Note: this is the latest entry in a loose series of critical looks at some SF novels, preceded by Evil and Mortality in Philip Palmer’s Version 43 and Artemis, Shall I tell you the Problem with Adam Roberts?, Embassytown considered as a post-modernist collage, Cold War Paranoia: Ian Sales’ Adrift on the Sea of Rains, The Irresistible Mixture of Banality and Melodrama, or, Why Dance with Dragons, and Al-Qaeda Zombies and American Vampires: On Christopher Farnsworth’s Blood Oath.
The Vampire of the Vanities: Greed and Glamour in Anno Dracula’s Johnny Alucard
The nature of the Anno Dracula world is one of pastiche, remix and play. In that… vein, I thought it would be fun, for no particular reason to do this according to Bolano’s 2666. Therefore:
1. The Part About The Reviewer
I can’t quite say when I first came across the Anno Dracula books. Somewhere in the basements of long-defunct Murder One in London, perhaps, or the old Forbidden Planet on New Oxford Street. Perhaps around the time PS Publishing began releasing books, one of which was Kim Newman’s Andy Warhol’s Dracula, itself a part of the long-awaited Johnny Alucard, and which dates my obsession with the AD world to somewhere around 1999.
Long-awaited indeed. Johnny Alucard is made up of bits of the AD world published mostly individually, including the brilliant Coppola’s Dracula, which opens the book. The series itself comprised the original Anno Dracula (1992); The Bloody Red Baron (1995) and Dracula Cha Cha Cha (or Judgement of Tears, in the U.S, 1998). The first book is set in the 1880s, the second in World War 1, the third in 1960s Italy. The fourth book takes the action almost to our present day, but mostly focuses on the 70s and 80s decades of the last century. The idea behind it is simple: Count Dracula did not die at the end of Dracula (1897) but survives, marries Queen Victoria, and ushers in a new era of vampirism. The resultant alternate history, populated by historical and characters from popular fiction (and pop culture), is then charted.
At the heart of the AD world are three women vampires: Geneviève Dieudonné, a French vampire “elder” trying to do good; Kate Reed, an idealistic Irish journalist (whose character was cut out of the final draft of Stoker’s Dracula); and Penelope Churchward, a somewhat stern character often at odds with the other two women. All three, meanwhile, form complex relationships with Charles Beauregard, a mortal man and British spy.
In coming to review Johnny Alucard, therefore – a book I have been waiting for since the original trilogy was concluded over a decade ago, and a book at least some of whose instalments I had read over the years – I find a challenge. Anno Dracula is, I think, an obvious influence on my own Bookman Histories books (particularly in the mix of real and fictional characters), and so I must try not to discuss the relative merits or otherwise of the novel but rather its theme; what it has to say.
And so with that caveat:
2. The Part About The Review
How does one come to review Johnny Alucard? It is a mosaic novel, composed of various pieces of short and longish fiction which have appeared sporadically over the years, cemented with some new linking material and some unpublished work. Does it work, indeed, as a novel? A fourth novel expanding on the original trilogy that began with Dracula’s rise to power and ends with his death, does it have anything new to say about the curious set-up its author had initially created? And can a novel of popular fiction have anything deep and meaningful to say beyond the joy of escapism?
Initially, one decision I had to make was, do I re-read all the (early) parts I have already read, or do I begin with the new? I opted to read it as a novel, from the beginning. After a new, short introductory section we go straight into Coppola’s Dracula, which re-imagines Dracula being filmed as Apocalypse Now in Transylvania, complete with the real-life actors and situations, and with the dialogue memorably changed. It is the sort of thing one could quote compulsively. Here is the opening shot of this re-imagined film:
A treeline at dusk. Tall, straight, Carpathian pines. The red of sunset bleeds into the dark of night. Great flapping sounds. Huge, dark shapes flit languidly between the trees, sinister, dangerous. A vast batwing brushes the treetops.
Jim Morrison’s voice wails in despair. ‘People Are Strange’.
Fire blossoms. Blue flame, pure as candle light. Black trees are consumed …
Fade to a face, hanging upside-down in the roiling fire.
Harker’s Voice: Wallachia … shit!
And so on.
One question that bothered me throughout the novel, which begins to re-imagine Stoker’s Dracula almost compulsively, recursively, like a man picking at scabs, is the relationship between reader, source, and remastered copy. One reason I react so strongly to Coppola’s Dracula is my own obsession with Apocalypse Now (see, for instance, my own The Last Osama) but when Newman, later on, remasters Orson Welles, does my lack of familiarity with the source affect the way I relate to its pastiche? This is where the novel needs must first work on its own, as a stand-alone narrative, before factoring in what it does with popular culture, which is re-imagine, re-mix and re-master it obsessively.
As I began to read, it seemed to me that the novel does hang together, as a novel, though I was initially struggling with the question of what to say.
Here is Kate Reed talking to Francis Coppola, early in the book:
‘He was the monster of monsters. All of the above.’
‘You’re thinking of Brando.’
‘After your movie, so will everybody else.’
He was pleased by the thought.
‘I guess they will.’
‘You’re bringing him back. Is that a good idea?’
‘It’s a bit late to raise that.’
‘Seriously, Francis. He’ll never be gone, never be forgotten. But your Dracula will be powerful. In the next valley, people are fighting over the tatters of the old, faded Dracula. What will your Technicolor, 70 mm, Dolby stereo Dracula mean?’
‘Meanings are for the critics.’
3. The Part About Dracula
In the first three books of the series, Dracula is seldom seen directly. He is the shadow, the influence over the world. Anno Dracula ends with a bloated, monstrous Dracula sitting on the throne of England. Charles and Geneviève enter the presence. Assassinating Dracula himself is futile, but they provide Queen Victoria with the means of committing suicide, thereby condemning Dracula (a prince consort, not heir to the throne) to defeat.
That scene is repeated, remixed and changed, in the culmination of Johnny Alucard, a novel which follows Dracula’s heir apparent, the young Johnny Pop or John Alucard as he travels from Transylvania to the New World. First to New York, where he hangs out with Sid Vicious and Andy Warhole, starts the trade in a new drug, Drac, made of vampire blood, survives an assassination attempt and finally arrives in Hollywood, where he becomes (what else) a movie producer. Vampires are glamorous; they enchant, they are the stuff of illusion, of magic; like films. The original Dracula is about sexuality, eroticism in the context of a Victorian society. In Johnny Alucard, Newman again and again tries to re-envision Dracula. There is Coppola’s Dracula. There is Warhol’s Dracula. There is Orson Welles Dracula. There is even Debbie Does Dracula, with Boogie Nights’ Dirk Diggler as Dracula.
If the original Dracula stands for sexual threat and fascination, this Dracula is a multitude of meanings, an image, a Mythago that keeps changing as, indeed, the vampire in popular culture keeps changing, keeps fascinating. And as I read deeper into the book, I began to sense a shape, flittering bat-like through the pages; a certain moral weight, a certain anger, even.
4. The Part About The Money
Stanley Fish, famously, argued that all texts have a “democracy of meaning.” What Newman, in his preoccupation with the meaning of Dracula as symbol, has been doing, is to try and pin down this myth-image while acknowledging that he can’t: not truly.
“In London, he’d been a monster. In Italy, he was a relic. The idea of Dracula, too huge to contain in a human shape, had exploded out through his eyes and mouth.” (p. 405)
What, I’d argue, informs Johnny Alucard far more than the other works referenced throughout its 400-something pages, is another work entirely. Tom Wolfe’s classic 1980s novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, is an indictment of money and the power of money; and it is what Newman is using to talk about our modern era. Dracula is money, the power that corrupts: “He’s a monster,” Kate says to Geneviève, “and we’re the only two left. He owns everyone else.” (ibid)
In the conclusion, which itself echoes and remixes that of Anno Dracula, the count is, literally, made of money. The blood sucker has become the banker, exerting his control by owning all around him. A screenwriter cheated by Alucard attacks him with a knife, echoing the 1888 encounter with the Dracula who ruled Victorian England and yet subverting it:
“Look,” [Kate] said, “he’s bleeding gold.”
Dracula’s shirt parted around the cut, exposing dead white skin. Coins dripped out, pattering onto the floor, spilling around his shoes. He must be wearing a money-vest. Shining gold rolled away from him. The Count laughed… from every gape in his suit, gold spurted, coins in an almost liquid flow… he extended his hands and stood, a fountain of money.” (p. 406)
And of course, the inevitable happens: the gathered guests, the cream and crop of Hollywood, cannot resist. They fall on the money, snatching at coins, scrabbling in the dirt at this new Dracula’s feet.
5. The Part About The Parts
Johnny Alucard is, Frankenstein monster-like, made up of many parts. Some work brilliantly on their own (Coppola’s Dracula) some are mere curiosities (the two appendices), one – “You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings” – seems to end, literally, in mid-air. The send up of charity concerts in A Concert for Transylvania is as good as expected – and so on. “Castle in the Desert”, which sees an ageing Philip Marlowe meeting Geneviève, does not work particularly well on its own, but becomes a pivotal moment in the context of Johnny Alucard, the novel, as Geneviève takes on Marlowe’s mantle spiritually, becoming the (vampire wo)man who must go down these mean streets, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. Some elements don’t work as well as one could hope for – when Newman tries to do natural dialogue (in the voice of an Old West man or black American a-la The Wire – which gets referenced halfway through the book), the effort comes across a little like parody, and Newman is unable to make it sound genuine in the way that Tom Wolfe, in The Bonfire of The Vanity, can – but then again, who can write dialogue like Tom Wolfe? And in the character of Holly, Newman creates an almost super-vampire who resembles too closely Mystique, the shapeshifting superhero from the X-Men, who is then defeated far too easily when the plot eventually calls for it.
But these are minor niggles. With a fifth Anno Dracula book announced, it will be interesting to see where the series heads. Will we once more see the Rise and Fall of Count Dracula? Or will the lead up into our own times merely see him, as seems likely, bailed out by the government?
I was surprised, to an extent, and pleased, to see all the parts coming together into the shambling corpse of a novel (to, again, swap vampires for Frankenstein). The sum is greater than its parts. In the final count, Johnny Alucard returns to moral gravity of The Bloody Red Baron but informed with the sense of lightness of Dracula Cha Cha Cha, and is a circus mirror inversion of Anno Dracula. It is at times a surprisingly angry novel, I think, a surprisingly moral novel which continues, despite the glut in the field, to do something new and fresh with its vampire tropes. I suspect there is a reason Twilight is so successful where Anno Dracula isn’t: Meyer’s vampires return to the core of Dracula, the original novel, which has always been, I think, a novel of romance. For Newman, though, the vampire is never just a vampire: like the zombie or the alien invader it is an often-worn metaphor: for sex, for money, for power, for abuse, for love. In Alucard, more than ever before with the Anno Dracula books, Newman is consistently exploring the image of the King of the Vampires to ask just why Stoker’s lurid Victorian novel continues to exert such a fascination today. And in that, I think, more than any other writer to grapple with the theme, he succeeds.
Anno Dracula: Johnny Alucard, by Kim Newman. Titan Books, September 2013.