New in Paperback: Bloody Red Baron
Titan Books, 2012
This series of gorgeous reprints from Titan Books continues with a new paperback edition of Kim Newman’s 1995 novel Bloody Red Baron, sequel to the author’s fantastic Anno Dracula, in which the nefarious Count (and his undead Carpathian cronies) enslaves Queen Victoria and becomes her immortal Consort, uncrowned king of an England suddenly overrun with vampires who are forced into an uneasy co-existence with ‘warm’ humans. Fighting Dracula’s state-run tyranny is a motley assortment of characters, including vampire ‘elder’ Genevieve Dieudonne, spunky reporter Kate Reed, and various members of Mycroft Holmes’ Diogenes Club, and a kind of victory is achieved in the book’s nail-biting climax.
In Bloody Red Baron, the year is 1918, and the world is at war. Dracula, aided by Ludendorf and Hindenburg, in league with Kaiser Wilhelm and King-Emperor Franz Joseph, is leading his Central Powers against the Allied Powers, intent on taking over the all Europe and spreading his own dark brand of enlightenment. “The Graf von Dracula embodies the glories of the past but is not blinded by them,” rhapsodizes an undead Edgar Allen Poe at one point. “Under his standard, the world will change. To be a vampire is the essence of modernity.”
In order to effect that change, Dracula and his forces must first win the war, and Bloody Red Baron is an impressively-controlled intense maelstrom of action sequences, many of the most vivid featuring the title character, Manfred von Richthofen, the Bloody Red Baron himself, Germany’s foremost flying ace (in a disturbing-yet-funny nod to the character’s immortalization in the famous “Peanuts” cartoon, when the Baron comes across a beagle, he pulls his revolver and shoots the dog). Naturally, in Newman’s warped world, Richthofen comes by his deadly flying skills in a slightly different way than climbing into his red Fokker triplane; in Bloody Red Baron, he takes the air as a monstrous man-bat capable of out-flying and destroying any English air aces sent against him – only to return to his base and resume his normal form:
Richthofen’s face was completely human now. He had shrunk to eight feet or so, half the size he had been. Muscles flowed into new configurations as the skeletal structure adjusted. Haarmann and Kurten produced large, soft-bristled brushes and swept away the hair shed as the Baron changed. In an instant redistribution of bone and tissue, the flier sucked his rudimentary arms back into his midriff. The shape-shifting was fluid and painless, apparently without effort.
It was wonderful magic. Wings stretched out and became arms, leather folding up like a Chines fan, smoothing into fair skin. Richthofen’s iron face betrayed no discomfort, though other fliers yelped and groaned as joints popped and bones reset.
The aerial combat-scenes are stunning throughout the book, but action on the ground steadily heats up too. As in the preceding volume (from which this one can be read in complete independence), Newman takes great delight in hauling on-stage dozens of historical and literary characters ranging from the well-known to the obscure – indeed, allusion-catching is one of the geekier pleasures to be had from these books. But in the end, things come down to a tornado of battlefield violence, with our plucky young vampire Kate Reed right in the thick of things, watching in amazement as an anonymous elder vampire strikes down one tank crew and moves to strike another:
The elder drifted towards the second tank. He must be ancient to have such control of his form. Older than Dracula or Genevieve. Pre-mediaeval. Perhaps pre-Christian. An awesome thing to have hidden among mankind for so long.
He’d have numberless names.
The flame-thrower hitched upwards and belched another burst, catching the elder full in the chest. He burned like a butterfly. Centuries of unchronicled life were extinguished in an uncaring instant, blasting to sparking shreds by brute modernity.
Such a moment – an entire world, conjured in a few words and then sacrificed for the sake of plot-momentum – is typical of the stupendous clever generosity of Newman the writer; the sheer lavish creativity of the ‘Anno Dracula’ books sets them apart from almost any complex fantasy work you’ll find on bookstore front tables this summer. The actual conclusion of Bloody Red Baron – featuring a crashing zeppelin, a ferocious dogfight in the sky, and a very confused Bela Lugosi – could only have been written by Kim Newman.
All these Titan reprint volumes feature extra material not originally published with the books, and in the Bloody Red Baron volume, incredibly, the extra material is an entire new novel in the ‘Anno Dracula’ universe: Vampire Romance, set in 1923 England. Our noble elder vampire Genevieve is recruited by the Diogenes Club to go to Mildew Manor out in the soggy countryside, because the Club has received word that a crazy, rich old lady named Agatha Gregson is holding a gathering of elders intent on nominating a new “King of the Vampires” to take fallen Dracula’s place. Both the Club and Genevieve herself think it’s a dumb, dangerous idea, but at least one inhabitant of Mildew Manor is overjoyed at the prospect of real-life vampires visiting: breathless teenager Lydia Inchfawn, who collects all the latest undead gossip and reads all the latest books on them, from the ‘proper’ ones written by such starchy figures as Rosie M. Banks and Harriet Vane to the more sensationalistic ones written by Salome Otterbourne, the Nitelite Saga, which “had so much swooning Lydia wondered if the authoress was prone to fits. Her hero glittered like a Christmas tree and her heroine was unconscious for at least seven chapters in each book, even though she was supposed to be telling the story.”
If you read that last paragraph with steadily-mounting delight at the names being invoked, you’re exactly Newman’s audience for this arch comic romp of a novel (an incredibly different register from the first half of the book, although done with completely equal skill). The vampires assemble at the drafty country house, the rains wash out the road, Aunt Agatha (and her henchman, Roderick Spode) begins proceedings, and one by one someone starts killing the elders (usually during the moments when the lights mysteriously go out). So not only are hysterical Twilight fans given a goosing they’d never live down (if they could be induced somehow to read this book), but the creaky old convention of the English country house mystery (not to mention the sublime movie “Murder by Death”) is given an uproarious vampire-take.
The climax is yet another Newman masterpiece of timing and tension, and the villain’s identity – dramatically revealed in the best Christie-fashion – will surprise and delight many a reader who didn’t see it coming but should have (let’s just say fans of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time won’t be amused).
The one-two combination of gritty save-the-world violence and Wodehouse-style fun and games is irresistible, and Titan Books is to be thanked for presenting the whole lovely mass of it to crowds of new readers – and some very grateful old ones.