Interview: Dracula's Alternate History Comes Back To Life In Kim Newman's 'Anno Dracula'

For the past two decades, Kim Newman’s award winning alternate history take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula has languished, out of print. It recently returned to bookstores in a new edition from Titan Books (we’ve got an exclusive excerpt here, by the way, just keep reading), and also heralds the 2012 release of the long awaited fourth book in the series. To find out more about this, as well as what’s going on with the many, many rumored adaptation of the books, we talked with Newman over e-mail. And now you’re going to read that interview. So here it is. Right now. Here we go.

Okay:

MTV Geek: With Vampires so hot right now, it seems like the right time for the return of Anno Dracula – but what makes your vamps unique?

Kim Newman: I’m not sure unique is what I was after. More like varied. I tried to envision a world which encompasses every type of vampire and every famous vampire character ever invented – though I’ve not fit in that Thai shit-eating floating severed head thing (yet). Everyone who writes a vampire book or makes a vampire movie has to come up with their own set of rules for what their vampires do or cannot do, picking from or rejecting a menu of possible traits (not reflect in mirrors, turn into bats, shrink from the cross, shrivel in sunlight, etc). I decided that in the Anno Dracula world, there’d be different vampires who conformed to different versions of the myth – which is why Bram Stoker vampires and Anne Rice vampires co-exist with Blacula and the Count from Sesame Street.

Geek: With the new edition, was there a temptation to go back and change anything? Or was it left for posterity?

KN: I found a couple of glitches in phrasing that had no one had noticed over the years and discreetly fixed them – one on the very first page, which I and dozens of editors and proof-readers had miraculously not spotted. Otherwise, it’s as it was. I’ve put in a lot of extra material at the back: annotations, a related short story, alternate scenes from a novella version which predates the novel and a screenplay I wrote just after the book first came out. I wanted to give added value to the reader who already knows the book but lent out their copy and never got it back (this seems to be a recurrent story) or had it fall to pieces.

Geek: There’s also been, in recent years, a lot of “mash-up” novels, particularly set around famous horror books and tropes… Why do you think this took hold now? And what makes Anno Dracula stand out from the crowd?

KN: I’ve not read any of the recent crop, though I suppose I should. I’ve no grand theory as to why there should be a mini-boom in these just now. It’s up to others to say whether Anno Dracula stands out from the crowd, of course, but I hope it does. I don’t claim to be the first to play this sort of game (I always credit Philip José Farmer and Howard Waldrop for pioneering the field) but I did get to this particular party well before the recent crush.

Geek: Unlike most modern vampire books that truck in long glances and forbidden romance, Anno Dracula almost seems more interested in what makes society tick. Would you say that’s accurate? And if so, why this focus?

KN: That’s fair enough. I made the novel a serial killer/detective/conspiracy story because, from Raymond Chandler on (if not Wilkie Collins), that’s a good way to have your characters drop in on all levels of society from the slums to the palaces, with drawing-rooms, literary parties, East End pubs, police stations and newspaper offices along the way. The seed of the novel is the notion of what the world would be like if Dracula won, and – because the whole point was to reflect the way things really are – that necessarily entails a hard look at some horrid things. There is actually a romance element, because I wanted some lightness in the book – but it’s not a very ‘vampire romancy’ sort of thing. Most vamp romances (not that I’ve read widely in the field) follow the human girl/vampire guy formula, but the Anno Dracula books tend to tell vampire girl/human guy stories. I have also tended to write relationships in which one partner being a vampire hasn’t necessarily been the biggest obstacle – or the biggest turn-on – in their lives. I do plan to write an Anno Dracula novella called ‘Vampire Romance’ to explore the sub-genre a bit, and probably make some fun of it while digging into why exactly I find the notion sort of sad.

Geek: There are a ton of literary references in the book, as well as historical characters. Is there anyone you didn’t get to use that you wanted to put in there? And how much research did you have to do, versus just yanking the historical context out of your head?

KN: I don’t think I had anyone in mind who didn’t feature in the book. I did have a few cases where I wavered over who exactly to use in a particular scene. In the script I did, I dropped the criminal boss I intended to be Bill Sikes’ son and used Captain Macheath (Mack the Knife) instead. Reading the book again, I wish I’d done more with Rupert of Hentzau, the villain of The Prisoner of Zenda – he’s a great character. He does feature in my forthcoming non-Anno Dracula novel The Hound of the d’Urbervilles, but probably doesn’t get enough to do there either. I’d like to have featured Victorian adventurer Adam Adamant (from the TV show Adam Adamant Lives!), but somehow he didn’t get into the book – maybe later. I tend to research as I go along. It’s not a question of having a list of characters or details I want to include and working them all in, but a matter of getting into a chapter and then deciding who and what ought to be in the room. Once I know I want to do a scene at the theatre, I’ll read around to come up with the play, the playwright, who’d be invited to the first night (here, Oscar Wilde) and other stuff that needs looking up in books (AD was written pre-internet).

Sometimes, references are just wallpaper – that theatre scene could have been built around something still famous, like a Gilbert & Sullivan or Shaw play, but I wanted to look at Victorian bad taste and came up with a play (which I invented) and a playwright (a real one) who fit that bill. It probably would read the same if I’d entirely made up the background. I did go into the project with a good grounding in Victorian history and fiction, and came out of it knowing a lot more – which has faded in memory, though the reference books stay on my shelves.

Geek: For anyone looking to pick up Anno Dracula – I know you can just jump into the novel – but if you could put one together, what would be your “required reading” list to make your experience that much richer?

KN: Obviously, it helps if you’ve read Dracula (or seen some of the movies). I’d also recommend the sources for some of other key characters and themes: Dr Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (for Lord Ruthven), EW Hornung’s Raffles stories (for Inspector Mackenzie), Billy Wilder’s film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (for the Diogenes Club), GW Pabst’s film and Wedekind’s play Pandora’s Box (for Lulu), and any reasonable based-on-fact account of the Jack the Ripper murders (for Whitechapel). If you’re a fan of vampire books and movies, I tipped in a lot of one-shot characters but if you don’t know the originals it shouldn’t matter. I usually play catch-up with people who are important to the plot and often fiddle with them to fit into the AD continuity or suit my needs anyway. I hope readers can come in cold and enjoy the novel without all this baggage, though.

Geek: You wrote a number of sequels to the book, all set in different decades… Why choose the ones you did? What makes them unique?

KN: I always knew I’d do a WWI book (The Bloody Red Baron) because my first thoughts about the premise was that it would lead to a world war (with vampires). And that gave me a lot of things to play with – biplanes, Mata Hari, German Expressionist horror, the trenches, bat-people, mad eugenics. Then, I went to Italy in 1959 (Dracula Cha Cha Cha) for odd personal reasons (I was born that year) and because it struck me as a fresh, interesting locale – I wanted a contrast with the grimness of WWI and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita at least offered a chance to loosen up and enjoy things more. I got to play with the worlds of Ian Fleming and Patricia Highsmith too. It also hadn’t been done much, and the song after which the book is named had stuck in my mind. There’s no especial reason why I didn’t go with, say, Paris in the 1920s or Hong Kong in 1972 – and I might yet. I still vaguely want to do a Western.

Geek: The fourth book – Johnny Alucard – has been in the works for a while… Is that still the title?

KN: Yes.

Geek: You’ve been working on it for a long time now… With the book set in the eighties, do you feel like any perspective on that decade has changed since you started working on it? Or is that not important for the context of the book?

KN: It’s actually set (after a 1944 prologue) from 1976 to 1989. And, yes, I needed the period to settle a bit.

Geek: Why has it taken so long to get the fourth book out? What’s held it back?

KN: Boring business reasons, mostly. I had a rough draft ready when I parted with my former publisher. It took a while to accumulate the rights to all the books – since I always wanted a uniform reissue of the earlier titles to set up the fourth – and other things got in the way, putting it on the back-burner all these years (I’ve a couple of other long-gestating projects like that). I’ve got some stuff to do for The Bloody Red Baron and Dracula Cha Cha Cha reissues (including new novellas, ‘Vampire Romance’ – set in the 1920s – and ‘Aquarius’ – set in 1968) before I can sit down and work the Johnny Alucard material (a few sections have been published separately) into a finished book. Since that ends (no spoiler) with the equivalent of the Berlin Wall coming down, there’s now another twenty years of realworld (and vampire) history that could be covered, so I have very, very vague notions of a fifth book, which might be called The War on Horror.

Geek: Let’s talk about the movie adaptation… Again, with vampires so hot, any movement on that?

KN: It’s been optioned on and off. There’s always interest. I know it’s a daunting prospect: period setting, lots of effects, ratings-busting gore, big characters (ie: expensive stars), large cast, complicated premise. I hope eventually someone will get it together, though. However, as a film critic, I’ve seen too many famous monster mash-ups which make me cringe. I wouldn’t want it to turn out like, say, the Underworld films or the Mummy series.

Geek: It also seems like the perfect property for TV, as it’s a unique setting, and an ongoing story. You could almost do a Black Adder, but for vampires. I guess I’m pitching this to you? Anyway, is that anything you’ve ever been approached about?

KN: Oddly, not seriously. I’ve thought that too – it might play as a miniseries, or series of miniseries. Again, the scale of the project might be a problem.

Geek: What about comics? Again, it seems like a perfect comic book property, any movement on that?

KN: I’ve occasionally been asked about an adaptation, but I don’t care for based-on-a-book comics myself so creatives would need to be very persuasive. I’d be happy to see (especially to write) an Anno Dracula comic which didn’t tell the same story as the novels, though I’ve no actual ideas for what would fit. As a longtime comics reader, I’d love to do a crossover with either of the big hero universes and script Anno Dracula/JLA or Anno Dracula/Avengers – though a proliferation of similar type projects (Marvel and DC have both thrown Dracula into their mix at times) might well have exhausted the patience of readers by now.

Geek: Lastly, for readers who are tired of the same old vampire stories, why should they pick up Anno Dracula?

KN: Enough people have told me they love the book to dent my habitual writer’s doubt about my own work. When I was working on the idea, I worried that it was about things only I was interested in and no one else would ever get it – but that seems not to have been the result. I wanted to play with the vampire sub-genre, but deliver some sort of satiric bite beyond the thrills and laffs. However, I tried to put in thrills and laffs too. And it has an armadillo. I think all vampire lairs should have an armadillo.

Enjoy this exclusive excerpt from Kim Newman's classic Anno Dracula:

Chapter One: In the Fog

Dr Seward's Diary (kept in phonograph)

17 SEPTEMBER.

Last night's delivery was easier than the others. Much easier than last week's. Perhaps, with practice and patience, everything becomes easier. If never easy. Never ... easy.

I am sorry: it is difficult to maintain an orderly mind and this marvelous apparatus is unforgiving. I cannot ink over hasty words or tear loose a spoiled page. The cylinder revolves, the needle etches, and my ramblings are graven for all time in merciless wax. Marvelous apparatuses, like miracle cures, are beset with unpredictable side-effects. In the twentieth century, new means of setting down human thought may precipitate an avalanche of worthless digression. Brevis esse laboro, as Horace would have it. I know how to present a case history. This will be of interest to posterity. For now, I work in camera and secrete the cylinders with what remain of my earlier accounts. As the situation stands, my life and liberty would be endangered were these journals exposed to the public ear. One day, I should wish my motives and methods made known and clear.

Very well.

The subject: female, apparently in her twenties. Recently dead, I should say. Profession: obvious. Location: Chicksand Street. The Brick Lane end, opposite Flower & Dean Street. Time: shortly after five ante meridiem.

I had been wandering for upwards of an hour in fog as thick as spoiled milk. Fog is best for my night-work. The less one can see of what the city has become in this year, the better. Like many, I've taken to sleeping by day, working by night. Mostly, I doze; it seems years since the bliss of actual sleep. Hours of darkness are the hours of activity now. Of course, here in Whitechapel things were never much different.

There's one of those cursed blue plaques in Chicksand Street; at 197, one of the Count's bolt-holes. Here lay six of the earth-boxes to which he and Van Helsing attached such superstitious and, as it eventuated, entirely unwarranted importance. Lord Godalming was supposed to destroy them; but, as in so much else, my noble friend proved not equal to the task. I was under the plaque, unable to discern its wording, pondering our failures, when the dead girl solicited my attention.

'Mister ...' she called. 'Missssster ...'

As I turned, she settled feathers away from her throat. Her neck and bosom showed mist-white. A living woman would have shook with the cold. She stood under a staircase leading to a first-floor doorway above which burned a red-shaded lantern. Behind her, bar-shadowed by the stairs, was another doorway, half-sunken below the level of the pavement. None of the windows in the building, nor in any close enough to see clearly, showed a light. We inhabited an island of visibility in a sea of murk.

I traversed the street, boots making yellow eddies in the low-lying fog. There was no one nearby. I heard people passing, but we were curtained. Soon, the first spikes of dawn would drive the last new-borns from the streets. The dead girl was up late by the standards of her kind. Dangerously late. Her need for money, for drink, must have been acute.

'Such a handsome gentleman,' she cooed, waving a hand in front of her, sharp nails shredding traces of fog.

I endeavoured to make out her face and was rewarded with an impression of thin prettiness. She angled her head slightly to regard me, a wing of jet-black hair falling away from a white cheek. There was interest in her black-red eyes, and hunger. Also, a species of half-aware amusement that borders contempt. The look is common among women, on the streets or off. When Lucy - Miss Westenra of Sainted Memory - refused my proposal, the spark of a similar expression inhabited her eyes.

'... and so close to morning.'

She was not English. From her accent, I'd judge her German or Austrian by birth. The hint of a 'ch' in 'chentleman', a 'close' that verged upon 'cloze'. The Prince Consort's London, from Buckingham Palace to Buck's Row, is the sinkhole of Europe, clogged with the ejecta of a double-dozen principalities.

'Come on and kiss me, sir.'

I stood for a moment, simply looking. She was indeed a pretty thing, distinctive. Her shiny hair was cut short and lacquered in an almost Chinese style, sharp bangs like the cheek-guards of a Roman helmet. In the fog, her red lips appeared quite black. Like all of them, she smiled too easily, disclosing sharp pearl-chip teeth. A cloud of cheap scent hung around, sickly to cover the reek.

The streets are filthy, open sewers of vice. The dead are everywhere.

The girl laughed musically, the sound like something wrung from a mechanism, and beckoned me near, loosening further the ragged feathers about her shoulders. Her laugh reminded me again of Lucy. Lucy when she was alive, not the leech-thing we finished in Kingstead Cemetery. Three years ago, when only Van Helsing believed ...

'Won't you give me a little kiss,' she sang. 'Just a little kiss.'

Her lips made a heart-shape. Her nails touched my cheek, then her fingertips. We were both cold; my face a mask of ice, her fingers needles pricking through frozen skin.

'What brought you to this?' I asked.

'Good fortune and kind gentlemen.'

'Am I a kind gentleman?' I asked, gripping the scalpel in my trousers pocket.

'Oh yes, one of the kindest. I can tell.'

I pressed the flat of the instrument against my thigh, feeling the chill of silver through good cloth.

'I have some mistletoe,' the dead girl said, detaching a sprig from her bodice. She held it above her.

'A kiss?' she asked. 'Just a penny for a kiss.'

'It is early for Christmas.'

'There's always time for a kiss.'

She shook her sprig, berries jiggling like silent bells. I placed a cold kiss on her red-black lips and took out my knife, holding it under my coat. I felt the blade's keenness through my glove. Her cheek was cool against my face.

I learned from last week's in Hanbury Street - Chapman, the newspapers say her name was, Annie or Anne - to do the business swiftly and precisely. Throat. Heart. Tripes. Then get the head off. That finishes the things. Clean silver and a clean conscience. Van Helsing, blinkered by folklore and symbolism, spoke always of the heart, but any of the major organs will do. The kidneys are easiest to reach.

I had made preparation carefully before venturing out. For half an hour I sat, allowing myself to become aware of the pain. Renfield is dead - truly dead - but the madman left his jaw-marks in my right hand. The semi-circle of deep indentations has scabbed over many times but never been right again. With Chapman, I was dull from the laudanum I take and not as precise as I should have been. Learning to cut left-handed has not helped. I missed the major artery and the thing had time to screech. I am afraid I lost control and became a butcher, when I should be a surgeon.

Last night's went better. The girl clung as tenaciously to life, but there was an acceptance of my gift. She was relieved, at the last, to have her soul cleansed. Silver is hard to come by now. The coinage is gold or copper. I hoarded threepenny bits while the money was changing and sacrificed my mother's dinner service. I've had the instruments since my Purfleet days. Now the blades are plated, a core of steel strength inside killing silver. This time I selected the post-mortem scalpel. It is fitting, I think, to employ a tool intended for rooting around in corpses.

The dead girl invited me into her doorway and wriggled skirts up over slim white legs. I took the time to open her blouse. My fingers, hot with pain, fumbled.

'Your hand?'

I held up the lumpily-gloved club and tried a smile. She kissed my locked knuckles and I slipped my other hand out from my coat, holding firmly the scalpel.

'An old wound,' I said. 'It's nothing.'

She smiled and I quickly drew my silver edge across her neck, pressing firmly with my thumb, cutting deep into pristine dead-flesh. Her eyes widened with shock - silver hurts - and she released a long sigh. Lines of thin blood trickled like rain on a window-pane, staining the skin over her collar-bones. A single tear of blood issued from the corner of her mouth.

'Lucy,' I said, remembering ...

I held up the girl, my body shielding her from passersby, and slid the scalpel through her stays and into her heart. I felt her shudder and fall lifeless. But I know the dead can be resilient and took care to finish the job. I laid her in the well of the sunken doorway and completed the delivery. There was little blood in her; she must not have fed tonight. After cutting away her corset, easily ripping the cheap material, I exposed the punctured heart, detached the intestines from the mesentery, unravelled a yard of the colon, and removed the kidneys and part of the uterus. Then I enlarged the first incision. Having exposed the vertebrae, I worried the loose head back and forth until the neckbones parted.

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