Anno Dracula: The Background

Anno Dracula: The Background

Bela Lugosi as DraculaWhen I was eleven years old, my parents let me stay up past my bed-time to watch the 1930 Tod Browning version of Dracula, with Bela Lugosi, on television. I can’t overestimate the effect this has had on the subsequent course of my life, since the film was the spark which lit the flames of my interests in horror and in cinema. I was captivated by Dracula, and became an obsessive in the way only an eleven-year-old can be obsessive. I think my parents expected the craze to wear off, but obviously it never did.

Among my first attempts at writing was a one-page play, based on the Lugosi film, which I wrote, starred in, and directed in drama class at Dr Morgan’s Grammar School in Autumn, 1970. Mercifully, this juvenilia has been lost. Shortly afterwards, I read (and reread) Bram Stoker’s novel, and went out of my way to catch as many Dracula movies as possible. I had the Aurora glow-in-the-dark hobby kit (‘Frightning Lightning Strikes!’) of Lugosi as the Count, and began to collect other novels (far fewer then than there are now) which sequelised, imitated, parodied or ripped off the character. When I happened to return in 1989 to the building that had been Dr Morgan’s assembly hall, the stage was set for that year’s school play, Dracula. I regarded this as a personal vindication.

Here’s how Anno Dracula evolved. At University in 1978, I took a course entitled Late Victorian Revolt, tought by the poet Laurence Lerner and Norman Mackenzie (Wells’s biographer), for which I wrote a thesis (‘The Secular Apocalypse: The End of the World in Turn of the Century Fictions’) which later cropped up as the work of the main character of my novel third novel, Jago. For the thesis, I read up on invasion narratives (George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking, Wells’s The War in the Air, Saki’s When William Came), which imagine England overwhelmed by its enemies (usually the Germans). I was already interested in alternate history science fiction, and recognised in these mostly-fotgotten stories the precursors of the many 20th Century stories which imagine an alternative outcome to the Second World War featuring a Nazi occupation of Britain (Len Deighton’s SS/GB, Kevin Brownlow’s film It Happened Here). In a footnote to my section on invasions, I described Dracula’s campaign of conquest in Stoker’s 1897 novel as ‘a one-man invasion’.

Vlad the impalerI’m not sure when all the connections were made, but at some point in the early ’80s it occurred to me that there might be story potential in an alternative outcome 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 has 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 furthurer of a new order of beings, whose road must lead through Death, not Life’. Yet Stoker allegorises Dracula’s assault on Britain entirely as an attack on the Victorian family, an emblem of all the things he prized and saw as fragile. It just struck me as an interesting avenue to explore the kind of England, the kind of world, that would result if Van Helsing and his family of fearless vampire killers were defeated and Dracula was allowed to father and further his new order.

I remember discussing this idea with Neil Gaiman and Faith Brooker (then an editor at Arrow) around 1984, when Neil and I were compiling a book called Ghastly Beyond Belief for Faith and trying to come up with novel ideas we could sell her. Among many projects we talked about but never did much with was the idea of a trilogy on my Dracula Wins theme, which would have concentrated on the workings of a vampire government from the 1880s to the First World War (Neil was keen on writing the trenches scenes). Nothing was ever written down, but my vision then was of a story that concentrated on high places: it was to have been set in the corridors of power, with Dracula as a major character, and the plot would be what eventually became the backstory of the novels, the workings of vampire politics, following Dracula’s rise to power and the efforts of British revolutionary groups and foreign powers to oust him from the throne.

The idea lay about in my head gathering dust, and the odd character, until Stephen Jones asked me to write something for an anthology project he was working on in 1991, The Mammoth Book of Vampires. Steve’s request prompted me finally to set down the parameters for Anno Dracula, in that I felt a mammoth book of vampires should have some showing from the king of the un-dead. The result was ‘Red Reign’, which first appeared in Steve’s book and is the bare skeleton of Anno Dracula. Meanwhile I’d already been drawn to vampires in my work under the name of Jack Yeovil for GW Books’ tie-ins to their wholly-owned Warhammer fantasy universe. As Jack, I developed not only a system of vampirism that, crossbred with Bram Stoker’s, survives in the Anno Dracula novels, but also the creature who became their most popular character. For the record, the Genevieve of Yeovil’s Drachenfels and Genevieve Undead, is not the same character as the Geneviève of Anno Dracula, but she is her trans-continual cousin.

For me, book ideas are like coral reefs, built up as bits and pieces stick together over years. With Anno Dracula, I had the background and the two lead characters – Charles Beauregard, who was intended as a dashing Victorian hero along the lines of Rudolph Rassendyll in The Prisoner of Zenda or Gerald Harper in the old TV series Adam Adamant Lives!, and the vampire girl Geneviève – plus the notion (inspired by Philip José Farmer) of a large cast list which would include not only real Victorians (Oscar Wilde, Gilbert & Sullivan, Swinburne) but famous characters from the fiction of the period (Raffles, Fu Manchu, various Holmesian hangers-on, Dr Moreau, Dr Jekyll).

In The Night Mayor, my first novel, I had explored the idea of a consensus genre world, whereby all the faces and figures from 1940s films noirs hung out in the same city, and it was an obvious step to make the London of Anno Dracula a similar site, where the criss-crossing stories of all the great late Victorian horror, crime and social melodramas were being played out at the same time. This adds to a certain spot-the-reference feel some readers have found annoying but which others really enjoy – I admit to getting a tiny thrill when I can borrow a character from E.M. Forster (Henry Wilcox, from Howard’s End) or resurrect someone as forgotten as Guy Boothby’s Moriarty-esque mastermind Dr Nikola. This also allows me to make the novel as much a playground as a minefield, and to go beyond historical accuracy to evoke all those gaslit, fogbound London romances.

One of the things my plot needed was a plethora of vampires, since Dracula would have turned a great many Britishers into his get, starting with a couple of Stoker’s characters (Arthur Holmwood, Mina Harker) and extending to a lot of real people from Queen Victoria to a horde of walk-on prostitutes and policemen. I decided that if Dracula were to replace Prince Albert as Victoria’s consort, then all the other vampires of literature would come out of hiding and flock to his court in the hope of advancement. After Dracula, the best-known vampire in literature is Dr Polidori’s Byronesque Lord Ruthven and so he came forward to take the job of Dracula’s Prime Minister and stick around for the rest of the series (in The Bloody Red Baron, the second Anno Dracula novel, I see Ruthven as John Major to the Count’s Margaret Thatcher).

For my major vampire characters, the Carpathian Guard, I drew on less-known names, borrowing from Alexander Dumas (in The Pale-Faced Lady), Eric, Count Stenbock (in ‘The True Story of a Vampire’), George A. Romero (in Martin) and the ever-dependable Anonymous (in ‘The Mysterious Stranger’) for the worthies Kostaki, Vardalek, Martin Cuda and von Klatka. I decided to let LeFanu’s Carmilla stay dead, but at least gave her a mention, and thought it obligatory to have some fun at the expense of the real-life Elizabeth Bathory (my version owes more to Delphine Seyrig inLe Rouge aux levres than history) and Anne Rice’s Lestat (a fashion leader for clothes-conscious vampires). I enjoyed cramming in as many previous vampires as possible, to the extent of writing a speech which finds Ruthven nastily listing all his peers and being rude about them. In the follow-up novels, I have enjoyed working a bit more with Les Daniels’ Don Sebastian de Villanueva and Barbara Steele’s Princess Asa Vajda, but I am wary of doing too much with other people’s characters when the original creators might not yet be finished with them.

Anno DraculaThe final element that dropped into place, enabling me to write a draft of ‘Red Reign’ very quickly, was the actual plot. I needed a genuine spine for the story, which would enable me to ecplore the world I had created, and I wanted something that would take the readers on a tour of my London that would include the slums and the palaces. The story of Jack the Ripper would have been hard to keep out of Anno Dracula, but I the idea that the unknown serial killer was a vampire (a theme Robert Bloch made his own in ‘Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper and which has been rehashed several times since) not only struck me as old hat but also not quite right for a story in which vampires were out in the open rather than cowering in the fog. So, with the world turned upside-down, it became clear that Jack the Ripper should be a vampire-killer, and Stoker had obligingly called one of Van Helsing’s disciples Jack, made him a doctor and indicated that his experiences in the novel were pretty much pushing him over the edge. Therefore, Stoker’s Dr Seward became my Jack the Ripper, driven mad by the staking of Lucy Westenra, with whom he was in love, and stalking vampire whores in Whitechapel (to make his situation more complex, I made Mary Kelly, the Ripper’s last victim, the get of the vampire Lucy and also her near-lookalike).

The Ripper story is nowadays almost as big a favourite with the conspiracy theorists as the Kennedy assassination, and so it became quite natural to depict the effects of a series of sex crimes on a volatile society. With a killer on the loose, my other characters had all sorts of reasons – self-serving or noble – to find out who he was, to hinder or help his crimes or to make propagandist use of him. I was trying, without being too solemn, to mix things I felt about the 1980s, when the British Government made ‘Victorian Values’ a slogan, with the real and imagined 1880s, when blood was flowing in the fog and there was widespread social unrest. The Ripper murders also gave the novel a structure: the real dates of the killings – I couldn’t resist adding the Ripper’s most famous fictional victim, Wedekind’s Lulu, to his historical list – became pegs for the plot, and other actual events like a Bernard Shaw speech, the bogus letters from the Ripper to the press or an inquest also fit surprisingly well into the fantasy.

The Ripper theme imposed a specific date on the action, the Autumn of 1888. It is often assumed that the events of the Stoker novel take place in 1893 (the dates he gives fit that year), however there is a chink in that argument. Published in 1897, the novel ends with a present-day chapter locating the bulk of the story seven years in the past, but numerous small details – like the use of the phrase ‘new woman’, coined in 1892, or even the comparative sophistication of Dr Seward’s phonograph – jar with this. I plumped – as did Jimmy Sangster, Terence Fisher and Hammer Films for their 1958 Dracula (Horror of Dracula to heathen Americans) – for 1885, and opted to shift onto an alternate timetrack half-way through Stoker’s Chapter 21, on page 249 of Leonard Wolf’s annotated edition. Stoker’s Dracula is already an alternate world story, set in a timeline where social and mechanical progress advanced slightly faster than in our own, and where certain givens of London geography are altered (his London boasts a Kingstead Cemetery in the region of Hampstead Heath, presumably corresponding to our own Highgate Cemetery).

In reworking history, I took as a starting point Stoker’s imagined world rather than our own, even to the extent of finally presenting to the public Kate Reed, a character conceived by Stoker for Dracula but omitted from the novel (and who has become more important in the sequels). Though I no longer wanted to present the story in a trilogy, I realised early on that there was enough in the world to merit return visits. I didn’t especially want to do a direct sequel, since the last chapter of Anno Dracula more or less indicates what is about to happen in the country and how our main characters will be involved in it. However, vampires live long lifetimes and it was clear that the events of Anno Dracula would resonate well into the 20th Century, which made me think again of the First World War. My original vision of the story was to reach a world-changing climax in a fantastical version of WWI, influenced by the Victorian imaginary war stories and fond recollections of W.E. Johns’s children’s books about the fighter pilot Biggles (I was a devotee as a boy). If the first novel was hung around the crimes of Jack the Ripper, then the second would be draped around the famous killing spree of an officially-sanction serial murderer, Baron von Richthofen.

The Bloody Red Baron became a grimmer book than Anno Dracula, because the background is even more appalling. Geneviève, who was becoming too strong a character for her own good, was packed off, and I built up the more versatile, less superhuman new-born vampire Kate as her replacement – the fact that she is conscious of her inability to be like Geneviève gives her a good character trait and also expresses any sequel’s problems in following up something that was popular while establishing its own identity. Moving ahead thirty years takes us from the world of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper to the mass carnage of the Western front. There are lighter moments in the first book, where the hero and heroine investigate the crimes in the spirit of Nick and Nora Charles or John Steed and Emma Peel, but the romantic relationships of the second are more desperate, less easy to resolve. Again, I tried to cope with the tragic elements of a character (Dr Seward, the Red Baron) who has deliberately been shaped into a killer, while retaining sympathy for his many victims. My fondness for pulp characters like the Shadow, Herbert West, Fantomas, Captain Midnight, the Saint and Bulldog Drummond brought in a high-adventure feel, but modernism and seriousness also swept in the likes of Clifford Chatterley, the Good Soldier Svejk, Jake Barnes and Jules and Jim.

Dracula Cha Cha Cha is the third Anno Dracula novel. Needing a rest after the war-torn red baron book, I decided to skip the obvious World War Two setting and relax a little by enjoying la dolce vita with a book set in Rome in July 1959 (a major character dies on the day I am born, not that I get a mention in the book). Aside from Fellini’s masterpiece, I have incorporated elements from Three Coins in a Fountain (the three female leads of Anno Dracula recur, and each makes a wish), Two Weeks in Another Town (the title comes from a pop song heard in Vincente Minnelli’s film), the Rome-set mystery-horror films of Mario Bava and Dario Argento (there’s another vampire-killer on the loose), the thrillers of Ian Fleming (having made vampires of Inspector Lestrade and Biggles, I here present a secret agent with a license to drink blood) and Patricia Highsmith (I didn’t know when I wrote that Anthony Minghella was going to film The Talented Mr Ripley, and there are interesting differences between his take on Highsmith’s socipathic killer and mine) and tried to come up with yet another role in the modern world for Count Dracula himself.

I am only able to keep this work up – the books demand an awful lot of nit-picking research and detail-gathering – because my enthusiasm for Dracula is undimmed. The books wouldn’t be possible without Stoker’s inventions, which perhaps makes them literally vampire novels, feeding off other books and stories, sucking them in and transforming them. Of course, the story doesn’t end with the three novels. I am wary of devoting too much of my life to this one series, as much for fear of wearing myself out on the idea as of tiring the public by going back to the well too many times, but I’ve been working on a fourth book that will carry the story forward into the 1970s and 80s. I’ve already completed sections entitled ‘Coppola’s Dracula’, ‘Andy Warhol’s Dracula’ and ‘The Other Side of Midnight’, which follow the progress of a vampire who may or may not be Dracula’s get as he is involved in various filmmaking enterprises that offer alternate takes on the classic Dracula story as they might have been made by Francis Coppola, Andy Warhol, Orson Welles and others. Among Vicious, Travis Bickle, Tony from Saturday Night Fever, Lt Columbo, Kenneth Anger and ‘Barbie the Vampire Slayer’. In the end, all these stories will combine into a novel entitled Johnny Alucard.

As things stand, I have no ideas for extending the series beyond that – though I’d like to write a vampire Western with Edgar Allan Poe tracking a blood-drinking Billy the Kid (an aside in Anno Dracula). However, I know from experience that Dracula is hard to shake off, hard to leave behind. Maybe there is more to be said.

Kim Newman

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