Monday, February 28, 2011

Anno Dracula by Kim Newman

Anno Dracula by Kim Newman, 1992

Anno Dracula has a premise that should ensure excellence. As a lover of Victorian literature, the idea of Inspector Lestrade and Dr. Jekyll rubbing elbows with Fu Manchu and Mina Harker is pretty much irresistible. A mixture of fantasy, alternate history and literary mash-up has the potential to be a fantastic book.

It's too bad that Kim Newman's Anno Dracula is such a shapeless mess, especially considering the can't-miss premise. The novel is incompetent at best and downright dumb at worst. It's a thriller that doesn't thrill, a horror novel that doesn't scare, a love story that doesn't compel.

The year is 1888 and Dracula is the Prince Consort of Victoria. London is overrun with vampires, both in the lower classes and the upper classes. Tensions between the new breed and the "warm" are high, and they come to a boil when a serial killer begins stalking Whitechapel, murdering vampire prostitutes. A serial killer named Jack the Ripper.

Newman attempts to prove his literacy and cleverness by throwing in just about every character from late-19th-century fiction you can think of (and a few historical characters, too). It's a bold stroke, and it makes for a lot of amusing cameos. Even Barlow from 'Salem's Lot gets a mention.

Unfortunately, amusing cameos can't make up for dull characters, purple prose and a plot that's about as exciting as a long bus ride. Newman's potential far exceeds his achievement.

Problem No. 1 is the cast of characters. Newman has a tin ear for dialogue and no talent for description. His heroes are vaguely sketched and uninteresting and his villains are wooden mustache-twirlers. Not a single character in the book stands out for me; even Dracula (when he finally appears) is a predictable disappointment.

No. 2 is the plot, which hinges on the murder spree of Jack the Ripper a.k.a. Dracula's Jack Seward. This story holds zero suspense, since readers know Seward is the Ripper on page one. There's no mystery and precious little action. Our intrepid heroes spend most of their time tooling aimlessly around Whitechapel, uncovering clues that are either already known to the readers or are completely irrelevant. The story could have worked if the passages from Seward's point of view were chilling or compelling, but Newman is not an able enough author to pull it off.

Which brings us to Problem 3. Kim Newman, while a creative inventor of fantasy worlds, isn't that great a writer. His word choice and sentence structure is consistently awful and his descriptions are around the quality of your average Harlequin romance. He--well, he doesn't make me believe his universe is real and tactile. His world is quite literally a hodge-podge of elements cribbed from other, better works. There is no spark to it.

The only area of the novel that Newman's turgid prose serves him well are the book's wild, over-the-top vampire fight scenes, which are enjoyable mostly for their ridiculousness:

The Chinese changed. His neck elongated, dividing into prickle-haired insect segments. The arms extending from his bell-shaped sleeves were several-elbowed, human-shaped hands as big as paddles. His head swung from side to side on his snakeneck, a yard of coiled pigtail lashing his shoulders. The queue ended with a spiked ball woven into his rope of hair.

Something at once wispy and prickly brushed her face. It was a cobwebby rope grown from the vampire's face. While she watched his hands, he had reached for her with his joined eyebrows. Hairs like pampas grass scratched her skin. She felt a trickle on her forehead. The creature was trying for her eyes. She made a fist and swung her forearm against the brow-snake, wrapping it about her wrist several times. She pulled hard; thin strings cut through her sleeve and noosed her wrist, but the vampire was off-balanced.
---(page 216)

I'll give Newman this: the book is not really boring. For one thing, it's too short. For another, it has too many changes in perspective. Also? Eyebrow-snakes? Hello.

I must admit, when I first heard about Anno Dracula, I expected more than eyebrow-snakes. I had high hopes that, based on the concept, it would be Really Good. Unfortunately, it's just a piece of mediocre pulp fiction, not entirely unpleasant for its short duration, but not at all memorable or satisfying. I almost wish a more skilful author could take over the premise and start the book over from scratch.

NEXT UP: Ian Rankin. I'm excited.

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