Monday, February 24, 2014

Blood and sweat and guts and bone

I haven't yet read the Johnny Alucard book, the latest in the Anno Dracula series, but that's only because I don't want it to be over...

Wold Newman (or: The Ubiquitous Doctor Shade)
Originally posted June 22, 2012

Every couple of years, I get sucked into the fiction work of Mr Kim Newman, and it is taking me longer and longer to get out of that pleasurable pit again, because there is always more and more of it, and it's always entertaining.

I genuinely think Newman is the most entertaining writer on the planet, and I always love his work - from his numerous pulp-culture drenched short stories and novels to his meticulously researched and very funny non-fiction work.

When it comes to movies, he remains the one reviewer I invariably can trust (I’ve even come to concede that he was probably right about Army of Darkness), and when I pick up one of his books, I know I'm going to be entertained and absorbed. Whether it’s as his whiskey drinking alter-ego Jack Yeovil, or as Mr-Strokey-Beardey Critic, or as a horror writer who finds queasy terrors in the midlands of England, or as a builder of his own worlds.

There is so much of it now, that when I start reading Newman’s books again, I end up reading nothing else but Dark Future, Anno Dracula or Geneviève stories for weeks and weeks after, and it’s always totally worth it.

1. Pulp Friction!

Orgy of the Blood Parasites was going to be called Bloody Students, and that sums up the brilliant nastiness of Jack Yeovil’s hard-boiling debut. The only Yeovil novel that wasn’t part of a series, (although the name popped up on numerous genre-related reviews), it took Cronenberg horror to a nice English university, unleashing primal rages between the exams, and slaughtering its cast with unbridled enthusiasm.

Sometimes I think Yoevil’s books are my favourites of all Newman’s work. They’re so busy and rushed and packed, but even though Newman reportedly wrote most of them in a couple of weeks, there is still room for fun and excitement, with a healthy “anything goes” attitude.

The Warhammer fantasy books are better than they should be - Drachenfels starts with an epic quest, gets that crap out of the way in 20 pages and gets into the real story, which somehow turns into an extraordinary satire of the movie business in a medieval setting, and ends with my unashamedly favourite last line in any novel ever. Beasts in Velvet is a giallo murder mystery, right down to the gruesome deaths and weird perspectives (I’m still chuffed that I figured out what the dead man wrote on the barrel he was buried in), and all of the Geneviève stories have hidden depths, just like the smile of the incredibly old teenage girl who drifts through the tales. 

The Dark Future books are even better. They’re set in a world where anything goes, post-apocalyptic shenanigans banging up against Things From Beyond The Veil. It’s a series of books that are loaded down with noble heroes with tarnished souls, disgusting villains that kill you if you’re lucky, and a small mountain of pop-culture references.

Jackie catches JFK in bed with Marilyn in the early sixties, Nixon becomes president and epically bad pollution turns most of the US into a dangerous wasteland, filled with roaming teen gangs, and genuine monsters in all shapes and sizes. But it’s okay, because Colonel Elvis Aron Presley didn’t sign that contract for the devil, so there is still hope.

They area  painfully unfinished series of books, and I would give anything to read United States Cavalry, the once-promised conclusion. But I still end up reading the whole series all the way through, over and over again, because they’re so silly and so funny, and so noble and so passionate.

One book has Jason Voorhees, Michael Myersand a small army of fictional murderers taking part in a nuthouse riot – and that’s just a sidebar to the main event where a young punk girl staring down an unfathomably ancient evil. I know that I’m in the right place

2. Reel Life (or: ‘I didn’t raise my daughter to be a severed head.’)

The Dark Future might be still unwritten, and it has been an agonising wait for some of his books, but I still read new words by Kim Newman every month, in things like Sight and Sound and Empire magazine.

I’ve been getting Empire every month since 1993, and it didn’t take long to realise Newman (or Yeovil) was writing most of the reviews for films that I was interested in – all the gross horrors and cheesy sci-fi’s – and he was usually right. I’ve trusted Newman’s opinion for nearly twenty years, and it’s never steered me wrong.

After all, his criticism is always fair, and usually manages to find something – anything – nice to say about a lot of the films he watches. It’s still worth following up a Video Dungeon recommendation. So much of genre film is inherently worthless, you need a trusted voice to find the gems amongst the filth.

And he knows what he is talking about, because unlike many reviewers who think relatively slick movies like the Hostel or Saw films are as bad as things can get in cinema, Newman really has seen it all, and his film knowledge is actually scary.

It’s there in all editions of the excellent Nightmare Movies, where Newman categorises a vast amount of movies into various sub-genres, and finds interesting ideas and themes stretching across dozens of movies. He’s also written excellent books on western movies and apocalyptic cinema, and his first proper book to be published was non-fiction – the fun Ghastly Beyond Belief with pal Neil Gaiman, which is a list book of funny quotes from genre literature and cinema – some of it is incredibly funny, although poor old E E (Doc) smith gets an intellectual kicking.

The knowledge shown in Newman’s non-fiction work seeps through into fiction, and they also share an undisguised enthusiasm for all this horror rubbish. It’s still there in every issue of Empire, and every new short story.

3. The horror, the horror

Newman’s stand-alone novels and short story collections cover a wide range of genres and styles, but there is always, always horror in them.

Jago, the Quorum, Life's Lottery, Bad Dreams and The Night Mayor, along with several collections of short stories, call upon a host of weird influences. It’s the same sort of humorous horror that British horror fiction is so good at, a Grand Guignol of such grotesqueness, it manages to be incredibly funny and genuinely disturbing at the same time, especially because everybody is so bloody repressed. Built on a base of Hammer horror, with a fair amount of Amicus and those old Rank chillers added for taste.

Newman’s horror books can be nakedly brutal – in the climax of Jago, the hero, who is already suffering the worst toothache in the world, bites down on a mouthful of pins so the pain can override a psychic nightmare. But they can also be subtle – I took three goes at the kitchen-sink Choose-Your-Own-Adventure fun of Life’s Lottery before I realized it was a story about the horror of the mundane, and that it’s about ordinary lives full of wrong choices that skate around the edge of something vast and old and malevolent and ultimately lead to your doom. Unless you cheat, and then all will be well.

There are shadowy figures lurking in the background of these short stories and novels, who appear over and over again – Derek Leech, born in the Thames filth and a multi-media Mephistopheles for a New Wave Britain (and the narrator of Life Lottery), or Doctor Shade, slithering between universes, a dark presence in a dark car.

But while these books share more than the odd character, they also share feelings of deep dread, the sense that something crushingly normal has gone terribly wrong, and a whole lot of body-horror. Newman is from the Video Nasty generation of UK horror writers, and shares a bleak and bloody view of modern horror on the council estate that has also been mined by diverse voices such as Clive Barker, James Herbert and Ramsey Campbell.

But there is also hope – even though there are often horrible things happening to innocent people, the only ones in Newman’s horror fiction who are truly damned are those who deserve it and almost embrace their fate, (most notably in The Quroum, where Leech gets four souls for the price of one,) and the bleakness is balanced by the occasional piece of simple kindness.

After all, there always has to be some hope in the darkness, or what’s the point?

4. Somewhen else

The first Kim Newman book I ever read was Anno Dracula, which I picked up off the new release shelf at the Timaru Public Library in 1993. This was a good place to start, especially since I’d just seem Bram Stoker’s Dracula the week before, and it was very easy to imagine Richard E Grant as the devilish Doctor Seward in the book.

But the thing I really loved in that book - and the thing I still adore – was the author’s willingness to throw in an incredible amount of references, with vampires and other dubious characters from movies, books, television and comics filling the pages of the books.

It’s the sort of series where you see references to the work of a Professor Langstrom at the Gotham University during a conversation between Doctor Moreau and Herbert West, or where a prime suspect in a later murder mystery is Superman, or where Biggles takes to the sky to fight giant vampire bats, or where James Bond actually physically transforms from Connery to Bond.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen did the same sort of thing, but it’s no use playing “who did it first?’, because Phillip Jose Farmer wins that argument every time, and it’s not just about the fun. While it is immensely pleasurable to get a reference to some incredibly vague story, it gives the story added weight.

Bringing in characters from other pieces of literature negates the need for unnecessary background. A vague reference to the fate of poor dim Carmilla can actually have resonance for anybody familiar with her story, and when there are huge amounts of characters, there is a lot of depth. You don’t even need to see the name Fu-Manchu to know of the incredible schemes and plans the Oriental mastermind is working on in the background of Anno Dracula, and when a vampire Moriarty dreams of the centuries he can spend working on an Ultimate Mathematical Theory Of Everything, it adds a sense of tragedy that the “real” Moriarty couldn’t put aside his hate long enough to pursue the numbers.

I really, really like all of the Anno Dracula books. They’re full of action and humour and some incredibly satisfying plotting. I love playing Spot The Reference, and I don’t mind when I don’t get them all, because I might the next time.

I’ve been reading this series of books for nearly two decades, and I never, ever get sick of them.

On the other hand, I only just got to read the Diogenes Club books in the past six months, after stumbling across all three of them at a local library.

It’s almost the same world as the Anno Dracula series, but just a little closer to reality. The Diogenes Club breaches the gap between Arthur Conan Doyle and Adam Adamant, high octane cerebral adventures in the world of super spies and supernatural shivers.

It was a bit much, reading all three of the books in a two week stretch, and I've already forgotten a lot of the details of these stories, but they will be worth coming back to. All of Newman's stuff is worth coming back to.

Although Newman’s books have often been incredibly hard to find, and some – like the Diogenes Club books – fetch stupid prices on the second hand market. But the Anno Dracula books are now out in lovely new editions from Titan, with even lovelier extra material, and even though I have bought all of the books, the new editions were impossible to pass by.

So I'm looking forward to cracking into the Vampire Romance story in the new edition of the Bloody Red Baron, and I'm extremely excited that Johnny Alucard is actually happening. And there is the Hound of the D'Urbervilles, starring Colonel Moran, another collection of linked stories, and more new short stories in strange places and thoughtful reviews and essays in the expected places, and I still haven't read Back in the USSR, or the Doctor Who novelette he did, and it's all so much bloody fun.

Because it's all about the blood and the fun.

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