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Anno Dracula: Dracula Cha Cha Cha

Author: Kim Newman
Publisher: Titan Books
Price: £7.99
Review By: David Stonehouse

Kim Newman’s much admired Anno Dracula vampire alt-history series continues with Dracula Cha Cha Cha and builds on his new mythology with all the verve and imagination that made the earlier instalments so enjoyable. For those not up to speed, Newman’s alternative timeline has had vampires openly living amongst humans since the Victorian age. Dracula has had a massive influence – even co-ruling the British Empire alongside Queen Victoria as her Prince Consort. However, time has moved on and since the end of World War I Dracula has all but disappeared, existing for decades as a recluse at the Palace of Otranto just outside of Rome.

The year is 1959 and the vampire glitterati have gathered in Rome for a momentous occasion. Dracula has broken his years of silence with an announcement of his marriage to another vampire elder, the very old-school Moldovian Princess, Asa Vajda. The undead are flocking to the eternal city in anticipation of the big event.

Among the visitors is our heroine, Kate Reed, an Irish vampire and journalist investigator. She is soon caught in the social whirl of senior vampires, celebrities, models and film-makers and, when horror strikes, she is right in the thick of it. In a vivid and brilliant early sequence some high profile vampires are viciously slaughtered at the Trevi fountain. Kate survives, for some reason spared by the killer, and, as a key witness, is dragged in for questioning and soon becomes part of the investigation. The killer has struck before; he is known the Crimson Executioner and looks like a giant Mexican wrestler. But is he working alone? And who was the mysterious little girl that only Kate saw at the fountain bloodbath?

The murders seem to be linked to the Dracula engagement and the Crimson Executioner isn’t the only dangerous nutter drawn to Rome for the big day. Hamish Bond, the undead British superspy is in town representing the Diogenese Club complete with Walther PPK and gadget-laden Aston Martin. Smiert Spionem are also present and correct with all the inevitable cat-stroking, fem-bots and golem assassins smashing their unsubtle way through the city. Throw a trip to zombie-town and a genuinely shocking unexpected assassination into the mix and it all makes for a head-rush inducing roller-coaster of a ride.

Anno Dracula’s vampire culture is very intricate and rich. Trying to make a workable mythology out of all the contradictory rules of the vampire genre’s endless books and films seems an impossible task but Newman’s take works very well. He gives a clear sense of the aging process of vampires, from the relatively vulnerable newborns who retain much of their living personality, to the inhuman and virtually indestructible elders whose original ‘warm’ characters are all but forgotten. Different vampire skills and abilities are attributed to particular bloodlines so there are some who can shapeshift while others are masters of mental manipulation and so on. Kate Reed lacks most of the more extreme party tricks but this is probably a blessing as the thing that scares her most is losing the human part of herself and becoming one of the monsters she sees all around her. Her emotional attachment to the ailing Charles Beauregard who would rather die than turn vamp helps add to her appeal as the heart of the novel.

It isn’t quite perfect. While the opening and finale are fantastic the mid-section feels a little slow, getting bogged down with too many plot and character strands. The female vampire leads, Kate, Genevieve and Penelope are beautifully drawn but some of the many minor characters get short shrift and their contributions don’t really hold the attention as much as they need to. One of the most successful examples is the wonderful characterisation of Orson Welles, vain and enormous but also an irresistible genius, but not every icon is quite so well served. However, this is a tricky balance – one of the main appeals of these books is the alternate spins Newman puts on familiar names and faces. Newman’s boundless enthusiasm and encyclopaedic knowledge of all things cult permeates every page and is one of the main ingredients that makes his series so special.

The final revelation of the book’s big bad has a frightening logic when it arrives and the big finale at one of Rome’s most iconic monuments is more than rich and satisfying enough after all the twists and turns of the plot. All in all, Dracula Cha Cha Cha is a fine addition to Newman’s alternative world with more than enough glamour, fun, intrigue and gore to keep any vampire fan happy.

Also included after the main novel is Newman’s Anno Dracula novella Aquarius, which, to be honest, I actually preferred to the main feature. Time has moved on and we are in trendy London at the end of the swinging sixties. It’s 1968 and Kate Reed has been dragged into help investigate the draining to death of a pretty prostitute/model goodtime girl. There hasn’t been a blatant vampire murder like this for decades and the case needs clearing up quickly before anti-vamp prejudices flare up and the whole city becomes a bloodbath. The historical referencing is great fun with more surprising celebrity vampires and clever touches like Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech being levelled against the undead.

Kate finds herself attached to the Met’s vampire specialist ‘B Division’ working with such welcome legends as Jack Regan and George Dixon and getting stuck into some lovely 60s cop show strong-arm scrapes. The dead girl – amusingly called Carol Thatcher – worked as a prostitute but an interview with her pimp leads the investigation into the glamorous world of models and fashion photographers. The victim’s movements on the night of her death were recorded on film by society photographer Thomas Nolan. He was using experimental film stock that can capture images of the undead and, maybe, buried somewhere in the hundreds of shots is hidden the identity of the killer.

Aquarius references Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blowup and manages to capture some of the movie’s surreal and oppressive atmosphere. There’s something about the London setting, with its veneer of superficial glamour concealing a world of grime and sleaze that suits the vampire genre perfectly and, for me, this taut and gripping shorter tale is probably worth the jacket price on its own.

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