“All our lives, we’ve known about the vampires, if only from books and movies. Los Angeles was the last place they were likely to settle. After all, California is known for its sunshine... Now, it was changing. And not just because of affordable prescription sunglasses.”
That intriguing passage is from Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula: Johnny Alucard (Titan, Sept.), his fourth and latest alternate history novel, set in a world where vampires are real and in which Dracula ruled England before dying in 1959. With this volume, Newman brings the action forward to 1976, when, amusingly, Francis Ford Coppola is working on his own version of Dracula, complete with Harrison Ford and Harvey Keitel in the cast. There’s satire, too. PW’s review noted that Newman “gleefully and capably skewers the inanities of life in both [Hollywood and New York]” in the 1990s. Vampires become hip, and there’s even a Concert for Transylvania, dubbed “Bloodstock” by Variety, featuring Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Tony Bennett, and Phil Collins.
As always, Newman makes suspension of disbelief easier by carefully thinking through the details of his counterfactual histories; Johnny Alucard concludes with a plausible-sounding scholarly appendix discussing Orson Welles’s various failed efforts to film Bram Stoker’s Dracula: “The reasons for the abandonment of Count Dracula remain obscure. It has been speculated that RKO were nervous about Welles’s stated intention to film most of the story with a first-person camera, adopting the viewpoints of the various characters.”
Earlier books feature Count Dracula as Queen Victoria’s second husband (Anno Dracula), and Graf von Dracula commanding the armies of Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1918 (Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron). Newman is best known for this series, which netted him the Dracula Society’s Children of the Night Award in 1992, but these books, with their blend of fantasy, horror, and humor, are just the tip of the iceberg for this prolific writer who loves nothing more than to create his own reality.
His quirky sense of fun is also amply manifested in 2011’s hilarious Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles, which recast the Napoleon of Crime and his number two, Colonel Sebastian Moran, as bizarro-universe versions of Holmes and Watson. Appropriately, the Professor’s take on Irene Adler is different than that of the Great Detective. As Moran notes, “To Moriarty, she is always that bitch.” And instead of Doyle’s Red-Headed League, Newman offers up the Red Planet League, in which Moriarty concocts an elaborate scheme involving vampire squid to fake a Martian landing and humiliate a hated scientific rival. The drama of the Holmes-Moriarty duel of “The Final Problem” is inverted brilliantly, with the Professor staggered that Holmes, supposedly in fear for his life, left his front door unlocked so the villain could stroll in for a face-to-face encounter.
Newman demonstrated that he can do traditional horror as well. In Jago, a 1991 effort recently reprinted by Titan, the title character is a psychic ex-clergyman who has established a religious cult in a small British town. Jago was actually the first novel that Newman started to write, although not the first one that he published, and the terrifying cult at its heart was inspired by an actual 19th-century religious group called the Agapemone. Unlike in the Anno Dracula and Moriarty books, there’s no tongue-in-cheek as Newman sets the scene for an apocalyptic event—just understated, literate scares. “The red in the sky spilled across the horizon, staining the wetlands as they had once been stained with the blood of the Monmouth rebels and King’s men who fell at Sedgemoor. Until tonight, that had been the last battle fought on English soil. An older rebellion, Bannerman thought, was about to be put down. Out on the moors, just visible from the clearing, a lone farmer stood with his cattle. Jem Gosmore had chosen to be with his beasts at the last, not his wife and children.”
Another such work, to be published by Titan in 2014 with the simple title An English Ghost Story, has been over a decade in the making.
Beyond his fiction writing, Newman has been a highly respected film critic for decades for Empire magazine and the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound, with a well-deserved reputation for viewing movies in a broad context. Of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, to cite a recent example, he wrote, “It seems odd that del Toro, so sensitive to the plight of innocents caught between the supernatural and brutal soldiery in his Spanish Civil War–set films, should deliver something so gung-ho and militaristic. In an era of drone attacks, the notion of giant piloted robots might even be suspect and fascist.”
Newman’s nonfiction books have taken advantage of his encyclopedic knowledge of horror fiction. His Horror: 100 Best Books, a comprehensive survey of the literature, won the Bram Stoker Award (presented by the Horror Writers of America) for being the best nonfiction book of 1989. Newman certainly deserves credit for helping to get the genre, which has historically been derided as lesser literature, taken seriously. As his movie reviews reveal, for Newman, there is no clear dividing line between Lovecraftian monsters from another dimension and the political implications of the storyline they’re dropped into. That approach doesn’t denigrate popular culture for being popular, but seeks to understand exactly why it is popular at a particular moment in history.
That mindset bleeds over into his fiction; in considering how to employ Jack the Ripper in the first Anno Dracula book, Newman, rather than simply getting caught up in the armchair-whodunit approach, explored how such visible and notorious sex crimes affected Victorian society.
His wide-ranging success had its origins in Newman’s childhood in England. “Seeing the Bela Lugosi 1931 Dracula at the age of 11 was a life-changing event for me, though I think the first depiction of Dracula I saw was in a 1960s episode of Doctor Who.” His parents had let him stay up past his bedtime to watch the film on television. He’s written that he “can’t overestimate the effect this has had on the subsequent course of my life, since the film was the spark which lit the flames of my interests in horror and in cinema. I was captivated by Dracula, and became an obsessive in the way only an 11-year-old can be obsessive. I think my parents expected the craze to wear off, but obviously it never did.”
Newman’s interest in literature and monsters led to acting and songwriting, as well as a stint working for “Sheep Worrying Enterprises, which published a magazine, put on plays, and arranged music gigs and festivals.” Neil Gaiman was an early collaborator who wrote humorous pieces with Newman for girly magazines, and for more respectable, although less lucrative, publications. To Gaiman, Newman was “someone who can write a short story or a review or a novel in the time it takes to type it, and who not only can, but does.”
The scholarly approach Newman takes with his reviews and other nonfiction (and his satirical appendices) is what led to his best-known work. His university thesis examined late-19th-century invasion narratives that were alternate histories with England under attack (such as Welles’s The War of the Worlds). A footnote to the thesis, classifying Stoker’s Dracula as a “one-man invasion” of Britain, sowed the seeds for the start of the Anno Dracula series over a decade later. That time gap is typical; Newman has described his book ideas as being “like coral reefs, built up as bits and pieces stuck together over years.”
Newman’s fascination with using master villains such as Dracula and Moriarty as fertile literary source material is connected with an understandable syndrome that he thinks may have originated with Don Quixote: “Quixote looks at all the rottenness in the world and concludes that it can’t be random and so must be the design of a wizard he calls ‘the Great Enchanter.’ ” For Newman, “the need to see a malign intelligence of some sort—aliens, the government, whoever—behind all evil has an appeal which can have dreadful consequences if enough people fall in line with it, but does also make for interesting story material.”
He expanded on these sentiments in New York City in January, when he delivered the Baker Street Irregulars’ Distinguished Speaker Lecture, observing that “with international banking in the shape it is now, with massacres in every corner of the globe, with our culture reduced to kipple, there must be a Moriarty.”
Even readers who regard evil as something more complex than the product of the machinations of a criminal mastermind have been able to happily lose themselves in Newman’s own richly imagined realms of what-if. Those with a taste for his imaginative blend of genres and characters will be heartened that the author is considering expanding a reference in the first Anno Dracula installment to a book-length work, and sharing with the world what would happen if Edgar Allan Poe found himself on the trail of Billy the Kid; of course, in Newman’s world, the legendary gunslinger is also a vampire.