The year is 1918. Allied and Central European powers grind away at each other, a hideous war unlike any before. Mata Hari, the convicted spy, receives a visitor on the eve of her execution -- an elderly member of British Intelligence who hopes she'll reveal something in her last hours about the military commander-in-chief of the German Reich.
So begins the second novel in the Anno Dracula series by Kim Newman. To give a quick recap, Van Helsing failed to destroy the master vampire who went on to marry then turn Queen Victoria, instituting "The Terror" a brutal regime in which vampires became the new elite. Yet before long came a revolution, helped in no small part by Charles Beauregard (the aforesaid elderly member of British Intelligence). Decades have passed. The Impaler now stands at the center of what we know as the First World War, using the latest of mechanized weapons to try and expand his power. Central to his plans is one of the most famous vampires of the age -- flying ace Manfred von Richtofen, aka "The Red Baron." Towards that end a great writer is employed to tell the man's life story -- also famous, a vampire American expatriate who fled his land after the Confederate armies in which he served went down to defeat. Edgar Allan Poe.
One again we enter into the almost dizzying tour-de-force of imagination that is the Anno Dracula series. Like its predecessor, The Bloody Red Baron does not limit itself to characters from Bram Stoker. For lack of a better term, we become visitors in Fiction World. Among those Poe encounters in the Kaiser's service are Dr. Caligari and Rotwang (from Metropolis), Graf Orlock from Nosferatu and the father of the title character in Carmilla. On the other side, our hero Edwin Winthrop joins Condor Squadron, whose members include a vampire named Allard with a tendency to wear broad-brimmed hats and a scarf covering his lower face. He also laughs, a spine-tingling sound that disturbs all who hear it (in case you don't get it, he is The Shadow). Others we meet include people who bear striking resemblance to Simon Templar (aka The Saint) and Lord Peter Wimsey, as well as Mycroft Holmes and even Lord Chatterly. Honestly, part of the fun is identifying all the little clues and references contained.
But only part of the fun. What makes this such a good novel is the experience of reading it and diving into a time that changed our world so fundamentally. Here came the era of modern war, of colossal artillery and flying machines, of gas attacks and casualties beyond what anyone ever expected. After a time, it seemed impossible this war could end. As the melancholy poet Poe slowly discovers, the infamous Red Baron serves as an avatar of this time -- a killing machine. In the end, it becomes a measure of each character's real worth how well they resist turning into precisely the same thing.
Which may be a problem for some readers. There's a reason so many war movies focus on the second world war as opposed to the first. If ever a just war was fought, that against the Nazis qualified. But the first? That was like a hideous accident, a slaughterhouse created by arrogant fumbling and playing with nations as if they were chess pieces. In other words -- the way vampires (at least in theory) view the living. Yet it isn't ever that easy. One main character, Kate Reed, has been undead since the 1880s and never stops struggling to retain her humanity. I will not become a monster, she says over and over. Indeed, she allows herself to be bled almost white more than once by doctors because vampiric blood makes for such a restorative. A reporter, she vows to expose what she calls the "old men" who started this war. Likewise, as we see over and over sometimes it is humans who descend into the deepest abyss. The title character has two human (or "warm") attendants who faithfully serve him. Fritz Harmann and Peter Kurten. Look them up sometime. Likewise one of the peripheral but most malign characters is a French general (whose last name is the same as the villain in Kubrick's Paths of Glory, an officer who says at one point "I see you believe in honor and morality...so I pity you as I would a cripple").
Yet the book also remains fun, if dark. Mysteries to solve, political plots, some sex, lots of adventures across land and sky, the twisted bit of humor now and then. One particularly dark but funny bit is when the Red Baron contemptuously shoots a beagle. If you look closely, such sly winks from the author permeate the work. For example, in the grand style of a German surrealist cinema, a military airship comes complete with a pipe organ.
Newman's books originally came out years ago, but Titan Books is reissuing all three (the next is Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha) in updated versions. This one, for example, includes a chapter cut from the first printing. Mr. Newman included some annotations to this book, explaining some of the more obscure references. Plus a kind of double treat that makes getting this very worthwhile. A sequel novella titled Vampire Romance follows the main story, which in feel captures many a dark old house mystery flick of the silent era but with characters we know from the previous two stories tossed in as well as others (like Countess Marya Zeleska from Dracula's Daughter and Ilona from Daughters of Darkness). And then, at the very end, Newman shares a treatment he wrote for Roger Corman, another way to blend the story of WWI's greatest flying ace with vampires. Submitted to the SyFy channel, they ultimately decided against it. As the author notes: "They wanted more Sharktopus. And who can blame them?"