There are books one simply shouldn't attempt to describe to the casual reader; regardless of merit, they sound not just uninteresting, but deeply silly. In eighth grade I was reading Harry Turtledove's Worldwar tetralogy, and a well-meaning classmate mentioned to our history teacher that I was reading a book about World War II. I was left to explain, "Yes, it's an alternate history where World War II is underway... and then aliens invade." Mercifully, I've forgotten what Mr. Dennett's reaction was.
The other day I was in the car, reading the new edition of Kim Newman's landmark vampire alternate history Anno Dracula, and I happened to read a passage out to my mother. (For readers familiar with the book, it was the exchange of insults in the pub.) She asked what the book's premise was, and I dutifully replied: "Well, it's like Dracula, except Dracula wins and he marries Queen Victoria." Mother was not amused.
I suppose it does sound ridiculous, but it isn't really. Dracula was a prince, and his ambitions were not small; had he not been defeated by Van Helsing's merry band, he might well have ingratiated himself with the British royal family, and the consequence would have been the world Newman portrays: a country where vampires have emerged into everyday life, where the best way to advance in high society is to "turn" and vampire-resisters are dragged off to concentration camps, where the prostitutes of the East End are as likely to offer blood as sex. Unless they're vampires themselves.
The story around which Newman's evocation of this alternate England is woven is the author's second quirky stroke of genius: Jack the Ripper is active in this world as well, but all his victims are vampires. The police, urged on by the government, are desperate to find this madman and potential folk hero, and so is the Diogenes Club, a secretive organization devoted to the national interest. The Club's agent, Charles Beauregard, finds himself working alongside the centuries old vampire Geneviève to find the Ripper. But their investigation is complicated by the sheer range of suspects, not to mention a vendetta against Geneviève and an increasingly repressive palace regime.
As one might expect, the characters of the novel include several from Dracula-- those, at least, who have survived, including Dr. Seward and Arthur Holmwood. But other Victorian and Edwardian literature is amply represented. One of the police detectives is Inspector Lestrade, while two doctors consulted about the murderer's knowledge and motivations are named Jekyll and Moreau. Vampires from other fiction have flocked to England for safety and freedom. Readers who don't like this sort of cameo appearance are advised not to read Anno Dracula, which is littered with them. For those who enjoy the game of tracking down references, there are plenty of semi-obscure names to identify. Historical figures, from Oscar Wilde to Sir Charles Warren, also appear.
But the novel is much more than a complicated game of Where's Waldo. Its world-building, in which real-world issues like sodomy raids and child prostitution are given a vampire twist, is ingenious enough, but it also includes vivid action sequences, intricate political intrigue, and a well-thought-out investigation. The Ripper's identity (itself a brilliant notion) is revealed to the reader early on, turning the book into a howcatchem rather than a whodunit, but allowing a powerful, disturbing insight into the killer's motivations. Anno Dracula is a fast-paced, delightful entertainment, a marvel of storytelling for those who like this sort of thing.
The book, first published in the 1990s, has long been out of print, but was recently released in a new edition by Titan Books. In addition to the original text, the new edition includes a number of bonus features: annotations by the author, identifying some of the more obscure references; an afterword on the novel's genesis; an excerpt from the novella "Red Reign," which preceded the novel and has a slightly different ending; extracts from Newman's unproduced screenplay for a film version, which includes a few new sequences and some altered characters; "Drac the Ripper," an essay on other Ripper/Dracula stories; and "Dead Travel Fast," a short story featuring Dracula that, while not formally part of the Anno Dracula universe, could fit into it, and is in any case a sharp, nasty piece dealing with a less-appreciated trait of the vampire.
I mention the Anno Dracula universe. Newman followed the original novel with two sequels: The Bloody Red Baron, set during World War I, and Dracula Cha Cha Cha (released in the US under the dull title Judgment of Tears), set in the 1950s. A fourth novel, Johnny Alucard, bringing the series into the present day, has long been in the works. Titan Books now plans to publish the entire series. Anno Dracula came out this month; The Bloody Red Baron (containing a never-before-published novella) will follow in October 2011, while Dracula Cha Cha Cha (with another new novella) will appear in April 2012 and Johnny Alucard in October 2012. Fans of Wold Newton-esque vampire fiction have much to look forward to.