Skip to content

Lara Rutherford-Morrison, Dracula as Prince Consort? Lord Ruthven as PM? The Vampiric Alternate History of Kim Newman’s ‘Anno Dracula’

2015 October 28

Lara Rutherford-Morrison has a PhD in Victorian literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is currently an Affiliated Scholar at Concordia University in Montreal and blogs daily for Bustle. Her research considers the ways that contemporary culture reimagines and plays with Victorian literature and history, in contexts ranging from adaptations of Victorian novels in film and fiction to heritage tourism in the U.K. She can be found at her website and on Twitter @LaraRMorrison.

With Halloween just around the corner, I’ve been rereading one of my favorite works of neo-Victorian horror, Kim Newman’s novel, Anno Dracula. An alternate Victorian history based on a simple premise — “What if Dracula won instead?” — Anno Dracula is a fun, bloody, and (if you’ll forgive the pun) biting book that is too often overlooked in discussions of neo-Victorian fiction. In the novel, first published in 1992 and rereleased in 2011 after a number of years out of print, Newman imagines a vampire-filled London against the background of Jack the Ripper’s 1888 killing spree, casting literature’s imagined horrors amid the late-Victorian period’s very real ones. Anno Dracula is enjoyable as a gory, speculative, and often funny entry into a long tradition of vampire fiction, but the novel has more to offer readers, particularly those with interests in Victorian culture and neo-Victorianism. Anno Dracula uses the very proliferation of vampire fiction in which it participates to critique rosy contemporary nostalgia for Victorian culture, and draw lines of connection between the horrors and hypocrisies of the late-Victorian age and our own.

Anno Dracula gleefully imagines what would have happened if, in Stoker’s 1897 novel, the protagonists had not succeeded in killing Dracula after all. Newman’s story picks up a few years later, when Dracula has married and “turned” Queen Victoria, becoming Prince Consort and the effective ruler of England. Vampires have multiplied across the country, and Van Helsing’s head resides on a spike outside Buckingham Palace. The social order has shifted to include vampires in both the upper echelons of polite society and the poorest slums of London. The influx of the immortal undead into the British social hierarchy only exacerbates the problems that existed before, and when a mysterious killer begins brutally murdering vampire prostitutes in Whitechapel, social tensions come to a head. The text follows multiple points of view as humans and vampires alike attempt to find the killer and navigate the increasingly dangerous social and political world of late-Victorian London.

Kim Newman, Anno DraculaAdaptations of Dracula and of the Whitechapel murders are hardly uncommon, and Newman isn’t only author to have combined “Ripperature” with 19th-century literature. (For example, the 1971 film ­Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde incorporates the Ripper into a campy, and completely terrible, gender-swapped version of Stevenson’s novella, and a number of works pair the Ripper with master sleuth Sherlock Holmes.) But Anno Dracula extends this melding of fact and fiction much further; the novel takes place in what Newman describes as a “consensus genre world” [1], a setting in which all versions of the Victorian — real and fictional, historical and contemporary — exist in the same universe. The book is thus populated, not only by characters from Dracula, but also by ones from other works of fiction (including, for example, Polidori’s Lord Ruthven, penny-dreadful villain Varney the Vampire, and 1970’s film villain Count Yorga) and by figures of real history (Queen Victoria, Oscar Wilde, and Joseph Merrick all make appearances, not to mention Stoker himself).

Anno Dracula thus can feel like a game for lovers of Victorian culture, a treasure hunt to recognize as many references to 19th-century literature and contemporary Victoriana as possible (That said, the novel will be easily comprehensible and enjoyable for those less familiar with gothic and horror fiction, though they will miss out on the pleasurable smugness of recognizing obscure literary minutia). In a novel that tracks the spread of vampirism across London, Newman’s evocation of the many literary and cinematic vampires that emerged in Dracula’s wake feels especially appropriate: Just as Dracula’s “get” inexorably populate the city, the novel’s descendants, in works ranging from Salem’s Lot to Dark Shadows, populate a century and more of fiction and film.

Newman has suggested that he wrote Anno Dracula in response to the idealistic nostalgia for Victorianism espoused by the government under Thatcher. He writes,

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. [2]

In Newman’s depiction of a London overrun with vampires, everything has changed and yet nothing has changed: The streets may be populated by the bloodsucking, immortal undead, but the poor — vampire and “warm” alike — still beg on the streets, and the East End is still rife with those living in poverty, struggling to fend off starvation and disease, even as citizens on the other side of the city host genteel soirees. In a darkly ironic turn, one character notes, “The Queen and her Prince Consort were much concerned with law and order” [3]; Dracula rules with an iron fist, eliminating not only dissenters, but whomever he regards, in his twisted way, as “other.” One chapter, for example, reveals the violently homophobic Dracula to have ordered a deadly raid on a homosexual brothel in Cleveland Street. The episode highlights his monstrosity and intolerance, but, as a reworking of the real Cleveland Street scandal of 1889, also indicts the Victorian. Furthermore, as Nick Hubble has pointed out [4], this scene evokes British anti-LGBT policies of the late-1980s, such as Section 28, which outlawed local authorities from “promoting” homosexual relationships through representation. Intolerance, the novel seems to suggest, is merely one of the “Victorian values” bequeathed to the 20th century.

Cycling between scenes of elegant salons (hosted by Florence Stoker, no less) and the streets of Whitechapel, Newman contrasts the Victorian middleclass obsession with propriety and status against the grotesque exploitation of the body, as poverty-stricken vampire women sell sex in exchange for blood, and humans are literally treated as cattle. Anno Dracula is a true horror story, reveling in corporeal monstrosity, the twisted bodies of Dracula’s “children” and the gratuitously cruel penalties he uses to control his subjects. And yet, significantly, the most violent crimes of the novel aren’t the products of vampirism; rather, they belong to history, to the very real murders committed by the anonymous killer Jack the Ripper. In a novel deeply concerned with the nature of monstrosity, with the indecipherable boundaries separating the monster from the human, the abject, torn bodies of the Ripper’s victims loom large. We learn early in Anno Dracula that “Jack” is not a vampire, but a human — Stoker’s Jack Seward —driven mad by the killing of Lucy Westenra. His identity only drives home the point that monstrosity and evil are not external to the human; in monsters like Dracula, literature may provide ready outlets for our fears of the unknown, the other, the inhumane — but real life will never be that unambiguous.

 

[1] Kim Newman, ‘What if Dracula won? The secret inspirations behind “Anno Dracula”’, io9 <http://io9.com/5803403/what-if-dracula-won-the-secret-inspirations-behind-anno-dracula> [accessed 15 Oct. 2015]

[2] Newman.

[3] Kim Newman, Anno Dracula (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1992), p. 101.

[4] Nick Hubble, ‘Historical Representations: Between the Short and Long Twentieth Centuries: Temporal Displacement in the Historical Fiction of the 1990s’, in The 1990s: A Decade of Contemporary British Fiction, ed. by Nick Hubble, Philip Tew, and Leigh Wilson (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), pp. 149- 180 (p. 173).

 

RELATED JVC ARTICLES:

A Book To Sink One’s Teeth Into

Jack the Ripper Was a Murderous Medieval Monk

Ripper Street Reflections

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

Captcha loading...