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Book Review: Johnny Alucard

By (December 18, 2013) No Comment

Johnny Alucardjohnny alucard cover

by Kim Newman

Titan Books, 2013

 

Readers who were astounded by Kim Newman’s book Anno Dracula back in 1992 (or the short story by the same name that preceded it) must surely all have ended it certain that there would be no sequels. That book’s premise was devastatingly, elegantly simple: that Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula was vampire fiction in the most literal sense, that Stoker wrote it as an alternate reality to the one that had overtaken England, in which Jonathan Harker, Professor Van Helsing, and their friends didn’t succeed in killing Count Dracula, that instead the Count was the one who succeeded, not only in filling England with his undead ‘get’ but also in making no less a personage than Queen Victoria one of his thrall-women. Dracula here becomes one warm-blooded man’s yearning fantasy on what might have happened if evil had been vanquished; Anno Dracula is the story of vampires spreading far and wide into the living world, ‘turning’ many humans, terrorizing many others, and almost all looking toward the great Count as their leader and idol – and in the perfectly-orchestrated climax to that book, the Count gets his comeuppance.

But that wasn’t the end! In 1995’s Blood Red Baron Dracula is apparently alive and well and orchestrating the side of the bad guys in the First World War. That book too ends with a seeming coup de grace, although of a much more tongue-in-cheek king (involving, inevitably but hilariously, Bela Lugosi). 1998’s Dracula Cha Cha Cha leaps forward in time to the la dolce vita of 1950s Rome features a powerful shadowy figure preying on elder vampires. That book too has one hell of a climax scene, and one that – not to ruin it for newcomers – seems definitely, most definitely, most certainly definitely to shut the door on any future sequels featuring Dracula.

And yet, here we are. Newman’s latest novel from Titan Books, Johnny Alucard, is something of a dream come true for long-time fans of the Anno Dracula series; those fans have had to wait fifteen years to re-enter this deliciously-imagined world. And yet they, more even than those newcomers, will be asking as they start the book, “What’s an Anno Dracula book without Dracula?”

Without Dracula – pfah! Such readers reckon without both Newman’s boundless creativity and the vital elasticity of the character himself, the original Comeback Kid. But Newman delays the payoff and fills his slangy, high-voltage book with not only his great cast of supporting characters (including the real hero of these books, the common-sense vampire elder Genevieve Dieudonne, of a separate and slightly older bloodline than Dracula, whom she considers hopelessly vulgar) but also with thrilling, maddening little asides about the book’s new setting, a generation after the last book:

The world paid little attention to Romania, distracted by the Gulf. Iraq had invaded and occupied oil-rich Kuwait and the tiny principality of Lugash. Saddam Hussein claimed to be acting under direct orders from Allah to depose the decadent vampire sheikhs who’d been bleeding the region dry for centuries. Whether Allah also told him to steal everything of value in both countries for himself was a question Saddam would not be drawn on. President Bush was rallying NATO and the UN in favour of counter-attack. There was talk of US Bat-Soldiers being deployed for ‘surgical strikes’ against Baghdad. The whole sordid mess suited Alucard.

The Alucard in question is a mysterious new vampire on the scene, and you don’t need to fiddle around with the letters of his surname to divine a connection between him and the dead-dead-dead Count, whose amorphous presence looms over this new book like a fad just waiting to take off:

Dracula had won again. In the long run, his will was too strong. If they stood against him, they’d always be on the outside, wounded and weak. The whole world wanted Dracula. He was an absolutist tyrant, but if he ran for election he’d get in on a landslide. Transylvanians rejoiced under his rule. Pledges poured into his coffers. He as Time Man of the Year.

Johnny Alucard is the most name-droppingly current of the Anno Dracula series, with walk-ons from countless figures of 20th Century history and literature (from Martin Scorsese to Ronald Reagan to, of all people, Detective Columbo) and homages or jabs at virtually every modern incarnation of the vampire mythos (including a merciless satire of a certain pony-tailed Vampire Slayer that will have her legions of fans howling in outrage). It abounds with Newman’s signature wise asides, as when one character reflects:

America always had a soundtrack. Pop music was everywhere, like weather. The pathetic fallacy was false no longer. The whole world really reflected your emotions, sticking a pin through your heart and freezing you in place.

And it’s filled with the knife-edged economy Newman so often uses to beautiful effect when killing off characters he’s worked for whole manuscripts to bring so thoroughly to life. There’s an incredible such moment in Bloody Red Baron that’s summoned and cast away in the space of four sentences, and in Johnny Alucard that’s whittled down to two: “The Baron’s mind bled out through the rips under his chin, gushing and dissipating. He wondered where the century had gone.”

It’s a neat little send-off, and plenty of characters in this series get dispatched in just such an adroit way. In fact, one character keeps getting them, and I suspect as long as the Anno Dracula books continue, he’ll keep getting them. Long un-live the Man of the Year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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