“What if?” is such a fun game to play, especially for writers. And luckily for us, Kim Newman wondered, “What if the events in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula didn’t unfold quite that way? What if Van Helsing and crew failed to defeat Dracula, and old Vlad went on to woo and wed Queen Victoria?”
The answers to that “what if” are served up in Kim Newman’s hugely entertaining (and stupidly out-of-print) novel Anno Dracula. The British Empire of 1888 is a very different place than we’ve ever seen it portrayed before. Vlad Tepes, better known as Dracula, is Prince Consort to the now-vampirized Queen Victoria, and his influence is making itself felt throughout the Empire. Fellow vampire Lord Ruthven is now Prime Minister, Van Helsing’s skull is on a pike on London Bridge, and Tepes’ Carpathian guards are enforcing harsh new rules with punishments that include impalements. A growing number of people, from all areas of society, are undergoing the “turn” into vampires. Not helping matters is that Tepes’ vampire bloodline is tainted, and more and more of his brood are little better than monsters. And now a mysterious murderer known as “Silver Knife” is slaying vampire prostitutes in the Whitechapel slums. Trying to track down the murderer are Charles Beauregard, an agent for a shadowy cabal known as the Diogenes Club, and Genevieve Dieudonne, a vampire of a purer bloodline than Dracula’s, who’s a social worker to the London poor.
Though the Silver Knife murders drive the plot, Anno Dracula isn’t really a mystery (it’s clear at the start who the murderer is). What makes the book fascinating is Newman’s melding of alternate history with alternate literature, his portrait of a society that has rampant vampirism added to the already unbalanced social and economic situation of Victorian England. It’s worth noting that while turning into a vampire can be a boost for one’s social standing if a person’s of the upper classes, those at the bottom rungs are just as bad off as ever. The poorest women still have to resort to prostitution to survive, and a human servant may find herself having to offer up her blood to slake the thirst of an aristocratic vampire guest.
The whole affair could have been a disaster, but Newman deftly skirts this by trusting his readers to understand what he’s doing. Though it’s dense with allusions to historical and literary figures (not just from vampire fiction), it never feels like Newman is showing off. Sharp-eyed readers will catch references to Varney the Vampire, the movie Pandora’s Box, Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, Gunga Din, the vampire Lestat, the Elephant Man, and of course, Queen Victoria.
The book isn’t all an alternate history romp. There are moments of outright horror as we find out how unpleasant it can be to turn into a vampire, the grisly nature of Silver Knife’s murders, and what Buckingham Palace looks like with a vampire and his cronies running things. At the same time Newman makes it clear that not all vampires are evil – indeed, Genevieve is far more humane and compassionate than many of the human characters.
My only complaint with the book is that it’s not quite long enough for the various plots (there are quite a few) to be fully fleshed out. Another 50 pages would have been welcome. But as it is, Anno Dracula is a fun, fascinating book that will have you captivated by its portrait of vampiric Victorians, chortling at the many historical and literary references, and occasionally getting the willies. What more could you ask for? Anno Dracula is out of print, but very affordable from online sellers and well worth seeking out.