New in Paperback: Anno Dracula
by Kim Newman
Titan Books, 2011
Every so often, the reprint gods are kind – and this is one of those times. Not only has Titan Books re-issued Kim Newman’s spectacularly good 1992 novel Anno Dracula, they’ve improved on the original. There’s a redesigned, tongue-in-cheek cover; there are wider margins and heavier paper stock, so the volume is more pleasingly plump in the hand; and at the story’s end, when readers of the original were only wanting more, more, more and destined not to get it, 2011 readers do indeed get more: an interview with the author, a fragment of the screenplay for the book, an alternate ending, and an extremely droll short story. This snazzy new re-issue is the definitive Anno Dracula experience.
The setting of that experience is London, 1888 – a famous year for criminologists, since it held the brief rampage of the mysterious serial killer known as Jack the Ripper. In Newman’s re-imagining, something far worse is stalking the city: a rising tide of vampires that threatens to engulf the whole world of the living.
If you’re one of the large number of self-respecting readers who took one look at that v-word and started packing up for the Poconos, hold on: Kim Newman’s book pre-dates the glittery nonsense of the Twilight phenomenon, and it shows its respect for the literary legacy of the undead in the clearest possible manner – by hanging its entire existence on the great progenitor of all vampire novels, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In the world of Anno Dracula, Stoker’s novel isn’t a flight of fantasy – it’s a work of alternate history. In the famous book, Count Dracula comes to England intent on turning its populace into a army of vampires loyal only to him, and he’s thwarted by an intrepid band of men (and one remarkable woman) brandishing crucifixes and bowie knives. In Anno Dracula, that story is not only wrong but seditious: what really happened was that Dracula succeeded – he and his undead progeny managed to ‘turn’ a large percentage of London citizens into vampires, those vampires now edgily co-exist with ‘warm’ normal humans, and Dracula himself rules the kingdom as the Consort of Queen Victoria (needless to say, the Count’s secret state police dealt rather harshly with poor Stoker once they read his treasonous flight of fancy).
One thing hasn’t changed completely: a mysterious serial killer, known as “Silver Knife,” is still killing young women in Whitechapel – young newly-turned vampires. The government – headed by vampire Prime Minister Lord Ruthven – enlists the aid of human secret operative John Beauregard of the Diogenes Club and steely vampire elder (she’s a few years older than the Count, from an undead bloodline untainted by his Wallachian brood) Genevieve Dieudonne to track down the killer. And as Beauregard soon learns, even the worst men in the city, the lords of an evil tribunal (whose members include not only Professor Moriarty but also Doctor Fu Manchu), have an interest in seeing a murderous free agent brought to justice, much to Beauregard’s initial confusion:
“There’s never been any suggestion, so far as I know, that any of you are involved in the murders.”
“That is not the point, Mr. Beauregard,” the Professor continued. “Our shadow empire is like a spider-web. It extends throughout the world but it concentrates here, in this city. Thick and complicated and surprisingly delicate. If enough threads are severed, it will fall. And threads are being severed left and right. We have all suffered since Mary Ann Nichols was killed, and the inconvenience will redouble with each fresh atrocity. Every time this murderer strikes at the public, he stabs at us also.”
Of all the many winning aspects of this novel, perhaps the most playful can be seen in that excerpt and a hundred just like it: Newman manages to work into his narrative virtually every major figure from both Victorian history and literature; you can hardly go two pages without bumping into a familiar name (except for perhaps the most famous name of them all – Dracula has had all of his most dangerous opponents, including a certain consulting detective from Baker Street, confined to a concentration camp on the Sussex Downs). John Polidori’s Lord Ruthven is by no means the only fictional vampire to make an appearance here – they all do, from Varney to Carmilla to Count Orlok, with plenty of nods to more recent vampire creations – and more ancient ones, as when Genevieve encounters a weird hopping creature straight out of Chinese mythology:
The thing bounced like a rubber ball, but with an unnatural slowness as if fog were as thick as water. Its silhouette became apparent. It was tall and wore a tasselled cap. Its yellow garment was a long robe, huge sleeves dangling from extended arms. It had been a Chinaman a long time ago. It still wore slippers on its small feet.
Rebecca stared at the vampire thing.
“That,” Genevieve said, “is an elder.”
It kept leaping forwards like Spring-Heel’d Jack. Genevieve made out a face like an Egyptian mummy, with the addition of tusklike fangs and long moustaches. It set down a few yards away and let its arms fall, knife-taloned hands snikcersnacking. The oldest vampire Genevieve had ever seen, the Chinese must have earned its wrinkles through countless centuries.
Newman’s action sequences are tight and superbly controlled (and even their virtuoso execution is outdone in this novel’s sequel, Bloody Red Baron), his underpinning undead mythos is well-conceived and disarmingly simple, and his grasp of how to give a pot-boiler novel a proper rip-roaring climactic scene is unparalleled among contemporary writers. There are embattled heroes, brutal villains, and finally, just when you thought you couldn’t wait another page for him to appear, there’s a Count Dracula who puts all his subsequent effete impersonators to shame (Newman’s premise is entirely correct: only Stoker fully understood the surpassing strangeness of his creation). The reappearance of this novel is nothing less than a cause for celebration.
And at the very end, the best news of all: this book’s two sequels, Bloody Red Baron and Dracula Cha Cha Cha, will be reprinted in matching paperbacks – as will a new novel in the series, titled Johnny Alucard. The 21st century vampire-craze has saved the very best for last.