Sunday, 30 December 2012

Kim Newman: Anno Dracula, The Bloody Red Baron, Dracula Cha Cha Cha and The Hound of the d'Urbevilles. Dracula, Dracula, Dracula, STAHP.

I think I was still living in Greece when I read my first Kim Newman book, The Night Mayor. It's not a very good book, and I read it because in those days if you could find anything in English in Athens at all you just bought it and hoped for the best, and also because in those days you had to read a book to make your mind up about, not like today when you can check out a million internet reviews and have your mind made up for you. [Amazon's reviews are great for that; I read the reviews, which usually tell me far more about the critic than the book, and then ask myself if the kind of people who like the book are the kind of guys I'd go for a pint with….]. The Night Mayor was an early casualty of my 2000 books policy, and I think I'd actually managed to forget who'd written it when I tripped over Anno Dracula four or five years later. That, I thought to myself, looks interesting. 

Difficult though it might be to believe it now, when SFF shelves in bookshops are groaning with the stuff, but in the early 90s, Anno Dracula stood out from the crowd. There weren't that many vampire books about, and most of them were sticking firmly to the template still being mined by the likes of Twilight; yes vampires were veddy veddy real and ebber so ebber glamorous, but they were a gorgeous shadowy minority lurking round the edges of the real world, scaring the bejesus out of ordinary people but not really doing anything of note. Newman had the rip-roaring audacity to munge vampires into alternate history and ask everyone to ponder a world where Dracula got away with it in grand style, seeing off Van Helsing and those other puling weaklings and pulling none uvver than Queen Victoria 'er own blooming' self.

He's been riffing on the notion ever since, with uneven results. My last post was about Tim Powers, whose entire body of work has been variations on a theme of secret history. Powers has put together book after book in which fictional everyday people have bashed into the edges of the lives of the famous through the ages and discovered the supernatural weirdness operating at the edge of reality which made extraordinary lives remarkable. 

In contrast, most of Newman's work in the past twenty years has been about re-imagining the world of fiction if the bad guys got a better break or at least better press agents. In the Anno Dracula series, Dracula managed briefly to take over England and in the process make vampires almost respectable. In last year's The Hound of the d'Urbevilles, Newman set out to tell us the story of Professor Moriarty as seen through the eyes of his henchman Basher Moran. It didn't quite pan out, partly because the book is a collection of stories written at various times and partly because Moran becomes a very annoying voice if you have to sit through a whole book with him. Newman casts him as a much put-upon thug who feels he doesn't get the respect he deserves, which is a very funny thing for the length of a short story, but wearing for the whole evening - unless you can arrange to do what you'd do in real life with someone like that, which is to take another couple of pints every time he starts into another self-serving sob story about how he could have been a contender if it hadn't been for all the other guys who got in the way. As I've said before, flawed characters are the heart of great narrative, but you need bloody good writing or acting to make their company bearable for long.

Anno Dracula itself is actually a fairly nifty and nimble piece of work. Newman had the crucial insight that the best way to show life under monstrous tyranny is to look at something else rather awful and show how the tyranny overshadows even that. So the main motor of the plot in Anno Dracula is an attempt to catch Jack the Ripper. The helter skelter hamfisted investigation bounces off everything else which would be wrong with a world in which the all-powerful Prince Consort of the British Empire was a lunatic Carpathian bloodsucker, and so we're shown, rather than being told, which is the right way to do these things. Although the writing isn't that brilliant, there were a lot of good ideas in it, and sometimes that's as good as you can expect genre stuff to be.

Newman went back to the well briskly with The Bloody Red Baron, which hit the historical reset button slightly and let World War One kick off as it did historically despite the chaos which ended Anno Dracula. It's hard to blame him; even if you've never warmed to the thought of Snoopy's long struggle with the Red Baron, there's something irresistible about the whole notion of mashing together the winged terrors of the night and the winged knights over the trenches, and you can't really have the Red Baron without the conventional backdrop. On the debit side, the book itself isn't as good as the idea. Most of the surviving characters from the first book are dragged back in by the ears and given something to do, and then Newman has a high old time converting half the fictional Edwardian era into vampires in an exercise which was probably a lot more entertaining for him and his mates down the pub than it turned out to be for me. I don't know if I've actually chucked the book under the 2000 books policy, but it's definitely a candidate. Largely because it's relentlessly grim. A world in which vampires are running the show ought to be grim and World War One was not anyone's idea of a picnic, but even correcting for all of that, The Bloody Red Baron is just bloody hard going. 

And so to Dracula Cha Cha Cha, which appeared earlier this year in paperback after a lengthy break in the cycle. It includes a separate novella called Aquarius, which is set in the summer of love and is mostly devoted to ripping up early 1970s British TV cop shows and the general notion that hippies were idiots. Cha Cha Cha is set in 1959 Italy and is best seen as the consequence of the always pop-culture crazed Newman overdosing on Italian cinema for some reason. It is very, very wearing. On the one hand, there isn't a clear through line in the plot. On the other hand, there's an endless parade of cameos from fictional and re-imagined historical characters, which is actually the real reason the plot keeps disappearing; it gets kicked out of the way for yet another celebrity guest star. There are moments of real cleverness - the casting of Tom Ripley as a catspaw is clever, but what makes it work is that Newman imagines a Ripley who knows he's out of his depth without realising just how deep the water is, and puts us compellingly inside his slightly panicky mind. This very neatly turns on its head the structure of most of Highsmith's original Ripley books, where the protagonist is flailing around wildly as Ripley calmly exploits him. Newman can do good stuff when he gives himself the room to do it. But instead the novel is a clutter of references and asides which I knew had to be references I was supposed to get if only I were one of the elect who cared enough to immerse myself in contemporary pop culture. Instead I took comfort in the thought that there are people out there whose anoraks would blot out the sun, and felt ever so slightly more mainstream than I usually do. Also, a little of the annoyance that I suspect I provoke from time to time in people who care even less than I do. 

Newman intends to come back and tie the whole thing up in a bow sometime next year with a book called Alucard, which I am hoping/dreading will be set in Japan and be full of anime references and Godzilla. And yes, I will probably read it, completist that I am, but I won't be keeping it.

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