The Long View: Anno Dracula

It helped that John and I shared similar tastes in fiction. John was a fan of Jerry Pournelle, one of my all time favorite authors, and in general I found his reviews and suggestions interesting. I decided to read Anno Dracula after reading John's review of it. I agree with John, it should be a terrible novel, but it isn't.

I would like to read it again, ten years later. I think I might even find more interesting things in it the book than the first time I read it. John doesn't use the term in this review, but this is a Wold Newton story, it brings together all of the most famous Victorians, fictional or otherwise, in one grand narrative. Farmer's Wold Newton concept isn't all that well-known, but the most famous character in it is: Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes is so real to us that we can't stop acting as if he is. For years, a bank building in London received letters addressed to Holmes at 221B Baker Street, and for just as many years, the bank actually answered those letters. The bank fought a nearby Holmes museum for the privilege of answering the letters, insisting that since 221B Baker St. fell within the addresses of their building, they had the right to receive the letters.

It is relatively rare that a literary character affects the public so much that we cannot but help act as if he were real. Holmes is perhaps the most perfect example of such a character. I think we ought to be able to appreciate how legends and myths grow, when you see how someone we can all admit to ourselves is a fictional character inspires real disputes over who gets his mail. Or even realize that the otherwise staid Post Office insists on delivering that mail.

Holmes is also remarkable in that other authors simply cannot resist telling stories about him. One of my other favorite Holmes stories by an author other than Doyle was in the short story collection Fragile Things, edited by Neil Gaiman. This is actually kind of an odd thing: I hated Fragile Things so much it put me off Gaiman for 5 years. But I really liked the Cthulu-mythos Holmes short story, "A Study in Emerald".

Sherlock Holmes may seem to be something of a tangent to John's review of a vampire story, but I don't think John would have thought so. He was able to blend sober analysis with an appreciation for how myth and legend are real forces working in history. I don't think we can appreciate either alternative or actual history without an appreciation for how the stories we tell ourselves change what we do.

The Vampire State

Anno Dracula
by Kim Newman
Avon Books, 1992
$5.99, 409 Pages
ISBN: 0-380-72345-X


It may not be proper to include discussion of a novel with occult elements on this alternate history group, but I have to recommend Kim Newman's 1992 book, "Anno Dracula." It does actually pose some serious alternate history questions. The premise of the book is simple enough. Dr.Van Helsing and his merry band of vampire slayers, who destroyed Dracula (a.k.a. Vlad Tepes) in Bram Stoker's nineteenth century novel of the same name, fail to do so in this book. Dracula goes on to become a figure in London society. By 1888, when the story is set, he has married Queen Victoria and is gradually imposing a brutal dictatorship.

The novel should be junk, but it isn't. For one thing, it is very well-informed about Victorian social history. Much of the action centers on Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, historically one of the centers of the Settlement Movement, a feature of nineteenth century reform that sought to bring adult education and social services to the poor through private philanthropy. The Hall figures in the book primarily as the link in the Jack the Ripper slayings, which here are an anti-vampire vendetta (vampirism has spread through London's prostitutes like venereal disease did in the real world). As in the Victorian era, there is a new social type called the New Men and New Women. The difference in the book, as you might expect, is that these New People prefer to work at night and cannot go out during the day without dark glasses and black umbrella to shield them from the sun. Real, slightly obscure Victorians, such as Marx's unfortunate daughter Eleanor and her loathsome paramour, Edward Aveling, are deftly alluded to. Merrick, the Elephant Man, is among those who die to save Britain.

Of course, the real fun in the book is not the historical people from the era, but the fictional characters. Who should appear to testify at the coroner's inquest for one of the Ripper's victims but the esteemed Dr. Jekyll? The Prime Minister is Lord Ruthven, the first of the great literary vampires. (Here he is a sort of cynical Gladstone, a man with no ideas but who talks so incessantly that he is sometimes "transported on wings of rant.") Sherlock Holmes is in one of Dracula's concentration camps; Holmes's brother Mycroft is one of the leaders of the conspiracy to bring down Dracula's regime. We get to meet everyone from Dr. Moriarity to the Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. (Is Fu Manchu a Victorian villain? I'm not sure.) All of this is handled very wittily, but the book is not so camp that it cannot be horrifying when necessary. The climactic chapter, "The Home Life of Our Own Dear Queen," has to be seen to be believed.

While the plot is mostly concerned with solving the Ripper murders, the interesting feature of the book is the way it subtly suggests a society that is decomposing under vampire influence. Inspector Lestrade still works for Scotland Yard after he has become a vampire, for instance, and he is still in many ways the Lestrade who played straight man to Sherlock Holmes. However, he is becoming a ghost of himself, a creature that continues in its old habits because it no longer has the initiative to change. Lord Ruthven's government is outwardly like any other cabinet, but the state increasingly relies for protection on the Prince Regent Own Carpathian Guard, an army of mercenary vampires with a nasty tendency to turn into werewolves in hand-to-hand combat.

While reading this, I could not help but be reminded of books like Davidson and Rees-Mogg's "The Great Reckoning" and Paul Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers." These writers make the point that the long financial preeminence of England was due to the reliability of its legal system and the relative physical security of the country. Compared to the rest of the world, people in the UK and USA are remarkably willing to hold paper assets because generations of experience have taught that the governments of those places will not expropriate the holders of capital, and that these countries are unusually secure from foreign occupation and pillage. Neither of these things applied to the world of "Anno Dracula," since people were being routinely imprisoned without trial, and the Carpathian Guard was given to looting. Dracula's fiscal policy is not described in any detail, except to note that silver, a poison to vampires, is removed from the coinage. One suspects, however, that London was no longer a place that foreigners did their banking in by preference.

The serious alternative history point is this: what effect does an obviously eccentric but non-socialist government have on a major power's economic performance? If the Scientologists came to power in Germany, say, or a group like Aum Shin Rikyo in Japan (assuming it did so peacefully), what effect would it have that have on savings and investment? Would you put 10-year money into a country run by Lyndon LaRouche? Historical analogies are welcome.



Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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Hide Me Among the Graves

by Tim Powers
528 pages; $25.99

I was absolutely thrilled to receive a review copy of the newest book by one of my favorite authors. I probably squealed with glee! I have been a fan of Tim Powers' ever since I picked up a copy of Dinner at Deviant's Palace about 6 years ago at my local library. I have liked just about everything Tim Powers has ever written, which puts him ahead of Neil Gaiman, and closely tied with Jerry Pournelle. So far, the only work of Tim Powers that I haven't liked much was The Stress of Her Regard, the kind of prequel to Hide Me Among the Graves.

In interviews, Powers has said he didn't set out to create a sequel, he was simply fascinated by some strange events in the lives of the Rosettis, and when he did his usual digging into the subject, he found a surprising degree of overlap between the Rosettis and Lord Byron, John Keats, and other people who were the subject of the earlier book. Thus, it was only natural to write a book that continues the same secret history of the Nephilim.

It wasn't until I read Hide Me Among the Graves that I fully appreciated why I didn't like The Stress of Her Regard. Byron and Keats and the other characters spend nearly the entire book in thrall to the Nephilim. This fits, because the Nephilim are vastly more powerful than humans, and their patronage bestows enviable powers, yet I could never really wrap my mind around the unwillingness, or inability, of the poets to fully repudiate their vampiric masters. Intellectually, I can understand their plight, but emotionally I simply cannot connect with these men.

However, this made for a great setup in Hide Me Among the Graves, because the conflict between fighting the monsters, and literally embracing them was played out between, and in, each of the protagonists. This gave me something to cheer for, and something to hope against. For all that, I'm still not a vampire fan, or much of a fan of vampire stories. I like vanquishing vampires, but that exhausts my interest in the topic. Thus I enjoyed the book, but I won't be returning to it like I return to Last Call.

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I Am Legend Movie Review


Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Mark Protosevich, Akiva Goldsman, Richard Matheson, John Corrington, and Joyce Corrington
Starring Will Smith and Alice Braga

Will Smith is not the first action star to portray Robert Neville on the big screen. Charlton Heston's Omega Man is another memorable performance based on the same story by Richard Matheson. Matheson's novel is one of my favorites, original and unexpected. It is a modern apocalyptic classic, identifiably influential on any number of zombie and vampire stories.  Anyone who has not read it should.

This version of I Am Legend differs from the book in a number of ways, including having an ending that reverses the circumstances of Neville's death. However, I think this version is both a faithful adaption of the source material, and in some ways superior to the original.

Smith's Neville is a masterful study in loneliness. This is an element that is done well by each medium. Gaunt and haunted, Smith gives us a good sense of what it would feel like to be the last man on Earth.

Always dancing on the edge of madness due to grief and isolation, Neville relies on his routines to sustain him. Fortunately, his obsession with finding a cure for the plague that swept man from the Earth is strong too. A bit of OCD seems to have some survival benefit.

When Neville finally meets another human, he no longer knows how to interact with her. This is really where this version diverges from Matheson's. 

The crucial difference is hope. There was no room in the novel for hope, or providence, both of which figure in the original theatrical ending for I Am Legend. Another ending was filmed, but it performed poorly with test audiences. I can see why. The original ending attempted to combine Matheson's dark and subtle conclusion with a bright and happy Hollywood ending where everyone rides off into the sunset. That ending was terrible, and I'm glad they redid it.

The theatrical ending is the happier, because in the Aristotelian sense, you cannot really say a life was a happy one until you see how it ends. In the alternate ending, Neville's whole life has been for naught. All his efforts, fruitless. All his suffering, pointless. Plus we get a lame version of the "monsters are people too, they are just misunderstood" trope. The way the vampire/zombies were handled in the novel made this seem like a good idea for the movie too, but their characterization in the movie is too feral to support this. 

By spending his life, Neville redeems himself from the brink of despair. The sappy alternate ending is not plausible because Neville no longer had any will to live. The providential arrival of another survivor allowed him an opportunity to die for something instead of nothing. Admittedly, the Legend tagline doesn't make near as much sense anymore, but the Job-like turn of this remake more than makes up for it.

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