The question posed on the back cover by Booklist of Kim Newman’s The Bloody Red Baron encapsulates the novel perfectly: “How could World War 1 be made even grislier? Add vampires”. In the sequel to his classic Anno Dracula, Kim Newman continues his alternative-history / horror series with Dracula continuing his Machiavellian machinations in to the First World War.
The plot of The Bloody Red Baron follows Edwin Winthrop, a young member of the Diogenes Club (a reference to Sherlock Holmes) and the vampiric reporter Kate Reed as they investigate the rumours of an elite German air squadron Jagdgeschwader 1. Running parallel to this is the story of starving writer Edgar Allen Poe – also a vampire – who is commissioned to write the biography of JG1′s flying ace Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron himself. Alongside these principal stories is the ongoing power-struggle within the ranks of the Diogenes Club.
Both Edwin and Kate make for engaging characters, as they investigate the true nature of JG1. These two characters continue to evolve throughout the novel, and develop in such a manner that is best described as being logically tragic. We have a contrasting viewpoint provided by Charles Beuaregard, a senior member of the Diogenes Club, as he oversees his protégé Winthrop’s assignment and the Club’s ultimate goal of destroying Dracula. Polarising these characters is Edgar Allan Poe’s story, where he loses his romanticised notion of war for the harsh reality, which covers the war from the perspective of Germany. It was refreshing to read a character with a view that was sympathetic of Germany.
However, it is the supporting characters that I found most interesting. Allied flying ace Bigglesworth makes an all-too-short, yet utterly memorable appearance that lives up to the original adventures. Similarly, German spy Theo was a character that was utterly engaging yet secretive at the same time, with his closing line of “I fight for Germany” being ultimately ambiguous.
Kim Newman takes no prisoners in his prose: he assumes that his readers are intelligent people, and thus dispenses with needless exposition and scene-setting, but simply drops the reader in at the deep-end. This could be off-putting to some, especially if you have not read the previous novel, but perseverance is ultimately rewarding, as you witness the expanding background as the story develops.
Thematically, The Bloody Red Baron is an examination of the hypocrisy that was inherent in military thinking at that time. In addition to this, Kim Newman takes the time to compare the sheer brutality of war with the romanticised notion that was held during WW1. This examination of war, is highlight in Edwin Winthrop;s journey through the novel, as he loses his innocence, and gradually becomes hardened to the war.
The amount of historical research Kim Newman has invested in this novel is staggering. The atmosphere he has created is palpable: it feels like reading through a bloody haze. Kim Newman also references famous historical and fictional characters in The Bloody Red Baron, such as D.H. Lawrence and Biggle. Similarly, it is readily apparent that Kim Newman knows his vampires, as the diversity of these undead creatures crosses the breadth of vampire fiction.
If there is one criticism that can be levelled at The Bloody Red Baron, is that it can be heavy going. The realistic portrayal of vampires on both sides of the war means that you find it hard to sympathise with many of the characters, given their nature. I found it best to read the novel in shorter sittings, allowing me to absorb the story without it overwhelming me.
In this edition of The Bloody Red Baron, you are also treated to the novelette Anno Dracula 1923: Vampire Romance, which follows the vampire Geneviève Dieudonné (oft mentioned in The Bloody Red Baron) when she is recruited by Edwin Winthrop to infiltrate an assembly of vampire elders.
I found Kim Newman’s writing in Vampire Romance to be far more accessible than that of The Bloody Red Baron, perhaps because much of the premise had already been established in the previous story. Also, Vampire Romance was less horror-focused, although there are certainly horror elements. Instead it focuses on parodying the dark-fantasy / vampire-romance genre, with a story that combines Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, with the works of Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton, and has a shot of Shakespeare added for good measure. This may seem like an insane blend of ideas, but it is one which found me chuckling at its sly references to modern vampire literature. Cripes!
Completing this edition of The Bloody Red Baron is an appendix where Kim Newman provides a chapter-by-chapter analysis of references and influences. I admit some of these references went over my head, as I am not as well-versed in classic world war one fiction. Thus I was doubly-impressed with the amount of depth and detail that he had invested in the story, and blended historical accuracy with WW1 fiction.
Finally, there is a film treatment by Kim Newman for The Bloody Red Baron, which was proposed after a suggestion from Roger Corman. The treatment is intriguing as it considers a what might have been had the film had been developed.