Thursday, July 09, 2009
All-Action and Anno Dracula
This week's Gorillas Riding Dinosaurs covers All-Action Classics' adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. I gave it five out of five Mad Renfields and called it "an adaptation that’s perfect for (its) audience - including grown-ups in the mood for a fast-paced, exciting version of Bram Stoker’s story." It also has my favorite visual representations of Dracula and Renfield to date. It really is that good.
As a non-comics follow up to that though, I also recently finished Kim Newman's 1994 novel Anno Dracula.
As someone who grew up on superhero comics, I sometimes take the shared universe concept for granted. I mean, why wouldn’t Batman and Superman occasionally team-up on a case? It’s when the concept is applied to other genres that I remember how cool and special it is. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for example. It’s a lousy movie, but a great comic about Mina Harker from Dracula, Allan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, Jekyll/Hyde, and the Invisible Man fighting Fu Manchu or H.G. Wells’ Martian invaders or whomever else Alan Moore pulls out of whatever Victorian novel he’s reading that day.
To say that Anno Dracula uses the shared universe concept would be an understatement. More accurately: it celebrates it. If Newman’s left out a single fictional vampire without at least a name check, it’s because the character hadn’t been created yet when he wrote the novel. And that includes Dark Shadows’ Barnabas Collins and Kurt Barlow from ‘Salem’s Lot. He even sort of manages to get Carl Kolchak in there (or at least a remarkably similar ancestor).
The problem is that Newman is so thrilled with this combined Victorian world he’s created that that’s really what the book is about: exploring that world. In theory the story is about the hunt for Jack the Ripper. (You find out in the first chapter who it is, but I’ll still leave that for you to discover. It is a famous literary character though and Newman does a great job of explaining why this person would become a butcher of prostitutes.) In actual practice, there’s very little hunting done. Newman’s much more interested in showing off his world than advancing his story.
There are several groups investigating the murders, each for their own reasons. Scotland Yard is one of them of course, as represented by Inspector Lestrade (from the Sherlock Holmes stories) and Inspector Mackenzie (from E.W. Hornung’s Raffles stories). Fu Manchu and some of England’s other great criminal minds (Holmes’ Colonel Moran, for example) are also interested. As is the Prime Minister (Lord Ruthven from Polidori’s The Vampyre). The most interesting investigator though is Newman’s own creation, Charles Beauregard, who works for the infamously secret Diogenes Club run by Holmes’ brother Mycroft and an ancestor of James Bond’s M.
Conspicuously absent is The Great Detective himself. Newman mentions him only to write him out of the story. I’m guessing that Holmes would’ve taken over the book and made it into something else – a pastiche – so I don’t blame Newman for not using him. The way he went about it wasn’t very convincing, but I ended up really liking Beauregard, so we’ll let it go.
Indeed, in spite of the lack of movement on the investigation, I liked the book a lot. Newman may be proud of his world, but he has something to be proud of. It’s an intriguing place in which Bram Stoker’s Dracula ended very differently. Instead of Dracula’s being driven out of England and ultimately destroyed, he defeated Van Helsing’s group, rose to power, married Queen Victoria, and is now Prince Consort over England. Vampirism isn’t just accepted now, it’s fashionable.
Cast in this light, Van Helsing was a criminal who murdered the vampire Lucy Westenra, not a hero who saved her from a fate worse than death. And it’s not an unreasonable perspective, especially when Newman offers us plenty of kind, even compassionate vampires to get to know. Dracula may be evil, but that doesn’t mean that all vampires are. Who's to say how Lucy may have turned out with proper guidance?
One of the good vampires is Genevieve Dieudonne, a woman who looks sixteen but is actually much older than Dracula himself. She’s not entirely an original character to the book, though she is to Newman. He wrote about her under the penname Jack Yeovil in his Warhammer novels. Genevieve is brought in to assist Scotland Yard in the Ripper investigation and when her path crosses with Beauregard’s, they ultimately decide to join efforts. Whether that’s because they’re more efficient that way or because they’re starting to dig each other is a question that even they aren’t prepared to answer right away.
Complicating their relationship is Beauregard’s engagement to a young woman, the cousin of his deceased wife. Penelope (the fiancé) resembles Pamela (the wife) in looks, but not at all in spirit. Pamela was intelligent and honest; a good match for the serious-minded, world-weary Beauregard. Penelope is shallow and flighty and she cares far too much what other people think. She’s very Victorian, but it’s hard to see why Beauregard ever proposed to her. Genevieve – who also knows a lot more about the world than she’d like – is way more his style.
I rooted for Beauregard and Genevieve the whole way through the 400-plus pages of Anno Dracula, both as individuals and – later – as a couple. I read the other characters’ scenes patiently, knowing that soon Newman would come back to these two. And though I wish they’d been more instrumental in solving the Ripper case (or indeed that the solving of it hadn’t happened almost entirely off camera by a minor character), I was happy to get to know them.
Though all the extra characters and the loose plot ends are satisfyingly brought together by the end, as a mystery Anno Dracula’s pretty shoddy. As a romance though, and as an exercise in world-building, it’s very nicely done. I’m not intrigued enough to seek out the sequels, but I enjoyed the time I spent with Beauregard and Genevieve in their Victorian, vampire-infested London.
Three out of five sword-cane wielding secret agents.