Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Anno Dracula 1959: Dracula Cha Cha: A Review

This volume is a reprint of Dracula Cha Cha Cha (1999), which was released in the United States under the title Judgment of Tears: Anno Dracula 1959; it includes the original novel and a novella, Aquarius. It is the third novel in Newman's Anno Dracula series. The first novel was Anno Dracula (1992) and the second was The Bloody Red Baron (1997). All three novels have been reprinted in 2011 and 2012, with a fourth novel, Johnny Alucard, forthcoming in 2013.

Newman’s books offer an alternate history, based on the premise that, in the late 19th century, Count Dracula married Queen Victoria. He leads vampires out of hiding and into social legitimacy. Although toppled from the throne, he remains a powerful influence throughout this novel. Newman mixes real history with pop-culture, so Dracula, James Bond, the Diogenes Club, and characters from Fellini films rub shoulders with Edgar Allen Poe, John F. Kennedy, and Frank Sinatra

The story follows a reporter, Kate Reed, who is in Rome to attend the wedding of Count Dracula. There is a series of murders of vampires, which Reed investigates. Newman meticulously researched his novel, set in Rome in 1959, and so his cast of characters is plausible. While others may find the barrage of names and allusions to pop-culture humorous, I found it tiresome and distracting from the main plot.

The novella, Aquarius, is also a murder mystery. It is set in 1968 and, again, Newman's descriptions are full of detail, but, with less name-dropping, it focuses more closely on the mystery. I enjoyed this story more than the main novel because it was more tightly written and plotted.

Although I am not a huge fan of vampire fiction, one of the things I find most interesting about it are the attributes that each author gives their vampires. Thus, Anne Rice's vampires die when exposed to sunlight and have limited superhuman abilities, but are not affected  by crosses or garlic. Sunlight doesn't kill Stephanie Meyer's vampires but does make them identifiable; they are much stronger and faster than normal humans.

Newman's vampires have several interesting features. First, the lineage of the vampire is significant: some vampiric traits of the “sire” are transmitted when a vampire turns a human into a vampire. Second, although he doesn't describe their traits too explicitly, vampires – when hunting – deploy claws and jaws/fangs that allow them to fight very effectively. Third, they enjoy superhuman speed and their skills increase over time; unlike humans, the older the vampire, the faster and more powerful. Finally, since vampires heal very rapidly, they are hard to kill.

More interesting than the vampire’s abilities are the social effects that Newman explores in the book. Assuming that vampires emerged from hiding, how would society react? He suggests that – because they are superior to humans – many people want to become vampires. They enjoy a celebrity status and are fodder for tabloid gossip columnists. And important vampires, like Dracula, can attract crowds of important politicians and celebrities, both living and vampire, to weddings and other events. But although vampires are in the open and enjoy some privileges, they are still vulnerable since they are vastly outnumbered by humans and not everyone is enamored of vampires. Opportunistic politicians try to inflame anti-vampire sentiment among the public, and “Van Helsing” groups aid their  efforts.

Part of the economy is dedicated to serving vampires, since they are often wealthy and powerful. So there are food producers who specialize in packaging blood for vampires. Vampires can survive on non-human blood, so other manufacturers breed small animals intended for the vampire market. Finally, there are also blood-bars, where vampires can purchase fresh blood from human “volunteers,” equipped with spigots. Vampires still attract the living, sometimes enslaving them. And the worst vampires still prey on humans, longing for the “good old days” when they could murder humans with brutal abandon.

Vampires also pose theological problems. In Newman’s universe, the Vatican issued a bull declaring that vampires don't have souls, but by 1959, Church opinion is beginning to shift to incorporate the possibility that they did, indeed, retain their original souls.

Finally, Newman ponders the effects of being the member of a small group of immortals. He suggests that Dracula (and his contemporaries) could deal with social change for several centuries, as society and culture were fairly static. People living in 1750 lived, more or less, like those in 1450. But the Enlightenment and the industrial and scientific revolutions introduced periods of rapid change that vampires struggle to adjust to. Similarly, to be a vampire is to be lonely – vampires, in Newman’s world, avoid each other, lest they fight. But their “warm” friends all age and die and eventually vampires may lose the will to live as well.

I found the consideration of these social issues interesting, but may have been more richly rewarded by reading his novels in their intended sequence. I had the sense, while reading this third novel in the Anno Dracula series, that Newman intended it to be the end of the trilogy, so much of it follows characters introduced in the first two novels and wraps up overarching story lines. Much of this was lost on me, not having read the first two novels. I felt this lengthened the novel needlessly, but for readers who were familiar with the first two books, this might be far more satisfying. On the other hand, the novella Aquarius isn’t trying to accomplish so much and it stands on its own, so I found it a much more engaging story.

By Adam Porter