutionary spin on familiar vampire lore—and one whose links to society, culture and literature are unrivalled in audacity and insight. It amuses me greatly that, in the early 1990s of ‘heritage TV’ and Masterpiece Theatre, Anno Dracula’s comic-book iconoclasm and anarchic streak must have seemed unprecedented. Compared to today’s anaemic (sorry) Un-dead, Newman’s version is all the richer. Subsequent best-sellers (naming no names!) are content with a moody rock-star whose nastiness and blood-sucking take a back seat to his parochial dating life.
Anno Dracula far more profoundly exhumes (sorry again) the obsessions and hypocrisies that created the creatures, which extends their affect more epochally than even Bram Stoker could have intended. I’d say Stoker would have loved to read Anno Dracula, but as it had even me re-enacting Kate Bush’s “Hammer Horror” (“First time in my life/ I leave the lights on to ease my soul”), he may never have slept again…0
You’ll find Anno Dracula available to order from Amazon for just £5.99.