Shock horror! It’s Kim Newman
For four decades, Kim Newman has provided a peerless commentary to the lesser known gems of horror cinema – and is a dab hand himself at the monster myths
Every now and then, when meeting an interviewee, one requires some identifying information to pick him or her out from the crowd. “I’ll be wearing a blue shirt and a baseball cap.” That sort of thing. No such tips are required to locate Kim Newman.
Long one of England’s most distinguished horror specialists, Newman has always made sure to dress the part. Fond of waistcoats and flappy Edwardian ties, his hair worn several inches beneath the collar, Kim could easily step straight into a Hammer film from that studio’s late, groovy period.
Here he is, settling up at the bar of a posh Dublin hotel. Newman is, perhaps, still best known as a critic. Though knowledgeable on all areas of film (he is, for instance, a walking encyclopaedia of the western), Kim has, since publishing Nightmare Movies in 1988, become the first point of contact for any wise documentarist or writer probing the spookier areas of cinema history.
Throughout the decades, however, he also satisfied a solid fanbase with his varied macabre fiction. Jago was an epic horror in the style of Stephen King. A series of novels set in the Warhammer universe delighted enthusiasts for that role-playing game. But his finest fictional achievement is unquestionably the superb Anno Dracula series. Johnny Alucard, the fourth in the sequence, has just arrived and looks to be belatedly securing Kim wider appreciation for his fiction.
Does he crave greater celebrity?
“I am not sure I do,” he says in a voice that carries little of his west-country origins. “WeIl, I have the degree of celebrity I am comfortable with. I can sit in a bar and nobody hassles me in the way that even mildly famous actors get hassled. After all, you could be the most famous writer in Britain and nobody would know who you were. Because I’m on television, some people know who I am. The other day the manager of my local supermarket admitted he knew who I was.”
The recent reissues of the first three Anno Dracula books have done much to alter perceptions of Kim Newman. Moving from the era of Jack the Ripper through the first World War and onwards to Italy at the time of La Dolce Vita and, finally, to New York and Hollywood in the 1980s, the books imagine a universe in which Dracula survived Van Helsing’s assaults to spread vampirism throughout western society.
Though the count makes several hideous appearances – notably as Queen Victoria’s consort in the opening section – the books are most remarkable for the way they integrate characters from other popular fictions. Sherlock Holmes, George Smiley, Doctor Caligari, James Bond, Lord Peter Wimsey: the list of familiar supporting players runs into the hundreds.
“I am not sure I have rules about those things,” he ponders. “Bram Stoker appears as a character, but so does Dracula. Oscar Wilde is there, but so is Dorian Gray. In this universe Stoker writes a book about Dracula and Wilde writes a book about Dorian Gray. But those books are more like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. In the new book, Martin Sheen appears as himself. But the character he plays in Badlands also appears. So, no, I don’t have rules.”
Not just superior horror fiction, the books form a vast postmodern history of popular culture in the last century. Johnny Alucard, the latest episode, is as ingenious and fecund as any in the sequence. Indeed, no novel since Theodore Roszak’s Flicker has worked harder at inveigling secret histories into the story of film. Dracula is dead, but the title character – a clever, slippery Romanian vampire – intends to rekindle the master’s spirit through the medium of film. Andy Warhol, Orson Welles and Francis Ford Coppola are among those caught up in his schemes.
“I have been very moved by the responses,” Newman says. “People seem to engage with the book. I am aware it does different things to the other books. I always knew that the way to get rich was to write the same book over and over again. That would drive me crazy. But, at the same time, you don’t want to be one of those writers who turns on his fans.”
Newman need not fret. The book does have a slightly different structure to the earlier novels: rather than sticking with one time line, Johnny Alucard comprises a series of linked episodes. But the new adventure maintains a familiar tone as it experiments with yet more cultural avatars. Following an establishing prologue, we find Coppola, in 1977, shooting a version of Dracula that sounds very like Apocalypse Now. (“Wallachia, shit!” is the very first line in the script.) Newman, born in 1959, is now engaging with the popular culture that emerged in his own youth. He, surely, watched Kojak, The Rockford Files and Columbo (all of which are referenced) as a young fellow. It must be harder to decide which of those characters have resonance for the ages.
“Yes, but I was always dealing with popular culture that had lasted and was still present: Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Biggles, James Bond. All these things were still read. They are active franchises. But, you’re right, I did find it harder figuring out what to use from the 70s and 80s.”
“But oddly he is actually from a novel from the 90s. But he is an 80s character. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way of using Rambo.”
Most horror fans between the age of 45 and 55 (those who had access to British television, anyway) will have some understanding of Newman’s early exposure to the dark arts. We are not of the video age. We poured over such books as Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Films and lived for the ITV screenings of Universal classics on Friday night. Mark Gattis, writer and League of Gentlemen stalwart, tells similar stories. Raised by a family of potters in Somerset, Newman remembers those early years with affection.
“Yeah, I had the Gifford book too,” he says. “I think I am a little older than you and Mark. But I remember all those Universal and Hammer films on ITV on Friday. Then the rights were acquired by the BBC and they would show a universal and a Hammer on Saturday. There’s a whole generation of horror fans who fondly remember when Tower of London was on with Superbeast.”
You’re not wrong, Kim.
Following school, Newman made his way to the University of Sussex to study English. It may be the clothes, but it’s hard to imagine him doing anything other than what he does today. Sure enough, he can’t remember ever having a “proper job” in the straight world.
“I spent two years applying for jobs, but I didn’t have a single offer,” he remembers. “Maybe they correctly deduced that I was unfit for conventional employment. After those two years, I sold a piece and found I’d become a freelance writer. Who knows? If somebody had given me a job as a town clerk, I might have stuck with it. I am a competent person.”
In the early days, he plugged away for Monthly Film Bulletin, City Limits and the NME. Like a lot of perfectly respectable writers (male and female) in those years, he found himself delivering the odd piece for soft porn magazines.
“Not pornography, you understand,” he rapidly clarifies. “I never met Paul Raymond, but I did work for his magazines. I wrote the funny articles in between. I did a few interviews. That paid reasonably well.”
So he was writing the “articles” that chaps pretended they were buying the magazines to read.
“Yes, that’s right. I haven’t seen one of those things in 25 years. I don’t suppose they bother with the articles now.”
Though he may not enjoy hearing it, Kim Newman has since passed through respectability and become something of an institution. What John Arlott was to English cricket, Newman is to British horror. Johnny Alucard comes a full 15 years after Dracula Cha Cha Cha, the last Anno Dracula novel, and arrives in a very different universe. Vampires are more popular than at any stage in history and the author is now an ornament of the age.
“I often think I am as obscure as it possible to be while being famous – or as famous as its possible to be while remaining obscure,” he muses.
There are worse conditions.
yyy Anno Dracula is published by Titan Books