Kim Newman is the author of Anno Dracula (1992), a novel set in an alternate Victorian London where Dracula has become the Prince Consort and vampires have emerged as the new ruling class. Since then he has written many more books in the series. Anno Dracula is being reissued by Titan Books in October 2022 as a deluxe signed hardcover edition with an introduction by Neil Gaiman and a new short story by the author. Under the name Jack Yeovil, Newman has also published books which helped to build Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy and Dark Futures universes. In addition to writing fiction, Newman is a major critic of horror cinema whose work can be found in Nightmare Movies (1985) and his Sight & Sound columns. He also served as the executive producer of Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor (2021).
Updates about Newman’s work can be found at his website and on Twitter @annodracula. We are delighted to have Kim back to chat to Vector, as Jordan S. Carroll asks him about Anno Dracula, shared world writing, film criticism, as well as Kim’s latest novel, Something More Than Night (2021), a horror-detective mystery set in Hollywood during the 1930s and starring Boris Karloff and Raymond Chandler …
How did you get started writing?
I hate defaulting to other people’s quotes, but somebody asked George Bernard Shaw that question, and he said he couldn’t remember — because writing was like the taste of the water in his mouth. It was something he’d always done.
I mean, I wrote from childhood. I’m not quite sure at what point that went from writing stories for my own purposes to writing for an audience. I think I always wanted to communicate. It took me a while to consider that this might also be a way of making a living. But as a teenager, I wrote plays and comedy sketches with my friends at school. I wrote novels, or rather novel length manuscripts, in my teens.
The useful thing about starting early is you get a lot of the embarrassing stuff out of the way early on when nobody can see it. Now, you just put your stuff online free for people to read, but it is there forever. It comes back to haunt people. I’m not even sure if I have copies of the stuff I wrote as a kid. I think if I do, it’s in a trunk somewhere very deep.
What drew you to horror in particular?
I started out being interested in monsters, I suppose. I was one of those kids who liked monster movies. I liked the effect of horror, I read a lot of it. But I read a lot of general stuff as well. I’m interested in genre, but I’m not necessarily somebody who wants to be confined by it. I don’t self-identify as a horror writer, or a science fiction writer, a crime writer, a mystery writer. I’ve done all of those things. But I do recognize that I operate best in that kind of arena.
When you tag yourself as a horror writer, that comes with an obligation to be frightening, in the same way that picking comedy comes with an obligation to be amusing. And I think some of my stuff is scary. Certainly other readers have reported that. But I think for a lot of my writing, being frightening is not its primary purpose. I’m interested in exploring other things. I tend to write more about what makes me angry than what makes me frightened. Although obviously there’s an overlap.
So what is it that makes you angry?
The world! And what’s more, I have not calmed down with age. Having written a series of books about what happens when really truly terrible evil people come to power … well, the last ten years have just made me think I overestimated people.
How would you describe your writing process?
I come from an era before all this was even talked about! The idea of a writing process is sort of alien to me. I get up in the morning, I write when I’m not doing anything else. I tend not to outline in any great depth. I usually know where a story or a novel is going. I tend to know the ending, but not quite how I’m going to get there. I characterise on the hoof as well. I like characters who grow organically. I tend to favour third-person point of view, although that’s sort of a stream of consciousness anyway. Getting the characters’ voices in my head, that’s important to me. And then it’s just sort of … making it up. I mean, technically, I probably like to do first drafts in the mornings, and do bits of revision in the afternoons if I’m up to it.
Many of your early works were tie-in novels for Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy and Dark Future games. How did you get involved with them?
It’s a complicated bit of history, and I wasn’t there for much of it. Games Workshop were the leading British roleplaying and tabletop fantasy wargaming outfit. In the USA, there were some very successful Dungeons & Dragons tie-in fictions from TSR, none of which I have ever read, but I was aware that these things existed.
Games Workshop felt the need to have books that tied in with the world of their games. And they, I think quite cleverly, hired David Pringle, who was the editor of Interzone, the leading British science fiction magazine in the 1980s. Interzone was where I’d sold my first stories, along with a whole bunch of other writers. Stephen Baxter, Paul McAuley, Scott Bradfield, a whole generation of writers have early credits in Interzone.
David naturally went to all the writers he knew. Games Workshop had impressed on him that they wanted the books to make a bit of a splash. They didn’t want them to be written off as the stereotype of junk tie-in fiction, they wanted stuff that was a bit more ambitious. I’m trying to remember who the other writers were — Brian Stableford, David Garnett, Ian Watson, a bit later. All considerably more established writers than me.
And what was it like to write in a shared world?
We were asked to write stuff in a generic fantasy universe. The Warhammer world was very much a bit of J.R.R. Tolkien, a bit of Michael Moorcock, a bit of Robert E. Howard, a bit of European history. There wasn’t a huge amount to that, except that they did have all kinds of handbooks and maps and so on, which were your homework. And there was a certain amount of history, there were certain arcane things that they had established. But they were still very open to doing new stuff, just because it was fun, or interesting, or different.
The first thing I wrote for them was a novella, as a sort of try-out piece. Then they quite quickly commissioned a novel from me, which became Drachenfels. I think it may well have been the first Warhammer Fantasy novel to be published. And because of that, it got a bit more attention. Some people would start with that one. And people tended to like it.
It was a book I wrote quite quickly. At the time my thinking was that most fantasy adventure novels were broadly similar. They were often journey novels. They tended to draw from Lord of the Rings, and from roleplaying games, there being a bunch of heroes on a quest. And so instead I wrote a horror novel set in one place, which was a theatrical whodunit. I thought a mystery would be an interesting thing to do. I thought that there was no particular reason why in the setting of the Warhammer world, you couldn’t tell all kinds of different stories. I later did a serial killer and tough cop type story. That I think opened up what you could do with the Warhammer Fantasy setting.
What was your experience like working in the Dark Future series?
With the other series, the Dark Future series, the game that they were tied into was very simple. There wasn’t that much background to it. I can’t take credit for a lot of the background, David Pringle and a bunch of other writers sat around and devised that. But I came in and did my own thing with that. And rushed out a bunch of novels, again quite quickly.
The really useful thing was that between what were officially my first and second novels, I’d written eight other books. And I became much more confident writing a novel length just by doing it. It’s nice to know that there’s a knack or an ability to do that. I also learned to trust that things would come to mind to fill gaps.
That’s interesting. I just assumed that you were behind a lot of the Dark Future background. The alternate history feels like something that you would write.
It wasn’t my idea. That I think was David Pringle and Alex Stewart. I worked with Eugene Byrne a lot, and we did fill out a bunch of the alternate history stuff. The reason it was an alternate history was an obvious one. Between the game being published, and the time we were writing the books, time had passed. I think the date we were given was somewhere in the late 1990s! So only seven years on, this sort of Mad Max-y, Blade Runner type world was supposed to have emerged. So we realized in order to get there, we had to change history in 1960. When I think the game was originally pitched, they weren’t thinking of it as an alternate world, but that became quite a fun part of it.
If I remember correctly, the world changes based on the fact that Nixon gets elected?
I think our actual hook was that JFK’s affair with Marilyn Monroe becomes public.
Actually, that would probably have got him elected. Whereas an honest count would’ve got Nixon elected. We weren’t quite cynical enough to do that.
Let’s talk a little bit about Anno Dracula. What was the genesis of that book?
It goes back to watching the Bela Lugosi movie when I was 11, and reading the Bram Stoker novel quite soon thereafter. It became a lifelong thing, an obsession. I’m really interested in Dracula movies and all the material about Dracula. The actual tiny nugget that became the book was a footnote to an essay that I wrote at university. I was at the University of Sussex in the late ’70s, and I did a course called “Late Victorian Revolt.” It was taught by Laurence Lerner, who was a poet and really interesting writer, and Norman Mackenzie, who was H.G. Wells’ biographer, and who also wrote a really good book about the beginnings of Fabian society.
I wrote this thesis for them about late Victorian apocalyptic fiction — Wells’s War of the Worlds, Saki’s When William Came, H. Rider Haggard — all these books about great upheavals, that are now the foundation of science fiction. But as a footnote I was talking about invasion narratives. In Britain, these really start with this Victorian pamphlet called The Battle of Dorking by a guy called General George Tomkyns Chesney, which was about what would happen if Germany invaded Britain. And it was a propagandist piece. The idea was that the British army was really ill-prepared and that under Bismarck, Prussia had become a military machine that everybody was underestimating. It caused a lot of fuss and sensation, and actually a lot of military spending. But it also created this whole genre of “Britain invaded” books. War of the Worlds is kind of a parody of these.
I read The Great War in England in 1897 and a bunch of other books on this theme. And as a footnote, I said that Bram Stoker’s Dracula starts out as if it’s going to be one of those books, and then doesn’t do that. So at some point, I must have extrapolated from that note that it would be interesting to do an invasion narrative book whose premise is that Dracula wins. Dr. Van Helsing fails to stop Count Dracula from establishing himself in Britain, and then taking over the country.
It took at least ten years between me having the idea and me writing anything. I’d made some notes. But I think it took a while for me to get a handle on it. It probably changed in my mind over those ten years. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that I wrote a novella version of it for The Mammoth Book of Vampires edited by Stephen Jones. And while I was working on that, I knew it was a novel really. I knew that it would be the next novel I wrote. And so I expanded it to that.
There’s been a lot of wonderful scholarship in recent years by people like John Rieder and David Higgins about reverse colonization narratives, stories in which the colonizer becomes the colonized. Some of these narratives such as War of the Worlds are very much about eliciting solidarity with the colonized. They invite white Western readers to put themselves in the place of the colonized. Whereas other reverse colonization narratives such as, say, Red Dawn are more about, ‘Let’s imagine that the imperial power is actually a victim, and shouldn’t we sympathize with white men in power?’ Obviously, your Anno Dracula avoids falling into the second category. It’s actually very much the first type: Anno Dracula is about eliciting solidarity with the colonized. Yet on paper the premise of Anno Dracula could be pretty dicey in this regard. So how did you pull it off?
Oh, thank you. I didn’t think too deeply about that aspect of it. It wasn’t something that was particularly buzzing around in the air. In the more recent Anno Dracula novels I’ve been much more aware of it. It’s why I wrote a couple of books set in Japan. There’s stuff about how the British Empire works, for example, that I got very interested in.
Underlying not just Dracula but so much Victorian horror fiction is the idea of something terrible happening around the world, coming back to London. The high concept of Dracula is not vampires, it’s vampires in London. It’s Dracula in London. Dracula in Transylvania is not new, Dracula in London is.
And the same is true of something like The Mummy, or lots of Conan Doyle’s stories. Quite a lot of the Sherlock Holmes stories have flashbacks to horrible injustices happening around the world, but the consequences are played out in London. It’s not so much that London is the heart of the British Empire, it’s that it was the crossroads of the world. For instance, there are at least two of the Sherlock Holmes stories in which the backstory is America, rather than India, or Africa. London was then the big, exciting city where people came from all over. It was also the city of imagination, the city where stories took place. So that was part of what I wanted to do.
The novel’s moral complexity seems important here, too.
There had not been many vampire dystopias then. There had been one or two. I particularly liked Brian Stableford’s The Empire of Fear. And obviously, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. But a little below those achievements, there were many more stories which basically assumed that vampires would become slave owners or farmers, and human beings would become like cattle. I thought that was too easy. It let people off too easily. You had bad people—vampires—who were the villains, and you had good people—the humans—who would be the rebels or whatever. I realized early on that I didn’t want all the vampires at Anno Dracula to be bad people. I didn’t want what I call ‘warm’ people, human beings, living people, to be all good.
Dracula is still a villain though.
I did want Dracula to be a bad person—it was first on my list of things to do with Dracula, ‘keep him evil.’ There’s also a ridiculous aspect to him, a feature that Bram Stoker came up with which I like, and I wanted to stress that too. But the effect Dracula has on the world of Anno Dracula is to make people act more like themselves, to make their social interactions more extreme. I wanted to explore these hideous injustices, but also to show that it was possible to at least spend your life struggling against hideous injustices without being completely crushed.
When the book came out and it was still a standalone, some American readers wanted an ending where Dracula was defeated and thrown out. Actually, the book ends with the beginnings of a revolution, not the end of it. My original outline might have gone as far as ending with the defeat of Dracula, but I realized that wasn’t the point.
He’s not that kind of villain in the book. He doesn’t represent that. He is the awfulness that we all have to live with somehow. He gets knocked about a bit and replaced, and worse things turn up in subsequent books. But they’re all ‘the struggle goes on’ novels, rather than ‘our triumph victory’ novels.
I think probably if the book had ended with Dracula defeated, I wouldn’t have written anymore. That would be a conclusion, so it would be sort of self defeating. All of the Anno Dracula novels have open or ambiguous endings, and I do like that.
I really like your point about how the vampires serve as accentuations of existing injustices. It’s not as if Victorian England was perfectly fine until vampires showed up! Everything in the novel is an echo of something that actually happened. Anno Dracula references the colonial atrocities in India, for example, and obviously the British aristocracy are totally complicit with the vampires. The novel does not give the impression that a foreign invader has shown up and corrupted an otherwise pure England.
When you were writing Anno Dracula, did you know that the narrative would continue?
While I was working on Anno Dracula, I realized that there would be more novels. But it wasn’t a trilogy, it wasn’t a series. It wasn’t one of those things where there’s an overall story and then it’s finished. It was a world that I could periodically go back to and do different stories. As I was saying earlier, I’m attracted to the idea of doing different stories.
I’ve found now I’ve done six novels, a comic book miniseries, and three novellas. I know that there are some things that every Anno Dracula story has to have, but it’s quite a short, short list. And I think I even broke it in the latest thing I’ve written. I crossed one off.
What are some of the other rules of an Anno Dracula series narrative?
Okay. It has to have vampires. I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t it? There have to be vampires. There have to be vampires and humans in some kind of complicated relationships. Most of them are whodunits, or mystery stories. Actually, in Anno Dracula you know who the killer is, but there are people trying to work it out. In most of them there has to be a sense that the crime that’s being investigated or scheme that’s going on will have some kind of political effect. It’s not people just trying to steal some money. Whatever he’s planning, even if it’s a seemingly ordinary murder, will affect the balance of power in the world.
Almost all the books have a first person element. This dominates in One Thousand Monsters, but all the others have scenes where people tell stories. I also need to incorporate characters from history and other people’s fictions. That’s another element which is in the first book, and which I have stuck with ever since. It’s something that’s become slightly more difficult, because when I wrote Anno Dracula, not that many people had used that device. Subsequently, a lot of people have used that device and we’ve all trodden over each other.
Even though I have drifted away from finding them the most important aspect of my work, I often use borrowed fictional characters when I need them for narrative or thematic purposes. I use fictional or historical characters to express some kind of critique, rather than to make homage, or just drop names. Although there is a sort of gossip element to the books, sometimes that requires name dropping.
And apart from those few constraints, you could do anything.
Yes. Anno Dracula is a serial killer story, a Jack the Ripper story. It’s a Victorian mystery adventure: gaslight and fog and cobblestones. But it’s also a conspiracy story. It’s about a complicated plan that is kicked off by various factions working at cross-purposes. It has a wide cast of characters. There’s lots of political intrigue, but there’s also a way that it explores a society from top to bottom, from the palace to the gutter.
The next book in the series, The Bloody Red Baron, is a World War I novel. So it’s a war story. And subsequently, I wrote Dracula Cha Cha Cha, which is set in Italy in 1959, an Italian giallo. It’s a tricksy murder mystery with a fun, slightly soap opera feel. I mean, I wanted to do something a bit lighter. Then Johnny Alucard is a sort of self-referential book. It’s a book about the idea of Dracula and other artists who dealt with Dracula. The next one is One Thousand Monsters, which is a Japanese story. I wanted to do something with samurai. Actually, it was originally the prologue of the book afterwards, but I realized it was a novel in itself while I was writing it. And the book after that is Daikaiju. I wanted to do an Anno Dracula cyberpunk story, so it’s set in the 1999 that was imagined in 1982. But it’s also a Die Hard type action movie and a bit of an anime vampire story.
I wanted to talk about some of the references and citations. In Anno Dracula you’ve included an appendix with all of the historical and literary allusions.
I put that in a reprint. It’s not in the original edition. I’m still a bit iffy about showing the workings, as it were. Sometimes I wanted to acknowledge people I borrowed from because there’s a lot there I wanted to highlight. I’m a great admirer of lots of bizarre Victorian literature, and I wanted people to rush out and look at those.
While the novels are all highly allusive, you can still understand them even if you don’t get all of the references. How do you do that?
Very early on, I thought outside of my core cast I was going to try not to make up anybody. There would always be a precedent, somebody from history or somebody from another work of fiction, mostly set or written around the same time.
The narrative needed a bunch of vampires, so I looked at Victorian vampire stories, and obviously there’s Lord Ruthven from Polidori, Varney the Vampire, and a bunch of much more obscure ones. They’re useful supporting cast. Given that many vampire characters are Dracula imitations—you know, like Count Yorga—I thought, well, in my world, there would be people who were trying to look like Dracula because he’d be a fashion-setter or role model for other vampires. There’d be a lot of people who wore cloaks and spoke like Bela Lugosi even if they were from Scunthorpe.
And then I did stuff like there was a police investigation, so I needed some policemen. There are lots of Victorian detective stories that I could take characters from and I did. I needed some criminals. There are a bunch of those as well. I think the first borrowed character outside of Dracula was Lulu from the German silent film Pandora’s Box because I needed an extra Jack the Ripper victim.
The narrative included a bunch of stuff about science, and so there are characters like Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Moreau, and Professor Moriarty. They were interesting to play around.
You know, the borrowed characters are not all famous, and some of the ones that aren’t particularly famous could just slide by. They’re just names. I hope I give you enough information about who people are for their relevance to the actual ongoing story to be made explicit. My feeling was it genuinely didn’t matter. I think there are one or two where in the process of writing the book I switched who was whom. I changed some of the minor characters I found to people who fit more I wanted to do.
Where is the series going next?
I did what they call lampshading in the first book. I set something up so I could write a Western. But I haven’t done that, because somebody came along and did one of the key ideas that I was going to do. Although the western got sidetracked, I might still come back to it. There are all kinds of other possible takes on it.
There needs to be a spur. Some subject matter I can only deal with by writing an Anno Dracula story. And obviously, I keep having to drop back in and see what’s going on with vampire fiction. That’s why there’s a novella called Vampire Romance, because that was big for a while.
I’m not entirely sure what will happen next. I just wrote this new novella to go into a 30th anniversary edition of Anno Dracula, a thing that surprises me as much as anybody else. That’s a science fiction story, a Mars invader story that I’ve been meaning to fit in. Everybody forgets that H.G. Wells’ Martians, they’re vampires, they drink blood.
This story wound up filling a bit of necessary continuity, and it’s allowed me to highlight a couple characters that are in the books, but we haven’t done much with.
Neil Gaiman’s writing the introduction to the upcoming reissue of Anno Dracula. Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with him? It seems like although you have radically different approaches, you are both interested in many of the same things. In particular, you both really like crossovers and mixing genres.
I’ve known Neil for a very long time. We edited a book together. We wrote a lot of comedy stuff. We have various projects and things we kicked around that didn’t quite happen. We are longtime friends and collaborators. We have very different backgrounds, but we have similar sensibilities. We’re almost exactly the same age—he’s a bit younger than I am—so that means we grew up watching the same TV programs, reading the same comics, reading the same books with many of the same influences. We have similar formative experiences. We are both interested in skipping from genre to genre, and I think we also both like the idea of writing in a tradition where you take material that is established or has been around for a while and you play with it. We’re probably both really influenced by Philip José Farmer, as he has to almost everybody who does anything like us. Howard Waldrop, a slightly older American writer, floats around in our DNA as well.
All of your Anno Dracula novels involve alternative histories, but even your recent novel Something More Than Night involves historical speculation. What is it that draws you to alternate histories or ‘what if?’ scenarios?
I’m not one of those people who want to express logical, well-thought-out, possible alternate timelines. I’m much more interested in reflecting what actually happened presenting it in a crazy kaleidoscope mirror reality than in considering how the world would be if the Hundred Years War played out differently. I like some of those books that do things like that, but it’s not something that particularly grabs me as a writer. I’m much more interested in exploring where we are now.
I find it quite a useful way of addressing the present, although always it takes five to ten years to process anything before it’s much use in fiction.
A lot of your fiction talks about archetypes that many, many people have written about—vampires, especially. As your criticism and the scholarship that goes into these books suggests, vampires have been presented in too many angles to count.
Every time I think there’s nothing more to be done about vampires, something occurs to me or somebody comes up with a new story and it turns out there is more to be done.
What advice would you give to writers who are dealing with a kind of literary archetype that has that history? If somebody came up to you and said, ‘I’m trying to say something new about elves!’ what would you tell them about depicting a figure that has such an immense history?
That’s a tough question. I would avoid writing a book about elves. It was suggested that the heroine of Drachenfels be an elf rather than a vampire, and I even included a scene in the book where someone suggests her character in the play about their adventure be turned into an elf rather than a vampire. Obviously, go back and read everybody else’s books, study the folklore, explore the history, try and find something relatable, some reason why this archetype has stuck around, what’s useful about it. That’s probably why I don’t want to write about elves because I don’t see anything that’s unique and interesting about them. I’ve written a couple of stories which are sort of about fairies, though.
Take a slightly different approach. Steep yourself in the research and then try to find a story that no one’s told before. That’s the key thing. If you are retelling a twice- or thrice-told tale, at least narrate it with a different voice. Find something in there that is yours.
Rob Latham has praised your fight scenes in the Los Angeles Review of Books, especially the ones in Daikaiju. What is the key to writing a really good fight scene?
It’s probably the same as staging one in the movies. It has to be exciting, even though real fights are usually short, brutal, disgusting. Sometimes you want to write violence that’s like that, but there’s a difference between violence and action.
Daikaiju in particular was an attempt to do a story in cyberpunk—which can be a rather intellectual subgenre because it often takes place in cyberspace, a sort of weightless, airless place with no physical effects—but one in which there were all kinds of physical conflicts. I wanted not just fights, but people overcoming obstacles, being trapped, and getting out of things. I thought that I’d written a couple of books which were much more conversational in tone, so I wanted to write something different.
When it comes to fight scenes, I just try to imagine a good old punch-up. Of course, you have to make it difficult for the character. If you’ve got a good guy who’s going to win a fight against overwhelming odds, keep adding to the overwhelming odds. But somehow you’ve got to find a way to make it credible that they come through it rather than just die. Throwing in curveballs can be interesting and fun, too.
In addition to writing fiction, you have a long and accomplished career in film criticism. How has your love for film shaped your fiction, but also, how has your writing in film criticism shaped your writing in narrative genres?
Obviously, I love movies. I mean, I love books, too. I love storytelling. I’ve learned a lot of things about narratives from films, I think, but I’m not one of those writers who is particularly informed by cinematic style. That said, I have done some novels, particularly in the Jack Yeovil books, that involved intercutting, editing tricks, camera tricks.
I tend to write point of view, and that’s something that film on the whole finds very difficult to do. Film is an objective medium, whereas fiction tends to be a subjective medium. It’s about what the characters are thinking. You actually can’t tell what characters on screen are thinking.
I think that’s why the director’s cut of Blade Runner is rather airless, because the other version that everybody hated actually at least told you what Deckard was thinking, which Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott seemed to be unable to do any other way.
It can be interesting to follow a character in a film where you don’t know stuff about them, including things that would be very hard to conceal in a novel.
What about the other way around—how has writing fiction influenced your criticism?
It’s very simple. One is I’ve worked on the prose. I think a lot of critics don’t quite do that. They work on the zingers, the one-liners. It can help to work on making the prose readable, particularly in pieces that have to encapsulate a lot of complicated information into very short paragraphs.
Writing to a tough word length is a handy skill. It’s a journalistic skill, but it’s something I’ve had to deal with as a freelance critic. I also worked for a long time for a magazine that asked you to write a synopsis of every film you reviewed, and that was a really useful exercise. It sort of forces you to take things apart and see how the story works.
I also wanted to talk about Something More Than Night, your recent horror-detective novel about Raymond Chandler and Boris Karloff. Could you say a bit about how you got started working on that project?
That’s another one that’s taken a long time to get written. I know that because I had the idea when Raymond Chandler and Boris Karloff both had their centenaries in 1988 and I realized that they were the same age, they’d lived quite close together as children, and obviously they both lived in Hollywood as adults. It was more than 30 years between the idea and actually sitting down to write the book.
They’re both people who interest me. I think they both led fascinating and rather dovetailing lives. They represent two of my favorite genres and two of my favorite media: writing and film, and hardboiled crime and monster movies.
They also both have very interesting attitudes to Britishness in that Boris Karloff was British but was ethnically Anglo-Indian, and he spent his whole life sort of manufacturing foreignness as part of his personality. At the same time he was well-spoken, loved cricket, and exemplified a lot of the positive virtues that we used to associate with Britishness such as fair play, quiet decency and doing good works invisibly.
Whereas, of course, Raymond Chandler was American, but a lot of people thought he was British, because he went to school in England, and I think never shut up about that. His books use the American language as if he had learned it as an adult. He also had Philip Marlowe embody a sort of courtly knighthood type business. He’s not a credible American, two-fisted private eye like Sam Spade or Mike Hammer. When we meet him, he’s looking at a stained glass image of a knight, and there’s all this stuff about Chess. One of the books is called The Lady in the Lake. This sort of Arthurian Englishness winds throughout the novels. And so those things kind of glued together.
What was it that delayed the writing of the novel?
I had Karloff and Chandler individually, and I had a sense of what their contrasts were. It’s slightly blurred in the book but they are also avatars of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. Chandler is the writer, and Karloff is the detective. Karloff did play Sherlock Holmes once, and Chandler was rather snippy about Conan Doyle.
I had all that but what I didn’t have was the thing that linked them.
When I came to write the novel, I had a sense of a character who exists halfway between them, and I found a real person who intersected with both their lives and careers, although I didn’t use them. I use a fictional person who is analogous to Leslie T. White, who investigated the Doheny case, which is referenced throughout the Chandler books. It’s a murder-suicide that took place in the family of Larry Niven, the science fiction writer who comes from old Los Angeles oil money.
The case was never solved and White quit the DA’s office after that, becoming a pulp writer. One of the things White wrote was a Boris Karloff movie, The Man They Could Not Hang. I had this idea of putting this real life mystery and elements from this movie together and coming up with a story that addressed certain things that were going on in Hollywood in the 1940s, but also things that go on everywhere all the time.
I also wanted to play with the characters and see how they interfaced. There are other fictional elements, but because I had two real life characters absolutely up front and central, I think almost everybody else who has a speaking part in the book is made up. Most of them have if not analogues then equivalents in the real world.
I wanted to make everything up this time, as it were. I wanted to do something that people would be convinced was real.
Can you talk a little bit about how you engage with the mythos surrounding Frankenstein’s monster in the novel?
I suppose having done a Dracula book, I did want to do a Frankenstein book eventually. I did a Frankenstein play, which is included in one of my collections. But this was my chance to tackle the complicated set of themes that come up around Frankenstein, including the confusion between the monster and the doctor, which is absolutely this fundamental thing about Frankenstein. I was also interested in the confusion between the actor and the role as well as the conflict in this case between the director and the star.
The book is also about this argument about the meaning of Frankenstein that we’ve had over and over again. It’s come down through the centuries, but it’s still not settled. I thought the story’s message was ‘don’t make monsters.’ And yet, making monsters is almost an irresistible pastime.
I think almost everybody in the world makes monsters in some way or another, and that includes the heroes as well as the villains.
It seems like the villainous studio head in Something More Than Night is also commenting on contemporary politics as well as the fascism implicit in America in the 1930s. Could you talk a little bit about the politics of the novel?
When I started it I didn’t think I was going to be addressing the kind of demagoguery that we’ve seen in Britain and America as well as other places around the world such as Russia or Hungary. However, those people act very much like Hollywood studio heads in the 1930s and 40s, and so quite a lot of the stuff which seems that contemporary resonance is lifted more or less intact from stuff that was said by Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, or Carl Laemmle.
As with most of my books I’m never quite sure if the characters who get labeled as villains actually are villains because they tend to be monumentally self-destructive as well as monumentally destructive, which isn’t to excuse all the hideous damage that they do to people around them. That’s the scary stuff: when you don’t just make monsters but when you turn other people into monsters or when you find people who are willing to become monsters.
The book was written during lockdown. It was written during a very traumatic period for the world. That must have seeped into it somehow.
Thank you so much. I really appreciate your taking the time to sit for this interview.
I am happy to do it!
Jordan S. Carroll is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Puget Sound. He is the author of Reading the Obscene: Transgressive Editors and the Class Politics of US Literature (Stanford 2021), and he is currently working on a book on race, science fiction, and the alt-right.