"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."
- Kim Newman on the origins of Anno Dracula
The year is 1888. Having vanquished his persecutors Professor Abraham Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker, Count Dracula has wooed and married the Widow of Windsor and now rules the British Empire as Prince Consort and Lord Protector. Vampires now openly walk the streets and hold high government positions, and the legions of the undead are growing at a massive rate. Meanwhile in Whitechapel in London's East End, government secret agent Charles Beauregard has teamed up with Geneviève Dieudonné, a vampire physician (who is older even than Dracula) to solve a series of brutal murders inflicted on vampire prostitutes. The killer is popularly known as Silver Knife, but soon he will acquire a much more infamous nickname...
A rip-roaring adventure story set in a nightmare version of Victorian London, Anno Dracula is an absolute delight. Newman includes more fictional vampires than you can shake a stick at, from John Polidori's Lord Ruthven (installed as Prime Minister) to Martin Cuda (the main character from George Romero's film Martin). He also mixes in plenty of other fictional characters and real-life persons, some of whom are now vampires and some of whom are not. There's even an appearence of a Chinese hopping vampire - without question the most frightening character in the whole book.
One character who is notable in his absence is Dracula himself. He appears exactly twice: first in a flashback to show exactly when the story of Anno Dracula deviated from that of Bram Stoker's original, and once right at the end when we actually get to see what Dracula's court looks like. But despite his absence, Dracula's presence is felt on almost every page. This seems appropriate to me, both in terms of the character (Dracula was off-page for most of Stoker's novel) and royalty in general (Queen Victoria's influence spread everywhere in Britain, but she did not exactly wander the streets).
As exciting as it is to see a vampire version of Inspector Lestrade interacting with Sir Charles Warren while Sherlock Holmes is locked up in a concentration camp (which were actually invented by the British during the Boer War a few years later), the real anchor of the novel is Geneviève Dieudonné. Her character is crucial to Newman's treatment of vampires, as she is portrayed as being completely sympathetic. She's full of meaningful contradictions, and not just because she is ancient but with the face of a teenager; Geneviève is ahead of her time despite her advanced age, a vampire who is striving to preserve life.
Vampires in this world are not necessarily monsters to be destroyed, but are as varied and as complex as any of "the warm". There is even prejudice within their ranks as elders lord it over new-borns, Geneviève describes Dracula's bloodline as "corrupt", and everyone looks down the noses at the "murgatroyds" (named after a play-within-the-story by Gilbert & Sullivan, and led by Anne Rice's Lestat, these fashion-conscious vampires swan around in goth regalia and are basically Newman's mockery of people who really, really want to be vampires in "real life").
The killer is also a telling character. In another book he would be a heroic vampire hunter - and indeed, in another book he was a heroic vampire hunter, for he is Dr. Jack Seward, one of the main characters in Stoker's novel. Dr. Seward was driven insane by Dracula's machinations, particularly his turning of Seward's unrequited love Lucy and her subsequent destruction. Seward is a classic serial killer, driven by a sexual desire that he denies; when he eventually encounters Mary Kelly (the real-life Ripper's final and most gruesomely mutilated victim) and it turns out that she was turned by Lucy herself, he finally loses what little sanity he had managed to hang on to. Dr. Seward is a tragic figure, but Newman does not diminish the plight of his victims; the Ripper's victims are in situations as desperate as any real-life Whitechapel prostitute.
This is a fabulous book and can be enjoyed in a number of different ways. If you don't have the encyclopaedic knowledge to spot all of the many real and fictional characters Newman namechecks, you should still be dragged along by the gripping story, the gaslit atmosphere, and the engaging characters. The good news (for me) is that Kim Newman has written two further Anno Dracula novels: The Bloody Red Baron, set during WWI, and Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha, set in 1959 Italy, as well as a half-dozen short stories and novellas set in the same world. He's been at work on a final novel in the sequence, Johnny Alucard, for over ten years and hopefully will finish it one day.
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