(On DVD, January 2011) The adulation of teenage girls for young male heartthrobs is a gender-specific phenomenon I can’t quite understand, but I knew what I was getting into when I picked up this cheap biography of Twilight star Robert Pattinson: Even at $0.99, I knew that I was getting ripped off, and the end result does not disappoint. A mediocre collage of talking heads, terrible paparazzi pictures and breathless hagiography that sounds read from a tabloid profile, Robsessed is cheap celebexploitation filmmaking and it shows. How cheap? Well; no interviews with Patterson, scarcely any footage of him (and none whatsoever from Twilight), little original material… basically, nothing requiring real money. Nothing else really compensates for the lack of resources: There’s no wit to the cinematography, barely any depth to the interviews (all with distant third-party sources, pundits or “superfans”) and little insight to the pop-magazine-grade writing. The producers are as innumerate as they are exploitative: The case says the film lasts “110 minutes”, whereas it really lasts 70 (or “1:10 hours”)… not that anyone was really asking for 30 more minutes of this stuff. The happiest surprise to the film is in seeing respected fantasy author/critic Kim Newman talk cogently about vampires and point out that Patterson-the-actor is far less important to his fans as Patterson-as-Edward-Cullen, perhaps the closest the film comes to self-awareness. Otherwise, it goes without saying that Robsessed is practically worthless: anyone with a high-speed internet connection could come up with a better multimedia profile of Patterson by simply clicking away on search results. Still, as audio-visual wallpaper while doing something more worthwhile (like washing dishes, or rearranging a stamp collection), Robsessed is perfect low-attention chattering. Plus imagine the ironic hipster credentials once you start showing off the box at parties, either now or in twenty years!
Pocket, 1994, 311 pages, £4.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-85242-6
It takes some skill in which to write a satisfying horror novel in which no one dies.
(This isn’t a spoiler as long as you remember that there are fates worse that death.)
Most people, after all, entertain a vague idea of karmic retribution: Do good, and good things will happen to you. But what if, through supernatural intervention, this wasn’t true? What if the persecution of a specific person could ensure success and happiness? If you’re intrigued by the idea, mull on this: What if you were the persecuted person?
Such is the Faustian bargain at the heart of The Quorum, a wholly unconventional and unnerving horror novel from Kim Newman. At times, it looks as if the unpredictable Newman excels at everything he does, and it’s not The Quorum that will diminish his consistently brilliant reputation. It works as a horror novel, as a time-capsule of Britain between the sixties and the nineties, as social satire and as a mesmerizing page-turner.
From the second chapter (past a creepy prologue introducing Derek Leech, the game-player behind the scenes of this novel), we understand that things aren’t right. As three childhood friends spend their time talking about a schoolmate’s bad luck, we’re led to understand that there is a connection between all of them. And so the first section of The Quorum describes how four friends meet at a boarding school, go through the usual trials of an English education, and end up splitting up on a winter night. One of them is left in a car; the three others as seduced in making a chilling deal with Leech: success against misery. Their success, their friend’s misery.
There are rules, but the intent is horrifyingly simple: As long as their friend suffers, the three other men will succeed. As the book begins, one’s a comic-book artist, another is a television star and the third one is a well-regarded novelist. (Some resemblance with Newman’s contemporaries may not be accidental, but is definitely not mean-spirited.) Meanwhile, their victim struggles through life after disastrous romantic affairs, a series of mysteriously terminated jobs and a higher-than-average run of bad luck.
One of The Quorum‘s best aspects is how it naturally leads to a contemplation of luck and the flow of lives. The little accident that lead to big decisions, the small inflexion points where someone could play dirty tricks. The ways in which another person’s life can be made unbearably miserable.
This having been established, The Quorum moves into another phase as the more supernatural elements of the tale are revealed. Derek Leech is a devil with a purpose, and his victim-by-proxy has a specific place in his plans. But is it possible to torture someone eternally? What happens when there’s no more suffering to extract?
The last section of The Quorum is dramatically weaker than the other ones: The conflicts have been more or less settled, all that’s left is retribution. How quickly can success turn sour? And yet, through this triple descent into madness (literally, in most cases), it’s Newman’s wit that holds the novel together. It’s seldom been more fun to see deserving people fall from grace. In fact, Newman does it so well that we can’t help but feel a bit of compassion for the new victims, regardless of their absolute cruelty in the first sections of the book.
While the English cultural references can fly thickly, The Quorum remains a deceptively smooth read, with a surprising amount of narrative momentum given that the dramatic apex of the book takes place two-third of the way through. After an initial muddle of “M”s, all characters are clearly defined and go through their own dramatic arc. There’s even a solid romance to sweeten the whole book, and a happy ending for some.
This isn’t your typical horror novel, and it’s definitely more successful because of it. At time vertiginous in the way it deals with lives and luck, The Quorum is yet another example why Kim Newman remains a solid choice despite a body of work that seems to sprawl everywhere.
(Sharp-eyed readers will even spot that Derek Leech narrates another of Newman’s book, Life’s Lottery. The links between the two novels aren’t accidental, although Life’s Lottery places the reader in the position of the torturer who makes the choices manipulating the book’s protagonist for simple entertainment.)
Simon & Schuster UK, 1999, 488 pages, C$42.00 hc, ISBN 0-684-84016-2
You’re at a book sale. You see a new book by Kim Newman. You’re intrigued, because Newman has produced exceptional work before (the Anno Dracula trilogy, etc.) and you’re curious to see what else he’s written since then. Reading the book jacket copy, you’re even more intrigued, because the book seems to be a “choose your own adventure” type of novel. How quaint! Good chunks of your early teenhood were spent “playing” with such books. Before you moved on to other things. You wonder what a gifted writer would be able to do with that format. The book, a British first edition hardcover, is cheap; you buy it.
Months later, you fish the book out of your “to read” pile and dive in. From the onset, this is clearly not a juvenile piece of fiction. The first chapter is laced with allusions to free will, choice and constant death. You’re Keith Marion, a middle-class English boy. This book is your life. Your lives, rather. By the end of the second chapter, you’re already faced with a choice. A seemingly innocuous question which will determine your path through life. Answer one way, go to Chapter 2, and you may live to know romantic entanglements, success beyond measure and bizarre life replays. Answer another, go to chapter 3, and your life will be dedicated to revenge.
You answer and read about the consequences. But more choices are available to you. By now, you have remembered your teenhood “interactive novels” routine and started mapping your choices using pen and paper. Soon, you’re paging through the book forward and back, going from chapter to chapter to choose how the story will end. After a few chapters, you meet a painful death. You go back up a node in the tree of fate and try again. And so on. You die often, but just as often you’re left to contemplate unpleasant “and so on” lives of fixed patterns.
This may have started by reminding you of your teenage years, but Life’s Lottery is different. Unlike the simple mostly-linear branchings of those early novels, Life Lottery pulls no stops in presenting radically different lives for Keith Marion. Pretty soon, your first sheet of paper is full and you must use another one to chart the choices available to you. Your life (or is it Keith’s life?) can be a mystery, or a thriller, or a romantic drama, or science-fiction. Characters you think you know in one way can reappear in other lives in various roles, from friend to villain, wife to murderess.
You realize that Keith’s life may be open to choices, but your perception of the book is shaped by your own reading. You may read all possible permutations, but it’s still going to be affected by your first run-through. Some elements are explained here, but not there. Mary will always be a dangerous murderess first, because you first saw her as a danger, whereas another initial path may have made her seem more pleasant.
Without meaning to, you’re caught up in the book. You read it in two days, playing with the stories as much as Newman is playing with you. There are incredible tricks in the novel, from “replays” to parallel fates to false choices to delicious hints of deep-seated horror underlying the concept. You develop an understanding of the story that resembles a fractal, or a hologram; meta-personalities emerge.
The novel also starts working on you. Forces you to consider your life and the choice you’ve made. You think this is one of the best things you’ve read in a while. Certainly one of the most original books in your collection. You finish the book, but the book isn’t finished with you.
You go on-line and seek other reactions. You’re not alone. You learn that the book was never republished in America. You learn that the narrator of the novel is featured in another novel by Newman. You find that other readers were similarly affected by the book.
Something still nags at you. You pull together your complete map of the book and start striking numbers off a list of numbers from 1 to 300. Something is left; a hidden path inside Keith’s lives, an Easter egg. You read the sequence and discover a wonderful framing sequence that (somewhat) ties it together. You consider whether this harms or strengthens the novel, and come to love it without reservations. You wonder if you should include the chapters number sequence of this hidden scenario in your review.
You finally decide against it. Some choices should be left to others.
Carroll & Graf, 1998, 291 pages, C$35.50 hc, ISBN 0-786-70558-2
Kim Newman’s 1992 novel Anno Dracula was, in many respect, a remarkable book. A perfect fin-de-siècle novel, it summed up the vampire genre of horror by combining it to alternate history, along with a lot of fun and potent horror scenes. What if the Dracula of Bram Stoker had escaped his hunters and lived on to marry, through imperial connections, Queen Victoria? What if that ascendancy had pushed vampirism in the open, creating a worldwide rift between the dead and the living? What if our history had been altered by the presence of this new type of humanity? Any way you looked at it, Anno Dracula was a masterpiece, an instant classic and an all-around wonderful book.
Naturally, it had to spawn sequels. Even though, according to a recent interview with Newman, a fourth book in the series should be published before the end of 2001, The Bloody Red Baron and Judgment of Tears complete what is essentially a trilogy of books about Dracula and his human nemesis Charles Beauregard. No, it doesn’t end like you’d expect it to; the Anno Dracula series is too smart to allow that.
After Victorian England, The Bloody Red Baron takes us to the trenches of World War One, where vampires fight on both sides, but the German vampires are predictably far more evil that their Allied counterpart. Here, an older Beauregard asks a capable younger agent, Edwin Winthrop, to investigate mysterious happenings related to the enemy fighter pilots. Of course, it’ll end up being somewhat significant.
The Bloody Red Baron reuses all the elements that made the success of the first volume, and if the brilliant originality is lessened, the sequel is clearer, more exciting and definitely as compulsively entertaining. Like all great follow-ups, it allows us to revisit characters and find out what happened to them in the interval, whether they’ve weathered their years well or not. (In Newman’s all-inclusive theory of vampirism, this is crucial, as “newborns” don’t have a very good chance of outliving their natural lifespans.) The biggest problem of the book comes at the very end, when we are to envision an endless series of stories without resolution of the Dracula/Beauregard conflict.
That worry is definitely put to rest in Judgment of Tears, which skips over the obvious WW2 setting to settle in La Dolce Vita’s 1959 Rome. This time, we get a resolution to both Beauregard and Dracula, as well as a none-too-comfortable expansion of the supernatural mythos. Suddenly, vampires aren’t the only fantastical creatures around, and then the book stops, almost as if it had just realized that it might be opening up too much of an X-Files-sized can of glowing mutated worms to continue. Hey, even die-hard vampire-haters might find themselves cheering for these undeads this time around.
On the other hand, Judgement of Tears is even more fun to read, almost daring us to laugh despite dramatic moments. The density of famous cameos is impressive, from Patricia Higley’s Tom Ripley to Lovecraft’s Herbert West to an italian named Marcello. The presence of an English secret agent named Bond is excuse enough to include spy movie theatrics. All your favourite scenes are there save for the outrageous gambling: Seduction/Assassination, Car chase, even the visit to the villain’s lair. At the same time, yes, there’s important serious stuff… but not only that.
Anyone who loved Anno Dracula will like the two follow-ups. While they’re not as impressive as the first one, they’re very good sequels and should quench the thirst of anyone who wonders whatever happened to the characters of the first book. And, needless to say, the whole trilogy is so much smarter than most of the horror dreck currently on the stands that it would be nearly a crime to give them a pass. Great stuff.
Simon & Schuster, 1996, 358 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 0-684-81744-6
Pocket, 1992, 469 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-71591-7
An interesting trend in turn-of-the-millennium genre fiction is the fusion of different literary tools and assumptions to produce a result that isn’t quite one thing or another. Suddenly, dragons are over New York, being battled by alien-technology stealth bombers and causing a vampire to fall in love with a policewoman. Some readers love fusion, some can’t stand it.
One particularly popular type of fusion literature is steampunk, in which -roughly- contemporary SF elements are transplanted in Victorian England. Steam-driven spaceships are equipped with computers driven by pulley and lever, Jack the Ripper meets Sherlock Holmes, Queen Victoria makes a cameo appearance and there are enough in-jokes to satisfy anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the time.
Anno Dracula (perhaps the precursor of the fusion trend, dating back from 1992) goes beyond what eventually became the clichés of steampunk. Here, Kim Newman assumes that everything that happened in Bram Stoker’s Dracula was true, with one important difference; Vlad Tepes escaped the final showdown and using his aristocratic credentials, eventually married Queen Victoria. The England of Anno Dracula is now populated with a new nobility of vampires, with their assorted entourage dominating the country. But then, someone starts killing vampire prostitutes in Whitechapel…
In almost any way you choose to look at it, Anno Dracula is an exceptional book. The alternate history drawn by Newman is somewhat plausible (which is to say, as plausible as a vampire-drived story can be), fascinating and rather frightening. The details are well-positioned to give maximum depth to the story and wink at the knowledgeable reader. Jack the Ripper co-exists with Doctor Jeckyl, Mycroft Holmes, Queen Victoria, Bram Stoker and Van Helsing…
But it takes more than a neat steampunk universe to make a good book (witness Colin Greenland’s Harm’s Way) and fortunately, Newman also scores high on the more usual fictional standards. Anno Dracula is driven by unusually interesting characters, from a shadowy British special agent to a Vampire eldress to a genial newspaper reporter to an ambitious newly-vampirized doctor. Newman, despite setting his tale in Victoria England, wisely resists fluffing up his writing style, and Anno Dracula remains compulsively readable all the way through. The memorable conclusion is lavishly built-up and quite satisfying, finding victory where one wouldn’t expect.
Two sequels have been published to date (The Bloody Red Baron and Judgement of Tears) and if it is doubtful that they will be as enjoyable -most of the fun of Anno Dracula is in discovering the alternate history-, they certainly deserve a read based only on the first volume.
It’s worth noting that the enjoyment one will get from Anno Dracula is proportional to one’s existing knowledge of literary genre, Victorian England and vampire novels. Anno Dracula is akin to a graduate-level read in that it can be enjoyed by anyone, but contains so many references to other sources that readers with extra cultural baggage will get so much more out of it. A cursory knowledge of Stoker’s Dracula alone -if only from the movie version-, helps tremendously.
Fusing horror elements with SF world-building and a mystery structure, Kim Newman has achieved more than the simple addition of elements and produced a novel far above the rest of what one would usually find on the “horror” bookshelf. Anno Dracula simply has too much ambition beyond the simple scare to avoid being labelled a darn good book. Fascinating experiment, great entertainment or best-of-breed genre novel, it’s hard to overstate how Anno Dracula is so successful on so many levels. One of the best vampire books to date. Strongly recommended, for a wide array of readers.