Once Bitten: A Review of Kim Newman’s “Anno Dracula”

Once Bitten: A Review of Kim Newman’s “Anno Dracula”

ad2Hello again, Brothers and Sisters of the Psychotronic Video World! I’m here today with a piece of literature to recommend to you, that being the novel Anno Dracula by Mr. Kim Newman.  I’d first heard of this novel, and its two sequels (The Bloody Red Baron and Dracula Cha Cha Cha) a couple years back, but at the time I think they were out of print and not readily available to me.  Imagine, then, my surprise and delight upon discovering new editions of them, complete with a hefty stack of annotations in the back (I’ll get back to these in a bit), republished and available affordably from my local book store! However, because I’m still a broke-ass mofo, I only bought the first book in the series for now.

What’s so exciting about these novels, you ask? Glad you asked!

The Anno Dracula series is set in a universe in which Van Helsing and his crew failed to kill Dracula.  Incensed at this attempt on his unlife, Dracula gets even in spades — he courts, and wins the hand of, Queen Victoria, becoming Prince Consort and de facto ruler of England.  With an out and open about it vampire on the throne, other vampires — all of them characters from other works of fiction — come out of the woodwork and become part of his administration, i.e., Lord Ruthven (from Polidori’s The Vampyre, born of the same night of storytelling that spawned Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) becomes Prime Minister, etc.

Within a year, Dracula has England well on its way to being a brutal totalitarian dictatorship with an immortal head of state, and the vampire population is booming – to advance socially in this strange new world, one must be a vampire, so more and more are accepting a state of undeath in order to get ahead, plus, Dracula and his offspring are outrageously careless regarding who they turn.

In Whitechapel, someone is murdering vampire prostitutes; before long, the press have nicknamed this murderer “Jack the Ripper” and the Diogenes Club, the shadow organization behind the British crown, consisting of some of the top minds in England, means to resolve the murders.  They send their top agent, one Charles Beauregard, to ferret out the murderer and bring him or her to justice.  Now Charles, along with the vampiress Genevieve Dieudonné, are wrapped up in a plot to overthrow Dracula and free England from vampiric domination…but which side are the good guys?

It’s a goddamn amazing book.  And I am eager, eager I say, to get my hands on the sequels.

Where to begin with reviewing this book?

Kim Newman has made vampires intimidating again.  I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not much of a vampire fan; as a kid they always

portrait of the author

portrait of the author

ranked behind Gill-Men, mummies, Wolfmen and Frankenstein’s Monsters in my book, and by the time I really got into horror again in my 20s Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer had conspired to sap the horror from the vampire, making him at best an effete (more so than usual) Oscar Wilde that sucked blood instead of cock, and at worst an abuse Adonis.  Newman emphasizes the predatory monstrosity of Dracula and his get, and the other bloodlines of vampirism are little better, if at all.

Let me explain the bloodlines comment.  To reconcile the variety of abilities ascribed to various vampires in fiction, Newman has created different bloodlines – lineages of transmission from vampire to victim, with new vampires having similar attributes to their “parent.”  New bloodlines are born when an individual is bitten by numerous vampires of different bloodlines during their life without dying from them.  So Dracula and his bloodline, their main power is shapeshifting, but the bloodline is polluted and foul from how careless Dracula and his children are about passing on their curse, and so some can only shapeshift partially, or are trapped in half-way forms.  Other lineages, such as Dieudonné’s, don’t have the shapeshifting but have perhaps other powers, such as extreme hypnotic persuasion.

Every vampire, and most of the supporting cast, are from various works of literature, and here I have to say Newman is the master.  Like I mentioned earlier, vampires aren’t my strongest suite, and I was only able to recognize about half the vampires here on first sight; besides Dracula and Ruthven (I’d read The Vampyre on Project Gutenberg during a slow period at my last job, during which time I got paid to read a lot of gothic horror literature), the ones most immediately recognizable to me were Von Krolock (THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS), Graf Orlok (NOSFERATU), Mamuwalde (BLACULA), Sir Francis Varney (Varney the Vampyre, an intolerably slow and drawn out serial story from the 1800s), Barlow (‘Salem’s Lot), Barnabas Collins (Dark Shadows) and Count Iorga (COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE).  Plenty of others slipped past me until I checked the annotations.  Pretty much any and every literary vampire you can imagine from the last century and a half of literature and film appears in this series at some point or another.  Some of the other references were damned fine as well – an American newspaperman in a rumpled suit and straw hat a generation out of date, yelling over the newly-invented telephone at an editor named “Anthony” can easily be identified as our old friend Carl Kolchak, appearing somewhat anachronistically, while a hopping vampire assassin is instantly familiar to anyone who’s seen the Hong Kong horror classic MR. VAMPIRE.

Count_OrlokAnd let me say, this novel has done more to make Orlok creepy and unsettling then Klaus Kinski, Max Schreck and Willem Defoe combined.  Placed in charge of the vampire prison in the Tower of London for his excessive cruelty and viciousness, the few pages in which Orlok appears are some of the eeriest in the book.  He’s described as stiff and unmoving, seeming to move only his feet as he walks, but his deep, liquid eyes are constantly darting and peering, eyebrows bristling and fluttering with each small, rat-like gesture.  Even the other vampires are unsettled and disturbed, eager to get out of Orlok’s presence.

Dracula himself has a minor role in the novel, appearing for only a few pages at the climax of the book, but his presence is stifling throughout.  While I’ve expressed my personal admiration for Vlad Tepes in the past, Newman is quick to point out that Dracula is trapped in the past.  He has the mind and soul of a man of the 15th century, not the 19th, coupled with the vicious amorality of four centuries of being somewhere beyond conventional mortal ethics.  Newman’s Dracula is quick to bring back impalement as a punishment for crimes (including sodomy, which Ruthven speculates is due to having been used as a catamite during his time as a Turkish hostage in his living youth) and political dissidents are shipped off to concentration camps far from London, while Dracula’s personal troops, the Carpathian Guard, patrol the streets – not to maintain the peace, but as an occupying force of conquerors.  His court, far from the staid conservatism of Queen Victoria, resembles something more akin to Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, as Dracula squats naked and gore-caked on the throne, reveling in watching his courtiers wrestle wild animals, rape and murder women, and worse.  Newman’s Dracula is a barbarian, more akin to Attila than to Lugosi and more fit then the Hun to bear the title of “Scourge of God.”

Overall, I can’t tell you how pleased I was with this book and what a treat it was to read.  I strongly recommend it for anyone with an interest in vampire fiction or the sort of “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”/Wold Newton metafictional universe-blending that brings together such a variety of literary and cinematic characters.  Check it out.

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Bill Adcock likes long walks off short piers and eating endangered species. In addition to his work for the Blood Sprayer, his writing can also be found at his personal site, Radiation-Scarred Reviews, which he's maintained since 2008. Bill has also contributed, as of this writing, to GRINDHOUSE PURGATORY issues 2 and 3, and CINEMA SEWER issue 27.

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