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Anno Dracula - New Edition

Review by: 
Blackgloves
Author: 
Kim Newman
Genre: 
Vampire
Publication Date: 
2011
Publisher: 
Titan Books
Bottom Line: 
5

 What if Dracula hadn’t been vanquished at the end of Bram Stoker’s famous novel, after all? What if the Wallachian Prince, Vlad Tepes, had instead defeated Abraham Van Helsing and his provincial family of Christian, middleclass Victorian warriors, and made good on his original promise to conquer Great Britain, bringing the curse of vampirism to her industrialised shores and her teeming city streets, and extending his dominion right the way across her vast overseas Empire after becoming Prince Consort to the widowed Queen Victoria? This was the question author and film critic Kim Newman posed in his novel “Anno Dracula” back in 1992. Long out of print, the book, its two sequels and a brand new fourth entry, “Johnny Alucard”, are now lining up to be published in beautifully designed new editions, complete with bonus ‘extras’, by Titan books. The new edition of “Anno Dracula” comes with annotations by the author plus reprinted articles, an alternative ending taken from Kim Newman’s original novella “Red Reign”, excerpts from a commissioned screenplay version and a short story, “The Dead Travel Fast”, which imagines what Dracula might have been getting up to during those lost periods when his activities were not being chronicled in Stoker’s novel. Overall, nearly an extra hundred pages of material now further enriches this splendidly realised alternative history cum Gothic/crime/pulp fiction mash-up -- but the original novel remains very much the highlight. The tantalising scenario in which Dracula’s desire to found a new order of beings ‘whose road must lead through Death rather than Life’, underpins everything in Newman’s book but is just the hook on which the author hangs what rapidly becomes a vivid, wildly imaginative exploration of the hidden psyche – found between the cracks of Stoker’s original 1897 novel -- of a nation that gave the Un-dead literary Dracula his even-more-potent cultural immortality. The recurring threat of invasion from an insidious foreign enemy, mixed in as it was with unconscious fears pertaining to a much more intimate kind of violation, was never more evocatively conjured than in that endlessly fascinating Gothic novel; but Stoker’s Dracula was only the most enduring of a whole, now largely forgotten, mini-genre of Victorian/Edwardian  ‘invasion narrative’ fiction which found even more potent expression later in the twentieth century  -- in both literature and film -- with a mode of alternative historical fiction that dealt with the idea of a Britain defeated and living with the aftermath of Nazi occupation. The film “It Happened Here”, is probably the most well-known of these works.

The galvanising spark of genius that animates “Anno Dracula” though, comes about as a by-product of the way in which the author chooses to meld his alternative version of Stoker’s fictional world, where the unmentionable invader who must be repelled has actually now implanted himself right at the heart of society, with an re-imagining of Victorian Britain inspired by our modern consumption of it as the Gothic site of all those foggy gaslight romances (to use Newman’s own phrase), where the hard reality of life in the 1880s comes to be filtered through our appropriation of the motifs from a vast, populous fiction from that bygone age which are continually getting reworked while the reality behind them is further mythologised  in a host of modern day spin-offs, pastiches, and the endless reiterations of film and TV adaptations.

 From Sherlock Holmes (and the legion of semi-forgotten Edwardian amateur sleuths he spawned) and Jekyll and Hyde, to shadowy criminal masterminds such as Fu Manchu and the now-barely remembered Doctor Nikola, Newman has, of course intimate knowledge of them all -- and they all duly appear throughout the novel to help flesh out the fog-bound fiction-inspired world he’s created with either a casual mention here or an inspired cameo appearance there. This whole consensus genre fiction idea goes back to “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman” of course; in a world where all the characters of Victorian fiction already lived side-by-side, why wouldn’t Newman’s putative hero consult Doctor Jekyll and Doctor Moreau over a spate of murders in the Whitechapel district? The Diogenes Club (under the auspices of Mycroft Holmes) would of course be hot on the case, especially if the murders hinted at darker currents in the veins of the body politic, although Sherlock himself would have to be unavoidably indisposed in order to set aside the unavoidable fact that the great detective would’ve surely already solved such a trifling mystery while Mrs Hudson was still serving the breakfast kippers at 221B Baker Street. Ever the film buff, there’s no way Newman is going to restrict his all-inclusive fictional world to the mere products of the original source literature, so his vision of Dracula’s London becomes populated with a plethora of other famous vampires taken from right across the vast spectrum of Vampire-related films as well as its literature, all of them drawn to the capital by the proximity of the Prince Consort, now residing at Buckingham palace with a vampirised Queen, and Van Helsing’s head perched on a pike outside the Carpathian guard-patrolled gates!

And this is where Newman makes the final move that sets on a much higher plane what could have been merely a pleasing but otherwise undistinguished ramble through the worlds of Gothic Literature and the many film influences it has spawned across the decades since (a world where “Kiss of the Vampire’s” Dr Ravna exists cutely alongside John William Polidori’s Lord Ruthven and George A. Romero’s Martin Cuda!) raising it into the stratosphere, way above the many Victorian literary-historical fantasies that now clutter the virtual book store shelves of Amazon. The Whitechapel reference above probably gave it away, but the action of “Anno Dracula” is located in a specific historical setting, namely the Autumn of Terror in 1888, in the East End of London at the height of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders.

Now, Jack the Ripper is of course still a mainstay of Gothic fiction and frequently appears in the kind of blood-soaked horror melodramas Newman is partly satirising and partly paying tribute to here. But in making the infamous unsolved crimes a part of his alternative, vampire-infested, post-Dracula version of Victorian London, Newman is able effortlessly to both pass comment on the politics of the era and highlight its tumultuous social history, bringing to it a rich melange of heightened fantasy and historical reference. The novel was originally written at the tale-end of the 1980s, a time in which a fictionalised vision of the past was already informing the all-too-real present through a politics that took the form of Mrs Thatcher’s experiment in returning the country to her idea of what constituted ‘Victorian Values’. Thus Dracula’s London is made an enflamed and riotous one in Newman’s book, reflecting both the 1880s of increasing social stratification, anti-Semitism inspired by mass immigration and the beginnings of organised social protest; and the 1980s, with its own contentious forms of social division, not least the then-Government’s campaign against Homosexuality through the Section 28 amendment. Here, the ‘Bloody Sunday’ of London 1887 becomes a militaristic operation of Dracula’s Carpathian Guards, aimed at marshalling and massacring the participants of a protest march organised aginst the Royal marriage; and the Count/Prince Consort turns out to share Mrs Thatcher’s distaste for Homosexuality, organising witch hunts and public impalings for those caught committing ‘unnatural acts’ -- whether they be vampire or ‘warm’. This was the era of Oscar Wild’s downfall, after all -- and the great wit duly makes his appearance in Newman’s pages, attending the occasional after-dark get-togethers held, in her husband’s absence, by Florence Stoker, in which the great and the good of vampire and non-vampire society come to socialise. 

 The Ripper crimes are the perfect avatar for the sensation-seeking age where fiction and reality meet and mingle and create mythology that becomes, in many ways, more real and potent than the seemingly always-elusive facts. The public appetite for such ‘facts’ was already being stoked and sated by the Illustrated Newspapers and Penny Dreadful story writers in the midst of the murders themselves and much of the subsequent lore -- such as the infamous Ripper Letters -- might well be a journalistic invention, as probably are the ‘Ripper Diaries’, which came to light as recently as the 1990s. The dodgy eyewitness statements, the half-truths, the myths, the lies and the endless capacity of Ripperologists for finding offbeat connections among every stray piece of information, both real and imagined, has kept a cottage industry afloat ever since, with the facts themselves now indistinguishable from hearsay. The only thing anyone can be absolutely sure of, it seems, is the harsh reality of the poverty-stricken, doss house-dwelling, gin-soaked lives of the unfortunate victims themselves, cut down in dingy unlit courts and alleyways of some of the Capital’s most over-populated slum districts. So, given his extended roll-call of film, TV and literary vampires; the fictional detectives; the real historical personages in the form of the era’s politicians, artists and authors; the Ripper-related figures such as the various posited suspects, the commissionaire at the time Charles Warren, the coroner Wynne Baxter and the policemen who attempted unsuccessfully to track the killer (here Inspector Abberline works side-by-side with Inspector Lestrade!); and, of course, his victims -- Newman has even more yarn at his disposal with which to spin his own alternative explanation for the crimes. In fact, so distorted by myth has the whole Ripper tale long since become, that his synthesis of history and fiction -- which takes information given in Stoker’s novel and uses it to make logical connections between some of the main characters and the Ripper’s youngest victim, Mary Kelly -- actually makes a great deal more sense than many of the wilder and more imaginative speculations and theories of the Ripper Industry itself! In a peculiar way the novel becomes a comment on our obsession with the crimes and with the constant need to create a narrative and a resolution for them using the scant facts there are supplemented with endless and ever-wilder speculation.

For all that, the real Whitechapel at the heights of the Ripper panic was a disturbing and dangerous place, full of hysterical public responses to the crimes that feel as potent and explosive as any fictions we could make from them: plainclothes policemen disguised themselves as women to flush out the killer; self-styled amateur detectives (usually considered a nuisance by the authorities) really did patrol the streets, also on the look-out for Jack -- they’d often pester the police with their pet theories. At the height of the panic, anti-Semitic feeling inspired by recent immigration into an already poor area was enflamed by the idea that the killer was a Jew, unthinkingly suggested by certain newspaper reports after the first few murders. Lynch mobs assembled and roamed the darkened streets. Several people named as suspects in the papers found themselves pursued by angry gangs, convinced they were the Ripper. At the same time, some of the residents whose houses overlooked the backyard at 29 Hanbury Street, where the victim Annie Chapman was slain, charged the public an entrance fee to come and view the site. Newman doesn’t need to invent too much in order to create an outlandish, macabre atmosphere for his rich cast of characters in this Dracula-Ripper mash-up, but the prism of vampire fiction enables him to bring an even more vivid and detailed fictional world into sharp relief: in a highly stratified society where turning vampire is a social boon if you already happen to be rich, vampire prostitutes offer the ‘dark kiss’ for the price of a bottle of gin; non-vampire prostitutes offer a tot of their blood for a penny a time and impoverished street hawkers proffer their raggedy children in the street as blood-feed to well-heeled ‘new-borns’. Meanwhile, inside the infamous Ten Bells public house, pigs with taps driven into their throats provide the more impoverished vampire new-born clientele a cheap non-human blood substitute. Although Dracula rules here, London is as socially divided as ever: If you happen to be poor, you’re not any better off for having been ‘turned’ than you were before. And, of course, during the period in which the book is set, just before the notorious ‘Double Event’ when the Ripper killed two in one night, you’re even worse off if you happen to be a vampire prostitute contaminated with Dracula’s corrupted bloodline. For the killer in this version of reality (initially romantically named the Silver Knife) is a vampire killer, putting his victims to eternal rest with his silver-tipped scalpel.

The story sets Newman’s own creation, the gentleman detective and agent of the Diogenes Club, Charles Beauregard, on the trail of this notorious vampire killer; a trail that takes him from the highest echelons of Dracula’s administration (Prime Minister Lord Salisbury has been replaced here by the vampire Lord Ruthven; Varney the Vampire has been made viceroy of India) to the darkest corners of the criminal underworld presided over by an un-named ‘Celeste’ (clearly Fu-Manchu!) and his accomplices, the Napoleon of Crime Moriarty and Colonel Sebastian Moran (both of whom also feature in another novel by Newman soon to be republished by Titan - “The Hound of the D’Urbervilles”). Too bad Sherlock Holmes has been banished to a concentration camp -- that unfortunate invention of the British Empire at its most ruthless -- at Devil’s Dyke on the South Downs!

Genevieve Dieudonné an ageless French vampire veteran of the Hundred Years’ War ,who now cares for the sick and impoverished while working at a charitable institute set up at Toynbee Hall – slap-bang in the middle of the affected Whitechapel district  -- becomes involved with Beauregard, who is understandably ambivalent about vampires: he remains a loyal servant of the Queen, but the new regime of her consort is brutal and corrupt and his own fiancée, Penny Churchward, is desperate for them  both to be turned as soon as possible so as to enjoy all the benefits of social advancement that vampirism now brings to the upper-classes. Genevieve though, is of a different and much nobler bloodline to that of Dracula, and is as equally disturbed by the way this vicious new London is developing. Meanwhile, the principle characters of Stoker’s “Dracula” have enjoyed very varied fates since the rise of their foe: Van Helsing is dead, Mina Harker has been made one of Dracula’s concubines at Buckingham Palace, and Jack Seward is for some reason tolerated to live, if only in order to enable him to witness the ultimate triumph of the creature who corrupted his beloved Lucy Westernra. Arthur Holmwood -- now Lord Godalming -- has flourished within the new order though, and turned vampire!

Newman keeps Dracula off-stage until the big blockbuster climax of the novel (which even features a crucial role for the Elephant Man), instead sketching a bravura portrait of the Count’s Un-dead legacy that is as rich and detailed with its own vampire-related lore and human/vampire etiquette as any of the now ubiquitous versions of such societies we see in the current glut of contemporary vampire fictions. This is a wittily written, immensely entertaining gallop through history and its darkest fictions, which expertly manages the fraught juggling act that’s required in order to keep Newman’s juggernaut of encyclopaedic references from impeding the flow of the narrative. The novel is replete with memorable set-pieces: from Beauregard’s conference with Edwardian fiction’s finest collection of criminal masterminds to Genevieve’s battle with a monstrous ‘hopping’ vampire, inspired by the Hong Kong comedy film “Mr Vampire”; from the addition to the list of real-life Ripper victims of his most famous fictional one, Louise Brooks’ Lulu Schön from G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film “Pandora’s Box”(and the subsequent inquest into her murder in which Dr Jekyll gives evidence) to the final stand-off in a debauched, corrupted vampire court at Buckingham Palace, teeming with vice and even the odd geographically anachronistic armadillo in loving tribute to one of the more surrealist moments in Todd Browning’s 1931 classic adaptation for Universal Films. “Anno Dracula” is a splendid achievement, as fresh and innovative today as it felt twenty years ago despite the subsequent surge in Ripper -- ‘Holmes meets the Ripper ‘(or Holmes is the Ripper!) -- fictions and various other attempts to meld history and literature in pastiche form. Newman’s prose is charged with a fusillade of inventive allusions to its uncountable number of influences but the story somehow always flows perfectly naturally without requiring one to stop and acknowledge every single reference point. It’s simultaneously a deliciously convoluted conspiracy fiction, a romp of an adventure yarn, a satirical dig at our misappropriation of Victorian values and, most of all, a gorgeously rendered tribute to and elaboration of a vampire folklore that’s been endlessly recast and rethought in fiction throughout the last century and is showing no signs of slowing down or disappearing in our own. In short, this book is the proverbial must-read. Already a modern classic!

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