World War I, Europe (or at least a version of it). Vampires are widespread on both sides of the increasingly drawn out conflict, with Baron von Richthofen proving to be a ferocious presence in the skies and one with which the embryonic Royal Air Force are struggling to cope and compete. Under the leadership of the German Kaiser and Dracula himself, the German air forces look like being decisive as momentum builds towards a big German push. Can the British forces, including Charles Beauregard and Edwin Winthrop, rise to the challenge and win the battle for the skies?
Kim Newman is an increasingly busy man – churning out novels and novellas, contributing to esteemed film publications, chipping in on Blu-ray re-releases (his insights on Quatermass and the Pit were indispensable) and generally being an emphatic authority on pretty much anything within the horror genre (and most other genres, to be fair). Now, before anyone starts to berate me for unequivocally rolling out the pom-pom’s for the Kim Newman fan club, I’m not trying to suggest that any of his work is faultless, simply that he is generating an awful lot of content at the moment and doing so from a highly informed and intelligent perspective.
The point is this, so experienced and entrenched is Newman in the mythology of vampires that he is able to bring something wholly recognisable yet thoroughly fresh with this latest entry in what looks like being a lengthy series of parallel-world Dracula novels. We get shape-shifting, problems with silver, issues with (but not necessarily danger from) sunlight, historical figures being turned, centuries-old elders, Dracula, Winston Churchill, the continued threat posed by a good old fashioned stake, vampires who carve up and consume themselves on stage for a paying audience and all inter-laced with a compelling slice of historical fiction surrounding the First World War.
The decision to weave the parallel-Earth story into that most devastating and destructive of wars is a master-stroke. Newman has clearly done his homework and his depictions of trench warfare and air combat, his light-handed insertion of authentic vernacular and technical jargon and his evocative capturing of time and place are all to be highly commended. The world that he creates and fills with such well fleshed-out characters and monsters could easily have tipped over into caricature, but he keeps it tight, serious and affecting, with turns of phrase that flow and create potent pictures of a world being torn apart. So often the (admittedly grisly) violence meted out by the vampire characters struggles to keep pace with the devastation being wreaked by the war in general – the balance and seamless inter-weaving of the two is to Newman’s great credit.
Newman wisely takes his time in building up the story, introducing a pretty hefty cast of characters with economy, resisting the temptation to wink at the reader as yet another fictitious or historical figure with whom horror fans will be familiar is laced into the story. The reader is neither spoon-fed nor patronised and we are expected to concentrate and keep up. A good working knowledge of the overall arc of WWI would be of benefit here, but is far from essential and the most important piece of advice here is to read the book in big chunks – the momentum of the story is compelling and as the narrative flits between Dracula, Richthofen and Edgar Allen Poe on the one hand and Beauregard, Winthrop and the vampire journalist Kate Reed on the other, it becomes increasingly hard to tear yourself away.
A genuine triumph for Newman and evidence of his increasing (and frankly annoying) talent for story-telling. Excellent, compelling and well worth your time.
Extras: Yes, Newman has clearly spent too much time reviewing trashy DVD’s for Empire and so can’t resist throwing in some extras. We get a treatment for a screenplay based on material by Roger Corman (Red Skies), as well as a sort of second feature – a novella by the name of Anno Dracula 1923: A Vampire Romance. The whole package is great value.