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Anno Dracula by Kim Newman

Anno Dracula
by Kim Newman

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Which are the best horror books ever written? Novelist and horror expert Kim Newman, author of Anno Dracula, talks us through his top five and reveals which of the classics is, for him, the greatest of them all.

Anno Dracula by Kim Newman

Anno Dracula
by Kim Newman

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Your whole fascination with horror started with Dracula, but it was the film that got you into the book.

Yes, that’s true. I saw the Bela Lugosi movie before I read the book. I was about 11 years old and I managed to persuade my parents to let me stay up late at night to watch it. I did actually read the book very soon after that. In those days if you saw something and you liked it you couldn’t go out and get the DVD – the book was often the only sort of extra merchandise that was about.

So what was it about Dracula that grabbed you?

Of all the books I’ve listed here it’s actually the worst! It’s full of things that don’t work or are overdone. But, even though it’s an 1890s novel, there’s still a real narrative drive, even when it hares all over the place and changes points of view. I love all that stuff with the train timetables and the newspapers and the diary extracts which go out of their way to convince you that the whole book might be true. It’s one of those things where the whole cultural impact is greater than the book itself. Actually, I don’t think it’s as good as Carmilla. But it is still undoubtedly the great vampire novel.

There wouldn’t be a whole rack of vampire books in bookshops if it wasn’t for Dracula. Other stories in this genre tend to be slightly more refined, more ironic. But the thing about Dracula is that it’s a good old-fashioned blood and guts melodrama designed to be frightening. It’s also got all these other kinds of levels and meanings. And I think one of the things that people like about it is that it can mean so many different things. There’s a political reading and a Freudian reading and all other kinds of interpretations of what is going on in this big sprawling book. Unlike a lot of the classics I still enjoy re-reading Dracula.

And you have actually written various spin-offs, haven’t you?

That’s right. Amongst others I have a book called Anno Dracula. It is literally a vampire book because it takes from other books and bleeds them dry! It’s as much a critique as a sequel. Dracula has been a big part of my creative life. I keep going back to it.

Your next book, despite being so short, is described as one of the most influential vampire novels around.

I Am Legend is a book from the 1950s which is probably well known now because it was made into a film last year. It’s been made into a film three times and none of the films have actually got why this book works. With the last film you knew it was going to be rubbish as soon as the writer and the director said: “Oh there are not going to be any vampires.” The whole point of the book is that it’s about vampires! If you take them out it’s like saying, “We’re making Gone with the Wind, but we’re not setting it in the South after the Civil War!

“ [I Am Legend] is the most important vampire book which is a science-fiction novel.”

It’s not quite the first but it is the most important vampire book which is a science-fiction novel. These are supernatural creatures and they are beings of a different order who are suffering from a kind of blood disease which has strange side-effects. They are allergic to light and they need blood to feed. You need wood to destroy them because that allows air to get into the wound. It’s all reasonably well thought through with this notion that the whole world could suddenly turn upside-down. As the title suggests, the human is the monster in this world. If everybody is the vampire then a last lone normal person would be terrifying. It’s also the story of a serial killer. The character is a vampire slayer who goes through the book killing vampires. It’s a short and perfectly formed book. Richard Matheson wrote a bunch of other things I really like. He is a real model of streamlined 1950s efficiency. He writes the way Americans used to make cars – every little piece is perfect. It’s a book you can read in about two hours and there is nothing you would change about it.

He very much inspired a wave of writers like your next choice, Stephen King.

Absolutely. It’s no coincidence that his books are the ones that are being turned into films. Every couple of years someone makes a film of one of his novels and he is still alive and still writing.

And this is very much a theme with the books you have chosen – many of them have been made into films.

I suppose so. But then again in this particular field the good stuff is recycled endlessly. It may well be that there aren’t that many stories that you can do as movies. All these work. And most of them have actually been made into films several times. I think Dracula and Jekyll and Hyde may even hold some kind of record for the number of times they have been made into films.

Tell me about Misery by Stephen King.

Misery is probably not the most obvious choice for one of King’s books. People normally go for something like The Shining. But it’s the one that means the most to me and actually I like it – not particularly as a horror novel, although it is a pretty good suspense thriller. It’s a great book about being a novelist. It’s one of the few works of fiction that actually explains how you write a novel but also what this strange disjuncture is between what goes on in your head when you write something and what a reader might take away from what you have written. You might actually be irrelevant as a writer to the reader. What they are interested in is the work. I saw the film of this with another novelist, Lisa Tuttle. When we came out of it, we were the only people in the audience who found the bit where she makes him burn the only copy of the book he has just finished more upsetting than the bit where she breaks his foot. And she doesn’t just destroy it; she makes him destroy it. I think that all writers just cringe inside in that scene!

Your next collection of stories has had many spin-offs including an album. Can you describe the original?

Tales of Mystery and Imagination is the title given to the Edgar Allan Poe collection. It’s not quite his complete short stories and it doesn’t include his poetry. But it does have The Fall of the House of Usher, The Black Cat, The Premature Burial and many of his other greats. And these stories still have a strong hook. Poe was a really interesting writer in that he managed to affect a kind of carelessness. There was a sort of feeling of dementia and frothing insanity and a stream of consciousness. But, actually, I think his works are extraordinarily well thought through, because he was a poet as well. He could think of things with really elaborate metres and internal rhymes. He’s great to read aloud. It’s no wonder that when he couldn’t get money writing he could go round getting personal appearances reading his work. Even today there’s many a Halloween gathering where people dress up as Poe and read his works out.

Your last book is very much another classic.

Yes, I think that of all the great horror texts – Dracula, Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, Jekyll and Hyde – this is the best written. Stevenson is one of the most natural writers who ever lived. All his stories have this great ancient-mariner-grab-you-by-the-lapels thing. You think about the three beggars coming to the inn at the start of Treasure Island. Jekyll and Hyde has a good start as well. There is this guy who is out for a walk late at night and he sees this strange man trampling a child, which is still taboo and horrible all these years on. It’s amazingly intricate and perfectly structured and even though now we know the twist – we know that Doctor Jekyll is Mr Hyde – it still works. I assume that when it was first published it must have been like Fight Club or The Sixth Sense where people who had read it would tell their friends, you won’t believe the ending of this. You will never see it coming because it is completely out of left field.

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Kim Newman

Kim Newman is an expert on horror and sci-fi cinema and a regular contributing editor to Sight and Sound and Empire magazines. He has published over 20 novels, plus many short stories and non-fiction works, and has won awards including International Horror Guild Award for Coppola’s Dracula and the British Fantasy Society Award for Where the Bodies are Buried. His work is often irreverently referential and he says that his novel Anno Dracula is literally a vampire book because it takes from other books and bleeds them dry.

Kim Newman on Wikipedia
Kim Newman's Homepage

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Kim Newman

Kim Newman is an expert on horror and sci-fi cinema and a regular contributing editor to Sight and Sound and Empire magazines. He has published over 20 novels, plus many short stories and non-fiction works, and has won awards including International Horror Guild Award for Coppola’s Dracula and the British Fantasy Society Award for Where the Bodies are Buried. His work is often irreverently referential and he says that his novel Anno Dracula is literally a vampire book because it takes from other books and bleeds them dry.

Kim Newman on Wikipedia
Kim Newman's Homepage