500 pages, Titan Books
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
I've previously professed my love for Bram Stoker's genre-defining novel; the novel that introduced the world to arguably the greatest fictional villain of all time. “Dracula” is a stunningly good book, so good, in fact, that few vampire novels have ever come close to it in terms of raw power and innovation. I've recently read the book for the third time (or is it the fourth? I lose count) in preparation for the Halloween meeting of my local reading group. Having finished it, I was thirsty for more vampiric shenanigans and so picked up a copy of the recently re-released “Anno Dracula” by Kim Newman.
First published in 1992, Newman's novel is an intriguing alternate history epic that stems from the notion that Van Helsing and his band of fearless vampire slayers failed in their attempt to stop the wicked Count from settling in London. In Newman's world, the Count defeated Van Helsing and his followers, had Van Helsing's head mounted on a spike, married the widowed Queen and set himself up as Lord Protector of the British Empire. Under Dracula's diabolical rule, the plague of vampirism spreads quickly until nearly half the population are “new-born” bloodsuckers trying to adjust to the strange new world.
Setting is so important in an alternate history novel and Newman's depiction of a Victorian London plunging into darkness is staggeringly well-executed. Although one might expect the vampires to be the villains of the piece, Newman opts to portray the bloodsuckers in a far less malevolent light. Vampirism is treated more like a new fashion craze which sweeps the capital. Naturally, there are tensions between those who embrace being un-dead and those who choose to remain “warm”. The tensions grow stronger as Dracula appoints more and more of his vampiric followers in positions of power whilst ruthlessly crushing any dissenters with his brutal Carpathian Guard.
Fiction and history are perfectly blended in the narrative. Countless characters from popular Victorian literature rub shoulders with real historical figures. We've seen this done before (Alan Moore's “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” springs to mind) but seldom is it achieved with such a deft touch. Newman has clearly climbed mountains of research but doesn't flaunt his learning or overwhelm the reader with oblique references. To those in the know, the historical and fictional characters are liberally scattered throughout the novel but one's enjoyment of the story won't be affected if you aren't able to pick up on them all. This is no mean feat but Newman is clearly an accomplished storyteller, making it seem not just effortless but entirely natural. Where else can one find Fu Manchu rubbing shoulders with Professor Moriarty or Oscar Wilde hob-nobbing with a vampiric version of Stoker's own Lord Godalming?
The main plot concerns itself with un-dead elder vampire Genevieve Dieudonne teaming up with Charles Beauregard, a spy who works for the Diogenes Club (a proto-secret service first suggested in one of Conan Doyle's “Sherlock Holmes” stories and then further expanded upon in novels and stories written by Newman himself). Genevieve and Charles are in pursuit of Jack the Ripper who, in this incarnation, is a murderer of vampire prostitutes in Whitechapel. Early on in the novel, Newman reveals that the Ripper is, in fact, Doctor Jack Seward from Stoker's original novel, driven hopelessly mad by his previous confrontation with the Count. Although this revelation might seem a spoiler best saved for the end of the story, Newman's clever plotting ensures that readers remain gripped – not because they wish to learn the Ripper's identity but because they wish to see how he ended up so utterly batshit bonkers. Indeed, what makes this such an appealing concept is how closely Newman sticks to the character established by Bram Stoker and how Seward's mental decline occurs as a result of what Stoker put the character through in his novel. Best of all is the very respectful way in which Newman handles the character of Dracula. Stoker kept the vampiric overlord hidden in the shadows for much of the book, an enigmatic and eerie presence whose malign influence was felt throughout the novel. Newman pulls off a similar feat; we hear much about Dracula and how his polluted bloodline is spreading wickedness throughout the country but we don't see him until the final chapter where Newman treats us to a suitably grotesque, overblown climax.
Intelligent, creepy, hilarious and thrilling, “Anno Dracula” pays tribute to the greatest horror novel ever written whilst creating a wonderfully realised world that is both strangely familiar and wholly unique. Fans of the vampire fiction or the Victorian period would be doing themselves a disservice not to check out this marvellous book, especially considering that the new edition features extensive notes, an alternative ending, excerpts from the unused screenplay, an essay by Newman and a stand-alone short story which sees the Count discovering the joy of motoring. Bloody fangtastic.
Hereward L.M. Proops