The Bloody Red Baron

NB:  QUITE SOME TIME AGO I WROTE THIS BLOG ABOUT THE WONDERFUL NOVEL BY KIM NEWMAN, THE BLOODY RED BARON, WHICH AT THAT TIME WAS OUT OF PRINT. IT’S NOW BEEN REPRINTED BY TITAN BOOKS AND IS AVAILABLE AT ALL GOOD BOOKSTORES AND ON THAT AMAZON THING.  I”VE MET KIM A NUMBER OF TIMES SINCE READING THIS; HE’S A LOVELY MAN, A LEGENDARY FILM CRITIC, AND ONE OF THE FINEST SF/F WRITERS IN THE BUSINESS.  HE WRITES ABOUT EVIL, LIKE AN ANGEL.

NOW FOLLOWS MY ORIGINAL BLOG:

 

If you are squeamish, stop reading this blog now. I mean NOW.

Here goes.  Imagine you are in London in the early twentieth century, watching a vampire stripper on stage. And this is what you see:

Isolde clamped the blade between her thin lips and used both her hands.  She worked the edge of her self-inflicted wound with her nails and peeled back the skin of the right side of her chest. As she moved, exposed muscles bunched and smoothed. With…

 

No – let’s stop there!  A striptease in which the stripper flays herself?????

That is truly the most scary and appalling piece of prose I’ve read in many a year; it’s also astonishingly vivid and skilfully written.  It appears in Kim Newman’s awesome The Bloody Red Baron, which I’ve just read, and which will haunt me for some time to come.

Let’s be frank; if you write horror novels, you can’t be namby-pamby about it. They have to be scary. However, I’ve always had a very limited appetite for blood and gore for its own sake; this is why I’ve never read widely in the horror genre.  But some writers – Stephen King is one, Kim Newman seems to me to be another – who can shock and appal and yet never lose sight of the heart and humanity of their characters.

The Bloody Red Baron is a sequel to Newman’s Anno Dracula (which I have to read next!) It’s an alternate history story in which Dracula’s Terror at the end of the nineteenth century has created a world in which vampire and humans (‘warmfellows’) co-exist.  But Dracula’s rampant ambition has caused him to start World War I; he is now commander in chief to the Kaiser, and the world is plunged into carnage.

In this version of World War I, we still have trenches, there are still aerial dogfights, and there is still a Baron von Richthofen with his Flying Circus of fighter pilot killers.  But vampires fight side by side with warm soldiers; and night flights are far more common because vampires see so well in the dark.

It’s a daft, baroque, but rather persuasive premise, executed with astonishing skill.  Newman is a master stylist – his prose is restrained, cadenced, beautifully in period, and hauntingly visual.  He has a genius for stamping vivid images in the reader’s imagination – I can still see and smell and savour the thrilling events which make up the book’s major setpieces.  I can see a prostitute being sucked dry by vampire mouths; I can see the desolate wilderness of No Man’s Land; I can still, shockingly, see every moment of the scene in which our hero Winthrop has to climb from the back seat of his fighter planet into the front seat, whilst airborne.

Writing images is the hardest thing to do – words flow easily enough on to the computer screen, but images have to be hinted at, with prose that states the image but also evokes the experience of seeing it.   Newman achieves this with astonishing confidence, and also has the knack of creating characters we truly care about – from the weary Charles Beauregard, to the heroic but increasingly deranged intelligence officer Winthrop, to the bespectacled vampire journalist Kate Reid.

It’s also a slyly witty book, full of injokes and metajokes.  This alternate reality is littered with fictional characters who are real, co-existing with real characters who are radically changed, such as the vampire Churchill, lacing his blood with Madeira, and Von Richthofen himself, a real historical figure here portrayed as a chillingly inhuman killing machine. (And that’s before he became a vampire.) One of the main characters is Edgar Allan Poe – who now prefers to be known as Edgar Poe – and he co-exists in the evil castle lair with Dr Caligari and Dr Mabuse, both characters from classic movies.  A No Man’s Land deserter is called Mellors – the gamekeeper from Lady Chatterley’s Lover  – but D.H. Lawrence himself is also referenced as existing in this world.  And, my favourite twist of all, Beauregard’s secret missions are run on behalf of the Diogenes Club, a society of establishment figures dominated by Mycroft Holmes, cleverer brother of Sherlock.

The cover of my edition of the book is deliciously schlocky – it features a vampire German soldier hanging upside down.  And as a horror novel, it delivers all the thrills and chills you could hope for. (There’s a great story twist, which I won’t betray, which leads to some of the most fantastic action sequences you could ever hope for.)

But this is, at heart, a rather serious book. Newman writes knowledgeably and lovingly about his period, and he achieves the rare trick of making the reader think hard, and worriedly, about the calamity that was World War I.  The horror of the war itself – all real! – far eclipses the horror associated with the vampire characters.

And so Newman achieves the rare trick of creating a genre novel that has a real ‘literary’ substance – it’s not just shock ‘n’ scares, it’s a novel designed to make the reader think, and feel, and regret.

Till now, my favourite vampire novel ever has been Stephen King’s masterly epic ‘Salem’s Lot; but The Bloody Red Baron seems to me to be just as good, in its very different way.   King’s approach was to create a vampire story that is also a portrayal of a ‘typical’ (and hence quite extraordinary) mid-Western town.  His model was Moby Dick - which is not a horror novel, and has no vampires, but which represents the ‘bar’ for a modern epic American novel.

Newman is steeped in a different literary tradition.  His book is slim, it’s not an epic; but it follows in the footsteps of great English genre writers, from Conan Doyle to Wilkie Collins to Margery Allingham (less well known, but who in my view is one of the greatest of the English detective novelists.)  His book is a ‘shocker’, but it’s also understated, and full of British stiff-upper-lippishness.  Almost all the characters speak almost all the time with a calm, grave courtesy, and yet behave monstrously.  The effect is a delightful blend of the terrifying and the well-mannered.

If you are squeamish, even just a little bit, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK.  But if you can cope with horror that curls darkness around your heart and makes you wake screaming in the night – this is the novel for you.  It blends fantastical horror with real-life terror; and this wicked chimaera is then slivered with eerie eroticism,  and seasoned with artfully clever wit.

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