Gothica Britannica

Reading & Writing

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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?

13 comments on “Gothica Britannica”

  1. Mim says:

    I’ve been a big fan of Newman’s work for years – when he came to introduce a showing of Dracula 1972AD in Bath a few years back, I got him to sign my very battered copy of Anno Dracula. I think that and your Psychoville were the two books I foisted on people most often when I was at university in the 1990s… I’ve waited for years for Johnny Alucard, though I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped I would. The Hound of the D’Urbervilles, on the other hand, is fantastic, and made me laugh out loud, which very few books do.

  2. J. Folgard says:

    I discovered these books while in high school -I missed a lot of allusions back then but they made me curious and, years later, I’m still “unlocking” some of those jokes & cameos. Titan’s been doing a great job with their new editions, and I hope they’ll get around collecting those hard-to-find Diogenes Club stories -I only have one of the MonkeyBrain collections, and I’d love to read more!

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    While the books sound like fun, they start off from a rather shaky premise. Vlad was not a vampire! He was an impaler with a dislike of invaders, traitors and bamboozlers. As an impaler, he was the greatest in recorded history. (Read Drakula by Paul Doherty)
    Dracula was attracted to a graceful neck and moonlight lit shoulders. He was sort of a musty, dusty teenage male with a strong thing for neck nipping. While Vlad Tepes, being the impaler he was, went from bottom to top.
    If interested: For parties Vlad would invite a number of people over, impale most of them, have a wooden floor laid down on top of some of those impaled, have tables and chairs set up on the floor, and “invite” his remaining guests to join him for dinner on the temporary floor. The unburdened impaled, he’d have had arranged around his dining area, so he and his guests could watch them expire. You might even see a relative or friend there. Talk about uncomfortable. Then Vlad would wish his living guests “safe home”and know that his latest party would be the talk of the region.
    Now, isn’t real life as much of a gasp as fiction? (History hasn’t verified whether or not he served olives on toothpicks for starters.)
    So Castle Dracula, while it does exist, never had a vampire or two. And Frankenstein Castle in Germany never had a build-a-creature monster. These things authors get up to!And just when did zombies start eating brains?
    PS: There is even a Hell Train in South African folklore, really.

  4. This reminds me not just of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but also of Philip Jose Farmer’s “Wold Newton” family tree:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wold_Newton_family

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    Forgot to include this thought: Isn’t it a shame EC Comics, recently talked about here, didn’t have a dining out section? It surely would surely have reviewed and included Vlad’s Place, located just down the valley and up on… the hill. The Crypt Keeper gives it four scars.

  6. snowy says:

    Vlad was a funny old stick, and a bit of a stickler for correct modes of deference. Some Ottoman ambasadors came to his court, being beturbaned they did not remove their headwear in his presence.

    Rather than create a huge fuss, and debate about which tradition should take presidence. he simply had his guards nail the turbans to the skulls of them ambasadors. An effective solution certainly but perhaps not the most diplomatic.

  7. Janet Wilson says:

    Talking of British Gothic, can I just put in a word for Richard Freeman’s ‘Green Unpleasant Land’?

  8. Ken Murray says:

    Sorry Admin but ‘magpieing’ has already been taken. It’s the term for the addition of rabid magpie calls to EVERY sountrack for a British produced tv series over the last five years.

    Sceptical? Listen to something like Midsommer Murders or anything else British that requires an outdoors shot (yes including city scapes), and you will hear an almost Hitchcockian cacophony of magpie calls!

  9. pheeny says:

    I enjoyed “Dracula cha cha cha” very much, but not as much as the admittedly less literary but more entertaining “The Bride that Time forgot” and associated others by Paul Magrs

  10. Steve says:

    Yes Ken, and let us not forget the fox calls in every night scene. Oh, and a lot of peacocks as well.

  11. Alan Morgan says:

    They are very good, though of Kim Newman’s mavellous mash-ups I enjoyed The Hound Of The D’Urbivilles most of all. There we have it all from Moran’s point of view, Flashman-style. Life’s Lottery is enormous fun, but on balance (and to contradict myself) I think Teddy Bears Picnic that Kim did with Eugene Byrne the best. There we get a British Vietnam – Indo China – and the attempt to make Apocalypse Now based on the experiences of Bob and Terry from the Likely Lads. Now that’s a story to pick at for all the tele of our youth from William Hartnell in Carry on Sergeant to the wockas of Fotherington-Thomas*. Teddy Bears Picnic being what they play loud from the wockas as they streak over the trees. Just marvellous, as are all the associated stories gathered in Back In The USSA.

    *Hello trees, hello flowers, hello hail of burning napalm.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Midsommer Murders has without a doubt the weirdest soundscapes I’ve ever heard. There were many nights when I lost track of the plot while listening to those coughing/shrieking/whatever sounds and swearing that the first night in southwestern England I would go out after dark to hear what I could hear. Still going to.

  13. glasgow1975 says:

    As for ‘magpieing’ I remember reading something similar about the frogs in US tv/movies – the frog noises you hear come from one species that only live in California, ie Hollywood.

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