Saturday, January 03, 2015

Anno Dracula by Kim Newman

(Book Review)

What is this Book About?
This is a very ambitious book which is juggling several things at once.  But I'll try to describe it as simply as I can.

At its most basic, this book is a take-off on Bram Stoker's classic novel Dracula, but one that asks the question: what would have happened if Dracula had won?

In the alternate universe of Anno Dracula, Bram Stoker's book was only true up until halfway through chapter 21: The scene in which the men discover Dracula forcing Mina to drink his blood.  In Bram Stoker's version, Dracula flees at this point, and is later hunted down and killed by the men. In Anno Dracula, Dracula attacks at this point, killing Van Helsing, Jonathon Harker, and Quincey Morris, forcing Jack Seward and Arthur Holmwood to flee, and turning Mina into a vampire.  Dracula then goes on to marry Queen Victoria, and to rule over England.

In the author's afterward, Kim Newman describes the origin of his interest in creating a world in which Dracula had won.  He identifies the 1897 Dracula as part of the invasion literature popular in Britain in the 1890s.  (In this case, Dracula representing a one-man invasion of Victorian England.)  In the case of Bram Stoker's original book, Dracula's plans for ruling England are foiled by Van Helsing.  However, the common structure of the invasion literature (W) of the time was to imagine England being conquered and ruled by a foreign power.  It was only a natural extension of the genre to wonder what the book would have been like if Dracula had actually succeeded in his plans and England was brought under a vampire government.  As Kim Newman himself writes:

...at some point .... it occurred to me that there might be story potential in an alternative outcome to the novel in which Dracula defeats his enemies and fulfils his stated intention to conquer Britain.  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, had 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.  Van Helsing describes Dracula's project in Britain as to become 'the father or the furtherer of a new order of beings, whose road must lead through Death, not Life'.   Yet Stoker allegorises Dracula's on Britain entirely as an attack on the Victorian family, an enblem of all the things he prized and saw as fragile.  It struck me as an interesting avenue to explore the kind of England, the kind of world, which would result if Van Helsing and his family of fearless vampire killers were defeated and Dracula was allowed to 'farther and further' the new order.  (Author's Afterward p. 450-451)

However, what makes Anno Dracula more interesting than a simple good versus evil story is that it turns out not all vampires are necessarily evil.  The politics of the vampire ruled Victorian England are complex because in Dracula's England, vampires become an accepted alternative life-style, and many English people willingly choose to become vampires without loosing their original conviction. Dracula himself is still evil, but a lot of the new vampires in England are just as diverse as the humans.  There are vampire nobles and vampire beggars, vampire police and vampire criminals,vampire monarchists and vampire republicans.

In this new society of humans mixing with vampires, the surviving characters from the original Bram Stoker novel make vastly different choices.  Arthur Holmwood eventually decides to make his accommodation with the new government, becomes a vampire, and even becomes a protege of the new vampire prime minister.  But Jack Seward quietly continues his crusade against vampires by going out at night and secretly killing vampire prostitutes.  These seemingly random murders of vampire prostitutes become a media sensation, and Jack Seward becomes the "Jack the Ripper" of this alternate universe.

But what makes Anno Dracula particularly fun (if you're enough of a geek to go in for these things) is that the author uses the book as a playground for all sorts of borrowed characters from other Victorian novels who also live in this alternative universe along with real historical figures, like Queen Victoria, Oscar Wilde, and Lewis Carroll.  From Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde is imported Dr. Jekyll (and later Mr. Hyde as well).  From the Fu-Manchu stories comes the evil doctor Fu-Manchu.  From Oliver Twist comes Bill Sykes.  From H.G. Wells's stories comes Dr. Moreau and Griffin.    From The Prisoner of Zenda comes Rupert of Hentzau. From King Solomon's Mines comes Allan Quatermain.  From The Lost World comes the character of Lord John Roxton.  From the Sherlock Holmes stories come Mycroft Holmes, Moriarty and Colonel Moran.(Sherlock Holmes himself is mentioned, but otherwise absent from the story, interred in a prison camp for Dracula's enemies.  As the author explains in the afterward, "the reason Holmes is removed to a concentration camp in Anno Dracula is to get around a problem with many Holmes/Jack the Ripper stories--the great detective would have identified, trapped and convicted the murderer before tea-time." (p.429))

[Although some of these characters have bigger roles than others.  Dr. Jekyll, Colonel Moran, Mycroft Holmes, and Rupert of Hentzau all have decently big roles in this book, but some of these other characters, like Lewis Carroll and Allan Quatermain, are limited to only a brief reference in the text.]

My History with the Original Dracula
Since this book directly follows on the events in Bram Stoker's Dracula, I should probably write briefly about my history with the original book.  As a kid, I read a few different abridged versions of Dracula  before finally reading the complete original book back in 2001.  (I cheated slightly--I did it as an audio book.)  More recently, I've been using the graded reader version of Dracula a lot with my young learner classes.The graded reader version is of course heavily abridged, but it did at least help to keep the characters fresh in my mind.
I mention this because some familiarity with Bram Stoker's original book is probably necessary to completely enjoy Anno Dracula.  At the very least, you should probably know who the characters Jack Seward and Arthur Holmwood are before starting this book.

Why I Read This Book
So, you do have to be somewhat of a geek to get into the whole premise of this book (a huge mash-up off all the pulp fiction characters from the Victorian era.)  But, since I am already a big geek, and since I have a particular interest in the Victorian era history and literature, I was completely on board for a book like this.  
I forget how I first heard about this book.  I stumbled upon some book review recommending it somewhere, and ever since then I've kept one eye out for it every time I walked into a bookstore.  In Cambodia, particular books are always hard to find.  But now that I'm back in the US for the holidays, I was able to grab a copy with no problem.

The Review
This is one of those books that isn't really necessary to review because the book reviews itself.  Once you know the premise, you're either in for this story, or you're out.  Readers should do a fairly good job of self-selecting themselves.
So if an extension of the Dracula story combined with a mash-up of Victorian literature appeals to you, then you can count yourself in.  The only question left to be asked is: how well does the book pull it off?

And the answer is: pretty good.
The story-telling aspects of the book at least are excellent.  It's highly readable prose.

There's a few different mysteries boiling away in this novel.  The central mystery (Who is Jack the Ripper?) is already known to the reader from the first chapter.  (The book is told both from the perspective of vampire killer Jack Seward, and from the perspective of the police agents hunting him down, so the reader can sympathize with both sides.)  However, in addition to the vampire murders, there seem to be several outside forces who are manipulating events.  And these outside forces are left mysterious all the way until the last chapter, when suddenly everything is revealed and makes perfect sense.
The denouement, when it finally arrives,  is superb, but until you get to the last chapter there are a few different plot threads that don't really make sense, and some patience is required on the part of the reader, as well as some trust that the author knows what he's doing.  That patience and trust, however, will pay off at the end.

The borrowed characters from other novels are kept mostly to the periphery of the story.  This is somewhat disappointing in one respect, but in another respect probably for the best.  Most authors have trouble handling in a natural way characters borrowed from other authors.  Borrowed characters can't grow and change as organically as new original characters.  And too much on-stage time for all of the borrowed characters would probably have smothered this story.
Thus, in Anno Dracula, the main characters are all original creations, and all the borrowed characters are minor.  Dr. Jekyll, for example, will feature in a few key scenes, but then fade away from the story, allowing the original characters to take the focus.  (The exception of the characters borrowed from Dracula itself, Arthur Holmwood and Jack Seward, both of whom are major players in this book.)

I'm not sure I found the premise of the book entirely believable.  Obviously in fantasy books, you have to give the original premise a bit of space.  (I believe the literary term for this is "suspension of disbelief.")  So, obviously, you'd have to allow for a world in which vampires are real, and in which all these classic characters from literature all exist in the same universe.
But even granting all that, I found it unbelievable how quickly English society had changed to accommodate the new vampire order.  In the book, the resistance to the new vampire order is portrayed as being largely at the outskirts of society, and much of upper-class England had embraced vampirism as an alternative life-style.
I might have gone along with this if Dracula's invasion had happened 100 years before, but I couldn't believe this huge change in society could have happened in only the few short years depicted in the novel.
So, I just had to add this to the list of things I was suspending my disbelief on.  Not only did I have to accept that in this world vampires existed, but I had to accept that in this world Britain transformed rapidly into accepting vampires after Dracula married Queen Victoria.  Once I allowed for all this, then the rest of the novel played out very logically within this set-up.

Other Notes
* This book was originally published back in 1992, but the reprinted 2011 addition contains numerous extra goodies including an afterward, an alternative ending, a screenplay, some musings on the connections between Dracula and Jack the Ripper, and annotations.
I found the annotations the most interesting.  The author Kim Newman throws in all sorts of Victorian era characters into the book, famous as well as obscure.  I knew who major characters like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Jekyll were, but there were several other character references I would have missed completely if it weren't for the annotations in the back.
For Flashman fans, the experience is similar to reading a Flashman book--there's the main story, and then there's all the notes in the back that flesh out the history behind the story.  Half the fun of any Flashman book is always the footnotes in the back, and the same is true of the annotations at the back of Anno Dracula--only in this case, the reader learns more about Victorian literature instead of about history.

* There are three more novels in this series (W), which follow this alternate Dracula universe through various events in the 20th century.  I'm not sure I'm going to follow this series through till the bitter end, but I'm going to at least read the next book in the series, since it deals with another of my historical interests, World War I.  The next book is called The Bloody Baron.

* Through Phil, I've discovered Steve Donaghue over at openlettersmonthly.com.  Steve has given this book a very favorable review over at his website here.

Link of the Day
Language and Other Cognitive Processes

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