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Johnny Alucard

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Kim Newman
Publication Date: 
Titan Books
Bottom Line: 

“Johnny Alucard” is the fourth, much-anticipated book-length instalment in author and genre critic Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series, published in hardback by Titan Books this month. It opens by quoting a passage taken directly from Bram Stoker’s famous 1897 novel, still the ultimate fount from which all else in Newman’s dense, cross reference-heavy alternate world of labyrinthine associations, woven from reassigned fragments of real world history, literature and a century or more of narrative cinema, naturally flows. It comes from an incident late in the novel, related in one of John Seward’s diary entries, in which the male company of Victorian crusaders who have been aligned against the dark Lord Dracula by Dr Van Helsing, encounter their nemesis face-to-face for the very first time as a group, while attempting to destroy his many resting places inside the many properties he’s acquired all over London and its suburban environs. It’s one of the handful of episodes from the novel in which Stoker was able to conjure an incident of intense drama and dread, and it makes for a striking opening to Newman’s latest 400 page-plus opus, reminding us of the compelling cunning and vengeful malignancy embodied in the charisma of a character who continues to fascinate us through a variety of media, 120 years after he made his first appearance on the printed page.

But this quotation also serves as much more than just a simple reminder of the enduring legacy of this classic supernatural antagonist who, across the thousands of pages already written by Newman for the Anno Dracula series, is more often felt merely as a background presence (even in Stoker’s novel the Count is most of the time kept off stage) in an elaborate reshuffling of other artists’ fictional universes, rather than an active participant in the action. Dracula, in fact, appears in only a handful of scenes spread across the main trilogy of novels which, up until now, have provided the main pillars of alternate Dracula mythology on which the central premise of the entire series -- which also incorporates several novellas and short stories -- is founded: that premise is, of course, that the Count was never vanquished by Van Helsing and his accomplices, as was the outcome of Stoker’s novel, but instead the vampire hunter and his band of followers were themselves defeated and Dracula went on to marry into the British Royal Family, spawning an alternate history time-line in which vampires of various bloodlines come to live in the open alongside other fictional characters from film and literature, who also mingle with real-world historical personages or, in some instances, replace them in history all together.

For those yet to acquaint themselves fully with this uniquely detailed world of vampirized cannon, one can glean some small understanding of the degree of warping and reshuffling that goes on throughout it by consideration of the fact that Bram Stoker’s novel still gets to be written by its original author even in the Anno Dracula universe; now, though, it becomes a work of alternate-world fiction in its own right, occupying a position somewhat similar to that of the Anno Dracula series in our own reality, except that the novel now belongs to the counterfactual historical genre (like all those novels that seek to imagine an alternative, fascist-run Britain in a variant of history where the allies lost the Second World War), relating a wish-fulfilment vision of the world in which vampires never came openly to occupy every niche of society and in which Dracula was never afforded the opportunity to influence 20th century world politics by spreading his polluting bloodline through the royal houses of Europe  -- although presumably it would still have been a world much different from our own, seeing as how there would have still been so many (to us) fictional characters left knocking about in it.

“Dracula Cha Cha Cha”, the last full-length novel in the original trilogy, appeared to put an end to any possibility of Dracula’s on-going participation in any future entries in the saga; but the passage from Stoker’s novel which opens “Johnny Alucard” provides a framework of allusion for this latest volume that sets up an understanding of the insidiously long game the vampire lord is by nature inclined to play against his enemies: when you’re an un-dead immortal, time is one thing you have plenty of -- and vengeance on those who have crossed you can be delayed and spread liberally across centuries of malign influence and corruption. But that quote from Stoker’s original novel also contains a weird detail of vampire lore that never usually gets mentioned or represented in the countless screen incarnations of Dracula the 20th century has given rise to: when Dracula is attacked and slashed with a knife by Harker, he bleeds money! This image becomes the symbolic key to unlocking Newman’s conception for this novel of the nature of Dracula’s vengeful influence on the modern world (which is capable of being played out across decades, even when the dark lord himself appears to have suffered the true death) in what hints at possibly marking the beginning of a rebirth for the series as a whole. Certainly, the book ends with the suggestion that Newman intends at some point to bring the series’ method of rewiring the cultural context of each era’s most popular types of fiction to bear on our own times at some point.

 For this lengthy instalment, though, the beginnings of the re-birth of Dracula’s dominance in the late 20th century is the theme -- but unlike previous novels there is no fixed date in history to provide an anchor and set the tone; instead the novel is divided into instalments covering a fifteen year period -- from 1976 to 1991 -- which chart a shifting cultural landscape that, we are led to believe, is all part of an extremely complex and subtle plan to take full control of not just Europe but of a world now dominated by American ‘soft power’. The first stages of this plan are set in motion in 1944, a good fifteen years before the events of “Dracula Cha Cha Cha” where Vlad Tepes appeared to be at a particularly low ebb, entrenched in his Italian castle and still conspiring to marry into a minor branch of East European vampire royalty amid the superficial post-war glamour of Rome in the year of La Dolce Vita. When we re-join this world in 1976, Dracula may be dead, but his name lives on in the movies, as we learn when we join the chaotic set of Francis Ford Coppola’s latest epic. This is not the adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” we’ve come to know from our own history but “Coppola’s Dracula” -- and not the Keanu Reeves and Gary Oldman 1992 film relocated to the mid ‘70s, either, but an amusing conflation of “Apocalypse Now” and Stoker’s book, with Martin Sheen playing Jonathan Harker (after having replaced Harvey Keitel who was fired for his on-set drunkenness) and Marlon Brando as Dracula! This first section of the book brilliantly transposes the mythology surrounding the making of “Apocalypse Now” to “Dracula” with all the traumas and logistical nightmares (including Sheen’s heart attack on set) that have become legendary from subsequent accounts, and with a politically unstable Transylvania replacing the Philippines as the location. Excerpts from a screenplay that the visionary Coppola (firing underlings left right and centre as the madness of the shoot escalates) is constantly in the process of re-writing during actual filming are inter-cut with behind the scenes escapades from the production – a running joke that’s dependent on the basic framework of the plot of Stoker’s novel being surprisingly easy to graft onto the structure of “Apocalypse Now” while retaining that movie’s general style.

This is brilliantly done but it’s merely the backdrop for one of Newman’s trio of recurring female protagonists, the Irish vampire journalist Kate Reed -- who’s been following the shoot while documenting the making of Coppola’s “Dracula” for a magazine -- to unwittingly become embroiled in facilitating Dracula’s coming re-birth in the United States when a young Romanian renegade called Ion Popescue from a terrorist cell of the local Transylvania Movement (a group that wants to establish a vampire homeland in Dracula’s place of origin), latches onto the crew and becomes a sort of lucky mascot who ends up travelling back to 1970s New York on Kate’s passport. After it dawns on her, while she languishes in a Romanian prison cell, that this apparent innocent actually carries Dracula’s blood and life-force within his veins, she starts to ponder what the Son of Dracula might make of himself while living in a land full of opportunities for endless re-invention, and manages to come up with a range of scenarios that turn out to be a fairly accurate guide to the trajectory of much of the rest of the novel: ‘what might he become: a studio head, a cocaine baron, a rock promoter, a media baron, a star?’ …

In fact, he is destined to be all of these things and much more: first Popescue re-brands himself Johnny Pop and becomes attached to Andy Warhol’s retinue, hanging out at Studio 54 during the heyday of New York’s disco boom in a city whose character is informed by gritty 1970s New Wave cinema and punk rock, as well as glitter balls and the rise of cocaine -- with walk-on parts for Tony Manero, Johnny Rotten and Travis Bickle. Instead of moving into the cocaine market, Johnny comes up with a new drug of his own invention called ‘Drac’ that helps him found his business empire (it’s manufactured by pissing vampire blood into trays and leaving it to granulate after being exposed to sunlight!) in supplying a seductive vampire hit to warm bloods who rapidly become addicted to this substance that gives human’s temporary vampire-like powers, but also turns them into dependent ‘dhampirs’. Then it’s time for another change of identity and a move into the film production industry in LA when, as Johnny Alucard, he sets out to prepare the world for Dracula’s re-emergence on the world stage by financing the production of countless cinematic retellings of Stoker’s novel -- on the one hand commissioning Orson Welles to prepare his last great big budget masterpiece, while on the other also financing a cruddy low budget pornographic version of the Dracula tale. Politics and social upheaval all play a role in the elaboration of this strange universe where embassy sieges, the invasion of Kuwait and the fall of Ceausescu all still take place but become warped through a prism in which Oliver North mixes with Marvel superheroes and a Live Aid-like simulcast rock event called A Concert for Transylvania becomes the venue for the staging of a televised political coup.

The intricacy and detail Newman manages to weave into his portrait of Alucard’s rise to power and his concomitant transformation (with the gaining of more and more wealth and influence) into the Dark Lord of vampires reborn, is head-spinningly complex: a million puzzle pieces of history and pop culture detail all slot into a sprawling narrative that takes in sustained references to everything from “Columbo”, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (an evil alternate version, though, with Nigel Havers’ character from “The Charmer” shoehorned into the Anthony Head role! Taking similar character types from several completely different but familiar show formats and slyly swapping them about is a favourite Newman device) and the “The Wire”, among countless other fleeting mentions of films, characters and real life persons few will stand a chance of being able to parse in their entirety (at least not without access to the internet and a hell of a lot of time on their hands). Furthermore, it’s all achieved whilst maintaining the increasingly complex time-line of alternate history established by the previous novels and novellas.

Across the breadth of this rather long and sometimes thematically diffuse saga embroiling Hollywood, the finance industry, the military-industrial complex and a drugs black market that becomes the oil lubricating the gears of the gradual creation of a globalised empire run by a powerful media baron who is, essentially, Rupert Murdoch recast as Dracula (the two share rather similar world domineering aims after all),  a theme emerges about how the traditional means Dracula once used for acquiring and exerting his power –marrying into royalty and overtly controlling the state – have been replaced in the modern age by a vastly more insidious and difficult to combat network of strategies allied to the wielding of globalised financial and political power, with the film industry as its fulcrum and the control of hearts and minds through the manipulations of the Hollywood dream factory replacing more traditional vampire powers of mesmerism . This is an age, it seems, which is perfect for the Lord of the Un-dead: in this new world, everyone will want to be Dracula’s get!

Re-reading that passage from Stoker’s novel again with this idea in mind, then -- so pertinently placed at the beginning of Newman’s new volume -- puts a whole new spin on its report of the Count’s mocking reply to his godly persecutors’ attempts to end his reign of terror. Nevertheless, as already hinted, “Johnny Alucard” is in some ways quite different in structure to Newman’s previous entries in the series, even if the references and appropriations feel as though they’re now even more densely crossword puzzle-layered than ever before. The previous novels (and novellas) all started out with their focus firmly set on a particular era, and played with perceptions of the fiction of each period covered in a sort of pastiche form, despite never being averse to bringing in anachronistic characters to feed off other possible associations. Here, Newman covers much more specific ground, but each period tackled feels isolated and discrete narrative wise (which is not surprising since many chapters were originally published elsewhere as self-contained short stories), creating a much more fragmented feel about the novel as a whole. In addition, the author’s well-established trio of female protagonists -- the aforementioned Katherine Reed; Penelope Churchward (who starts off here as assistant to a post-Valarie-Solanas-shooting Andy Warhol); and his 14th century vampire heroine Geneviève Dieudonné -- hardly ever meet, and seem curiously ineffectual and cut adrift from the big picture. But although the novel gets a little bogged down in unnecessary digressions and minutia around the middle section (a satirical chapter about Marvel Comics heroes being ‘assembled’ to unseat Ceausescu’s regime in Romania dissipates the momentum somewhat) it comes together by the final chapters for a thrillingly tense climax that does appear to leave the way open for more novels in the Anno Dracula universe -- perhaps set a little closer to an alternate version of our present day post-financial crash reality?

Fans will be pleased to discover that Newman has lost none of his arch wit within these pages, though; and his vast treasure of encyclopedic knowledge about the film industry, gleaned from several decades of astute film criticism is, of course, particularly useful here, and is abundantly evident in every one of the novel’s gloriously detailed pages.

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

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