Book Review: The Bloody Red Baron / Author: Kim Newman / Format: Paperback / Publisher: Titan Books / Release Date: April 27th
There is a scene in The Bloody Red Baron that sums up much of the appeal of Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series of novels beautifully. It illustrates the impeccable research and vividly descriptive prose that Newman uses to bring the trenches of the First World War to life, while also making use of the genre fiction cameos that make reading each of these novels such a geeky delight.
The scene in question sees the hero, Edwin Winthrop, visiting an underground lair deep within the allied trenches during World War I. There he finds Dr Moreau, assisted by Herbert West, performing experiments on fatally wounded soldiers who just so happen to be vampires. The discussion shifts to the possibility that the Germans have succeeded in mixing different vampire bloodlines in order to enable shape shifting, and as Moreau dismisses the notion, West argues that Dr Langstrom of Gotham University is reported to have had some success in similar experiments.
Now if you felt a thrill of recognition at those names and if the idea of this sort of sci-fi/fantasy/horror mash up floats your boat then this novel is definitely for you. For this is a world in which vampire versions of Winston Churchill and Edgar Allen Poe exist alongside fictional creations such as Count Orlok of F W Murnau’s Nosferatu and Sgt Daniel Dravot from Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King. However, even if those names mean little to you this remains a hugely rewarding read because, aside from the subtle name dropping and creative melding of both fictional and historical figures, Newman has delivered a story that is both thrillingly inventive and hugely entertaining, a ripping yarn that emulates countless tales of daring do. That he does this while throwing in a good deal of historical perspective, conveying and satirizing much of the political insanity of the time, while also successfully depicting the house of cards that was early 20th Century European alliances, is quite an achievement.
The Bloody Red Baron depicts a world where vampirism has spread throughout much of Europe and nations are embroiled in a hellish conflict in which both the warm and the undead fight and die alongside each other in the trenches of Europe. Dracula, deposed from the throne of England as Queen Victoria's consort, is now an influential figure amongst the central powers, responsible for dictating much of the course of the German offensive. Set against this broad scope is the story of two flying aces; Edwin Winthrop of the Diogenes club and Manfred Von Richthofen, the Bloody Red Baron of the title.
Newman manages to make this very personal war between the two flyers the central thrilling thread of his novel while still having enormous fun depicting a wider world in which vampires live not so everyday lives alongside humans in a world going to ruin. He depicts action superbly, the dog fights providing some of the strongest moments in a novel that is filled to bursting with delights, while his own characters are more than a match for the fictions he borrows from other authors.
As in Anno Dracula he uses the Count sparingly, only depicting him briefly and rarely giving him dialogue. This is a novel about a world shaped by Dracula, not about the man himself, a decision that allows the character to retain his mythic stature while still positing an alternate fiction to Stoker’s world wherein Van Helsing was victorious.
In some respects vampires are more suited to the story told in Anno Dracula, the world of The Bloody Red Baron lacking that curious sense of romance found within the pages of Anno Dracula with its fog shrouded streets, Victorian serial killers and sense of romance that only time and fiction could bestow on an era of huge suffering and deprivation. However, Newman’s greatest achievement as a writer, both of horror and history, is that he is able to bring his fictional story and his characters to life so successfully that he can set them in the context of the bloodiest and most tragic waste of life the world has ever seen and still make them credible. A novel of such high concepts would be awfully easy to get wrong but Newman is good enough to weave a tale inspired by a heady mix of literature, B-movies and exploitation cinema without ever making it seem trashy.
In addition to the main novel this reprint also includes a short story that brings us up to date with Geneviève Dieudonné, the vampire heroine of Anno Dracula, and includes Newman’s annotations that provide some illuminating insights for those of us who don’t get every single reference (few will).
In all, perhaps the novel’s greatest triumph is that it manages to be serious and fun at the same time, its treatment of a horrendous period in history both intelligent and mischievous. Newman’s prose is fluid, his dialogue a delight and his pacing ensures that the narrative doesn’t flag for a second. And any novel that manages to find a place for Hellraiser’s Pinhead alongside Biggles without sacrificing its integrity really does deserve all the plaudits it gets.