Monday, October 19, 2009

Kim Newman: Anno Dracula

I must admit that I'm one of those old fogies who believes that the best vampire story ever written was by Bram Stoker and the ones that came after really don't match up to it. However, I belong to a SF/F book group and am occasionally forced, therefore, to read vampire tales, more or less under duress. Generally, the stories have reinforced my opinion. Occasionally, though, a story does come close to capturing the flavor of Stoker's novel. Kim Newman's Anno Dracula is one of those rare exceptions.

The story has a rather unusual premise. It, of course, answers one of the two basic questions that SF/Fantasy/Horror asks--"What if?" Actually it answers the question twice: What if vampires exist and what if Van Helsing had failed to kill Count Dracula. Usually alternative history tales turn on events in the real world: What would it be like if the Confederacy had won the Civil War? If Hitler had invaded and conquered England? If the US had been conquered by Japan and Germany in WWII?

This alternative universe story turns not on a real event but on a fictional event--Count Dracula's defeat by Van Helsing in Stoker's novel. The premise is Count Dracula's actions after surviving the attack. As a member of the aristocracy, he would have access to the royal court and to the widowed Queen Victoria. Newman postulates that Count Dracula would have persuaded (hypnotized?) Queen Victoria to marry him. Once he has succeeded, Dracula then becomes the ruler of the British Empire.

Newman does a very credible job of presenting the reactions of the British public to this situation. There are those who are opposed to the union and also to the growing power of the vampires in the Empire. The problem is that being a vampire has certain advantages--an extremely long life, if not actual immortality, and an ability to survive wounds and physical damage that would have killed ordinary humans.

Under these circumstances, many of the English are now opting to become vampires--the "newly born." Opposed to them are the "warms," those who choose to remain human. The "newly borns" are close to gaining almost complete control of the government, such that promotions and position upgrades are almost out of reach for the "warms." In England, everybody fears a civil war between the vampires and the warms. In addition, growing resentment throughout the Empire against the vampires is beginning to fracture it.

Set against this background are a series of horrific murders. Three, or perhaps four, vampire prostitutes have been murdered in Whitechapel, perhaps butchered would be a better term. The murderer, aware of the physical capabilities of the vampires, goes to great lengths to ensure the impossibility of the body to heal itself. Scotland Yard has no clues. The killer comes, kills, and disappears.

One might almost consider this a mystery story, but one that is so deeply steeped in the turn-of-the century fictional London that the setting almost overshadows the attempts to identify and stop the killer.

Charles Beauregard--adventurer, spy, investigator--is a member of the mysterious Diogenes Club. He is summoned one night to a meeting. The Inner Circle of the club assigns him the task of ferreting out the killer. Shortly afterwards, Beauregard takes a cab, a hansom cab of course, and is taken, unwillingly, to a meeting of the Criminal Elite, the rulers of the underworld. They also are concerned about the killings because the police have suddenly become very active-- arresting people, searching various establishments, and thereby disturbing the normal comfortable relationship between the police and the underworld. Beauregard is informed that the killings are bad for business and that he is expected to do something about them--quickly.

My first clue to the nature of Newman's novel arrived early. Beauregard, at home shortly afterwards, has a visitor. It is Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard--yes, the same Lestrade who didn't think much of Sherlock Holmes' newfangled methods, but, being in the neighborhood, dropped by every once in awhile to discuss a particularly puzzling case with him. Unfortunately he can't drop by Baker Street now because Holmes is in Sussex, not on a bee farm but in a concentration camp for those deemed dangerous to the regime. Holmes, it seems, disagreed with the present government about certain policies.

There are other familiar names in Newman's novel. One of the members of the Inner Circle of the Diogenes Club is Mycroft, Holmes' brother. Some of the members of the Criminal Elite are also well-known to readers of Doyle--Professor Moriarty and Colonel Moran. A third member is Chinese, a member of the Si-Fan, the Evil Doctor. Those who have read stories by Sax Rohmer will no doubt recognize Dr. Fu Manchu.

Those who have read Stoker's novel will also find some familiar names. Bram Stoker himself is in the same concentration camp as Holmes. Van Helsing has been executed. Mina Harkness is doing well as a vampire. Florence Stoker (Bram's real wife) is popular among the upper classes as a hostess but is losing her clout because many of the upper classes are turning vampire and her husband's opposition to the vampires is an embarrassment. Jack Seward, the head of the mental institution in Stoker's novel, is now the medical director of a clinic for the poor.

Seward is not the only medical man on the scene, for both Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Moreau make a brief appearance. In fact, Beauregard goes to Dr. Jekyll's laboratory at one point and meets Dr. Moreau there. They also are interested in the Whitechapel killer.

Anno Dracula is not a true "whodunit" for the reader learns early on the identity of the Whitechapel murderer. The interest really is in the depiction of a society that learns that vampires exist and that it must deal with them. One particularly memorable scene occurs at a party when a toast is given. The vampire there does not drink and so is left out. The hostess recognizes the problem and motions a servant over to the vampire. The servant calmly unbuttons the sleeve of her dress and allows the vampire to take some blood from her wrist.

In addition, wondering about the identity of the next fictional character I would meet also kept me turning pages.

Overall Rating: highly recommended for those who enjoy vampire stories. Newman does a superb job of capturing the feel of Stoker's tale and also that of the late 19th century London, both real and fictional.

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