Review by C.J. Bunce
At long last, Johnny Alucard, Kim Newman’s sequel to 1992’s Anno Dracula, 1995’s The Bloody Red Baron, and 1998’s Dracula Cha Cha Cha is now available. And for fans of Newman’s richly detailed universe, the first Anno Dracula universe tale in 15 years was worth the wait. It’s a ballad of a kid born with nothing, who has a destiny, and that destiny takes him to conquer America. And it all happens in a parallel world where Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a biography of an historical figure, and humans and vampires live side-by-side in a universe similar, yet very different, from our own.
Known for its deeply layered world building occupied by well-known fictional and historical characters with jumbled realities, this latest Anno Dracula entry doesn’t let up. We at borg.com last year named the re-release of Dracula Cha Cha Cha the best read of 2012. Check out our review here. That novel followed Newman’s four protagonists as their stories collided with the death of Dracula in the 1950s. Three women vampires are at the heart of the Anno Dracula universe: Geneviève Dieudonné, a centuries-old French vampire who watched and participated in key historic events in this timeline; Kate Reed–the most accessible of the three–a plucky Irish journalist who carries the reader through many events in Newman’s stories; and Penelope (“Penny”) Churchward, the third wheel who never quite becomes friends with the other “Charles’s Angels”. The Charles is Charles Beauregard, a British spy all three women had relationships with over the years, and who died in Dracula Cha Cha Cha, around the time of the death of Dracula himself.
This latest installment of Newman’s series picks up with the tale of an up-and-coming vampire legend. Born Ion Popescu, Johnny Alucard was “turned” at the age of 13 in 1944. But the story begins in 1976 when he ends up as a gofer under Francis Ford Coppola as he is agonizing over the production of, not Apocalypse Now, but his own Dracula film. Geneviève, Kate, and Penny are back, and they have key roles in Ion’s story as he transforms himself into “Johnny Pop” and ultimately the wealthy Johnny Alucard, elevating himself higher than anyone thought possible.
The name Johnny creates its own aura without knowing anything else about the character–it could be an image of Matt Dillon as the bad boy greaser in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders, or maybe a free-wheeling 1950s surfer kid, or the pretty boy in Anytown, U.S.A. that all the girls fall for. Alucard, as you catch right away or learn from characters in the novel, is Dracula backwards. It has is own mystique, rolling off the tongue like a la carte–giving it a sort of European feel.
Ion is a true golden boy. He wasn’t just turned by any other vampire. He was turned by Dracula himself. And something of Dracula stayed with him, charisma, influence, power, the ability to win over anyone and everyone. When war breaks out on the Transylvania set of Coppola’s production, Ion makes his way to America, where he enters the nightlife world of New York City like Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy or Richard Gere in American Gigolo–complete with the style and clothes and image. He is a ladies’ man strutting to the disco beat of the Bee Gees. He has absorbed the dance moves of John Travolta’s Tony Manero from Saturday Night Fever (leaving the poor Brooklyn kid a shell of himself). Ion–Johnny Alucard–has arrived, and he is 1978 personified.
During his stay in New York City he befriends vampire Andy Warhol and becomes a haunt at Steve Rubell’s Studio 54. Johnny and Warhol hang out the sun roof as they drive the streets of New York City, playing chicken with the dawn. Johnny encounters Sid and Nancy–punk sucks, disco is cool. The French Connection’s Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) is even there– instead of taking to drugs to fight crime he becomes a dhampir–a not fully turned vampire–to catch vampires in Newman’s world. Johnny figures out a creepy way to produce a new drug called drac, which becomes the trendy addiction of the 1980s, prompting a certain first lady to launch a very appropriately titled “Just say yuck” campaign to fight it.
Circumstances bring Johnny to Hollywood, where he decides he can get the most money–the only thing he cares about–by making movies. Along the way we meet The Dude–yes, Jeff Bridges’ “The Dude.” Even a certain vampire slayer and her librarian mentor enter the picture, and we get to see that librarian character fully realized like never before in Joss Whedon’s vampire universe. Johnny ends up financing Orson Welles’ own new biopic of Dracula, which brings Geneviève into the mix. Geneviève’s been passed a torch of sorts in detective skills from a dying Philip Marlowe in an excellent film noir segment of the story. She’s charged with learning what all is behind this new up-and-comer.
As much as a Dracula tale, Newman tells a story about the business and relationships of Hollywood. Newman cuts into the scripts of Coppola and Welles’s Dracula films to make the novel feel cinematic. Part of the novel even plays like the John Malkovich/Willem Dafoe “making of Nosferatu” film Shadow of the Vampire.
One funny–and over-the-top–sequence finds Geneviève at the set of what amounts to a drac-sploitation version of a porn film shoot made by a wannabe director of mainstream films earning his living within the seedier side of Hollywood. Another scene finds Johnny acquiring a shape-shifting vampire named Holly when he stumbles into a hold-up by Bonnie & Clyde at a video store run by a typical, quirky Quentin Tarantino as Quentin Tarantino (he thanks Johnny for saving the day by giving him free rentals for life).
Most satisfying are Newman’s many scenes where he artfully–and sometimes just barely–drops references to celebrities or events without actually naming them. The lightbulb that goes off as you pick these off one by one is very rewarding. As with Dracula Cha Cha Cha, Johnny Alucard plays out like its own movie–a blood-soaked horror flick to be sure–but more than that, with plenty of satire and commentary on society.