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Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron

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

Author and film critic Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series continues with a tale set during the final weeks of the First World War in this splendid reprint of his novel “The Bloody Red Baron”, originally published in 1995 but now newly available from Titan Books with a tie-in cover and loads of bonus ‘extras’ - the best of which is a brand new series-continuing novella set in 1923. Fans of the original novel will be familiar with Newman’s elaborate, metafictional alternate universe, founded on the conceit that the events at the end of Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula” might have played out differently on a world stage in which historical and fictional characters from both literature and 20th century film actually lived side by side – although in Newman’s historically aware hands it is a world that’s still somewhat like our own in terms of the general thrust of its social and political development.  Events only diverge or take on their distorted character, after Van Helsing and his small band of Victorian crusaders are defeated, and Dracula manages to spread his vampirism throughout the upper echelons of Victorian society by becoming the Prince Consort to the widowed Queen Victoria. This development also allows every other vampire character in fiction to come out of hiding and openly take his/her privileged place in society, although varying bloodlines (which bestow a spectrum of powers on their hosts deriving from alternative fictional versions of vampire lore) mean that social and political rivalry is just as intense among vampires as it is between the ‘warm’ and the undead - with ‘new-borns’ and ‘elders’ frequently placed at each other’s throats, if you’ll pardon the expression. The novel was a brilliantly entertaining symbiosis of literature, history and politics in which Stoker’s surviving characters play their part alongside Newman’s own creations in solving the historical mystery of Jack the Ripper against a backdrop of vampirism as it becomes an increasingly accepted and dominant part of the social makeup of the nation.

This second novel takes up the story sometime after the revolution which saw Dracula kicked from the British throne and out of England altogether by Diogenes Club agent Charles Beauregard and vampire elder Geneviève Dieudonné. By this point though, Dracula’s influence has irrevocably insinuated itself into every nook and cranny of British life and society, from the Prime Minister’s office to the slums of the East End, and after escaping imprisonment at the Tower of London (friends in high places indeed … Graf von Orlok was master of the Tower, and lent a helping clawed hand!) the Dark Lord deftly sets about spreading his influence throughout the Royal Houses of Europe by, as Newman puts it, ‘playing on his hosts’ dislike of parliaments that sacked monarchs’, as well as exploiting the advantage of those family connections already established through marriage to Victoria. We’re given a potted alternate history of developments on the European stage early on in the novel to show us how Dracula kick starts World War One, first by contaminating the Romanov bloodline of the Russian Royal family and then surreptitiously ensconcing himself with the Imperial Court in Berlin - where he makes a vampire of Kaiser Wilhelm, encourages German militarism and industrial expansionism, takes the title Graf von Dracula, and is later appointed Chancellor and commander-in-chief of the armies of the Fartherland. From here, events play out from 1914 onwards much as they did in our own world, with territorial squabbles between Austria-Hungry and Serbia over the fate of Bosnia culminating inevitably in war after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand during his fateful tour of the region. Dracula now leads the Central Powers (all of them contaminated by his unstable brand of shape-shifting vampirism) in a brutal land and air war against the allied forces led by Britain and France – a war in which vampire and human now fight and die together on both sides in this forever changed world; a war that, in its very absurdity, seems to allegorise the insane desire for wanton destructiveness at the root of Dracula’s strutting, power-hungry brand of vampiric nihilism.     

This is all mere scene-setting though for Newman’s main aim with this second novel, which mainly functions - as you’ll have probably gathered from the title - as a witty dissection of its period, circa 1918, dressed as a pastiche of those sorts of popular Boys’ Own WW1-set pulp fiction adventure stories written by the likes of W.E. Johns, but this time with Newman’s own neo-gothic vampire twist added to the formula, suffused with constant allusions to, and walk-on cameos for, literally hundreds of real life persons and fictional characters, culled from across a broad spectrum of film and literature. Even the real world authors of the material he habitually draws from often seem to exist comfortably in the same reality as their fictional creations when envisioned here in Newman’s slyly ecumenical mode of fictional revisionism. Quite how the author manages to juggle the resulting encyclopaedia-length check-list of often extremely obscure references and weaves them inextricably through the marrow of his alternate account of the actual history, while combining this feat of conjuring with his own vividly realised characters and some nifty, clever plotting too boot, is a mystery that seems rather like some sort of authorial alchemy to us mere mortals, but he manages it here again all the same, despite the fact that much of the literature he’s often citing in this volume - and even many of the films, for that matter – will probably be a great deal less well known to a general audience than the Victorian era horror on which he mainly drew for his inspiration in the first novel.

But although Newman’s Victorian gentleman hero Charles Beauregard now plays only a limited part in events (and Geneviève is entirely absent from the action) this follow-up re-acquaints us with a host of secondary characters and walk-ons already met with during the duo’s previous attempts to expose ‘the Silver Knife’ and expel Dracula from the throne of England. Chief among them is Kate Reed, introduced as a young, ‘new-born’ cub reporter in the first novel modelled after a character created by Bram Stoker but cut from his final draft of “Dracula”. Newman has since enthusiastically taken up and developed this character as an integral part of his own metafictional universe and, here, she becomes one of the chief protagonists in the plot of “The Bloody Red Baron”, through whose eyes the reader is allowed to experience a view of the dark turn twentieth century events have taken since the end of the Victorian age in which she was originally conceived. One of the themes of the book concerns how undying vampirized nineteenth century characters from the fiction of a whole different generation struggle to find their way in and make sense of a new world and a new century that’s seemingly plunging into total chaos at the behest of the Great Powers: since we last met her, Kate has becomes a Red Cross ambulance driver, a pacifist dedicated to women’s rights, and a donor of blood for injured soldiers on the Western Front (although this type of charitable giving has slightly different connotations in a world inhabited by vampires, of course).

The main plot concerns itself with British Staff Officer and Diogenes Club appointee Edwin Winthrope, and his attempts to get to the bottom of the German Luftstreitkräfte’s latest development in its aerial campaign during the Allies’  final military build-up to  what becomes known as ‘the Big Push’. These developments seem to have been having an increasingly detrimental effect on the success of the Royal Flying Corp’s operations in recent months and so Winthrope has been seconded with the RFC’s crack Condor Squadron (made up of both fictional and real-life British flying aces) after information obtained, just before her execution, from the captured spy known by the non de plume stage name Mata Hari, suggests rum doings are afoot at the Chateau du Malinbois, just across the lines in Austria. Heading up the German air group known as the Flying Circus, or Jagdgeschwader 1, which is now based at this very Chateau, is the legendary Baron Manfred von Richthofen - feared and revered in equal measure as Germany’s best and most well-known ace of the skies, flying under the moniker the Red Baron. Condor Squadron set out to photograph from the air the mysterious activity hinted at in Mata Hari’s dying testimony - unaware that the Graf von Dracula’s latest plot threatens their very existence. Meanwhile, a vampire Edgar Allen Poe, having recently fled his American birthplace, finds himself holed up in Prague when his services are unexpectedly called upon by German High Command; appointed Richthofen’s biographer he is faced with the unhappy task of writing an inspiring ghosted account of the Baron’s life while his great German rival Hanns Heinz Ewers looks on enviously from the side-lines and Poe's indifferent, emotionally dead subject makes the task seem all but impossible by dint of a taciturn personality not much given to introspection.

Transported to the Chateau, now re-named Schloss Adler, Poe discovers that Richthofen and his fellow German flying aces are part of an devilish experiment being conducted at the castle, involving the mixing of vampire bloodlines, in which an array of the Central Powers’ finest scientists, from Cagliari and Dr Mabuse to “Metropolis’s” Rotwang (we’re not informed if the latter two had difficulty being told apart seeing as how they were both played by the same man, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, in Fritz Lang’s movie versions) have been assembled by Dracula under the directorship of Professor Jakob ten Brinken (ironically the fictional creation of H.H. Ewers - who spends his entire time in this novel being jealous of Edgar Allen Poe’s elevation as state-approved biographer) with the aim of using Dracula’s shape-shifting powers as an extra ingredient in an attempt to gain the edge in the German war effort.

A lot can be said for how ingeniously Newman manages to combine some great horror writing and page-turning adventure drama with amusing in-jokes included purely for the benefit of those readers familiar enough with the history of the period, and the film and literature that draws on it, to get the allusions - although sometimes one has a hard time accepting that, for the sake of Newman’s agenda, someone as all powerful yet shadowy a presence as Dr Mabuse has to act as a mere silent foot soldier to the schemes of others’ literary creations, as he does here. But Newman’s rich pageant of appropriated names provides the scope for characters from, say, Powell & Pressburger’s “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and Howard Hawks’ “The Dawn Patrol” to seamlessly pitch in with Biggles, Bulldog Drummond or Captain Elliot Spencer (the original ‘Pinhead’ from “Hellraiser”) whilst sharing page space with vampire versions of Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George; or Béla Lugosi (who is cleverly used to disguise a plot point late in the novel) and Franz Kafka. Yet what impresses most of all in the end is not the author’s aptitude for weaving complex tapestries of associations between a diverse cast of names, historical, literary and film-related, but his knack for vivid scene-setting and poignant drama: a flesh-creeping set piece in which a vaudevillian vampire stripper casts off her flesh along with her clothes is so pungently described one can sense the decadent Parisian sleaze oozing off the stage (appropriately enough, the vamp in question comes from one of Jean Rollin’s erotic vampire fairy tales); a pilot’s desperate struggle to control his reconnaissance artillery spotting aircraft as it plummets towards the mud of France after being blasted by the Red Baron’s air squad is a suspenseful tour-de-force of tersely written page-flipping prose; while an account of Kate’s experiences on the front line in which she ends up being buried alive by a mortar blast is so charged with the visceral immediacy of the dreadful situation described, that one can almost feel the sense of helplessness and the taste of dirt as it clots the heroinne’s throat. A charged set-piece in which Winthrope and a fellow vampire pilot find themselves marooned amid the churned mud and craters, barbed-wire and broken corpses of No Man’s Land, turns into as grim a piece of body horror writing as one can imagine when the duo are captured by a nationless rabble of vampire deserters drawn from all sides in the conflict (and led by poacher Mellors from “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”!), who live together in an underground cavern between the trenches and feed off those who inadvisedly stray into their domain – storing captives in a human larder, where they’re left hanging from meat hooks to be slowly milked for their blood and feasted upon later while their extremities are eaten-away bit by bit.

The work succeeds, then, for many of the same reasons that most narrative novels do: through strong characters that acquire a life of their own, and well-told, compelling and imaginatively rendered drama - to which Newman’s constant cross-referencing of others’ fictional worlds adds merely a distinctive extra flavouring. In the case of the Anno Dracula series, he proves he also has a way with combining his wry humour, some mordant historical comment and the most sweeping, fantastical invention, in a manner that coalesces into an evocative, wild, densely layered horror adventure, built around subject matter that incidentally spotlights how history, fiction and legend can come together to make propaganda and spurious national myth. With this second instalment in the series, Newman’s much deserved status as the doyen of all things culty and clever is reconfirmed, and Titan do the book proud with a handsome new edition that re-inserts a chapter missing from the first published edition, in which Sherlock Holmes makes his one and only direct appearance in the series - as opposed to merely being mentioned - at his brother Mycroft’s funeral. This edition also comes with Newman’s own annotations – not exhaustive by any means, but helpful in pinpointing some of the more obscure reference points, as well as allowing the author room occasionally to explain his reasons for certain authorial decisions. An author’s note and acknowledgments provides a reading list of factual and fiction works consulted for research purposes, and an intriguing unexpected bonus is a film treatment Newman drew up for Roger Corman after the legendary producer inquired about the film rights to The Bloody Red Baron with a view to using up left over flying scenes from his 1971 movie “Von Richthofen and Brown” (aka “The Red Baron”). After realising that the novel wouldn’t be much use to Corman in that capacity (for reasons that can’t be explained here for fear of ruining the plot), Newman instead came up with an outline for a fantasy drama in which World War One Fokkers face-off against flying monsters of Valkyrie pedigree, to be entitled “Red Skies”. It didn’t get made of course - SkyFy turned it down in favour of “Sharktopus” – but you get to see what Newman came up with and the various changes that were made to the original scenario as the project progressed.

Best of all though is a brand new, previously unpublished novella, “Vampire Romance”, which is about 160 pages long and set five years later, in 1923. It sees Geneviève Dieudonné drawn back into working for Diogenes and partnered with Edwin Winthrope for an investigation into a meeting of vampire elders, scheduled to take place in the secluded environs of Mildrew Manor in a rainy season Lake District setting. The meeting has been convened by the eccentric Lady Worplesdon with a view to deciding upon the successor to Dracula’s title of “King of the Cats” - and all is taking place against a backdrop in which a mysterious master villain called the Crook is operating across the country, leaving mysterious stick figurine graffiti in the wake of his crimes … This becomes one of Newman’s wittiest works in the series, drawing on Edgar Wallace-style mysteries and Agatha Christie’s country house whodunits (each time the lights go out another of the potential vampire candidates is eliminated) as well as jolly hockey sticks, girls’ boarding school adventure tales. Characters from P.G. Wodehouse intermingle with the likes of Baron Meinster from “The Brides of Dracula” and the Karnsteins turn up with a previously unmentioned son called Liam in tow.  Geneviève and Winthrope even make a stop-off on the way up to the manor at a little village called Royston Vasey …!

Ingenious, outrageous and as-ever thoroughly imaginative, this makes a great little small-scale supplement to the main novel’s more panoramic view. This edition is well worth the cover price and comes highly recommended.

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