If you’re going to create gothic literature, you have to do it properly, which is why I hate books and TV shows that lazily set themselves in a peculiar non-existent Victorian gothic past. Sometimes, accessing the best bits and mashing them together into a movie works, as in the hilariously inaccurate but delicious Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films. Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman have been magpieing (I think I just invented a word) bits of gothic fantasy and Victoriana to feather their own literary nests for years – and why not, so long as it’s entertaining – but there’s one master of this who brings a twist to the proceedings.
The film critic David Thomson once wrote a novel, or rather a meditation, on the classic film noir characters, called ‘Suspects’, in which he showed how they might all have been related. It was an extraordinary book, and a wonderful labour of love. Likewise, the film critic Kim Newman has been doing something similar for a couple of decades now with interlinked stories and novels that draw from the Gothic-gaslight school of ornate crime and supernatural fiction, but he has blended in real-life characters and events to create a seamless alternative history of the world.
These dense, allusive narratives assume that the royal bloodline was forever altered by Vlad Tepes to introduce a tainted vampire strain into London society, while older, purer bloodlines represent a nobler ideal. Queen Victoria is now married to Count Dracula and ‘Silver Knife’ stalks the streets of Whitechapel as the characters from Bram Stoker’s novel (including Stoker’s wife) mingle with real-life policemen and doctors (including doctors Jekyll and Moreau, and the Elephant Man’s Frederick Treves), not to mention everyone from Oscar Wilde to WS Gilbert.
In fact, the first book, ‘Anno Dracula’, is so dense with allusion that its elegant reprint from Titan Books comes with a handy Allusion Guide, as well as many extras including ‘outtakes’. The series continues through the First World War to the late 1950s and eventually onto the set of Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Dracula’, each novel accruing more and more appendices and extras. I hope Kim eventually goes back further to add a prequel that takes the series into Tudor times, a sort of ‘Werewolf Hall’.
To film these books would be almost impossible, but one would think that quality alone would make them appealing to directors. Meanwhile, they continue to be ripped off by television. As Kim points out; ‘TV doesn’t need to purchase new ideas so long as it can get away with stealing old ones.’
Equally enthralling are Kim’s tales of the Diogenes Club, of Moriarty and Mycroft and everyone in between. It’s a massive unified vision born from a need to unite the factual and fictional worlds, and as such is loved best by other writers. Herein lies the problem with film versions, for these appeal to the cognoscenti rather than populists, and the books will always lie somewhere slightly beyond the mainstream – something I can appreciate myself.
The novels are quite unique, especially in the way they can absorb shorter fiction pieces and alternative takes – if I tried to find comparisons, the closest I’d get is Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels. If you have’t read any of either the Dracula or Diogenes series, I heartily recommend dipping into one. Despite their baroque density, they’re drily witty and bloody good fun. A unified theory of the universe that takes in almost every real or imagined dark character of the last 125 years? What’s not to love?