Ginger Nuts of Horror
BY JONATHAN THORNTON
Ginger Nuts of Horror's Jonathan Thornton attended the book launch for Kim Newman's latest novel Anno Dracula: One Thousand Monsters, where he was managed to catch up with kim, for this fascinating and hugely entertaining interview with one of the most important names in the genre fiction and genre criticism.
Kim Newman is an expert on horror and sci-fi cinema (his books of film criticism include Nightmare Movies and Millennium Movies), Kim Newman's novels draw promiscuously on the tropes of horror, sci-fi and fantasy. He is complexly and irreverently referential; the Dracula sequence--Anno Dracula, The Bloody Red Baron and Dracula,Cha Cha Cha--not only portrays an alternate world in which the Count conquers Victorian Britain for a while, is the mastermind behind Germany's air aces in World War One and survives into a jetset 1950s of paparazzi and La Dolce Vita, but does so with endless throwaway references that range from Kipling to James Bond, from Edgar Allen Poe to Patricia Highsmith.
In horror novels such as Bad Dreams and Jago, reality turns out to be endlessly subverted by the powerfully malign. His pseudonymous novels, as Jack Yeovil, play elegant games with genre cliche--perhaps the best of these is the sword-and-sorcery novel Drachenfels which takes the prescribed formulae of the games company to whose bible it was written and make them over entirely into a Kim Newman novel.
Anno Dracula: One Thousand Monsters, his most novel sees his world of vampires take a trip around the world to Japan. In 1899 Geneviève Dieudonné travels to Japan with a group of vampires exiled from Great Britain by Prince Dracula. They are allowed to settle in Yokai Town, the district of Tokyo set aside for Japan's own vampires, an altogether strange and less human breed than the nosferatu of Europe. Yet it is not the sanctuary they had hoped for, as a vicious murderer sets vampire against vampire, and Yokai Town is revealed to be more a prison than a refuge. Geneviève and her undead comrades will be forced to face new enemies and the horrors hidden within the Temple of One Thousand Monsters.
Your new novel, Anno Dracula: One Thousand Monsters, sees you returning to the Anno Dracula series, and the return of Geneviève Dieudonné. What new monsters and challenges are she facing this time?
When I first wrote about her, which is not in Anno Dracula (1992) but in the Jack Yeovil novels, word processing was so crude that although I could do accents on my machine, the printers couldn't use that file without getting a block, so I was under orders not to put an accent in her name! So it's quite useful, it now differentiates the Anno Dracula Geneviève from the Jack Yeovil Genevieve. I assume she will have accepted multiple pronunciations over the years.
Well, one thousand of them! Actually not quite one thousand : that's just the name of the temple. But there are upwards of seven hundred new monsters. And the definition of monster is elastic, as indeed the definition of vampire or indeed the definition of human, or ordinary person. In the world of the books I think of monsters as a subset of humanity, rather than something separate from or different from, so I don't often use the term human to signify ordinary people. Cause quite a lot of my monsters are ordinary people. But one of the main motivations for doing this book was to embrace a different type of monstrousness. I really love far eastern folklore and legendary and Japanese ghost movies and all that kind of stuff. So I just wanted to bring on those monsters which aren't particularly well known in western literature. Lafcadio Hearn wrote this book Kwaidanin the early 1900s, which was a big influence oddly. A lot of Japanese versions of their own folklore are based on this Irish American guy's take on them. He was sometimes one of the first people to write down the stories. So a lot of the films are based on his versions of Japanese ghosts. But there are a bunch of other really amazing strange things. The Japanese monster or ghost tradition is familiar through weird distancing filters like Pokémon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and some of the Godzilla films. It was interesting looking back and finding what lies under those kind of cute monsters. There's even a weird term for that, kawaii, or super-deformed. And you find that there was something scary there originally. Even some of the ones that seem really unthreatening like the umbrella monster, or the vampire who comes to your house and drinks your tea have something terrifying about them.
I wanted to address that, but also I've been trying with each of the Anno Dracula novels to go somewhere different. And in most of them the locus is still sort of Britain and probably Transylvania, although we haven't spent that much time in Transylvania. But obviously I've done Italy, I've done France, America... This time I thought it was time to go somewhere else and Asia seemed like the next place to go. This isn't the book I set out to write, as anybody who's been following this on Amazon will know. I originally set out to write a book set in 1999 in Japan, but it was going to have this little prologue. Then when I started writing the book, I realised I was 40,000 words into the prologue, and I really wanted a flashback in the prologue. Because I'd never let Genevieve tell her own backstory and there were various things going on in the real world that made me want to address that moment which is implied in Anno Dracula, where everybody wakes up and finds that the most powerful military country in the world has been taken over by the worst person imaginable. Because that obviously had huge resonance for the way things have been going lately. So I wanted that in there. And then I realised that if I split the book in half, if half way through it leaped a hundred years to the rest of the story, and there'd be a change in protagonist and a complete change in style, there was a risk both halves would seem really crammed. But also maybe some people who were really into the first half but not so much into the second, or the other way round, so I deciced to make them separate things which can stand on their own. And that meant that this book suddenly had a lot of extra room to play around in. Which allowed me to bring back a character from the very first novel that I'd been thinking of occasionally, he's been mentioned once or twice since. He he was a character that had a lot of good response, people seemed to like him, and I thought he was interesting and there was potential. This is Kostaki, he's like the honourable Carpathian, and I realised he made a really good partner for Geneviève. They played off each other really well. They'd sort of met, and I thought that that, rather than go back and use some of the other characters that I'd been developing in the series, who've got their own histories - because this is a book that fits in after the first novel and the comic, and before the second novel -, going back and reviving a character we hadn't seen gave me another fresh voice in it. And also this is the first time I'd written an Anno Dracula book that is primarily told in the first person. All the other books have first person sections, but this time again it allowed me to have Geneviève talk directly, and since she's the moral conscience of the series, that again gave it a different feel. Cause one of the things I try and do with this and the other long running things I do is make sure the books aren't too like each other because it would be really easy to just write the same book over and over again. And it's possible that what I'm doing is writing the same book over and over again but disguising it. Tthere are things that in my mind have to happen in every Anno Dracula story. I'm not sure if I tick them all off this time! But as long as they're there then I can do anything else, and it allows me some scary stuff, some funny stuff, some social comment and social satire, and the thing that always comes in last but really surprises me is the emotional stuff. I suppose it's the soap opera aspect. That I sometimes think yeah but what would people feel about this, rather than gosh wow amazing monsters. Obviously I'm not immune to that as an appeal for writing a book like this, but there's the sense that these people can be hurt, but also that they can make jokes, that they can be fun.
The first collection of the Anno Dracula comics is also out now. What were the challenge in adapting the story for a new medium?
I didn't adapt a story, that was one of my insistences. Obviously I started being published by Titan, and they are a publisher with a comics division. And they've done comics which are licensed properties based on novels, and TV shows and whatever. So they were set up to do that. And I think this is the first in house book they've done. Ttechnically I am the licence holder. Titan say I'm a lot easier to deal with than all the others, which is probably true. But I had two conditions for doing a comic. One is that I write it, and various people over the years have asked if they could do it, and I've said no. And the other is that it not be an adaptation of a novel, that it be a new story. And they were very receptive to that. It was fully scripted before an artist was assigned. Paul McCaffrey lobbied for the job, and I'm really pleased with his work, and I can't see any other visual of it now, it's not quite the first comic I've done, I did Witchfinderfor Dark Horse in collaboration with Maura McHugh a couple of years back, so I'm not a complete novice, but I still feel new in the medium. You'd have to ask the editors whether I was that difficult. There's something in both the series I've done, I've felt that the last issue needed to be longer than it is. Titan gave me three extra pages, I would have liked ten. Because you put all these balls in the air, and some are paid off in a panel, I would have liked a page to pay off. But writing a comic, the first thing you do is accept the limitations. It's like writing a TV show. It's got to be 42 minutes long and there's no way around it, and in some circumstances you have to break for commercials. Comics are very like that, it's 22 pages, five issues. I clawed my extra three pages for the last issue. After that, I was just concentrating on the story. And I thought since this would be introducing the series to a new audience, I wanted to do something relatively close to the original novel in time and place, so it's London in 1895, which is seven years after Anno Dracula. I didn't want to use all the characters from Anno Dracula, there's a huge canvas....
And you kill quite a lot of them as well!
Many of them die, you're right. In the first issue there's a page which is the story so far. If you haven't read the novels, this tells you what happens and why we're here. What it doesn't do is spoil the novel if you go back and read it. That was quite tricky, because big things appen in the novel that everybody in the world would know, and you have to do a whole comic in which no one mentions them. And I talk around them, but you can go through weeks and weeks without mentioning 9/11 or the death of Princess Diana, you know, big events. It is possible to dodge around that, and so far no one has pulled me up it. And I wanted to spotlight slightly different characters from the novels, so I used one of the main characters from the novels, one of the minor characters from the novels, and some new people. One of whom has gone on to be a big character in One Thousand Monsters, and will be an even bigger character in the cyberpunk book. So I have linked this into the continuity in such a way that Anno Dracula readers will need the comic if they want the whole story.
You've written a script for an Anno Dracula movie...
Oh, once yeah.
Is there any chance of the movie being made soon?
At the moment the rights are back with me, but it's been in and out of option for many years, and every time it gets close to happening, somebody comes along and makes something terrible that's a bit like it. Or even worse if they make something good! To this day I've never watched Penny Dreadful because it killed an Anno DraculaTV series.
How much research goes into recreating the period detail and the fictional references in an Anno Dracula story?
A lot. More than is strictly necessary! I tend to steep myself in literature of the period, if available film and TV, music. I listened to a lot of Japanese music, and most of it is sort of ambient, proto-plunking sounds, but I also listened to a lot of Japanese rock as well. And the soundtracks to samurai films and Godzilla movies. I watched a lot of Japanese cartoons and samurai movies and really terrific 1950's Japanese horror films that I'd not seen before and I know a lot about horror films right. And before embarking on this project, I had seen all the Ring type movies, and I'd seen Kwaidan (1965) and Onibaba (1964) and a couple of the other famous ones. And researching this book opened up a world of wonderful scary strange magical things, I realised that in the west we saw all those Ring movies and didn't understand them because we didn't have the cultural context. You know, The Ghost Story Of Yotsuya (1825) is the key Japanese ghost story, that's like the Japanese version of Wuthering Heights (1847). There are 15 film versions of it, not counting the silent ones, it's done over and over and over again. Sort of really obsessive. I ended up not using her, Oiwa, as a character because there's a similar character who's more fun. So I steeped myself in that, and for the Kostaki strand I read Kipling and watched The Man Who Would Be King (1975) again. And read up on some Masonic stuff.
I've always felt that these books needed a lot of material. They're very idea intensive. They involve lots of characters, lots of settings, and lots of thought. Because it's a whole world that's being explored. Sometimes I want to take little byways and look at what the wallpaper is like, what popular songs there are, or what the jokes people are telling. And always, then there's a certain tussle because the editors sometimes want to trim irrelevant passages. People say things like, well what's the story? Which is fair enough. And in this book there is a lot of story, but most of it doesn't take place where our viewpoint characters are. And I thought that was interesting, to tell an epic story from the point of view of someone who's in jail for quite a bit of it. She takes a couple of days in the cell and comes out and finds everything has changed. Which I loved but it's not something that Robert McKee would advise in a movie! And so I wanted to do all the little detail work and I have enjoyed that ever since the first novel. And maybe what differentiates this series from other roughly similar things is that I try and bring a bit of context ... It's not strictly speaking an alternative history or a dystopia, because it's a reflection of what actually happened and is happening. And there's almost a sense that the underlying message is that the world is awful and overwhelmed by a terrible fear of chaos and the worst people are in charge of it, but it's still possible to struggle to find some kind of honourable and decent way of living a life. Which is what my main sympathetic characters do. It's also possible to let that go away and just give in and become part of the problem. Which some of my other characters do.
You describe Anno Dracula as 'literally a vampire novel'. How did the idea to write about vampires in this way first occur?
It's something I was doing at university. It was an essay on turn of the century science fiction, Victorian science fiction. And I wrote a section on invasion narratives like The War Of The Worlds (1897) and The Battle Of Dorking [by George Tomkyns Chesney, 1871], When William Came [by Saki, 1913], The War In The Air (1908), all these wonderful Victorian novels about the French taking over or the Prussians marching through London. I recognised that this was very much the origins of that kind of 'Nazis won the war' genre, SS-GB (1978), The Man In The High Castle (1962), It Happened Here (1964). And just in a footnote to that section I said that Dracula could be considered an invasion narrative. Because Dracula's got this speech about his conquering powers, and Van Helsing has a speech where he says that what Dracula will do if he gets any power, it's going to be really terrifying. And of course in the book he then doesn't. That lingered in my mind for years and years obviously and at some point, a long time before I wrote the first novel, I must have done like a page of notes. Remember those Marvel comics What If … you know, what if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four? And I think I wrote What If Dracula Won? Which might well have been the original title that thankfully I didn't use! Although I like question titles. Once that was there I realised it was such a big idea that a single novel wasn't going to be enough. Because it was the era when everybody was writing trilogies, so my original thought was a trilogy. And it for a while was. The first three booksthere are kind of a trilogy but then there are these bits and pieces that still are unanswered, there was room for much more. By the time I wrote the third book I'd already written a big chunk of the fourth so, I realised it wasn't a story that had a beginning and an end. It was a world I could return to at intervals.
As for battening on other works of literature, obviously I was stuck with Dracula. The idea of using other characters from other fictions came in quite late. The first chapter of Anno Dracula has Dr Seward as Jack the Ripper, and he murders a victim. Every single Jack the Ripper movieopens with this scene of fog, gaslight, top hat, bloke with a bag full of knives. You're walking through the cobblestones, then there's like Barbara Windsor saying, "Lawks-a-mighty, ducks." She turns round, a knife comes out, scream. I thought I wanted to write that scene, but when the girl turns round she has fangs. Then, it was a question of, who's the girl? I looked at all the actual Jack the Ripper victims and none of them fit, and also I reached a point where I thought well they've suffered enough. Then I remembered that in Pandora's Box (1929), the Pabst film from the Wedekind plays, Lulu, the Louise Brooks character, is a Jack the Ripper victim. And I thought, great, her, she's perfect! And she's got a great look and she's an iconic character.
Then I thought well in that case that opens up the possibility that this is a world inhabited by everybody from Victorian literature or indeed subsequent literature. And I realised that that solved a problem I'd been struggling with, that Dracula couldn't be a government on his own. And I thought well obviously his gang would be all the other vampires. Great! And then, I think, it was one of those things it must have taken literally five minutes I thought, oh yeah, Lord Ruthven - prime minister, Varney the Vampire - viceroy of India, and just ticking them all off. So many vampires in literature are imitations of Dracula, or Dracula wannabes. Count Iorga – from the film Count Yorga – Vampire (1970) - is one I've used quite a lot, because he's like a shorter fatter Dracula. And I thought, that makes perfect sense. He'd surround himself with people, he'd set a fashion. Other vampires would try and be like him, and none of them would be. But also they would start to resent him for it. You've got this frothing pack of envious, useless things. I had a bunch of anthologies of Victorian vampire stories - Christopher Frayling compiled a really good one. And I went through and picked all those characters. And one of the things I've really enjoyed with this, is sometimes you take a character just to fill a gap, like I needed someone to be prime minister, Lord Ruthven was there. I read a story, it's called A True Story Of A Vampire (1894) by Eric Count Stenbok, which is this weird decadent gay vampire story from the 1890's with a really horrible predatory character, so I took him and made him one of the nastier characters in the books. In the comic and the current novel, the big character I've been playing with who isn't strictly a vampire but kind of is, is Christina Light, the Princess Casamassima, who's the only character Henry James wrote two books about. Roderick Hudson (1875), and then a follow up called The Princess Casamassima (1886),which is about radicals and anarchists in London in the 1890's. It's a really underrated book, really good on terrorism. It's all about how someone's friends slowly force him into becoming essentially a suicide bomber. The Princess Casamassima is this improbably glamorous yet ruthless socialist, and everybody who gets involved with her suffers horribly and dies. So I thought that if I actually made her a vampire she'd be cool. I had a character who was snobbish and nasty and a vampire in the first book, but over subsequent books she sort of softened a bit and became almost likeable. So I wanted somebody who was really awful, and Christina came in for this. Also I like the weird thing of taking characters you wouldn't necessarily think of and trying to find tragedy in their lives, or wondering how they would fit in to a fantastical universe. I've done it with James Bond, and I do it in this book with some other familiar characters who aren't named.
I love Dr Moreau and Dr Jekyll hanging out in Anno Dracula, sitting there vivisecting vampires because of course they would!
Scenes like that, I could just write forever. I really had to cut that down because I do like just having people talk to each other, I write plays as well. And there are scenes in One Thousand Monsters of Geneviève and Christina talking that I really had to stop, because if it was up to me, it's like all the samurai fighting and stuff would stop, and we'd just have this. And in the comics, there's a whole issue which is basically two people having tea. But I always like those. Because life stops sometimes and people talk things out. It's not what you're told to do but I like it as a way of conveying all kinds of stuff. Conversational trivialities can tell you an enormous amount about the world. And in fantasyworld building is a big thing. And I work hard at that. Just talking about what the current edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica would be like. That tells me what's going on in the world.
In The Bloody Red Barron (1995) Dracula becomes involved in the First World War. In Dracula Cha Cha Cha (1998) he crosses paths with an undead Bond in Rome. Johnny Alucard (2013) follows the vampires to America. How does each new time period and setting change your approach to writing the series?
Sometimes it changes completely the writing style, obviously. I don't go overboard on that sort of crusty Victorian writing the way that some people writing period books try and write like Dickens or Conan Doyle or whatever. But I certainly think a bit about how people talk and the pacing. Obviously for Rome in 1959, I wasn't looking at Conan Doyle or Bram Stoker, I was looking at Patricia Highsmith and Ian Fleming. Two Weeks In Another Town(1960) by Irwin Shaw was another book I looked at. There are lots of external things that change with each period. But because I've been tending to stick with a relatively small number of viewpoint characters, I try and convey how they change if the world changes around them. The story I wrote in London set in 1968 has a Victorian vampire main character and so she sort of is adapted, but she's also sort of a little old lady. Geneviève has ended up being quite a modern character although she is literally medieval. But my feeling was if you were going to live that long and not go mad you'd have to be very adaptable. There was that trend in the 80's for stuff like The Lost Boys, where you'd have ancient immortal vampires hanging out in goth clubs. And you think, why would they do that? And I see how it fits the audience, but it just doesn't seem quite right to me. I may well play a bit more with that in the book that's set in 1999. Although it won't be set strictly in our 1999 but the 1999 that William Gibson imagined in 1983. Cause we can now be nostalgic about that.
Geneviève has appeared in different stories across your work, in your Warhammer Books and in the Diogenes Club stories. What makes her such a compelling character?
I like her and people like her, I think. It's weird because in some ways she has to be a passive observer character rather than absolutely central to what's going on. Cause she needs to be held a bit out of it. She has a profession, she's a doctor. Although I've been recently edging her towards being a medical examiner, a coroner. And she's been a detective as well -- my version of Jim Rockford. She's just somebody who is continually amused and exasperated by how insane everything around her is. But doesn't completely let it get to her. She's somebody who won't be driven mad, no matter how bad everything else is. I think she's fun, Wwhen I first started writing her I was thinking a bit of Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, although Emma Peel is unflappable in a way that Geneviève isn't. But at that time there weren't that many heroines in fantasy and horror who had that model. And of course, because I created her for the Jack Yeovil books, which were young adult books, I was thinking of her as a teenager, although I slightly changed that in the Anno Dracula books, because I wanted her sometimes to have proper jobs that, you're not going to have a 16 year old coroner. And so I think maybe her resilience and survivability, and the fact that she won't put up with stuff. And it may also be that people just identify with how put-upon she is.
Your first novel The Night Mayor (1989) uses noir tropes to explore the fixations of film noir in a science fictional context. Was this good practice for writing about Dracula using vampire fiction?
Yeah, there's a similar thing going on in it, yeah. I wrote it before there was much virtual reality cyberpunk type fiction around. There were precedents I was thinking of, stuff like The Singing Detective (1986), and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982), that kind of melange, consensus version of what film noir was. And that, I think I was more interested there in the idea that fantasy is seductive. The epigraph is from a really interesting book on 1940s cinema by Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg -- a really potent description of what film noir is. The thing that really stuck with me from that was that it's a world of despair, darkness and terror, but in its own way it's as glamorous as Paramount musical comedies. And you realise that yeah, it's a world you'd like to live in. Who wouldn't want a world where you go into a night club and Hoagy Carmichael's playing the piano and Lauren Bacall is singing? And Bogart's in the corner. It was the fantasy of film goers in the 1940's. It was the fantasy of film fans in the 1970's when I was getting into it. But it's something still enormously appealing. And the idea that that can also be a trap, and maybe, yeah, I've in subsequent books surrendered to that trap a bit more. But the idea is, you know most genres offer worlds people would like to visit. The consensus vision of the West in Westerns is a fantasy. People like playing Cowboys and Indians. But they don't want to get shot. Or dragged through the desert, eating their own horses, all that kind of horrible stuff that happens in westerns. But at a certain remove, it's still an exciting and enjoyable thing. And most of those forms interest me.
And the whole thing of having to play by the rules of the genre if you want to beat the guy at his own game...
Obviously that's an amusing conceit, or it was when I came up with it. It's a strange little novel. It's too short, for a proper novel, I'm amazed that it got published, cause it's a long novella. I remember that the editor who first took a chance on it said, yeah you could easily put another hundred pages in it, but that's all you'd be doing. And she was exactly right. I could easily have had another bunch of chapters of running around, meeting new and interesting people, cool things happening, but it's a book that makes its point. Which is why when it was republished it's got a whole load of short stories at the back.
The idea of the boundaries between dreams and reality crumbling crops up again in your novels Bad Dreams (1990) and Jago (1991). Is this a big theme for you?
Yes it is. That's also, yeah. It was a bit, Bad Dreams has a slight spin on it, in that it was originally a film outline I did with Neil Gaiman, Phil Nutlman and Stefan Jaworzyn, and the brief was to write something a bit like Nightmare On Elm Street(1984), so there are dreams in it because that was what we were asked for. In the end I took it away and made it my own, but yeah that was fun. But it's in Jago too and there's no excuse for that. I'm a huge admirer of Philip Dick and I like all those rubber reality-ish stories and yeah I did want to play in that.
The Quorum (1994) is your take on the Faustian pact trope. Was this something you always wanted to write?
That was one of the few books I had where I literally woke up in the middle of the night with the title and the plot, everything. And it's not like I had a dream or anything. I'm going to have to be quite circumspect about this, but somebody had told me something about a mutual friend that I thought was quite disturbing, and made both of us worry about this other person, whom we thought was becoming paranoid. He thought that people were deliberately sabotaging his life and his career in a way I suppose that anyone who's having a hard time starts to think, and I woke up and I thought, what if they were? What if people actually did that? And then I thought, oh yeah, what if you made a deal with the devil and sold somebody else's soul? And other ideas came like dominoes tipping over, and I thought oh right I know exactly how this fits together. And then it all came out of that.
Your novel Life's Lottery (1999) uses a Choose Your Own Adventure format to ask questions about free will. How was writing that different to writing a normal novel?
It is the most difficult book I've ever done, yeah. My front room was full of bits of paper with post it notes and arrows and numbers. For months. I think I actually drove people out of the house while I was working on that. I could still be writing that book if I hadn't decided to limit it to 300 segments. I was surprised nobody had done it before, I'm surprised so few people have done it since. One or two people have. Those Choose Your Own Adventure books were really popular. but all about the choices you were given were simple material ones. Turn left, turn right. Axe or saw. But I thought, what if you were given moral decisions? And that would mean that your adventure would be through not so much corridors but your own character. And it was a very difficult book to get the character arcs. Because each arc, each development was contingent on the choice the reader had made. So when you had two different paths, I had to write each path as if the main character were the kind of person who would have made this choice. But beforehand, not nudged. And so there was a certain neutrality of voice. It's the only book I've written in the second person, which is another thing you're not supposed to do. And so that was more complicated than keeping track of all the wives and children, jobs and the plot stuff, and there's a murder mystery bit in it I really like, and there's a kind of horrible social commentary, and there's a nightmare fantasy element and time twisting to justify the whole conceit. I'm very proud of it. It is an oddity and one of the books that ties together my universe.
An English Ghost Story (2014) is Gothic horror but set in the present day. What are the challenges of recreating the atmosphere of the traditional gothic novel in the age of the Internet?
Well it's not, it's set in the 1990's, but I wrote the first draft in the 1990's so it was the present day, yeah. The reason it's set in the 1990's is because mobile phones would ruin the story. I've seen a couple of other things that have done the same trick, used the setting just before mobile phones fuck up every story ever written beforehand. Alfred Hitchcock always hated the question ‘why don't they go to the police?’ And he always answered, ‘because then there wouldn't be a story!’ Now it’s why don't they just look it up, why doesn't he just phone? And you have all these stories that have to start with them saying oh there's no reception. There was something about that period that was interesting and fit in with the story I wanted to tell. And I did want to do a traditional ghost story, rather than a haunted computer story, which most modern day ghost stories have to devolve to. A couple of years back I went to ghost story slam for charity, where ten people got up and read five minute ghost stories. And nine of them were about mobile phones, social media, the Internet, various other gadgets, and then the last guy – Kevin McNally, the actor - got up and read a story about pirates in the 18th century and it was like, yes! Thank you!
I mean arguably the Internet and social media are frightening enough without ghosts!
Sure. And I've written stuff about that too. I am interested in that and it is a subject on its own. But for this I wanted to do a traditional ghost story. It's got its own things going on in it, and it is strange in ways that, yeah, it's a Kim Newman book, it's not an M. R. James book. Again it's a book I'm pleased with. I try every time to do something I've not done before, and it's weird that I always seem to end up with things I want to go back to, I really want to do a follow up book to it but I'm not quite sure when I can fit it into my schedule.
An English Ghost Story also inhabits that space between the supernal and the infernal, and taps into the sense of awe that characterises much horror at its most haunting....
Yeah, and I that, I wanted something magical and frightening, rather than just brutal and frightening.
The Secrets Of Drearcliff Grange School (2015) first appears as a series of books in An English Ghost Story written by the character Louise Magellan Teazle. What made you want to turn it into its own novel?
That's right, yeah originally it was a pendant to An English Ghost story, I thought it might end up being a strand in it, but I'm glad I didn't because it fits into the way my world has been going. So it's another type of writing I'm interested in. I went away and read a lot of 1920's girl school stories. And I grew up with Billy Bunter and Jennings and the last of those school stories. Harry Potter has brought all that back. And obviously J. K. Rowling's a socialist, and people say to her, why are you writing these books about public schools? And she said, it's simple, it's got to be a boarding school or you can't have adventures. And she's right. I liked doing that. And I am going to be doing another Drearcliff Grange School next. So there's series potential in it.
Is there any fictional or historical character you would like to include in your work but haven't found the place for yet?
I don't exactly have a hit list. I'd like to do a Western. I was going to do an Anno Dracula Western, but the thing I set up in Anno Dracula about Billy the Kid being a vampire has been used, Uwe Boll made a film called BloodRayne Deliverance which had a vampire Billy the Kid. I can't really be accused of ripping off Uwe fucking Boll. I can take a lot of things, but not that. So I satisfied myself slightly by putting a bit of Western stuff in One Thousand Monsters, but I doubt if I'm going to do a full on Anno Dracula Western. It would have to be set before Anno Draculaand I don't want to do too much to suggest that the world before Anno Dracula was openly fantastical. I try and show a bit of what it was like to be a vampire in a world before Anno Dracula, cause that was interesting to me. So at some point I'd like to do a Western. I'm not quite sure what. There's a historical occult mystery set in the 1940's I want to do, which is classic Hollywood days, Beverly Hills.
Were there any characters you felt nervous about using or doing justice to?
No, it sounds terrible doesn't it! I suppose what I do is I just treat them all as if I'd made them up. I've written a book about Professor Moriarty. He's a major fictional character and displaces a lot of cultural water but he's only in the Conan Doyle stories for about three pages. And Colonel Moran, who's my narrator in that, is in even less. However those pages are gold. Every single thing in it is brilliant. And I just kept thinking, there's a book here. And the really good stuff, the stuff that really clicks with me lets me spin off.
You are also known for your critical writing on the genre, especially on horror in film. Video Dungeon, a compendium of your writings on horror cinema drawing from your column of the same name, is out now as well. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Yeah, it's not a collection of my columns from Empire magazine, although it has the same title. It's the material that got subbed down into my column. If I spent a sentence reviewing a film in Empire, I probably wrote 400 words. And so this is that 400 words, slightly tidied up. And I just wanted to do something that was, that covered a lot of films that people hadn't spent much time being written about, the stuff that you couldn't find reviews of easily on the Internet, or not useful ones. So that was it really. It's a book that I've been working on for quite a while. And we've got enough material to do many more. And it was a fun project and I really like the packaging on it. It's not something that just anybody would sit and read, although I know people who do. I find this kind of book compulsive as well. You look something up and then three hours later you realise, why have I read forty reviews of shark movies?
How does your criticism feed into your fiction, and your fiction feed into your criticism?
Well, my fiction quite often spins out of popular culture. And obviously I've seen a lot of movies in my spare time. I spend a lot of time thinking about movies and watching movies, so, that's how it works. I get ideas while doing that, and sometimes I can sometimes look at specific things and think oh while I was watching this I had that idea. And sometimes you watch 400 movies and it all comes together. Same for TV shows or other books, or whatever. The other thing is that with my non-fiction writing I just try to work on the prose And it's really simple. It's something that makes it distinctive, to try and make it readable, try and make itnot amusing and with some substance. Not so much in the Video Dungeon book but in other things, it’s about trying to find a story.
What's next for Kim Newman?
Oh, I can tell you. It's The Haunting of Drearcliff Grange School. It's a year and a half later, and Amy is in the fourth form, and the school is haunted. There's other stuff. It's going to be partly about her relationship with a new teacher. And there's something I couldn't quite justify historically, but one of the great school stories is The Happiest Days Of Your Life (1950), That’s about a girls school and a boys school that accidentally have to have the same buildings for a term, and so I'm going to do that. I'm going to bring some boys to the school because I think that will make things interesting. And then, the next Anno Dracula book, which picks up a hundred years after One Thousand Monsters. There's a tag at the end which sets it up. And it'll be set in 1999, in a Tokyo that's like William Gibson's idea of the future. In a giant building shaped like Godzilla. Rather, not like Godzilla, like a giant fire breathing lizard not copyrighted by Toho Pictures. And it has a new viewpoint character, someone I've built up a bit in the novellas ’Vampire Romance’ and ‘Aquarius’. She's called Nezumi and she's a Japanese vampire schoolgirl. In that manga way. So a thousand year old chick in a sailor suit with a sword. I felt for a while that the series desperately needed a non-European, non-White viewpoint character and this is her.
Thank you Kim Newman for speaking to us!
From London to Tokyo...
In 1899 Geneviève Dieudonné travels to Japan with a group of vampires exiled from Great Britain by Prince Dracula. They are allowed to settle in Yokai Town, the district of Tokyo set aside for Japan's own vampires, an altogether strange and less human breed than the nosferatu of Europe. Yet it is not the sanctuary they had hoped for, as a vicious murderer sets vampire against vampire, and Yokai Town is revealed to be more a prison than a refuge. Geneviève and her undead comrades will be forced to face new enemies and the horrors hidden within the Temple of One Thousand Monsters...