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27 October 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 4:53pm

Vampire writer Kim Newman roams gleefully through history with a stake and a mallet

Anno Dracula 1899 and Kim Newman's Video Dungeon are complex, funny and full of hyper-accurate references.

By Scott Bradfield

There was a time, not long ago, when vampires were a select, aristocratic, and circumspect bunch. They lived in ancient, turreted castles and churches, spoke in high tones about their inbred, noble families, and displayed a taste for fine clothes, fine décor, and the blood of fine, well-raised ladies – even while they satisfied their more unattractive hungers with women from the “lower orders” in the basement. A reasonable person couldn’t help liking a vampire if they met one – after all, they’re just so damn polite. But when push came to shove, there was only one way to deal with one: drive a stake through its heart, burn it to ashes, and fling those ashes to the wind. Rough justice, perhaps. But it was once a no-brainer.

In the Nineties and Naughts, the vampire went through big changes – largely as a result of revisionist writers such as Kim Newman, Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris, Scott Snyder, and the now-dreaded Young Adult novelist, Stephenie Meyer. Their vampires ventured boldly down from their castles and joined the mundane world, took jobs in diners and laundromats, and developed cross-species relationships. They aspired to be treated like the special creatures they knew themselves to be inside, and not as just a bunch of crude stereotypes. No longer did they want to slay Buffy; rather, they wanted perhaps to escort Buffy to the prom. If they were lucky, Buffy might even save them a dance.

In the more flamboyant revisionist send-ups, such as the 2007 film of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend or From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), the undead actually outnumber the living – shifting the role of unnatural minority from them to us. And as reiterations of old classics – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), FW Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) – multiply almost exponentially every decade or so, it has grown increasingly difficult to distinguish the monstrous from the human. In his long-running series of Dracula novels, Kim Newman seems determined to make the job of distinguishing fictive evil from actual evil more difficult than ever.

In Anno Dracula (1992), Newman began charting the intersection of our complex political world with his almost-as-complex fabulations. Set in an alternate reality (or even an alternate “fictional reality”), Anno Dracula describes a late-Victorian era in which vampires have emerged from the closet to mix freely with the “warm bloods”. As Prince Consort of Queen Victoria, Dracula has opened the island-bound mind of Britain to an infinitely wide range of new cultural possibilities. (An experience the English find even more dizzying than, say, the idea of a German in the Queen’s bed.)

In the class-bound, money-driven life of London, all that really changes is what’s being sold and who’s buying it. In Soho, the prostitutes adapt to the new black economy by offering sex to the warm, and bare necks to the cold. The music halls present comic operas such as Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Vampyres of Venice; or: A Maid, a Shade and a Blade. In the literary realm, bloodsucking immortality isn’t limited to any political or aesthetic affiliations: Oscar Wilde almost predictably leaps at the opportunity to extend his nocturnal partying, while the straight-laced Tennyson finds vampirism an excellent way to remain Poet Laureate forever (to the dismay of those who have to keep reading him).

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In subsequent books, such as The Bloody Red Baron (1995) and Dracula Cha Cha Cha (1998), Newman roams gleefully through history and popular culture with a stake and a mallet, recruiting every character (real and fictive) that strikes his fancy: Dr Jekyll, Cardinal Newman, Edgar Allan Poe, Mycroft Holmes, and the “Bloody Red Baron” himself, Baron von Richthofen.

Newman’s books are complex, funny, and popping with hyper-accurate historical references, allusions and games – much like his film criticism, some of which is happily displayed in his new book of capsule review summaries, Video Dungeon, a fat sampling of the best, the worst, and the desperately-need-to-be-forgotten videos and DVDs Newman has been rescuing from the slush pile at Empire magazine since 2000. (While some reviewers might disdain the slush pile, Newman revels in it.)

Video Dungeon is packed with fast, honest analyses of everything from the 1932 remake of L’Atlantide all the way down to the bottom of the battered cardboard box, where we find the “microbudgeted” but somewhat interesting-sounding Alucard (2005), the risible Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein (1999) and the recent testimony to the fact that Roger Corman is still alive and well, Sharktopus (2010). The Newman oeuvre, film-watching-wise, sometimes feels as huge and inclusive as a Sharkanado-sized maw.

Some people love “classic” films. Some people love bad, groan-with-your-friends-type films. But Newman seems to love all films – from Citizen Kane (1941) to Mega Snake (2007) – just so long as they aren’t boring. And in every Newman novel since his first, The Night Mayor (1989) – a fantasy inspired by David Thomson’s novel Suspects – cinema is central to the action. In Johnny Alucard (2013), Newman leads us through 20th-century post-vampire life via movies that might have been, such as Francis Ford Coppola’s drug-driven, mid-Seventies adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula, starring Martin Sheen, Sam Bottoms and, as the illustrious Count – well, it hasn’t been confirmed or anything, but they’re talking to Brando… There is an old cliché of old creative writing teachers like myself that goes: write fiction about what you know. And what Newman clearly  knows is movies.

The latest volume in the Dracula sequence is almost an “I dare you” conflation of history and film. Rather than continue exploring the meta-fictional landscapes of movies people have seen, One Thousand Monsters takes readers into some obscure cinematic territory – a series of Japanese samurai/horror films from the late Sixties known as the Yokai trilogy.

The monsters – which include a droop-tongued and flirtatious umbrella creature, a snake-necked woman, and something that looks like a duck and walks like a duck but isn’t a duck – might at first resemble crude Godzilla-wannabes, but they turn out to be some talented mime artists and acrobats dressed up in imaginative, disturbing costumes.

Of course Newman isn’t satisfied with a mere four-score-and-twenty monsters; he immediately ups the game to a thousand. Taking place shortly after the chaotic conclusion of the first Anno Dracula novel, this instalment follows vampire-refugees seeking a new home anywhere that will let them in. The principal recurring character, Geneviève Dieudonné, is a teenage-appearing vampire who wants to be (and usually succeeds at being) a “good girl”, subsisting off the blood of rats and whores. She escorts a ship filled with coffin-bedded undead to a Japanese town where vampires and monsters are allowed to roam free – or at least so they’re told.

As Geneviève and her compatriots (one of them is Henry James’s Princess Casamassima) explore their new home, they encounter an escalating series of murders, atrocities and riotous behaviour, so much so that it is often hard to keep up with Newman’s furious inventiveness: a conspiracy of puppets, a suicide club, and the Hokusai wave all compete to enact one mayhem after another. Then, just to prove that the undead have a sense of humour, there’s the “least threatening vampire bloodline I’ve ever come across”, as Geneviève writes.

Whereas nosferatu are feared for entering houses while owners are at home and drinking their blood, the nurarihyon are resented for entering houses while owners are away and drinking their tea.  Yes–a vampire who subsists on tea!  With, on occasion, a few drops of blood added to the pot.  The sting is that it has to be someone else’s tea…

There are times in these always intelligent books that it doesn’t feel like a story is developing so much as that a series of funny and absorbing ideas about history and popular culture are being paraded past us at the Mardi Gras. But it is still a more pleasurable parade than the actual history we are collectively observing now. Each meta-fictive passage shines with its own peculiar, inverted light, suggesting that Newman should have no trouble populating several more decades of his incomparable vampire-driven cinephilia. To borrow a phrase from Pauline Kael: be careful what you lose at the movies. Because Kim Newman will find it, and send right it back at you – with fangs. 

Scott Bradfield is a critic, novelist and screenplay writer

Anno Dracula 1899: One Thousand Monsters
Kim Newman
Titan Books, 313pp, £14.95

Kim Newman’s Video Dungeon: the Collected Reviews
Kim Newman
Titan Books, 560pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia