Friday 9 November 2012

Book Review | Anno Dracula by Kim Newman

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It is 1888 and Queen Victoria has remarried, taking as her new consort Vlad Tepes, the Wallachian Prince infamously known as Count Dracula. Peppered with familiar characters from Victorian history and fiction, the novel follows vampire Geneviève Dieudonné and Charles Beauregard of the Diogenes Club as they strive to solve the mystery of the Ripper murders.

Anno Dracula is a rich and panoramic tale, combining horror, politics, mystery and romance to create a unique and compelling alternate history. Acclaimed novelist Kim Newman explores the darkest depths of a reinvented Victorian London.

This brand-new edition of the bestselling novel contains unique bonus material, including a new afterword from the author, annotations, articles and alternate endings to the original novel.


The first chapter of Anno Dracula is taken directly from the diary of Dr. Seward. Herein the practitioner prowls the shadowy alleys of Whitechapel in search of a vampire to victimise, and in this strangely changed London, he isn't looking long. All too soon he happens upon Lulu Schön, and haunted by the loss of Lucy, the love of his life, Seward proceeds to systematically separate her head from her neck with a sharp silver knife.

Unaccustomed as we are at this early stage to the new world order of Kim Newman's 1992 novel, said slaying seems normal enough for a nosferatu narrative, but the inversion of this penny dreadful premise immediately realigns it in our minds. Had Lulu been a lone vampire stalking the seedy streets - as one presumes though the prologue - there would perhaps be a certain method to Seward's murderous madness. In Anno Dracula, however, she is merely one of an increasing number: the get of Vlad Tepes - now crowned Queen Victoria's royal consort - are everywhere, thus this third cold-blooded killing threatens to tear undead London asunder.
"Everyone began their arguments by declaring that it was about more than just three butchered harlots. It was about Disraeli's 'two nations', it was about the regrettable spread of vampirism among the lower classes, it was about the decline of public order, it was about the fragile equilibrium of the transformed kingdom. The murders were mere sparks, but Great Britain was a tinderbox." (p.109)
To bring the serial killer quickly christened Jack the Ripper to account for his crimes against inhumanity, the Diogenes Club dispatches Charles Beauregard, a rather dashing yet halfway hapless spy. Undertaking the subsequent investigations alongside the aforementioned agent of the Empire, the conflicted vampire rights activist Geneviève Dieudonné - an elder like Vlad Tepes herself - pursues Seward for her own reasons.

These, then, are our primary perspectives - exemplary and complementary, even as romance blooms between the pair like a puddle of blood - though we observe the unfortunate events of Anno Dracula from a few other points of view too; including the British Prime Minister's, and of course our killer's. But Charles and Geneviève are the heart and soul of this dark yet delightfully affectionate diatribe. They are fundamentally decent yet fittingly mysterious people who chaperone readers respectfully rather than condescendingly through the many complexities of an initially dense setting and the intense tale which plays out later.

The world, meanwhile, is built magnificently. Cribbing as much from fiction as history, Newman allows us ample opportunity to luxuriate in a wonderful London - conjured whole cloth from a vast patchwork of fabrics - that is at once familiar and different from the city we've all visited, if not literally then in literature, at least. It comes across convincingly, and comprehensively thought-through - such that the author's extensive annotations, aside the other stocking stuffers new to Titan's essential edition, make for rewarding reading in their own right - but neither overbearing nor, crucially, convoluted.
"It still seems to me something of a disappointment that Stoker's villain, after all his meticulous planning and with five hundred years of scheming monstrousness under his cloak, has no sooner arrived in Britain than he trips up and sows the seeds of his eventual undoing by an unlikely pursuit of the wife of a provincial solicitor." (pp.450-451)
As to the idea animating Anno Dracula, encapsulated by the author above: I admit it might not seem so novel in this over-saturated day and age, but fully two decades ago, upon the original publication of Newman's pitch-perfect pastiche, I warrant it was exactly that. And even now, this fiction is so rich and well-wrought that it stands head and shoulders (not to mention necks) above the most considered contemporary contenders.

A magnificent mash-up of fantastic fact and fantasies derived from fiction, Anno Dracula by Kim Newman is an enthralling alt-historical horror novel from word one, and it only becomes more glorious as it goes. One wonders how a chronicle of this caliber could possibly have fallen out of fashion in the first! If there's any justice in the world, its revision and reissuing in the modern marketplace in anticipation of Johnny Alucard's release next year should serve its author as well as this edition indubitably does us.


Anno Dracula
by Kim Newman

UK & US Publication: May 2011, Titan Books

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