Interview: Kim Newman - film critic and novelist
The noted writer talks Dracula, horror and vampires
Writer Kim Newman is probably most famous for his film criticism, for being a champion of horror and cult cinema, writing several books on the subject, and for delving into the Video Dungeon at Empire magazine every issue. He also starts this interview with: ‘I used to write for The List many years ago back in the 80s and 90s.’ He’s also written a selection a genre novels, including Anno Dracula which has just been revised and reissued.
Could you give us a brief synopsis of your novel Anno Dracula?
It’s a vampire novel, it’s a historical novel and I hate to say it but it’s literary meta-fiction. It’s based on the premise that instead of being defeated by Doctor Van Helsing during the plot of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, he defeats the fearless vampire hunters and rises to power in Britain. There’s a whole plot in Dracula that is kind of dropped. There’s a section where Dracula is emigrating to Britain and he talks about what he wants to do in his new home but then he gets distracted by the domestic story which is Stoker’s big plot about Mina Harker and basically seducing women, but in my version he sticks with the politics and becomes Queen Victoria’s second husband, the Prince Consort, and essentially taking over the government bringing all his disgusting vampire cohorts with him and they come and lord it around as the new ruling class in Britain. And it’s about how that effects society and there’s a bit of a thriller aspect in there with the Jack the Ripper serial killer and some political conspiracy theories at work. So while it’s a fine old ripping Victorian yarn it’s also, I hope, a semi-serious book about the way societies can slowly or indeed suddenly lurch towards truly, truly appalling forms of totalitarian society.
What attracted you the Dracula mythos?
Dracula was always my favourite monster story. I first really got interested in horror as a genre by seeing the Bela Lugosi version at an impressionable age and I read the novel soon after and it’s always been in the back of my mind that I wanted to write a vampire novel. It actually took me a long time to get round to writing it. I had the initial idea in the early 1980s but let it slid for about 10 years before I wrote it. I didn’t just want to write another vampire novel, there are loads of those about, I needed something that I thought was a bit out of the ordinary, and as it happened I ended up not just writing a novel but an entire series, which I’ve reluctantly come round to realising is just one very big novel encompassing 100 years of alternate history. Obviously one of my models was those ‘Nazi’s winning the war’ alternative world type novels, but I was more interested in showing a distorted mirror of what actually did happen rather than how things could have been. So obviously there’s a lot in there about the various forms of oppressive government we’ve lived under the last 30 years but refracted though the fun stuff of vampires.
Was it hard work including all the historical references into the story?
I fiddled around a lot. This was a book written before the internet, so all the stuff in it was stuff I was able to read or access. These days writing a book like this is a lot easier you can go on forums and find all kinds of stuff out that I had to spend weeks tracking down. Because of a few circumstance, one being that there is a lot of scholarship surrounds Dracula and the other being that I chose the Jack the Ripper murders as a frame, there were a lot of true crime books about that case, which happened to also have a lot of good general historical information in them because coverage of that case is so exhaustive, so if you want to find the price of a pie in 1888, it’s probably mentioned incidentally in some book about Jack the Ripper.
Could you also tell us about the sequels?
The first of the follow-ups is called The Bloody Red Baron which is set during World War I and it’s kind of to do with Baron van Richthofen and it’s kind of about vampires as possible war heroes. Then there’s a book called Dracula Cha Cha Cha which is due out soon. It was a real popular song from 1959, it was the theme tune to a very minor Italian film, but it’s been covered by lots and lots of people in the 60s. It’s set in Rome during the sort of Dolce Vita period, partly because the WWI book was sort of depressing, because it was about really horrible things, so I wanted to do one which was more cosmopolitan and ties into the idea of Dolce Vita and the James Bond books and just the beginning of the swinging world. The fourth book is called Johnny Alucard and is set during the 70s and 80s and it’s about the afterlife of the Dracula myth, about people making Dracula movies and examining what they all say about Dracula or the world refracted though this one story told over and over again. Because the books are being reissued I also took the chance to rewrite two extra pieces which are being published for the first time, one called Vampire Romance which is set in the 1920s and fills in that piece of history, it’s sort of PG Woodhouse, Agatha Christie weekend house party thing, with a bit dealing with current trends in vampire fiction. The other one that I’m just finishing off is called Aquarius which is set in 1968 and is student unrest and rock music and LSD and all that sort of fun stuff. So by patcwork I’m filling in my invented history.
Was it easy filling in the gaps?
The thing that becomes more and more difficult is keeping it all consistent because I’ve been doing it piecemeal. I ought to sit down and makes notes some time and make sure nobody’s eye colour changes [laughs] but I find I can always get back in touch with world and the characters somehow. I know what they would be like in 1888 but what would they be like in 1968? I’ve stayed away from a few things that stuck me as being a bit obvious so I’ve tried to pick up on slightly less predictable places to take the series. I’m actually contracted to do a fifth book which will be set at the turn of this century, a millennial story war on terror thing so I will be bringing it up to date at some point.
Having vampire characters must make life a bit easier as they can survive though all these time periods
And that really makes it easier to do, rather than having to pick up on characters grandchildren or what have you, I’ve been quite sparing I only have three or four viewpoint characters who are out of time and can go down through the ages. It also means I’m not confined to just one time period so I haven’t had to rewrite the same book again and again.
Particularly in the wake of Twilight, vampires seem to be very popular again. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because the myth and the metaphor is so mutable. It can mean so many different things. That’s kind of what I’ve been trying to do in the series, the idea that any possible interpretation people have put on the figure of the vampire I will get to in the series somewhere. Sometimes I feel that I have to make a bit of a noise to distance myself from what’s going on when other vampire stories are really, really popular and people keep relating my work to them and I feel a bit embarrassed about that sometimes, because I don’t feel an enormous kinship to everything in the field but I do feel mildly obligated to keep up with it.
More generally, what attracts you to horror?
Like a lot of people who really get into it, I got into it in my early teens. I just think it’s a useful way of addressing the world, of telling stories. It’s quite close to comedy in that you look at reality then exaggerate it. I don’t think I write particularly gruesome horror. I’ve written some fairly tough stuff in my time and I don’t shy away from unpleasantness, but I don’t sit here while I’m writing thinking 'this will really upset people'.
Do you still enjoy working your way though all the weird and terrible films for your Video Dungeon column?
I wouldn’t do it otherwise. I feel there’s always interesting work going on in the subterranean area of cinema and as long as someone has to watch it, it might as well be me. Also someone has to look at it without preconceptions, I think every cheap horror film deserves at least an even break, which doesn’t mean I’m soft, I know rubbish when I see it, but I think we should at least look at the rubbish.
Do you think CGI has made bad movies even worse?
I find those movies, the Mega Shark movies that they put on the SyFy channel at the moment, mean that a whole generation won’t have the affection for cheap monster movies that people could have in 50s and 70s, men in suits and giant rats. It’s a shame that’s been obliterated by a pile soulless pixelated giant monster movies. It’s a minor tragedy that the form has devolved from Attack of the Crab Monsters, a movie I will happily defend, to the Mega Shark films which are rubbish by anybody’s standards. They are rubbish by the standards of rubbish.
Do you think horror cinema has less restrictions?
In my book Nightmare Movies I talk a lot about that but I do think currently horror cinema is maybe not doing as much as it might do. Horror cinema was much more engaged during the 70s than the 80s. We’re in a kind of neutral field at the moment. There are occasional things that deal with important and interesting stuff but horror has become very self conscious and it’s become very difficult to make a horror film without a sense that you’re not just telling a scary story. I have a funny feeling that the most profound horror films were made by people who didn’t have time to think about what they were saying, then it’s up to us to come along and say what it means and spot the underlying neurosis. You can look at a 1950s film and say ‘oh there’s the paranoia about the atom bomb and communism.’ I suspect the people making those films didn’t spend much time thinking about it. Now even the most meagre slasher movie is made by people who have been exposed to the notion these films are about something.
I don’t know if it’s more mainstream, all those shows are still niche. The thing about that kind of stuff, much the same as science fiction did a few generations ago, is that they establish really devoted followings but they also exclude people who don’t specifically follow. So you will find as many people who hate those things as love them. It polarises people. It’s almost like horror needs to be marginalised, it needs to be as scurrilous and disreputable as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to have any point. Horror is supposed to be like that and if it’s not doing that it’s neglecting something. It strikes me that a lot of the TV horror and even Twilight, is like soap opera rather than horror. There are interesting things to say about soap opera as well, but it’s hard to be truly terrifying into that format.
What are you working on next?
This week I’m writing a radio play for an American producer called Larry Fessenden; then I have to get back to the final polish on Johnny Alucard and I have a play on in London that is finished but is about to go into rehearsals. I mainly script edited it, it’s the work of five other writers but I wrote the wrap around, it’s called The Halloween Sessions.