· By Rachel Clinesmith
Interview With Anno Dracula Author Kim Newman
You’ve said in the past that Todd Browning's 1931 version of Draculai would inspire your love of the entire fiction. How do you think that film holds up against the ones that have come later?
Well, it's indubitably an antique, but it's one that I personally revisit every couple of years and find something new, and fresh, and strange in. In pure cinema terms, I don't think it's as good as Nosferatu, which is ten years older. I think I slightly prefer it to the Hammer films as well. For me it's first because it was the first I saw, and I find it endlessly rewarding. There are different things about it that are quite often criticized but I find quite interesting.
Everything is different. I often watch old films from the 1940’s over and over again. The acting style is different. There's a reason these are classics.
I've spent the last year or so not watching anything made after 1942, and I've only recently kind of eased myself back into the modern world. That was for a book project, and I think, in fact my next book project is going to involve a slice from 1970 to 1982. So I keep immersing myself in these periods of past media while trying to keep one eye, at least, on what's going on in contemporary popular culture.
You write reviews for publications, right?
Yeah. I work for Empire magazine and Sight and Sound in the UK. I've written books about films as well as fiction. At this point, I've done almost everything. I've done a lot of Blu-ray extras and stuff like that, and scripted documentaries about film, and a lot of things like this. Interviews, “talking head” style.
What do you look for in a film that you would deem good?
I think I find “interesting” and “dull” a more useful polarity than “good” and “bad”. I'm not even entirely sure what it is. I think I have a sliding scale. I quite often respond to things just because they happen to be where my head is at the moment. Obviously, there are all kinds of levels of artistry and achievement in cinema. I think I tend to come to films on whatever their own terms are. I'm capable of being interested in a wide variety of stuff. I hope that doesn't sound too “wishy-washy”, but I do try and take onboard sort of a whole panoply of what's going on. It's why, in the end, I’m a generalist rather than a specialist.
Makes sense in Anno Dracula, what motivated you to use characters such as Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes, as well as the 19th century London setting specifically?
Well, it's an idea that I've had floating around for quite a while before I wrote it. I wanted to write something that was set in the world of classic horror. For me, that world is still basically London in the 1880’s or 1890’s. I keep toying with the idea of doing some kind of a book about the enormous growth of popular culture figures in that era. Not even just in horror, but in all kinds of popular fiction. There's like a 30 year period that I think probably starts in the 1880’s with Jekyll and Hyde, and ends around the time of the First World War with the Lost World and The Phantom of the Opera. Crammed in the thirty years between, there's Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, M R James, HG Wells, the Turning of the Screw, Peter Pan, the Wizard of Oz, Oscar Wylde's plays, and the Portrait of Dorian Gray. All manner of really interesting detective horror and proto-science-fiction stories, as well as franchises that are still active today. I don't quite know what it was. It's probably to do with the expansion of literacy and mass media, and maybe it's driven by technology as well. Jules Verne is one of the slight outliers of that trend. So, that was the period that I wanted to write about in particular, because it seemed to be teeming with characters both fictional and real! I think of it as the beginning of a modern era, rather than a past that is sealed off by nostalgia and whimsy.
That said, it's now thirty years since I wrote that book, so the world has receded from when I wrote it. It was not quite in living memory but, for instance, one of my grandmothers was alive and saw Queen Victoria, so I could talk to people who knew some of the key players or saw some of the key players. I had a personal sense of involvement with that world, which I think is probably now lost. I think that thread has been broken by the passage of years, and people are scrabbling around maybe to deal with the last threads. Even World War II now, I suppose, is gone from beyond living memory.
Also, it's the era of Dracula, and I wanted to write a Dracula novel.
When you wrote this, did you have any anticipation about what the reception would be, as far as changing the story? I mean, nowadays, when people change up classic stories, there's a lot of backlash, but I don't know if that was the case then.
No, not really.
As with almost everything I've done that's been received with any degree of approbation, there has been some point during my work on it where I thought “only I am actually interested in this., It's going to slide out and disappear and I'll never hear about it again”. Even though I also had periods where I felt a connection with the story. I thought, “Yeah, maybe this is a way of dealing with the world as it was in the early ‘90s”. As far as I know, there hasn't been that much of a sense that I was misrepresenting the original material. Although one of the things I think I do when I play around with other people's toys is there is always an element of critique, as well as that sense of celebration and homage. There are underlying fundamental assumptions of Dracula, or of any occult fiction, that I think are worth at least questioning. Also, by the time I got to it, Dracula had been adapted so many times, even just while I was writing the book. I must have known that Francis Ford Copola was making a film version, but the book came out a little before the film premiere.
At the time the book came out, there was a lot of interest in Dracula because of the film, and so I talked quite a bit about that. There have been so many other “Draculas”, including like Grandpa Munster, and Love at First Bite and even porn movies, like Dracula Sucks and various others. Dracula had gone from being one of the scariest people in the world, to being kind of a joke, while also being a romantic figure, or a political figure, or the incarnation of evil, foreignness, or disease or capitalism or whatever else authors want to associate him with. By the time I got to him, Dracula had been used in so many ways that I felt that what I was doing didn't really mutilate the figure in any great sense. I mean, I did have a feeling that I wanted to do something that didn't just get lost in the absolute blizzard of Dracula related material.
I'm glad to say it didn't. It did seem to stand out from the pack.
It was very well received and very unique, as you mentioned, we're coming up on the thirtieth anniversary. Can you tell us about the new special editions coming out with an introduction by Neil Gaiman?
Well, I don't think that Neil has written it yet because I haven't seen it, but it's got a very nice cover and I know it's going to be very lavish. I also have to sign every single copy of it, which is part of the deal. However, probably the most exciting thing from my point of view is that I'm writing a new longish short story. In previous editions of some books, I've added Novella length fictions, but I wanted to have something new and something to slightly revisit the original material. So, there is a new Anno Dracula story which I still haven't finished. I was working on it today, honestly, and with the current projection, I think I will get it done over the holiday weekend. I hope people will like the direction I'm taking it. I'm taking the opportunity to fill in a few tiny bits of the history, because I wrote adjacent and subsequent books in the series over a period of thirty years. There are still one or two gray areas in the lore. Things I've not actually specified, so I'm going to nail a couple of those down.
I'm bringing back some characters from earlier, and using, (or borrowing,) some new ones. I think people will find it amusing. It's a slightly funnier story, I think, than some of the Anno Draculas, although as ever there is a serious side to it.
Sounds like it's going to be really good.
I hope so! It's really difficult to say that when you're in the midst of working on it. I’ll give you an exclusive! I'll tell you the title, which I haven't revealed to anyone yet! It's called Anno Dracula 1902: The Chances of Anything Coming from Mars. I like taking song titles. “Dracula, Cha, Cha, Cha,” and “The Bloody Red Baron”, are both from songs. This, of course, is from that song from Jeff Wayne's “War of the Worlds” album, which incidentally, misquotes HG. Wells. The line in the book is, “the chances of anything man like on Mars are a million to one”.
What do you think about vampires as a metaphor for the darker parts of human experience?
That's certainly part of it, weirdly. That is something in this particular story that I'm finding more pertinent than in some of the others. I don't know if it's because I'm going through a particularly misantropic phase, or if the world is influencing me in that way. I think in some of the earlier Anno Dracula novels I try to almost humanize vampires, and say that it's a natural trait and that it's possible to live a moral life while being a vampire. But this time, it's about the idea of making a second red planet, and I'm using a vampire protagonist who is an awful person and a cynic, and therefore I'm looking at the notion that maybe all people are vampires in at least some sense. Maybe we're all terrifying, and terrible, or at the least, capable of being so.
What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced?
I didn't even realize some of the challenges. It's only now, after staying in it for the long haul, that I realize some of them, and that’s not something that everybody does. I seem to have managed it so far, with my ups and downs of course. There is always the thought that maybe you won't have any more ideas. Luckily I've got one or two stashed away, pushed into a corner. I can usually come up with something. One of them, of course, is trying not to repeat oneself too often, which is particularly pressing in writing a series of books. I've tried to make sure that each of the Anno Dracula books is substantially different in tone, approach, and subject matter. Of course, there are a couple of core ingredients that have to be in all of them, because if I left them out, it just wouldn't fit into the series. Yet some are grimmer, some are comic, some are more suspense-oriented, some are more satirical. I suppose, in the end, they've all wound into one big long story.
Do you have a favorite historical vampire story?
Historical? I'm a great admirer of a series of books by Les Daniels, starting with The Black Castle and The Silver Skull, which were about a Spanish conquistador vampire, and Les wrote a series of books picking up at different points in history. In terms of big, standalone epics, I'm very fond of Brian Stableford’s The Empire of Fear. I think that was probably the book that convinced me that I would be able to write Anno Dracula, and that people would understand it because it's quite a complicated vampire society. An alternate universe story goes a very different direction from the way I do. It's not wholly a vampire novel, but I greatly love John M. Ford's The Dragon Waiting, which features one of my favorite vampire characters. I love Suzy McKee Charnas’ The Vampire Tapestry. Richard Matheson’s I am Legend is still hard to beat in terms of vampire dystopias. Of course, Dracula, which I do keep going back to.
Of course, this is an important year for Dracula. We're coming up on the 125th anniversary.
It's also 100 years of Nosferatu, 90 years of Vampyr, and 50 years of Blackula and Dracula ‘89 and ‘72. So, it is kind of like anniversary time for Dracula in all his forms. I think it's now part of the canon. It's permanent. It's not going to go away, which at various points, it might have done. It wasn't the most popular horror novel of the 1890’s. Richard Marsh's novel The Beetle is wonderful, but long out of print. No one ever makes films based on it, yet it was a bigger seller than Dracula. Bram Stoker was kind of a minor successful writer at the time, especially when compared to Conan Doyle, or Joseph Conrad, or people we’ve forgotten, like Marie Corelli. It took Dracula a while to rise to prominence, and that was greatly due to its adaptation. First for the theater and then for the movies. I think the fact that it turned out to be great subject matter for other media has contributed to its longevity in a way that maybe some of the more immediately-successful literary horror didn’t enjoy.
Absolutely. We're doing an international vampire film festival in Cardiff, Wales. It's going to be in June this year, and one of the main focuses for that is the anniversary of Dracula. I just think it's interesting how it's stood the test of time. Even Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, had a Dracula episode
Yes, although I think they found Dracula a difficult character to fit into their universe in that they never brought him back.
I mean, it was kind of a one off
Yeah, and I get that. People sometimes ask me why Dracula isn't in my books more, yet he's not actually in Brad Spoke's book all that much. I think he works better as an offscreen character. Sometimes, I tend to think of him as a general rather than a soldier, so he's not there. Although, again, that's something I think that maybe he would eventually find wearing. I think he'd want to get out and get into a battle. He wouldn't be content to sit and look at maps.
I just think it makes sense. He's been interpreted in so many different ways, from being this incredibly sexy creature of the night to a downright monster. That's a lot of the dichotomy in vampire fiction as well. Are they human at all? Do they still have human values? Or are they just utter monsters devoid of humanity?
Vampires were almost all utterly monstrous, (with one or two oddities, like Dracula's Daughter,) until Dark Shadows. The reason that the character in Dark Shadows became more nuanced and not strictly a villain is that he was introduced to be just a bad guy. He stuck around and became popular, and the writer’s realized that simple, blank evil is not a useful dramatic springboard for an ongoing series. So he had to become more complicated. Then, after that, obviously, Anne Rice started telling the story from a vampire's point of view, and then they became very different. I suppose Grandpa Munster had been around as well, being a vampire who wasn't just an awful person. Or if he was an awful person, he wasn't awful just because he drank blood.
What do you think about Gary Oldman's Dracula?
I actually haven't looked at that for a while. I remember when it came out, I was so close to the material. There were things about the movie that I really loved, and there were things I really disliked. Gary Oldman was almost straight in the middle of that. I thought he was solid and fine, maybe a little too camp in some bits, but he had some good creepy, scary moments. I don't quite buy Dracula as a romantic figure. I think Stoker hobbled that interpretation with the way the plot progresses. I think the Jack Palance adaptation of Dracula that Richard Matheson wrote also cops that bit from Dark Shadows about the vampire seeking the reincarnation of his lost girlfriend, (which is in Blackula as well). I think it originally comes from the Mummy or She originally. It makes much more sense to the story that Bram Stoker wrote if the lost girlfriend is Lucy rather than Mina, as she was in Coppola's version. It seems strange that Dracula finally gets a chance of getting back together with his lost love and then decides to seduce her best friend instead. Whereas in the Jack Palance film he gets back together with his lost love, Lucy, and he turns her into a vampire, and then she's killed and that motivates him to be a complete monster in the third act. I think that's actually a really good way of breaking the story down. That, however, isn't quite what Coppola did with the material in terms of trying to come to grips with the complexity of Stoker. I very much prefer the BBC adaptation with Louis Jordan from the 1970’s, which has the length to go into everything. Also, I think Jordan is a really good sort of charming, but creepy Dracula.
BBC has done some incredibly faithful adaptations of classic literature. I'm a big fan of their Wuthering Heights.
I mean, they sort of invented the classic serial in terms of television. I do think they do tend to do the same stories over and over again when there are other books available. I grew up with there always being a Dickens, or an Austen, or a Bronte. It used to be a tea time thing on Sundays before it got shifted to slightly later in the evening and became a bit more grown up.
I suppose it's different because I’m in America, and most Americans prefer shorter, more dramatic, abbreviated versions of those classics.
I don't know why. I think it's this weird thing that in America the miniseries wasn't invented until the mid 1970’s. I think it was Rich Man, Poor Man, and then Roots and Holocaust, and a few other things like that. Whereas in Britain, the TV serial has been an absolute staple of television programming since the 1950’s. In genre terms, the Quatermass serials were really important. Nigel Neil, who wrote the Quatermass serials, wrote an adaptation of Wuthering Heights in 1953.
I suppose it particularly suits Dickens, who wrote books as serials, or those big Victorian three-volume novels that are sort of high class soap operas. Trollope or George Elliot, they really suit that kind of BBC period adaptation. Of course, we have the best eccentric character actors in the world available.
You said the 1953 version? I'll have to look that one up because the more recent BBC version of that one, the Tom Hardy before he was like a big movie star. It was just intense. The way he played Heath Cliff was insane. Very emotional, very accurate. I didn't even know they did a Dracula version. I'll have to look that up too. Is there anyone you've always wanted to work with or any project you've always wanted to do but haven't gotten to do yet?
Not that I can think of. Of course, as soon as this interview is over, I'll think of dozens. I have things that I've been nurturing for a long time, but mostly for me, the seed is always the novel. So, basically it's working with myself to start with, then I'll deal with other people.
Do you have any advice for young writers that want to break into the vampire genre?
Yeah. Try and find something that hasn't been done before, which on one level is really difficult. There is so much material out there, and so many different takes on it. Yet every year I come across something new that tells a different story, or has a strange way of doing it. Also: Do the research. That's a good one.
What is your favorite thing about your writing process?
When the story takes over. I mean, actually, I had a good day today. I got 3000 words out. I don't usually do word counts. There's quite a lot of the best days where you only end up getting out 200 words. Like in the first draft, when the characters are talking to each other, and you have stuff sort of happening. Ideas pop up. Jokes come in. I had some gruesome ideas. While all that goes on slowly, the thematic underpinnings come together. It helps if I don't really think too hard about that. If I don't apprehend what each individual story is about until it's over. Then it's nice if it all slots into place. Although sometimes they are like a really badly made quilt, there are lots of loose ends and bits stuck out that don't actually quite lead to anything. So in the rewrite, you have to fix all that and smooth it all over.
Do you ever pull from historical resources about vampires. Specifically, like old vampire tales and things that were attributed to vampires?
I've wound up writing quite a lot of books with historical settings. Vampire stories and other types of stories as well. I do find that sometimes the really unbelievable stuff is the stuff you find in the historical record, and sometimes it's just too good not to use. Sometimes I'll make a note and put it aside and hope to come back to it later. My latest novel is called Something More than Night and it’s a Historical Mystery, set in Hollywood in the late 1930’s, and it's about Boris Carloff and Raymond Chandler. While researching that, I came across all kinds of stuff about both of them that I'm astonished hasn't been flagged up and used before. There's a weird circumstance that a child drowned in Boris Carloff’s swimming pool, in the same way a child drowns in Frankenstein, and that’s never particularly figured in the mythology around him.
What about Dracula as a historic figure? Do you think that it's been up for debate whether or not Vlad served as his origin?
It's sort of slightly drifting out of fashion. Now, I used it because, again, it was too handy not to. The research was there. I think it probably has been overstated. I don't think it's a key to why Dracula as a novel is so enduring. It's like nobody particularly cares that, for instance, there was a real person called D'Artagnan who joined the Musketeers. That's not why people like that story. There's a real guy behind it, sure, but it's almost like the real guy can only disappoint. Like the real Cyrano De Bergerac didn't have a big nose.
What attracts you to the vampire stories when you find one? What makes it a good, interesting vampire story to you?
I think it's probably on an individual basis on the strength of the story. It's kind of how the story uses the idea. I'm not one of those people who says, “oh, it's a metaphor for this,” because it's obviously a metaphor for a lot of things. I like the stories that try something that's sort of been unexplored, or they take a different look at it, the way that Richard Matheson did in I am Legend, sort of. He's almost the first person to think, “what if everybody was a vampire? How would you feel then?” So, yeah, it's what you take from the story. By now, we had, like, stories about every single aspect of the mythic or pop cultural image of the vampire. I do quite like to just pick up one of those things and play around with it. Absolutely.
I saw when reading over your sites and everything that you've also written some things in the Warhammer 40k Universe.
Oh, no, I didn't do that. I did Warhammer classic. Warhammer 40K was too difficult, actually. I know it gets complicated. I understand they've rebooted their universe several times since I did that, and I did that in the early 90’s. They were kind of fun to do, actually. It was stuff I wrote early in my career, which, rather nicely, is still in print. I still get royalties from those. I've not been drawn in any of my other work to doing heroic fantasy. I mean, it's a form I enjoy sometimes, but it's not something that I do often. There's something about the world-building that's too daunting for me. I like worlds where I can get a lot from the real world before building my imaginary world. Those were fun books. I wrote them very quickly, and quite a lot of it was thinking about what's not generally done in this form that I can have a go at. So I wrote one that was a murder mystery, and I wrote one that was a kind of “tough cop and serial killer” story. I imagine that, by now, there are probably a whole series doing those ideas, but at that time, all heroic fantasy stories were derived from people going on a quest. I thought it'd be interesting to do something else with it.
That would have been Pre-Vampire: the Masquerade then?
Yes, it would. Yeah. I'm not sure how far they went, but apparently Warhammer changed the rules for vampires in their role-playing game because of the outline of my first novel for them, Drachenfels, which featured a vampire heroine who's kind of related to the heroine of the Anno Dracula series. Previously, I think according to the Rules of Warhammer, vampires couldn't have a moral compass, they couldn't be player characters, they had to be nonplayer characters, they had to be monsters. I think, after my books, they changed the rules. I think later on they had whole campaigns built around vampires and did other stuff. So I'd like to feel I've left some influence there, although I imagine the waters have closed over that in the subsequent decades.
Interesting! Is there anything else you'd like to share that you're currently working on?
I'm about to embark on a big nonfiction project to do with British horror, but I'm not quite sure when we'll be publishing. It'll be a three volume series. I'm not quite sure when the first one will be due out, but that's probably going to absorb a lot of my time. I have a couple of notable ideas I'm kicking around with, but I'm not quite yet sure what's happening next. This is annoying. I've got a quite promising film project at the moment, but also not quite ready to announce it. There's a complicated business thing going on there. Seriously, if I could just get on with the writing, that would be nice. But sometimes it's like waiting for other people to do things, and for things to fall into place before I could do anything. So I'm busy. That's certainly the rest of my year.
Does that film property have something to do with Anno Dracula potentially, or is it something separate?
It's something separate! It's a contemporary horror film, but I think the rights to Anno Dracula are still with Freemantle. It has been optioned so many times, on and off. I know it's expensive. I'm not entirely sure what the status of that is as a project. I know a small amount of money turns up every year.
Maybe we'll see how the Anne Rice TV show goes and then maybe in the future…?
I'd really like it not to have to piggyback on something else! I worry that, if and when it does finally get done, people will just say, “oh, it's an imitation of this” and then list all the things that have been made since I wrote Anno Dracula that are slightly derived from it. But that's one of the penalties of doing something that people like.
Yeah. A couple of years ago I went to the British Film Institute at the head of season of Japanese anime, and there was what I thought was an interesting sounding movie with a Frankenstein theme. It was about halfway through it that I realized that it was Anno Dracula done with Frankenstein. Then I asked my Japanese publisher about this, and he said, “oh yeah, the author of that is a big fan of yours.” Which is nice to know!
I only meant because it seems like every few years there’s like a big vampire frenzy, and then it kind of dies down, and then it comes back almost in a cycle.
Do you have any thoughts on the new Anne Rice TV show that's going to be coming out from what you've seen?
I haven't followed any of it actually. I’ll watch! We'll see how it does. I mean I suspect long-form television is better suited to her work than movies are. Those books are enormously important but also enormously hit and miss. I think it would need a very strong showrunner to make it work.
Well, there's been a lot of changes made and personally we're excited for it, but I know some people who are apprehensive over the changes.
Yeah, well, we'll see. I'm always willing to give anything the benefit of the doubt, because I have to sit down and watch it.
Of course. Well, that concludes my question. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
It’s always happy to be heard from. Hello to everybody out there! All that kind of stuff