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Anno Dracula: Dracula Cha Cha Cha

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Author: 
Kim Newman
Genre: 
Horror
Publication Date: 
2012
Publisher: 
Titan
Bottom Line: 
5

Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series reaches what was originally intended to be its final instalment with this reprint of his 1995 novel “Dracula Cha Cha Cha”, published by Titan books. The book once formed the concluding third episode of a trilogy of stories that, between them, spanned decades as they explored a world defined by characters both new and old that the author imagined living in the aftermath of an alternate version of events sketched out in Bram Stoker’s hugely influential novel of 1897: “Dracula”. The creativity of Newman’s work springs from his use of a simple counterfactual ‘what if’ scenario, that nevertheless reverberates throughout every aspect of this fiction series, imagining a world in which Vlad Count Dracula was not, as readers of the conclusion of Stoker’s original epistolary novel will remember him to have been, defeated by his human foes, but where he was instead seen to triumph in his battle against vampire hunter Van Helsing and his crusading helpers -- after which he ends up marrying into the British Royal family and becoming prince consort to the widowed Queen Victoria in the late 1880s.

As a consequence, Vlad Tempes engenders (however inadvertently) the emergence of vampirism as a dominant political, cultural and social force throughout the Western world, first of all hijacking and transforming mainstream British society, but eventually distorting the development of European culture and politics as well. With the Dark Lord now placed in such an influential position, all the other vampire elders (who we know of from our exposure to them in a plethora of works from a century’s worth of literature and film) are now also able to come out of the shadows to join him -- many of them taking up positions deep at the heart of the British establishment. The world of Anno Dracula is thus a finely woven tapestry that's populated by the author feeding from a confluence of the imaginings of many past authors, filmmakers and actors, not just in relation to other fictional vampires, but regarding all sorts of other characters and popular fictional genres -- with citations ranging from across the full spectrum of fantastic literature and pulp writing. This results in the novels coming to be house a huge, unwieldy list of minor characters, all shown existing comfortably alongside real-life historical personages from past eras, who have themselves in many instances also become vampires (taking ‘the Dark Kiss’ is almost a requirement for any kind of social advancement in this alternate world) as the novels thrive more and more on the ironical juxtapositions thrown up by the process of conflating the history of the late 19th  and early to mid-20th Centuries as we would know it with each eras’ favourite popular fictions; the lengthy roll call of walk-ons who flit through these narratives all play their brief parts in a hugely mutated yet still-recognisable version of Western history, informed (but now also subtly tainted) by the overarching Dracula theme, as symbolised by vampirism’s new ascendancy.

The first novel took place in a Gothic, gas lit Victorian milieu with the crimes of Jack the Ripper as its backdrop and with Dracula installed in Buckingham palace, ruling by proxy through his influence over a grief-stricken Queen Victoria; the second imagined Dracula next casting his malign shadow right across Europe when he falls in with Kaiser Wilhelm II, leading the world into the carnage of the First World War, with vampires fighting on both sides. The most obvious period for Newman to have explored next would have been the Second World War, but instead this third volume skips ahead to the year 1959, and chooses Fellini’s Italy as its evocative location. This proves to be a much cleverer choice: the shadow of WW2 still hangs heavy across a continent that’s now mired in Cold War politics and balancing on the cusp of a post-war consumer boom that also brings all the cultural, social and spiritual upheaval Italy’s abandonment to La Dolce vita mores suggests. Italy is the epicentre of the new order -- the post-war inheritor of the flotsam of the affluent society during the years when Europe prepares to enter the swinging sixties.

Newman’s way of summarising all this is to weave this chapter in his on-going Anno Dracula saga around a hybrid pastiche of spy novel fictions that begin to intertwine with a mixture of Italian arthouse and cult horror movie iconography. We learn near the start of this tale that the British state, once the sworn enemy of Dracula during the Great War, found itself obliged to make a deal with him during the dark days of WW2 and take the Count as its ally in order to defeat Hitler’s Third Reich, after the Nazi regime proved just as keen on applying its Final Solution to vampirism and vanquishing Dracula’s bloodline as it had been on exterminating the Jewish race. Thus, the end of the conflict sees the Count now being reluctantly tolerated to live on in exile in Italy -- like one of the jaded aristocrats who’s glittery lifestyle is satirised in Fellini’s 1959 film -- while the West’s secret services monitor him uneasily, waiting for his next power play; continuing to keep an eye on a villain who had, in many ways, simply provided the role model for would-be, warm-blooded usurpers of his world dictators’ crown, like Adolf.

Newman brings most of his old heroes back again for a third outing with this novel, and has them all assembled in the Eternal City on the pretext that Dracula has set in motion what appears to be the next stage of his bid for the reclamation of his former power. He is to marry into another faded middle European Royal House by taking Princess Asa Vajda as his new bride, and all the vampire elders are assembling in Rome for the big occasion -- which is to take place at the well-known Palazzo Otranto of Radcliffian Gothic fame. Journalist Kate Reed (a character invented by Bram Stoker in an early draft of “Dracula” but never used, but who was subsequently appropriated by Newman as one of his Anno Dracula heroines) flies in to cover the wedding in a city giddy on movie celebrity and the paparazzi who feed the public appetite for news of its aristocratic vampire café society; but she is also in Italy to visit the ailing former hero of the Diogenes Club, Charles Beauregard: the Victorian secret agent who, together with his assistant and love-of-his-life, the vampire elder Geneviève Dieudonné, managed to defeat Dracula and remove him from the British throne in the 1880s. Now one-hundred-and-five years old and kept alive only by enough infusions of vampire blood from Geneviève to keep him ticking over without actually converting him, Beauregard is faced with a dilemma brought by the knowledge that the only way he will now be able to stay around long enough to stop Dracula from rising in prominence again, will be to take the Dark Kiss and become a vampire himself – something he has always resisted in a world where vampire immortality has become the norm. Kate, also a former love of Beauregard’s, hopes she can persuade him to change his mind as death draws ever nearer for the rapidly weakening spy. Also in Rome, but in quite a different capacity, is Beauregard’s fiance from his pre-Dracula days, Penelope Churchward – the ambitious socialite who became a vampire to advance herself within the new order, and has since become housekeeper at the ornate Italian palace where Europe’s greatest vampire elders are about to assemble.

The basic structure of the book’s plot centres on the three female protagonists who have all been important to Beauregard at various times throughout his life. Rome turns out to be more than just the backdrop for events but an essential component of the plot, which is explored through the many references to the varied genres of movie the city has featured prominently in since the postwar years -- the world famous baroque landmark of The Trevi Fountain acting as the key locus which melds them together. Kate, Geneviève and Penelope are thrust into a plot that starts out initially like a perverse “Three Coins in a Fountain” scenario (‘Three Corpse in a Fountain’ is one of the chapter titles) in which their various romantic troubles abroad symbolise this age of exotic affordable international tourism. But the story then begins to hinge on a heady brew of film pastiche and reference of the kind which makes this volume a particularly compelling one for the cult movie fan. The fact that the careers of actors such as Barbara Steele and Anita Ekberg comfortably spanned the arthouse worlds of Fellini and the pop genre movies of Mario Bava etc., is a defining, fascinating fact about their movie personas which Newman exploits the entire time here: Steele appeared in Fellini’s “81/2” while also becoming the face of Italian horror during the ‘60s: it was she who played the evil Princess Vajda and her innocent descendant Katja in Bava’s Black Sunday” for instance; while Anita Ekberg also played a similar dual-role for Amando de Ossorio’s “Malenka”, while being best known for her iconic appearance in Fellini’s “La Dolce vita”. Characters who are based on these actresses (in both their guises as icons of serious cinema and their cult horror personas) co-mingle in Newman’s alternate Rome, which soon turns out to be the site of a menagerie of mixing genre types and events. The jet setting world of consumer affluence examined by Fellini was no better packaged for popular consumption, during the period, than in the ‘60s movie adaptations by Eon Productions of Ian Fleming’s James Bond character, and so a version of Bond who makes explicit the importance of Sean Connery’s Scottish-ness to his portrayal, appears here as an undead vampire 007 (with the Christian name Hamish ... the Scottish form of James), who’s called in by the modern version of the Diogene Club to find out what lies behind Dracula’s latest royal match, and who ends up falling foul of another white cat-stroking mastermind, sent by a foreign power with the same intent.

The bloody worlds of Mario Bava and Dario Argento become key to the narrative after Kate finds herself embroiled in a giallo-like plot with mysterious supernatural threads: she witnesses a murder at the Trevi Fountain when two well-known vampires are slain in front of her by a vampire killer who’s been terrorising the city for months -- a killer called The Crimson Executioner by the press (who was a character played by Mickey Hargitay in Massimo Pupillo’s “The Bloody Pit of Horror”); and she herself is only saved when a mysterious ghostly child with a bouncing ball turns up at the last minute. In true Argento giallo style, Kate decides to investigate the crimes by her-self after realising that there was something about the scene which wasn’t quite right … though she can’t put her finger on precisely what it was, etc. As she explores deeper, a powerful, age-old supernatural entity that has existed in the Eternal City for centuries and which takes on various female forms known as ‘The Three Mothers’ seems to have something to do with the Executioner’s activates. But how does it all connect to Dracula and his up-coming nuptials?

Argento and Bava are perhaps the key influences on the text here, despite the appearance of a legion of literary and film characters – as well as many of the real-life directors and actors who created them – all of whom congregate in clusters throughout almost every scene of the novel. The work of Argento in particular (when he was in his prime) is indicative of the syncretic nature of much of Italian culture during the sixties, when the serious arthouse movie and the popular horror film seemed often to meld into one many-tentacled entity; and so the key motifs of Dario Argento’s best work litter this novel more prominently than anyone else’s, but are mixed and stirred in with references to characters from films by Antonioni and Fellini in a cunningly intricate manner that highlights how they all grow out of each other from a vast thicket of mutual influences grounded in Italy’s postwar development.

The novel is a sprawling thriller-epic composed of many minute parts slotted together like pieces of a giant puzzle, but grounded in the surprisingly believable emotional lives of Kate, Geneviève and Penelope -- who are drawn much more tightly together, here, through a mutual love of Charles Beauregard. If it weren’t for Newman’s ability to colour his core characters with sincerely emoted feelings, this whole project would perhaps feel like a glib game of reference spotting and nothing more, but the author’s best writing comes when he’s delving deep into his protagonists emotional lives, and thus going a long way towards making this absurd world believable, and its events compelling. As was the case with the previous two Anno Dracula novels, Dracula himself stays off stage for most of the story, but he makes an unexpected appearance here which constitutes a real, unexpected game changing move regarding the direction that the rest of the series might take in the future. Although this was originally the concluding chapter of the Anno Dracula series, the re-publication of all three titles has spurred Newman to write a brand new fourth volume to be published later next year, but he’s also gone back to fill in some gaps between episodes by presenting several newly written novellas to be included with the reprints: alongside Titan’s reprint of “The Bloody Red Baron” there was a new story included, set in the interwar years, that took the work of Agatha Christie as its key influence; while readers of “Dracula Cha Cha Cha” (which, incidentally, is named after a real Italian pop song by Bruno Martino which you can dig up in various versions on YouTube) will also discover a new Kate Reed novella set in 1968, called “Aquarius”.

This is no throwaway extra either, but quite a lengthy new piece of work, which, again will bring considerable joy to cult horror movie fans, while this time Newman tackles London in 1968, with Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech providing a torrid backdrop to another high profile murder investigation for Kate to become embroiled in, when warm-blooded party girls start getting knocked off in a series of old-school vampire killings. (The politician really does refer to literal rivers of blood here, since the targets of Powell’s populist racist spleen in this alternate version of history are the vampires who have by now fully integrated into society, but who are still not entirely accepted by everyone.)

This time, though, the movie references refer to the trippy, British psychedelic psychological thrillers of the late-sixties and early-seventies (“Straight on Till Morning”, “The Gemini Twins”) evoking a milieu that was most potently depicted in the early-seventies sex films of Pete Walker, which celebrated the sexual freedoms of the era more overtly than most. In this story, anti-vampire feeling in the country is already running high thanks to Powell’s opportunist political rabble-rousing, so Kate has to tread carefully when un-officially helping the Met’s vampire-inclusive B Division with its sensitive inquires. Although one of the victims is the lead character from Walker’s sex romp “Cool it Carol”, Newman’s main source for the era is Hammer’s laughable attempt to bring the Dracula franchise into the ‘modern’ age -- i.e.: “Dracula AD 1972”.Peter Cushing’s ‘70s Van Helsing descendant Lorrimer is a key character, as is his granddaughter Jessica (played in the film by Stephanie Beacham); both are somehow connected to the activities of a dissolute school of Vampirism operating out of St Bartolph’s college at the University of London during the height of late-sixties radical student protests. Once again Newman brings his encyclopedic knowledge of obscure cult British movies to bear on a witty take on the social upheavals of the era, in what is a highly enjoyable blending of British social and popular cultural references.

All three republished volumes and their appended novellas are hugely rewarding and entertaining but the two works contained within this volume are probably the best of the bunch and they make the perfect appetiser for the forthcoming new book, which will be published in 2013. As well as the addition of new story “Aquarius”, the author also provides annotations that include some fascinating background on the reference points threaded through the main novel. Readers of the previous two volumes will undoubtedly enjoy this third chapter, while anybody with a taste for Italian cinema will be equally enthralled by Newman’s clever patchwork of references and themes. This is the best entry yet in the Anno Dracula series.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!

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