Enter the World of Anno Dracula
In May of 2011 Titan Books began reprinting Kim Newman’s collection of alternative histories, which record what might have happened if Count Dracula hadn’t been stopped by Van Helsing and his group of mismatched vampire hunters in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. As the only two novels—printed originally in the nineties– that I read were terrific, and since some of the shorter stories were hard to come by, this is very welcome, since Titan seems intent on printing everything in the series.
For those of you who aren’t aware of the type of book that the first one, Anno Dracula is, let’s have a quick wander down Memory Lane.
In the Beginning… Philip Jose Farmer
Well, he wasn’t really the beginning; but the American Science-Fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer is as good a starting point as any. After all, a lot of fans try to trace the origins of sword-and-sorcery fiction, for example, back to Beowulf or similar ancient Sagas, but that really is being a bit disingenuous. The real start of that genre as we understand it today began with the wonderful short story The Shadow Kingdom by Robert E Howard in 1929. I’m willing to listen to arguments to the contrary but I suspect that this is only to give a bit of a pedigree to a field that shouldn’t need to justify itself. It’s a bit like the mad Freemasons trying to gain respectability for their daft rituals by going back to damned near the Dawn of Time. Or New Agers doing the same thing, come to that.
But for me Farmer was responsible for kicking off properly a type of fiction that led to Newman’s series and, ultimately, Alan Moore’s brilliant set of comic books featuring the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. From as early as 1952, right at the start of his career, Farmer had been playing with the concept of all humanity being reborn (at the age of twenty-five) along the shores of a river many millions of miles long and able to sustain all 37 billion humans who woke up to find themselves there. He had this refined eventually to the point where 1971 saw the release of his Hugo Award-winning To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first volume in the Riverworld Saga.
This is where he got to let his imagination run free by mixing a group of historical characters from different eras together and seeing how they would interact. Like me, Farmer had been keenly interested in the Victorian explorer Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) since a schoolboy. The real life Burton was almost a mutant of a man. He came close to discovering the source of the River Nile, he was the discoverer of Lake Tanganyika and was the first white man to disguise himself in order to visit Mecca. Burton was a ferociously tough man and considered one of the greatest swordsmen of his age. He also spoke almost thirty languages and translated such classics as The Arabian Nights. He was a driven and almost indomitable man and Farmer throws him in with numerous others that he finds interesting. There is Mark Twain, the American writer; Alice Hargreaves, the real-life model for Alice in Wonderland; Herman Goering, Jack London, Tom Mix, King John Lackland and many, many others. After all, the entire human race is here. He even puts himself into the action in the form of Peter Jairus Frigate—and why not? We’re in there somewhere as well. It was everyone who ever lived.
Of course, others had mixed real characters together in fictional settings before this but I would think that it’s fair to say that it was never done on this scale before.
The Wold Newton Universe
The following year, 1972, Farmer had the terrific idea of taking this one step farther and having fictional characters mixed up together in one great big tasty stew. This was done in the book Tarzan Alive, which is written from the angle of Farmer tracking down and eventually even getting an interview with John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, better known to us as Tarzan of the Apes.
Farmer posits that many of the characters in fiction are actually related and he stems their existence from the crashing of a meteorite in Wold Newton, Yorkshire, England (which actually happened) and the effects of that on the occupants and their unborn offspring who were in a carriage that was passing close to the site of the incident.
This was the genesis of the Wold Newton Universe and others were quick to patch in their own favourites to Farmer’s original idea. With the advent of the Internet the whole thing grew exponentially to the point where almost all fictional characters are tied together, with many fans making a real hobby out of it.
In fact, I was surprised a while back to discover that the old Marvel Comics character Shang-Chi (‘Master of Kung Fu’) is even in there! But of course, why wouldn’t he be, if he was the son of Fu Manchu? Do you get the idea? After a while, it would wreck your head! Who needs drugs when you get into this stuff?
Prince Consort to Queen Victoria
Now this is the point at which I try to tread carefully, something I’m not the best at, because I really don’t want to piss off people who have their own favourite writers; and Philip Jose Farmer remains extremely popular. But…I just don’t think that he was that great.
Now don’t get me wrong. His concepts, as outlined above, were absolutely fascinating. I mean, a world where everyone is reborn as part of some vast extra-terrestrial experiment? That is just wonderful! Or a world where Tarzan, Doc Savage and Sherlock Holmes are all from the same gene pool? What is there not to like?
Yet after going through thousands of pages charting the Riverworld to its conclusion in what was supposed to be the final volume, The Magic Labyrinth, this reader at least was left very dissatisfied. Farmer may have promised that all loose ends were to be tied up in one Gordian Knot but that’s not really the case, is it? Never mind the vast cosmic questions, I want to know why all the women were reborn with their hymens intact and all the men were born circumcised! Maybe it was explained in the tacked-on Gods of Riverworld but I was gone by that time!
Farmer’s writing seems oddly old-fashioned now and to be truthful I think that it might have been old-fashioned even forty years ago.
When Anno Dracula first appeared in 1992, however, I was immediately taken by it. Again, Kim Newman mixes fictional characters like Dr. Jekyll with Dr. Moreau, but unlike some of Farmer’s outings it works perfectly.
The conceit is that in 1885 the notorious Wallachian has successfully invaded Britain and thus the far flung British Empire; by 1888, when the novel’s action takes place he has seduced and become Prince Consort to Queen Victoria. Thus vampirism has spread widely and vampire and human find themselves existing side by side in an increasingly unstable country. Most of the Government are now vampires, with Lord Ruthven acting as Prime Minister and dissenters such as the Consulting Detective (obviously Sherlock Holmes) finding themselves in concentration camps. Vampires are in the main the ones who are promoted so that the police force and other cornerstones of society are increasingly geared towards the needs of the Undead rather than the ‘warm’: “The army, the navy, the diplomatic core, the police and the church were all in Dracula’s thrall, new-borns promoted over the warm at every opportunity.”
And interestingly the same class prejudices seem to have been preserved. If you were a poor unfortunate living prostitute in Whitechapel then as a dead one you’re not that much better off. As usual, the rich stay rich and the poor get shafted. The poor come out at the bottom of the food chain, in death as in life. What a depressing thought. Instead of hustling your body, hustling your blood for all eternity. And to make it worse, Dracula’s bloodline is a polluted one, causing reverberations throughout the Empire and with London becoming a focus for all that is rotten, even with some medieval diseases re-emerging.
In Whitechapel itself, the elder vampire Genevieve Dieudonne is working with the destitute, under Dr. John Seward, one of the survivors of Van Helsing’s group. But the good doctor, unbalanced by his experiences, is also operating in the vicinity at night as Jack the Ripper.
Genevieve is a wonderful creation, more human than many of the humans, eternally looking sweet sixteen but in fact older than Dracula himself and from the pure bloodline of Chandagnac, to boot. She finds herself in the company of Charles Beauregard of the Diogenes Club in trying to uncover the Ripper’s real identity.
Part of the fun in Anno Dracula, as in the later The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the books, not the very disappointing film version) is in seeing how many fictional characters you will spot. I prided myself in getting an awful lot but missed obvious references like the Diogenes Club simply because I was never all that well up on the world of Sherlock Holmes; and some of these references are delightfully obscure.
Obliquely assisting Beauregard, for instance, is a crime syndicate– not all of whom are named but can be guessed at– headed by Fu Manchu, Moriarty, Bill Sykes (of Oliver Twist), Captain Sebastian Moran and Raffles, the cricketing gentleman thief. Some references are downright sly. On the making of silver bullets:
“This is the Reid design. An American gentleman, Reid said that bullets should be costly. A reminder that life is a currency not to be spent freely.”
Bloody hell, we could do with a few more like him around the place at the moment! But honestly, if you surmised that this is a reference to John Reid the Lone Ranger then you really deserve to give yourself ten points and a cigar!
I also enjoyed this kind of wicked humour:
“Kostaki mused briefly about the wire contraptions fitted to chimneys in the fringes of his field of vision…”
How many times have you groaned when you’ve been watching an old movie set in Victorian times and spotted a TV ariel lurking in the background?
If you like this kind of fiction then I just can’t recommend Anno Dracula highly enough. Until Alan Moore came along Kim Newman was in a class of his own. I’m a little amazed that some readers seem to find the allusions to other works and characters distracting. Apart from just being a grand old story I would have thought that was a major point to this. I particularly liked Newman’s mention of the foppish vampire Lioncourt, an obvious dig at Anne Rice’s annoying fashion-plate, pain-in-the-ass character, Lestat. There are literally scores of things like this to watch out for, none of which detracts from the creation of a completely believable world.
It’s great to see this back in print and in such an eye-catching and attractive package. The text has been corrected to get rid of a few minor errors in the previous edition; and it also comes with over one hundred pages of new material. This includes annotations on the chapters and an alternative ending, written for a projected film version—and what a film this would make!— as well as an added essay and a previously unpublished short story.
Anno Dracula by Kim Newman is the first in a series from Titan Books.