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DANCES WITH THE UNDEAD: A Conversation with Kim Newman
The British Author discusses the past and future of his alternate universe ANNO DRACULA series.
By Dan Cziraky
July 21, 2000
'What if...?' A ton of good horror stories boil down to this question. 'What if...a vintage car were possessed?' asked Stephen King's CHRISTINE. 'What if...a man of science created a living creature?' asked Mary Shelly's FRANKENSTEIN. 'What if...that nice motel clerk were a serial killer?' asked Robert Bloch's PSYCHO. 'What if...Superman fought Mighty Mouse?' Oops, sorry--although, King did ask that one in his novella, 'The Body.'
'What if...Count Dracula defeated Van Helsing and company, then went on to take over the British Empire by marrying Queen Victoria?' That was the premise Kim Newman, already a successful author and critic, explored in his 1992 novel, ANNO-DRACULA.
Born in London in 1959, Newman was raised in Somerset and graduated from the University of Sussex. Dividing his time between writing fiction and journalism, he works as a film critic for various newspapers, TV shows, and radio. A major film buff with a special fondness for American cinema of the '40s and '70s, he also enjoys such shows as SGT. BILKO, THE OUTER LIMITS, THE ROCKFORD FILES, and, more recently, HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET. Literary influences include H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, Philip K. Dick, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker.
His novels include THE NIGHT MAYOR, BAD DREAMS, JAGO, THE QUORUM, BACK IN THE USSA (with Eugene Byrne), and LIFE'S LOTTERY. Under the pseudonym Jack Yeovil, he has written DRACHENFELS, DEMON DOWNLOAD, KROKODIL TEARS, COMEBACK TOUR, BEASTS IN VELVET, GENEVIEVE UNDEAD, ROUTE 666, and ORGY OF THE BLOOD PARASITES. His short stories are collected in THE ORIGINAL DR. SHADE AND OTHER SHORT STORIES, FAMOUS MONSTERS, and UNFORGIVABLE STORIES. His non-fiction books are GHASTLY BEYOND BELIEF: THE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY BOOK OF QUOTATIONS (with Neil Gaiman), HORROR: 100 BEST BOOKS (with Stephen Jones), NIGHTMARE MOVIES: A CRITICAL HISTORY OF THE HORROR FILM SINCE 1968, WILD WEST MOVIES, and THE BFI COMPANION TO HORROR AND MILLENNIUM MOVIES. He also edited (with Paul J. McAuley) an anthology of short stories, IN DREAMS.
He has scripted TV and radio documentaries and written for the theatre. His story 'Week Woman' was made as an episode of THE HUNGER in 1999. He has won the Bram Stoker Award, the British Science Fiction Award for Best Short Fiction, the Children of the Night Award, the Fiction Award of the Lord Ruthven Assembly and the International Horror Critics' Guild Award for Best Novel (twice).
'I started writing in my early teens, first plays based on horror movies I'd seen, then short, slightly less derivative fiction,' Newman says from his London home. 'I wrote a couple of novels while I was at school and university, but nothing worth reclaiming from the bin. I read fairly widely in quite a few fields and have the usual English degree background in the classics. I've written a few pieces that clearly show a debt to specific authors: Stoker, Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, Philip Dick, Stevenson, etc. I also draw a lot on my wide acquaintance with the movies, sometimes for inspiration and sometimes because fiction arises out of an interest in film history.'
Newman's interests in classic literature and film history combined for the plot of ANNO-DRACULA. In 1885 London, Count Dracula destroys his enemies Jonathan Harker and Professor Van Helsing. He then rises through the ranks of the aristocracy, marries Queen Victoria, and establishes England as a haven for the world's undead. Ruling with an iron fist over the undead and mortals alike, Dracula inserts loyal vampires (whose names will be familiar to fans) into key positions in the government: Lord Ruthven is Prime Minister, Sir Francis Varney is Viceroy of India, General Iorga leads the elite Carpathian Guard. As most vampires are part of the upper class and advance in social and political positions rapidly, most mortals are eager to be turned, although some are appalled and opposed to the ascendancy of the undead.
In 1888, female vampire prostitutes are being butchered with a silver-bladed knife, which raises the ire of the undead ruling class. Young mortal Charles Beauregard is summoned by Mycroft Holmes to the Diogenes Club and ordered to investigate the killings, which have the vampiric Inspector Lestrade stumped. Beauregard is soon joined by the beautiful Geneviève Dieudonné, a vampire fifty years older than Dracula but turned when she was just sixteen. As the mystery unravels, characters from history and entertainment pop in and out, often in the strangest of circumstances. Eventually, Charles and Geneviève confront Dracula himself in his Buckingham Palace lair.
Kirkus Reviews called the novel a 'benchmark for vampire fiction' and 'a bloody delight.' Nina Auerbach wrote in the New York Times, 'Stephen King assumes we hate vampires; Anne Rice makes it safe to love them, because they hate themselves. Kim Newman suspects that...most of us live with them.... ANNO-DRACULA is the definitive account of that post-modern species, the self-obsessed undead.'
'It took a while to come together, but I suppose it grew out of a disappointment with the second half of Stoker,' Newman confesses. 'Dracula is set up as this colossal villain, then comes to England and spends all his time chasing a few rather ordinary women.'
Not only does Newman change the direction of Stoker's original story; he also adds a delightfully wry touch by populating the book with characters from Victoria-era history and literature, as well as liberal doses of characters from other vampire books and films. Mycroft Holmes is Beauregard's superior, although brother Sherlock and Dr. Watson (along with Bram Stoker) are in a detention camp for thosde expressing anti-vampire sentiments. Oscar Wilde delights in his new vampiric status, while George Bernard Shaw distrusts the new ruling class of the undead.
Then there is the problem of Silver Knife, slaughtering vampire girls who trade sex for blood. The vampires demand justice, while mortals fear unholy reprisals from Dracula's regime. When he sends a letter to the newspapers and signs it Jack the Ripper, things start to look even worse. Vampire experts Drs. Jekyll and Moreau are consulted, and there are even confrontations with the criminal masterminds Professor Moriarty and Dr. Fu Manchu. Newman even tosses in a character from Stoker's early drafts of DRACULA that was eventually cut, a young woman named Kate Reed, making her a vampire news reporter.
'There have been a few earlier instances of writers providing alternative readings of famous novels-- Ray Bradbury wrote a different ending for [Ira Levin's] ROSEMARY'S BABY, for instance--but I seem to have invented the form proper, not that anyone much has imitated me,' the author comments. 'I can't claim the idea to be blindingly original, since it owes a little to Brian Aldiss's FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND and even the Silver Age DC comic 'Imaginary Stories' [where Lois and Clark got married or Krypton never blew up or whatever]. I suppose all books take place in some alternate universe or other: something like THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE happens in a world which is similar to ours but where all the politicians are different. I just stepped into Stoker's world, and saw a different way out of his story.'
Other authors have played fast and loose with the details of Stoker's DRACULA. There have been short stories, such as Manly Wade Wellman's 'The Devil Is Not Mocked,' in which Nazis occupying Transylvania encounter an unusual host in their new castle headquarters in the Carpathians. Fred Saberhagen's THE DRACULA TAPES has the Count explaining 'his side' of the story. C. Dean Andersson's I AM DRACULA has the vampire explaining his transformation into one of the undead (dismissing the Stoker story as a playful joke from his vampiric lover). Saberhagen and Loren D. Estelman both teamed the vampire lord with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in, respectively, THE HOLMES/DRACULA FILE and SHERLOCK HOLMES VS. DRACULA; OR, THE ADVENTURE OF THE SANGUINARY COUNT. There was even an entire series of books in the '60s and '70s, with titles like DRACULA'S GOLD and DRUMS OF DRACULA. Jeanne Kalogridis' trilogy 'The Diaries of the Family Dracul' (COVENANT WITH THE VAMPIRE, CHILDREN OF THE VAMPIRE, and LORD OF THE VAMPIRES) is a multi-generational prequel to Stoker's novel. Elaine Bergstrom's MINA: THE DRACULA STORY CONTINUES (printed under the pseudonym Marie Kiraly) is but one of dozens of sequels to Stoker's novel. Even Brian Aldiss, whose FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND served as an inspiration to Newman, tackled the character in DRACULA UNBOUND.
'I suspect I was inspired here by Philip Jose Farmer's TARZAN ALIVE, which ties together a great many fictional characters' Newman commented. 'It was partly because if Dracula was going to form a government he needed some supporters, and it seemed natural that all the famous vampires of literature would get roped in. I did read a lot of Victorian vampire stuff and looked again at tons of movies; often I picked characters by a process of 'casting'--working out who would be good for the role of Prime Minister or Head of the Secret Police or whatever.' Sometimes, these vampire characters were portrayed quite differently in ANNO-DRACULA than from their source depictions. 'Simply by putting pre-existing characters into the Anno Dracula world changes them, and some I changed quite a bit,' he admits.
The success of ANNO-DRACULA prompted a sequel, 1995's THE BLOODY RED BARON. Set during World War I, an exiled Vlad Tepes has become the military strategist to Kaiser Wilhelm. Graf von Dracula concocts, through combinations of science, breeding, and alchemy, a new kind of vampire, capable of transforming into enormous bats which then have silver bullet-spewing machine guns mounted to them.
Roland Green of BOOKLIST said, 'How could World War I be made even grislier? Add vampires, as Newman does with great skill .... Graf von Dracula is alive and well, seldom seen but never forgotten, and vampires are omnipresent as warriors and diplomats on both sides of the conflict. Mata Hari and Edgar Allan Poe are both among the undead protagonists here, and historical figures such as Churchill and Haig, fortunately normally mortal, also abound.'
Amazon.com added, 'Characters from such sources as P.G. Wodehouse, J.K. Huysmans, D.H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway--as well from movies such as NOSFERATU (1922), THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, JULES ET JIM--each impart their dollop of richness to this alternate universe. But the dogfights between Sopwith Camels and huge winged vampires are the real heart of the book: Kim Newman has done his research, so the air battles are vivid and thrilling.'
In the course of the novel, Kate Reed emerges as a much stronger character, and aging Charles Beauregard takes a backl seat to young British Intelligence officer Edwin Winthrop. The mixing of literary and historical figures is deft, as Poe (who hasn't written anything of merit since turning) is hired to write Baron von Richthofen's biography. H.G. Wells' Dr. Moreau and H.P. Lovecraft's Herbert West are seen as frontline surgeons, experimenting on the undead. Conspicuous by her absence, however, is Geneviève.
'I thought she was too strong a character,' Newman comments. 'The book needed a heroine who would learn from the experience, so I promoted Kate.'
For these alternative histories, mixing facts and fiction requires exhaustive research. But, there comes a time when the stories must be allowed to tell themselves. 'On each of these books, I've done a lot of reading--but you have to let go of that at some point and make things up,' Newman stresses. 'Even 'real' people become fictional, sometimes for comic effect or sometimes to make a point. I doubt that my 'Mary Kelly' is much like the real one, but she was who I needed for the story.'
The well-received second book spawned 1998's JUDGMENT OF TEARS: ANNO DRACULA 1959 (originally titled DRACULA CHA CHA CHA). Kirkus Reviews noted: 'Newman remains in top form as our sharpest vampire novelist, a far more inventive stylist than Anne Rice. Now in exile,...Count Dracula...is about to wed Moldavian princess Asa Vajda in Rome, circa 1959, amid the decay of the Via Veneto so richly observed by Federico Fellini in LA DOLCE VITA. Newman appropriates much of Fellini's anti-plotting, or cumulative mode of storytelling, introducing the arrival by plane in Rome of the bustiferous starlet Malenka (Anita Ekberg), who's greeted by battering flashbulbs and jaded tabloid journalist Marcello (Mastroianni). On hand from the earlier novels are vampire journalist Kate Reed and vampire detective Geneviève Dieudonné (in the company of British secret agent Hamish Bond, a vampire with a license to kill), as well as fresh walk-ons amid the dress extras: a dissolute Errol Flynn, an enormous Orson Welles, H.P. Lovecraft's re-animator Dr. Herbert West, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN's Dr. Pretorius, and William Peter Blatty's exorcist, Father Merrin. When Dracula is beheaded on the eve of his wedding, is Rome's Crimson Executioner (who has been killing elderly vampires) the culprit? At last all converges on Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears, Rome's four-fold guardian girl/youth/woman/crone who protects her city from the living dead. At heart a costume drama in dark glasses rather than tights, with Newman noting every Playboy club signet ring and Patek Lioncourt wristwatch worn by wealthy bloodsuckers.'
Against the backdrop of the pagentry and celebration of Dracula's pending nuptuals, Newman adds a poignant touch as Kate and Geneviève tend the dying Charles Beauregard--who owes his increased lifespan to Geneviève's commingling of their blood. Kate also becomes embroiled in the search for the Crimson Executioner, at one point suspected of being his accomplice. Charles' fiancee from 1888, Penny Churchward, also returns, now running Dracula's household and planning his wedding to Princess Asa. The author seamlessly combines Felliniesque touches with high camp adventure, as Bond and Geneviève battle a shape-shifting evil genius and his literally monstrous henchman.
'I brought Geneviève back in JUDGMENT OF TEARS because her story still wasn't over,' Newman admits. 'The third book is sort of about the three women who survived the first, and the way they revolve around the hero of ANNO-DRACULA, even after he's dead.'
All three novels in the ANNO DRACULA series weave together fictional situations and characters with historical events and figures in a delightful fashion. Certain personages, such as George Bernard Shaw and Orson Welles, remain mortal (or 'warm'), while others, such as Poe and von Richthofen, are turned. 'As to who became a vampire, I more or less decided that at random on the basis of whether it would be an interesting change or development of their actual personality,' explains Newman. 'This goes as much for fictional characters like Professor Moriarty and James Bond as for Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde. In later books, I didn't want to do too many 'celebrity vampires, because it clutters up history to have people living beyond their time, and I have one major instance of that (Poe), which is enough.'
Other than the events in ANNO-DRACULA, Newman tries to leave history itself alone. 'I left things as they were unless there was a specific reason to change something--I had Baron von Richtofen die on a different date than in reality, to coincide with the major German advance and defeat that was the turning point of the war.'
Then, there are the pre-existing vampires, such as General Iorga/Count Yorga (from the films COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE! and THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA), Baron Meinster (THE BRIDES OF DRACULA), Princess Asa (Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY), Jerry Dandridge (FRIGHT NIGHT), Nick Knight (FOREVER KNIGHT), and a certain Lioncourt from a very popular and successful series of books. Borrowing these characters begs the question, does Newman secure permission to use them, or just hope their creators have good senses of humors?
'The latter,' he states. 'My thought was that if I didn't exploit characters commercially (ie: publicise the book as 'the new Lestat adventure') I wasn't trespassing too much. I'd think the creators of many vampire characters--of the ones you mention, I only know personally Tom Holland, who made up Jerry Dandridge--would be offended to be left out. Les Daniels has been happy with my use of his Don Sebastian, and I hope no one is too upset.'
In one instance, however, Newman outsmarted himself. In ANNO-DRACULA, he has an American reporter who is a thinly disguised, 19th-century version of THE NIGHT STALKER's Carl Kolchak. 'If I'd known the series would extend to a 1970s book when I wrote that scene, I'd have saved him for later,' the author states. 'As it is, he doesn't make the cut for the '70s, so I've used an old Philip Marlowe and Jim Rockford to fill in for him.'