Kim Newman may not have invented the mash-up genre (but then, he possibly may) but he is undoubtedly its premier virtuoso: In his seminal novel Anno Dracula he presents readers with an appropriately grimy and realistic Victorian London, and then fills it with vampires and a whole host of literary characters. I hesitated quite a while before reading the novel, because even though the concept seemed like fun, I was not sure whether the execution would live up to it. As it turned out, it did, and then some; and in consequence I did not hesitate at all to acquire the sequel to Anno Dracula, which is at least as enjoyable as its predecessor.
The Bloody Red Baron (the main part of the book, as this re-release also contains a novella set a few years later) takes place during the end of the first World War. Dracula has moved to Germany and teamed up with Kaiser Wilhelm, leading the German troops as general in an apparently never-ending war of attrition in the trenches of France. Like in Anno Dracula, Newman takes care to ground his fantastical plot and personnel in a very realistic description of the setting they move in. The author pulls no punches when it comes to depicting the mindless violence, the utter frustration and soul-destroying fight for survival in the trenches, and it does not take long for the reader to realize that the most gruesome horror in this novel does not stem from the supernatural monsters and their shenanigans but arises from the actual historical events. To some degree, this was already the case in Anno Dracula, but it is much more pronounced in The Bloody Red Baron (and not surprisingly so, given the period it is set in).
Still, this is not All Quiet on the Western Front but an alternative history Fantasy novel about WWI with Vampires, and while Kim Newman keeps readers constantly aware of the historical background and how gruesome it really was, his main purpose is take them along for a fun ride. (One might of course debate whether it is okay to use an atrocity like the first world war as background for a pulp novel (all the more so as Newman does not fail to throw in the occasional allusion to the Third Reich, like Dracula’s obsession with building a perfectly organized, nationwide railway system), but that would be a discussion for the comment section if anyone is interesting in holding it.) The actual plot, then, revolves (as the title already indicates) Manfred von Richthofen, the infamous German flyer ace known as the Red Baron. (And who, in one scene, actually shoots a beagle – just to demonstrate how Newman’s humour works. And in case you should not get it, check out this.) He and the other German fighter pilots are (just like their British counterparts) vampires and a group of Mad Scientists is busy on transforming them into a Wunderwaffe to end the stalled war with a victory for the Reich. On the British side we have Charles Beauregard and Kate Reed (both recurring characters from Anno Dracula) as well as Diogenes Club agent Edwin Winthrop.
The way I see it, this kind of mashup novel runs two big risks. The first one, which I suspect most works in this genre fall victim to, is that, among all the prankish fun of making literary characters appear “real” and treating historical figures as fictions, the story very easily gets lost, and one may end up with a plot that is no more than a convenient hook to hang character placements on but which looks bare and lacklustre once you take them away. This is a danger which Kim Newman, both in Anno Dracula and here, gloriously avoids – while vampires are obviously an essential part of the plot, the story would work very well without the constant referencing of famous (and not so famous) historical and literary figures. It may not be the most original plotline, but then it would be rather against the spirit of the whole enterprise if it had been, and I at least thought it worked very well, keeping me engaged and entertained for the not inconsiderable length of the novel.
However, Newman does not fare quite as well in avoiding the second danger, which is name dropping for the sake of name dropping. There is an absolutely insane amount of references here, literally every single page is crammed full with allusions to history, pulp fiction, WWI movies and pretty much everything you could imagine (plus several things you probably couldn’t), ranging from the well-known to the utterly obscure. Some of those references are essential to the story, like the point-of-view character for the Germans being a vampirized Edgar Poe (as he never fails to mention, he no longer uses the name of his foster father), or contribute to it, like the double duo of Mad Scientists, ten Brincken / Caligari on the German, Moreau / West on the British side, and some are just funny in themselves, like the beagle-shooting I mentioned earlier. So far so good, but Newman does not stop there – pretty much every single name popping up in the novel, even if it is someone who only gets a single mention, is someone the author pulled from a history book, a novel, a comic, a movie or whatever else was available, and it’s just getting a bit too much, resulting in giving at least this reader something of a headache. It has to be said though, even while I’m not certain if it really is working, that it was almost certainly the author’s purpose to go over the top here – it adds a certain manic quality to the narrative, something obsessive and driven which does seem quite appropriate to the story it tells.
This new edition by Titan Books which I’ve read also contains the novella “Vampire Romance” which is set in 1923 and is basically Edgar Wallace and Enid Blyton with Vampires. It is much more light-hearted than The Bloody Red Baron itself, to the point that it becomes outright silly in parts – but that certainly fits its source material. How much you enjoy this will indeed most likely depend on your tolerance for silly shenanigans in English country houses, but for my part I had fun reading it and am now looking forward to tackling Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha (Fellini’s Dolce Vita with Vampires?) in the not too far future.