From time to time I've mentioned that I'm interested in gothic fiction, horror film, and the like. I haven't done much with this interest for several years, but now that I'm working on new projects and trying to blog more often than in the past couple of years, I thought that it might be fun to write a bit about what I'm watching and reading along these lines. Someday I hope to write some sort of book on this sort of thing, and I might as well start to work out some of my thoughts in some tentative fashion on my blog. How's that for a well-defined plan of action?
Anyway, I recently read Kim Newman's Anno Dracula. The book originally appeared in 1992, but Titan Books re-issued it earlier this year. It's the first of a series of three books, all to be re-printed by Titan Books; and it looks as if a fourth volume will be coming out in the near future.
The first thing you should notice when you pick up a copy of Anno Dracula is that the book is set in London in late 1888. If you know anything about the history of London, especially as it is mined for historical fiction, then you know that 1888 is the year of the Ripper murders. So you know in advance that the story has something to do with Jack the Ripper. But here's the twist. Unlike, say, Edward B. Hanna's The Whitechapel Horrors, which simply puts Sherlock Holmes on the trail of the Ripper in what is otherwise the historical London of 1888, Newman's Anno Dracula alters the plot of Bram Stoker's Dracula and then re-fashions the historical timeline of Great Britain from 1885 to 1888.
What I'm about to tell you doesn't give away any important plot details. Consequently, you won't have to worry about any spoilers. So here we go.
In Mr. Newman's re-writing of Dracula the Count defeats his enemies, openly rises in British society, and marries Queen Victoria to become Prince Consort. At the beginning of Anno Dracula his influence is extending throughout Great Britain, and to a lesser extent throughout the British Empire. Now that a vampire is part of the royal family, vampirism has become fashionable. Vampires, old and new, no longer need to hide what they are. After all, if being a vampire is good enough for the Queen, then it should be good enough for everyone else. But, of course, there is resistance to Dracula's spreading power.
Mr. Newman doesn't spell it this back story in any detail, although his characters often allude to it. For the most part, Dracula remains off stage, and thus is a menacing, insidious force, slowly worming his way into the world of the living. Consequently, his occasional appearances make a more powerful impression on readers.
Generally speaking, Mr. Newman handles these appearances quite well, especially the extended encounter at the end of the novel. Unfortunately, however, one appearance that is crucial to his alternate history fails to answer what I imagine to be the attentive reader's most pressing question. If you've read Dracula, then you want to know what went wrong. (It isn't actually necessary for you to have read Bram Stoker's novel, but I can only assume that having done so makes Anno Dracula more enjoyable.) That is, why did Van Helsing and his allies fail to destroy Dracula? Mr. Newman's answer to this question comes in what I found to be the least convincing episode of his novel.
John Seward, one of Dracula's pursuers in the Stoker novel, is a major character in Anno Dracula. In chapter 16 of Anno Dracula Seward's journal recounts the episode from chapter 21 of the Stoker novel in which Seward, Van Helsing, and the others confront Dracula as he is feeding on Mina Harker in the Harkers' bedroom. In the Stoker novel they force the Count to flee, but in Newman's novel Dracula effortlessly defeats his enemies. During this re-imagined encounter he speaks some of the dialogue from chapter 23 of the Stoker novel "You think to baffle me …" and then kills Quincey Morris and Jonathan Harker. Seward, Van Helsing, and Lord Godalming retreat in despair. Dracula is triumphant, thereby setting the stage for his rise in British society and the subsequent events of Anno Dracula.
This is just too easy, especially after we have been held in suspense for the first third of Anno Dracula. So it seems to me that Mr. Newman's imagination failed him at this point. But since the very possibility of the plot of Anno Dracula rests on the failure to destroy Dracula, we just have to accept what Mr. Newman writes in chapter 16 and move on. This isn't an insurmountable obstacle to appreciating Anno Dracula, but at least in my case it somewhat lessened my enjoyment of what is otherwise a fine novel.
As for the actual plot of Anno Dracula, well, vampire prostitutes are being murdered in Whitechapel. You saw that coming, right? But for the reader the identity of the Ripper isn't a mystery. That's revealed early on, but I won't give it away. The novel centers on the investigative efforts of Geneviève Dieudonné, an elder vampire of a bloodline other than Dracula's, and Charles Beauregard, a member of the Diogenes Club, an unofficial government organization whose membership includes Mycroft Holmes. Dieudonné and Beauregard form the inevitable liaison as they work together. Their pursuit of the Ripper leads them to a climatic encounter with Dracula.
One noticeable feature of Anno Dracula is its intertextuality. That is, Mr. Newman alludes to other stories and novels, and even films, taking whatever he feels like tossing into his mixture. This can get a bit tiresome at times. So, for example, the armadillo from Todd Browning's Dracula takes a bow in chapter 57. The Titan edition of Anno Dracula includes a chapter of annotations that explain some of the borrowings, but others are left unexplained. You can simply read straight through and not bother with the annotations. Appreciating Mr. Newman's complex tale doesn't really depend upon on understanding this sometimes fiddly business.
Overall, though, I greatly enjoyed Anno Dracula. It's clever and well written. I'm not much of a fan of gooey horror fiction and films, and so I was glad to discover that there isn't an enormous amount of bloodshed in the book. But, of course, there are a few scenes to rattle the squeamish.
I'm looking forward to reading the other volumes in the series.