Saturday, 4 October 2008

Anno Dracula, Kim Newman – reviewed

I hadn’t read any fiction by Kim Newman before, though I’ve always enjoyed his film reviews for Empire. I’m pretty sure that I haven’t read Dracula either, though I’ve seen plenty of film versions of it, so I came to this novel in a state of literary ignorance. Luckily, Newman held my head and told me that everything was going to be… absolutely horrible!

The twin premise here is that Dracula was not defeated at the end of Bram Stoker’s novel, and that he existed in the same world as many other fictional characters.

It’s hard to mention that second bit without thinking of Alan Moore’s later League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There are other similarities, too, in that both authors have penned sequels taking their stories into the twentieth century. Earlier books in a similar vein include Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold-Newton books (credited here by Kim Newman), and of course just about every comic published since the 1940s.

Part of me wishes that Newman had limited himself to the characters from Dracula – occasionally the book drives you off to Wikipedia to look characters up, rather than drawing you in to its plot – but you can’t begrudge an author his enthusiasms, and in general he carries it off very well. Indeed, one of the book’s most interesting ideas is that each family of vampires has its own abilities, mentalities and power relationships, as seen in all the different vampire novels that preceded this one. Because he died before turning, Dracula’s line is said to be tainted by the rot of the grave: damaged, and more demented than most.

For most of the novel Dracula himself is an offstage, pernicious presence. When he does take centre stage, the wait was worthwhile – Newman’s Dracula is utterly terrifying, and utterly malevolent.

Overall, this is a much more plot-driven book than you might expect, and, though the mood of fear, oppression and decay is kept at a high pitch, every word compels the reader to keep turning the pages. The literary games are always subservient to the storytelling. Similarly, Dracula’s far-from-bloodless coup has serious consequences for Britain’s society, from its class system to its political organisations and its foreign policy, but we only learn about those things as they become relevant to the story.

A brilliant book.

Anno Dracula, Kim Newman, Avon Books, pb, 416pp.

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