On one of my many recent Monster-fueled late night Amazon binges, I purchased Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula. I wasn’t sure that I would like it, because as discussed previously, I think the vampire genre is pretty stupid despite having been a teenaged Buffy fan. But even Neil Gaiman liked it, so I figured I’d give it a shot.
And I really liked it. I might have liked it more had I read Dracula recently (ie. less than a decade ago) or if I recognized some of the references to British history and literature that Newman made throughout the book. But it was wonderful writing, wonderfully exciting. His alternate history of Victorian England was incredibly well crafted. I did get some of the references to iconic gothic novels and 19th century horror literature, which excited me — how long has it been since I even thought of Carmilla, or Polidori’s The Vampyre?
I also felt a little shiver of happiness when I came across a reference to King’s vampire Barlow. No wonder this book is apparently a horror nerd classic. It’s not a requirement to understand the references in order to enjoy the story — the work stands on its own — but I felt like a kid winning the Easter egg hunt every time I came across a hat-tip to a work I recognized. If you’re culturally sheltered like me, never fear, because my copy of Anno Dracula includes a section at the back that explains all of the references.
Part of me wonders if Stephen King was attempting to craft something very like Anno Dracula in his Dark Tower series. Both King’s series and Newman’s novel are huge, sprawling works, both taking place in an alternate universe, including small references to other work in the genre, as well as being self-referential; Newman created the vampire Genevieve in one of his earlier works, although the details of her history are a bit different, while King has made the Dark Tower series the linchpin of his oeuvre.
I feel like Newman’s references serve a purpose. They ground the reader in the story, making you understand early on that you’re not just in England — you’re in Jack the Ripper’s England, both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s England, calling to mind both the strict, fake propriety of the upper class and the diseased, unhinged dank world inhabited by the lower classes, both of which are very necessary to the survival of Dracula’s new order in the novel. I also think that they call attention to the fact that without all of these 19th and early 20th century authors, the vampire novel genre — and Newman’s work — wouldn’t exist the way it does today. Standing on the shoulders of giants, and all that.
I’m not sure about Stephen King, though. I used to get really excited about the way that he links his stories together using characters, settings, or small details that other, less King-obsessed people might not notice. Those are fun to discover. Like when you read The Sun Dog, and you recognize people you know from Castle Rock — that was fun and exciting for me. When it’s so obvious you feel like you’re being hit over the head with it? Not so much. In recent works — nearly everything written after 2000, and every DT book after The Waste Lands — I find it tiring. Far from subtle, he bludgeons the reader with each one. I can’t imagine that a newcomer to King’s work would enjoy coming across a reference to “the Crimson King” out of nowhere, that leads to nothing, leaving them wondering what the fuck THAT was all about… when in reality it doesn’t add anything to the story at all.
He even went so far as to insert himself into the story as a character in Song of Susannah. I think that book would have been a solid piece of writing and a wonderful addition to the series if he hadn’t added that whole story arc that includes himself hanging out with Roland and Eddie, crushing beers and smoking darts in King’s Maine kitchen as they try to convince him to keep being a writer. Why do you need to be in your own book, Stephen King? It is not meta, and you are not Stan Lee. It just feels like you got lazy and or high and started saying to yourself, “What would be the most Stephen King thing of all? If Stephen King was in a Stephen King book! TUBULAR!!!” In his non-DT books written around the same time, I recall putting a book down in disgust after reading something that essentially equated to, “Hey. Hey guys. The Dark Tower. DARK TOWER CRIMSON KING NINETEEN ROLAND DINH OH MY GOD YOU GUYS.” Shut. The fuck. Up.
I do think that King’s characters are generally more compelling than Newman’s, and I still like Stephen King more, and I still do think Allworld is just generally badass. I’m not sure I’m sold on Newman’s “500 year old wise and jaded vampire in the body of a 16 year old hottie who is the voice of the poor and has leet vampire lineage” thing. I’m also not sure if Kim Newman’s characters are compelling enough to have Marvel comics made about them, like Roland and now Eddie Dean. I have certainly had dreams about Roland and his adventures in Mid-World; none of Newman’s creations have lingered in, much less stirred, my subconscious mind to that extent.
Anyway. Another thing I enjoyed about my edition of Anno Dracula is that Kim Newman added a section describing how the story came to be what it was. I suppose I always just assumed that ideas for stories sprouted fully formed from the mind of an author like a big crazy literary Athena springing from the forehead of Zeus. I didn’t mean to set this up for yet another Stephen King reference, but here goes: King does a lot of interviews where he talks about the way stories come to him in the form of “what if” statements. I felt like I was doing it wrong because, although I had lots of great “what if” ideas of my own, I found it difficult to spin that into an actual plot or even just some satisfying characters.
Newman’s approach to Anno Dracula was different — it was actually years in the making, with various experiments, bits of writing and inspiration building up over years and contributing to the growth of the idea before he started working on the piece itself. That was reassuring to me — I am working on a piece of historical horror fiction that I don’t like to talk about, because it’s still pretty much a stupid-looking placenta in my forehead, and I’m desperately searching for things to help it grow into a fully formed being. Or even a malformed beast, as long as it moves and breathes on its own.
I’ve decided to run a sort of Newman-esque experiment. What if I made a list of works that were sort of a precursor to the story I want to write? What genre would they come from? Whose shoulders would I need to stand on to make this happen? Instead of rereading the entire vampire and horror canon, I will need to delve into a few different genres — pastoral literature, psychological thrillers and suspense/horror fiction, historical fiction and nonfiction taking place in the setting I want to create. I’m trying to make a list of these books and focus on those instead of reading for pleasure (or re-reading Stephen King) to see if I can’t enrich some of the ideas I’ve already come up with. Maybe one day I’ll have a colossal book of awesome scary fiction and y’all can read it and get excited about the obscure William Peter Blatty and Jack London references I’ll make.