Johnny Alucard by Kim Newman is a just a fun, fun book. But it is so well written and conceptually innovative it comes close to breaking new ground in fiction. Before we get too serious, however, let’s pay homage to the fun part and walk through some of what Newman has done here.
Johnny Alucard is the fourth book in Newman’s Anno Dracula series, which entertains the question of what would’ve happened if Dracula had not died at the end of Bram Stoker’s novel and instead continued to wreak havoc across Europe. The first book, Anno Dracula, takes place in late 19th century England, but an England taken over by Vlad Dracula and his gang of undead thugs. The Bloody Red Baron takes place during WWI with the Baron being, of course, a vampire. Dracula Cha Cha Cha is inspired by Fellini’s Rome of La Dolce Vita. Finally, Johnny Alucard takes place in America, during a period from the 1960s through the 1990s.
In all of these books, Newman populates his world to the point of bursting with characters from other authors’ novels, fictional events, alternate imaginings of real events, and basically every other source of pop culture he can find. Newman is of course a walking encyclopedia of all things vampiric—including every film, novel and comic book ever written on the subject—but he also seemingly possesses a greater grasp of everything, however miniscule, in fantasy fiction written in the past two centuries. In his first book, Anno Dracula, nearly every person, from the policeman giving directions who disappears after two sentences, to a sign hanging outside a tavern, is borrowed from some other book, no matter how obscure and fleeting.
If this sounds distracting, I have to admit it was, at least in the first Anno Dracula. But Newman’s talents as a writer have grown a great deal in the two decades between Anno Dracula and Johnny Alucard, so now this endless series of cameos and walk-ons are delightful rather than sometimes seeming intentionally arcane. Perhaps some of this increased pleasure is due to knowing the references better as they are taken from more recent material, but there’s no denying Newman works them into the plot in wonderful ways in Johnny Alucard.
The result often borders on sheer giddy joy for the reader. Who could not love this scene: people have figured out that you can distill a cocaine-like substance from the blood of vampires (called “drac” – apparently True Blood has the same concept, but Newman came up with it first), so in the late 70s, the eponymous Johnny Alucard starts a drug ring based on the substance. Alucard is the king of Studio 54 and hangs out at a table with Nico, Andy Warhol, and Truman Capote (who wears fake fangs). Remember that scene in Boogie Nights where Dirk Diggler and his sidekick are doing meth and he gets too sketched out to do the sex scene and gets kicked out of the house by Burt Reynolds? That’s here too, but they are doing drac instead of meth. And I do think Roller Girl is a vampire. It’s all just so much fun.
In Johnny Alucard, Newman’s writing talents have grown to the extent that he weaves these pop cultural references into the prose in such a deft way that they augment, rather than compromise, the overall arc of the story. Newman does not seem like a pretentious man, and he honestly seems to have fun with his writing. But his fiction seems to verge on something new – a new form – calling to mind the mashup videos seen on YouTube or the spliced together music of bands like Girl Talk.
When Bret Easton Ellis wrote Glamorama, he was panned for basically making entire paragraphs of names of celebrities. But he was trying to reference pop culture in a way that was very smart. With a name like “Dirk Diggler,” you have a pointer toward a much larger thing, and readers know the story behind it, so that simple name spins off a cascading series of pop cultural references that exist in the background of the story. Of course, this has been around since the dawn of language and is called “synecdoche.” But pop cultural synecdoche as deployed here by Newman seems to unfold onto a much larger world, precisely because pop culture, for better or worse, represents so much of what we now consider shared knowledge.
Newman is writing for fun here, and Johnny Alucard is a great book written by a great writer. One wonders exactly how far Newman can take this technique, and whether or not it will be used by a wider group of writers. This can, of course, be a bad thing—if writers just use other peoples’ characters and add nothing else, that’s called “cheating”—but Newman gives us an example in Johnny Alucard how this technique can be used in a skillful way to create wonderful works of art that are immersed entirely in pop-culture. Andy Warhol would be proud.