books, horror, Interviews, Movies

Interview: Kim Newman on vampires and horror

Digging through my back catalog of previously published stuff done for now defunct outlets, I thought this 2011 interview with author, film critic and genre mastermind Kim Newman might be of interest to some of you. This was done via e-mail for the now undead FrightFest e-zine back in 2011. At the time of writing Newman was promoting a new expanded edition of his definitive study of the modern horror film Nightmare Movies, and the republication of Anno Dracula — the first in his series of vampire novels set in an alternate Great Britian where Dracula was not defeated by Van Helsing, but rose to become Prince Regent to Queen Victoria

Kim Newman has since the 1980s been one of UK’s leading genre film critics and journalists. In addition to writing for publications such as Empire (where he is contributing editor and writes the monthly Video Dungeon column), and Sight and Sound, he is a prolific author in both fiction and non fiction. It was a pleasure to talk horror with a man whose knowledge of the genre fellow critic Mark Kermode has said is among the most expansive in the business.

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Most fans of horror, SF and fantasy fiction and film can point to a formative work that sparked their interest in the genres. You have identified Tod Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula as the work that sparked your interest. What about that film, and the Dracula story, that caught the imagination of your adolescent self?

Kim Newman: Even people who don’t like the film on the whole admit it has a pretty impressive opening act – the trip to Castle Dracula, the armadillo, the brides in white, the track round the crypt, the castle set, Lugosi’s eyes, his unique dialogue delivery, walking through the cobweb, the barbed dinner conversation, Dwight Frye’s mad cackle and stare from the hold of the ship. As a child, I was hooked instantly. I don’t even remember noticing that the rest of the film was far less strong. The character of Dracula/Lugosi was probably the key thing, though his home environment – the castle, his creatures – is an extension of him.

Have you revisited the film recently, does it still move you in the same way?

I do watch it regularly, and I still see the elements which originally struck me. It’s one of those films I have a relationship with rather than a fixed opinion on. I usually dread rewatching it because I worry that the latter stages will bore me, but it’s too short a movie actually to be tedious. There’s a fashionable opinion that the Spanish version* is a better film, but that does get bogged down in the drawing room. Someone took care to trim surplus chat from the English language version (perhaps in the edit – both films started out with the same script) which remains in the alternate. I still think it’s an interesting movie.

*In early days of the talkies, it was common for Hollywood to produce Spanish language versions of their films.

In addition to being a full time critic, you are also a prolific fiction and non-fiction writer. What sort of discipline does this take – do you have a routine for writing?

When I’m on a book, I tend to develop a routine. Otherwise, I just try to get everything done to deadline. There is a balance between reviewing, which means fast turnarounds and specific briefs (ie: most reviews get done inside half an hour), and books, which mean day after day concentration. I have to fit in going out to screenings, doing bits of broadcasting, odd stuff like accounts and correspondence (and interviews like this) and so on, and it’s true that I am generally a busy person. I still seem to waste a lot of time, though. The activity I worry is most squeezed out of my schedule at the moment is reading – I’m well behind on my friends’ books, let alone all the other things I think I should look at.

I first read Anno Dracula back in the early nineties, and really enjoyed it then, re-reading it, it seems far cleverer than I realised first time around (mainly because I’ve read more books and seen more films since then). How did the idea for the novel develop?

It started as a footnote in an essay/thesis I did at university (University of Sussex, 1977-80) about Victorian and Edwardian apocalyptic fiction – in discussing invasion narratives, like The Battle of Dorking and War of the Worlds, I noted that Bram Stoker’s Dracula can be read as a one-man invasion, since he seems to have big plans for his new life in England which are, in the event, still-born since he runs into Van Helsing and his band of vampire-slayers. A few years later, it struck me that it would be interesting to follow that train of thought – I don’t know when the idea of an alternate history based on changing something in a book rather than something in history came to me (at that time, I didn’t know Marvel’s What If… comic) but that was obviously the flashpoint for the story. It was one of those ideas that took ten years or so to come together. I had a notion that it might be a trilogy, and even talked with Neil Gaiman about co-writing it [around] 1985 (so it’s nice that he’s blurbed it now), but didn’t get a handle on what the actual story should be (some say I never have) until Steve Jones solicited a story for The Mammoth Book of Vampires [in] 1990 and I hit on Jack the Ripper as a plot spine. I then wrote a novella version (published by Steve as ‘Red Reign’) but always knew it was an embryo novel.

Anno Dracula shares some ideas and themes with Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (but of course pre-dates it by a few years), did you have an interest in creating an alternative history novel, or was that a side effect of wanting to write your own version of Dracula? 

I had been interested in alternative history since the 1970s, when it was a much smaller field than it is now. Poul Anderson’s A Midsummer Tempest, an alternate history rooted in Shakespeare, was a precedent – but I was nudged towards taking Anno Dracula seriously as a project by John M. Ford’s A Dragon Waiting and Brian Stableford’s The Empire of Fear (both alternate histories with vampires). I did worry that the basic idea might be too abstruse for general audiences to follow, which shows how much things have changed since then.

In Anno Dracula, the Count is mostly an offstage presence, casting a baleful influence over the events in the book but not engaging in the action. Did you always intend to keep Dracula as a shadowy figure in the novel?

My first, vague thought was not to do that – and to write a ‘corridors of power’ story in which Dracula would be onstage a lot (I’ve never read Trollope, but I had seen the TV version [on Anthony Trollope’s] The Pallisters, so it might have come out like that), but I wound up going with a Stoker-style offstage Count because he seems a more powerful presence that way. I like Fred Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tape, in which Dracula is the narrator, but opted not to go that route. I suspect I was influenced by Apocalypse Now in the structure of the book – where people talk and think about Dracula, sometimes in contradictions, for hundreds of pages, but we only get to see him at the end (and, yes, my depiction of Dracula owes a lot to Marlon Brando as Kurtz and a certain well-known fantasy paperback cover illustration). I kept Sherlock Holmes offstage, too – I wanted his supporting cast, but felt he would unbalance the book if he were a major presence.

Was the alternative history genre in SF an influence? (Is it really SF? I’ve never been sure). I guess I’m thinking of Philip K. Dick’s Man in a High Castle in particular. 

Yes, enormously. Though I think Sarban’s The Sound of His Horn and Saki’s When William Came (not technically alternate history, since it’s a 1914 novel which imagines a future in which the Germans have occupied London) are closer to what I wound up doing than the Dick. Oh, and Michael Moorcock’s Oswald Bastable books, too. And Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

How much research went into Anno Dracula’s version of 19th century London? The amount of detail is extraordinary.

I did a great deal of reading, not just history (Sally Mitchell’s Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia was invaluable) but novels of the period (I crib a lot from Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago for the slum detail) and useful things like illustrated or annotated editions of Sherlock Holmes or Gilbert and Sullivan. Using the Jack the Ripper case also meant that the many, many books on the subject – which tend to bring in much associated stuff, like the politics of London policing and the sensation press c 1888 – were invaluable. What I didn’t do was visit Whitechapel (the major location for the novel), though I lived just a few stops away on the tube. I kept meaning to go and look around, but was too busy writing to manage it. I have since been there often (I live much closer now) and sort of wish I’d at least visited Toynbee Hall (where a lot of the book is set) since it’s an interesting site and I’d have changed some detail to fit it.

There is some real horror in Anno Dracula but also a lot of humour. Did you set out with the aim of getting that mix?

Because it has vampires in, I assumed it would be categorised (by booksellers) as horror – though I did set out to write something that could go on several genre shelves: it’s horror, mystery, history, romance, satire, science fiction, fantasy and literary metafiction. It even has a bit of Western in there – and the later books add war, sex and shopping and biography to the list. Re-reading the book for the new edition, I’d forgotten how extreme some of the grue is. I tend to write funny because I think people tend to be funny in real life, even in grim situations (this was confirmed by all the World War I research I did for [the second book] The Bloody Red Baron). Knowing that the world of the novel was going to be fairly dark, and that there would be horrible things happening, I tried to give the central relationship between the gentleman adventurer and the lady vampire a kind of Nick-and-Nora/Steed-and-Emma element of banter that allows for some lighter moments. There’s a lot of black humour, too.

Did you always envision this as a world that would be developed further (in the subsequent novels and stories)? If so did you map out the way the alternate history would develop at the time you wrote Anno Dracula, or did that come later?

I knew from the outset that this was more than one book. But I didn’t map the history in detail, and still haven’t. In some alternate histories (Eugene Byrne and I have a Nazis-won-the-war idea we’d love to get done, though no publisher has bitten yet), you make a change at some point in the past, then follow the ripples down through the years to show a world that becomes increasingly divergent from ours (step on a butterfly in prehistory and lizard monkeys rule the Earth in the present). In the Anno Dracula world, it’s different since the addition of ‘out of the coffin’ vampires to the 20th Century doesn’t alter world events except slightly – because I want to show a distorted mirror of what really happened and continues to happen rather than present a genuine alternative. This will become even more apparent in the forthcoming Johnny Alucard (which takes the parallel world up to 1989). In 2011 Anno Dracula, Lord Ruthven’s Vampire Party is back in power, in collaboration with the Lib-Dems . and Nick Clegg has to sell pro-bloodsucking policies to the human masses.

It’s great to see the novel back in print, since its first publication there has been both a collapse in the horror genre (probably this bubble burst even before its publication) and an explosion in vampire romance novels and young adult horror fiction. Do you have any inkling as to why horror faded as a defined literary genre over the 90s/00s, while it seemed to get more popular in film, TV and comics?

I think it was a typical publishing balloon – the success of a few best-sellers (Stephen King, mainly) encouraged the belief that horror was a category which would sustain many more books than the market could take. Some very good writers were lost in the mix. I suspect this was mismarketing rather than a satiated readership since, as you say, other forms of horror (and other media) flourished.

nightmare-movies

Moving on from Anno Dracula, the new edition of your history of the modern horror film Nightmare Movies has just been published. Why do you choose to watch horror films (or nightmare movies)?

Simple answer. I like them. Complicated answer: I’m interested in them.

I bought the 1988 edition of Nightmare Movies, it was a major revelation at that time as although there were quite a few studies of the horror film around they did tend to at best condescend, and at worst dismiss outright, the 70s and 80s horror films that were really exciting to me as a teenager. In the book’s introduction you give this as the impetus for writing the book. Since it’s first publication a lot has changed and there are now many more studies of the modern horror film. What developments did you want to capture in the update?

It’s been more than twenty years, and we’ve had whole new cycles come and go – serial killers, Japanese ghosts, remakes and reduxes, post-modern irony, torture porn, etc – while the old major gothic themes – vampires and werewolves, etc – keep being done over in new forms. I try to keep a balance between history and comment, and not to dismiss current trends the way some writers (many of whom I admire) looked down on the films that are the core of the original Nightmare Movies while still noting that the ecology of the genre (and the film industry) has changed and not necessarily for the better. I think there was a stronger division in quality in the middle of the period covered in the earlier edition, between the 1970s and the 1980s (Friday the 13th is a good it-all-goes-to-hell moment from 1980), than there is between 1988, when I left off, and the subsequent period covered in the New Nightmares section of this

What I love about Nightmare Movies, apart from the breadth of films covered, and the depth of knowledge, is that your personal taste comes across strongly. Have you had an particular difficulties with any individual films or genre trends that you just don’t care for?

I guess it’s no secret that I could live without seeing another chained-up-in-the-basement-and-tortured film, though even in that limited genre really interesting pictures (5150 Elms Way, recently, or WAZ) show up. The most dispiriting phase of any sub-genre comes when you get tons of indistinguishable, low-quality efforts – I could also do without seeing any more zombie apocalypses for a while, though George Romero’s films remain the backbone of Nightmare Movies.

You note in the introduction that you were surprised how little your older and younger critical opinions disagreed. Where there any notable films about which your opinion has shifted (in either positive of negative directions)?

Not really, which did surprise me. I’ve not watched everything I covered first time round again, but revisiting old favourites I usually found different things to like. Every few years, the weight of adulation around Blade Runner convinces me to give it another go and – in whatever cut – I’m always convinced by the first half hour that I was wrong and it’s a masterpiece only to realise after that that I’m right and it’s a magnificent but terribly botched work.

At the end of the 1988 edition you seemed to feel that the genre was a bit tired, and were contemplating a breakdown of genre divisions. How do you feel about the heath of the genre in 2011 as opposed to 1988?

Generally more positive. There are several flourishing forms of horror on film and TV, and new developments keep coming.

Do you ever fear that age and experience may blunt your ability to treat new genre films fairly?

I worried about that more when I was 28 than I do now I’m 52. I accept that I’m not in the demographic for Twilight, I hated the kids in Attack the Block and I don’t feel any need to pander to any audience. It’s harder for me to get enthusiastic about a film full of ideas I’ve seen dozens of times before (eg The Sixth Sense, which I do like) than it might be for someone who hasn’t seen as many films as I have, but that’s an experience thing rather than an age thing. If all the kids start loving, say, Guinea Pig, I’d be excluded – but I doubt that sort of material will ever be mainstream. A lot of the crusty critics (and fans) complain about Twilight or Insidious or whatever being not gruesome and graphic enough to count as proper horror, which sounds to me a lot like Halliwell’s {a reference to the late critic Leslie Halliwell author of popular film guides and no friend of the modern horror film] complaining that everything after Hammer was too horrible to be proper horror. I hope to keep an open mind, but that’s not just in my attitude to movies.

I’m hoping to read a new edition in another 20 years; do you think you might write it?

That depends on whether I’m still alive, and – of course – on what goes on with the genre. I’m not sure I want to contemplate that far ahead. I’ve plenty of other things to be going on with. As it happens, I’m happy to leave Nightmare Movies for the present; of course, I said that in 1988 too.

Finally, did you have to watch all that vampire porn?

A cursory internet search – probably not on your work computer – will show that I barely scratched the surface of vampire porn (I did watch Dracula Sucks and Dracula Exotica, which have moments of interest). True Blood and Twilight have spawned whole new acres of vampire porn I can safely not bother with for decades. I’m contemplating a book about Jekyll and Hyde movies, and I know there’s a small shelf of Jekyll and Hyde porn out there.

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