With Halloween next week and the Bram Stoker Festival happening this weekend, it’s no surprise if Vampires are on everyone’s mind at the moment. Part of the festival will be the Stoker on the Square film festival, taking place on 26th-28th October, and novelist, journalist and film critic Kim Newman, was invited to be curator. I sat down with Kim recently when he visited Dublin, to find out more about the role of currator and his own writing.
“I’ve picked the movies,” Kim told me. “This festival is the celebration of the legacy of Bram Stoker and there are all kinds of events. I see they’ve got opera on, I’m sure they have vampire cupcakes. It’s going to be a wonderful and literary event. But the movies are as much a part of what we think of as Dracula and they came to me and asked me to pick four Dracula movies. They then asked if I could pick two for kids as well which I though was an interesting thing, so I got to pick six films. Oddly enough, only one of them, Blood for Dracula, is really not suitable for kids – it’s sexy and violent in an explicit way.’
“I want to involve kid monster-fans. I think that these are all, even the really arty ones, accessible Dracula movies. I wanted a wide range of different types of Dracula from the gothic horror to black comedy to sweet comedy and action movies… I think that they all address the material of Dracula, they all engage with the book. They engage with the character in different ways and I think that’s great. We wouldn’t be having this festival if it wasn’t for the fact that Dracula is one of those properties that’s not just a book, not just a film, it’s a whole bunch of things. It’s like, there are so many different Draculas – you could fill a room with them. Which, at some point, I may well do.”
“By seeing Dracula, the Bela Lugosi film, one of the films I’m selecting,” he told me. “That was a big film for me personally. This was the early 1970s in Britain where horror films were shown late at night so for kids it was a sort of a forbidden thing. Everybody knew some kid who claimed he didn’t have to go to bed until midnight – most of them were lying through their teeth, of course, and they would always describe films that maybe their older brothers had seen and described to them. They passed them around the playground as their own and made them sound so much more horrible than they actually were. In my ITV region, they showed horror films, at that time forty-year old films from the 30s and 40s. They showed them on Friday nights at 10.30 and I had special dispensation from my parents to stay up and watch one movie – Dracula. It changed my life really – it was a revelation.
“I became a horror fan and I became a film fan and I became a Dracula fan. One of the first things I wanted to do after seeing Dracula was read the book which I did. After that, I wanted to write the book. Like the guy who wanted to write Don Quixote, regardless of the fact that it had already been written. That’s what I wanted to do. And I was an 11 year old kid. I don’t even know that I wanted to be a writer before that.
“So I wrote this one page adaptation of Dracula that we then did in my drama-class in school. Me playing Dracula, doing all the Bela Lugosi voices, all terribly embarrassing. But I love the idea of fitting the whole story of Dracula in one page. I had reduced the characters, I think there were four in my version, Renfield, Van Helsing, Dracula and one victim. it was a boys’ grammar school so there were no women – we had to lose the brides, we had to lose Mena.”
From that one page story, I asked him when he penned his first Dracula novel.
“That took a while to happen,” he admitted. “When I was at university, I did a thesis on Victorian apocalyptic fiction and it had a section on invasion narratives – War Of The Worlds, The Battle Of Dorking etc. Just as a footnote to that, I said that Bram Stoker’s Dracula could be considered a one-man invasion narrative because there’s a speech about how Dracula is coming to Britain, how he’s going to establish a new order. ‘You will create a new breed of people whose path leads to death rather than life.’ I have no idea what that means but it sounds great. I mean, Stoker is not a great writer but he’s a great phrase writer.
“Then it just struck me – what if Dracula were an invasion story? What if, instead of spending the second half of the book chasing Mena Harker, he actually took over the country? I had the world for about 10 years before I had the story. I was asked to do a novella for a Dracula project and I thought I could write my Dracula-wins story. I realised that the Jack The Ripper stories were a really good touch-stone for a plot – they were a series of historical events and they involved both the highest in the land – Queen Victoria had an interest – and the dregs in the gutter. I considered making Jack The Ripper a vampire and then decided, instead, he should be killing vampires, a vampire hunter. There was even a character in the original Dracula, Dr John Seward – he’s a doctor and he was called Jack. That gave me a way into the world and I thought, what if Dracula replaces Prince Albert as Victoria’s consort, the boss of Britain? What about the other vampire characters, what could they be?
“I don’t want to make any great claims for originality because Dracula was there already and I am Legend told the ‘vampires take over the world’ story. But I may well have been the first to do what the TV show ‘True Blood’ does, explores the idea that vampires live among us, publicly accepted. And then all the vampires from all the other vampire stories – a Chinese hopping vampire, a disgusting Nosferatu-style vampire, frilly-shirt-Anne-Rice vampires, the Count from Sesame Street –they all co-exist in my universe and they’re all in the first book, Anno Dracula.
“Then in subsequent books, I was able to write about every possible version of a vampire. I even had one of HG Wells’ Martians as a vampire. It’s funny, it’s absurd and it’s satirical but I keep trying to both make it horrific and give it some emotional resonance as well. If it were just a romp, then I wouldn’t have been able to do more than one book.
“Of course, vampires are also always being used as metaphors. Karl Marx talked about capitalism as a vampire. You have this great image of Dracula the aristocrat sitting in his castle drinking the blood of the peasants. There are all sorts of psychological and social issues around vampirism – blood and money and drugs and altered states and evolution. This series gave me the space to talk about all of that.”
“There’s a whole chunk of this book called Andy Warhol’s Dracula,” Kim tells me, “Andy Warhol’s friends used to call him ‘Drella’, a combination of Dracula and Cinderella. Just look at him, that white face and the silver wig. Dracula wasn’t a big thing in his life but he made two Dracula movies, he made Batman versus Dracula which, frankly, I’d like to see and he made Blood for Dracula which also features in ‘Stoker On the Square’. Although he didn’t really have a lot to do with it, he was more the patron on that one. He also did a couple of paintings of Dracula, not particularly good ones, and he did a silk-screen Dracula. Just the idea that Warhol had of taking the image – Elvis or Marilyn Monroe, silk-screening it and mass-producing it – the idea of exactly what celebrity is. So we should do the same with Dracula because that’s exactly what he is – a celebrity.
“There’s also a section of Johnny Alucard set in Hollywood, about the movies, featuring a Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula which is like Apocalypse Now, shot in Romania, and an Orson Welles’ version. But I also look at Dracula Sucks and 1980s vampire movies, like Near Dark and The Lost Boys.
“I also suggest that vampires exist as a ghost around us all the time, just because there are so many references – you cannot go through a day without seeing or hearing a reference to Dracula. Of course that’s true of a lot of things. A friend of mine wrote a book about Elvis and he called them E-moments. Someone says ‘all shook up’ or sees a picture of Elvis – these are E-moments. Well there are D-moments as well…There’s a line in The Usual Suspects which is a Dracula paraphrase. ‘The greatest trick the devil pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.’ That’s something Van Helsing says. So that’s a ‘D-moment’. And, of course, coming off the plane to come to town today, what did I see? Big posters for this event!
“With this new book, I went back to Stoker and I picked a strand that isn’t very often looked at – money. There’s that great bit where he’s stabbed and he bleeds coins because he’s wearing a money belt. In fact, when we first meet Dracula, he’s looking for treasure. And there’s all the stuff about where his money comes from. He thinks like an accountant – he’s all about train timetables and bills of lading and all this sort of stuff. So I thought it would be interesting to look at that side of Dracula. The first book has quite a bit about vampire sex in it because it’s got vampire hookers. And it’s got a strong romantic element. The second book is kind of about war and, I suppose, the third book is about shopping. And this one is about money.”
I asked Kim to tell us about his new character Popescu, who becomes Johnny Pop and then Johnny Alucard.
“I took the name Johnny Alucard from a Hammer film called Dracula AD 1972. Johnny starts out as a Romanian orphan called Ion Popescu which is pretty much the most boring name you can have in Romania – it’s like being called John Smith. But Ion Popescu anglicises to Johnny Pop which is a great Andy Warhol name. The same as ‘Billy Name’ and ‘Ultra Violet’. Johnny Pop would be in Andy Warhol’s film. And Johnny Pop becomes Johnny Alucard, ‘Alucard’ being Dracula spelled backwards. ‘Alucard’ was actually first used in the film Son Of Dracula but it’s also in Dracula AD 1972 which is the one I picked. And the reason it’s lasted is that ‘Alucard’ sounds good, it sounds like a real name. there’s a wonderful moment in Dracula AD 1972 when Peter Cushing, the world’s greatest expert on vampires, spends five minutes with a piece of paper, tongue in his cheek, sweat on his brow, working out that it’s Dracula spelt backwards. So I wanted that and, frankly, this book has done Dracula forwards, backwards, sideways and upside down. I love Martin Stiff, the cover designer. He did this great thing where Johnny Alucard rhymes , he’s like the negative version of Dracula. I couldn’t have thought of that. I’m really pleased with how that cover worked out. He actually brought out aspects of the book through the typography and the design.
I then asked Kim the question I always put to writers I meet. What is his writing process?
“I’m a writer. Ì don’t have another job but I do lots of other things. So I tend to write fiction in the morning. I work from home so first I go out, I get a take-out cup of coffee from across the road, because that allows me to see what the outside world is like, forces me to shave and not wear a dressing-gown. Then I come back, answer my emails, house-keeping type stuff. Then I will work on whatever fiction project I’m working, usually til about midday. After a couple of hours, you’re just spinning the wheels. If I’m under a really tight deadline, I can do seven/eight hour days writing-spells. If I don’t have to, I prefer not to. Then the rest of the days, there’s other jobs need doing, I do lots of film reviewing, so I go to see films. I have to find some time to read, and I have to find some time to have a social life.”
As well as his Anno Dracula novels, Kim also wrote a novel featuring the Arthur Conan Doyle character and nemesis of Sherlock Holmes, Professor John Moriarty. I asked Kim what he thinks about the recent reimagining of Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock.
“Well there’s been two,” Kim reminded me. “I kind of like both of them. With the BBC one, there’s only been two 3-episode runs. Each season has one absolutely brilliant episode, one really naff one and one that’s kind of alright. And I’m starting to wonder if that’s not a pretty bad hit-rate. That said, I thought that the second season-opener was perfect, the Irene Adler one, that was absolutely great. And if they were all as good as that, it would be terrific. I liked Moriarty, he was good but I can also see why he didn’t really last as a character, why he self-destructed. When I did a Moriarty, I wanted to go with Doyle’s version who is interesting in other ways. Andrew Scott was a really good match with Benedict Cumberbatch. Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows) was one of the best. He was really Doyle’s Moriarty and a credible villain.
To finish up my great chat with Kim Newman, I asked him what he thinks might be the next big thing in horror.
“Well I hope it’s ghost stories,” he says. ”Because that’s what I’m writing next!”
(c) Paul FitzSimons
The Bram Stoker Festival takes place in Dublin from 26th-28th October with ‘Stoker On The Square’ happening in Meeting House Square, Temple Bar. It features the 1931 Dracula, The Monster Squad, Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula, The Brides of Dracula and Hotel Transylvania.
Paul FitzSimons is a screenwriter and novelist and has written the novel ‘Burning Matches’ and a number of scripts for film and TV. He has worked as a storyline writer on RTE’s ‘Fair City’. His short stories are published in ‘Who Brought The Biscuits’ by The Naas Harbour Writers. Paul likes crime thrillers, good coffee and Cadbury’s chocolate. He doesn’t like country-and-western music or people who don’t indicate on roundabouts.