The Bloody Red Baron by Kim Newman

Part One: All Quiet on the Western Front Chapter 5


  The Prophet of Prague

  Knives of daylight glinted in cracks between the serrated tiles of the low, sloping roof. He grew weaker as the sun rose but his red thirst raged. He was starved for human blood. Edgar Poe, as usual, numbered himself among the most wretched of all his kind.

  He sat on the cot, elbows on knees, head hung to avoid bumping. Books were stacked against the opposite wall in pillars two or three volumes deep. The bulkiest, least-consulted items of his travelling library were arranged into a literary ledge which served as a table. A jug half-filled with thick juice sat precisely on a circular dent in the cloth cover of his Schiller. His mouth and nose stung with the stench of days-old animal blood. His stomach revolted but soon he would be forced to drink.

  Since turning, he had often suffered prolonged abstinence, warm men felt hunger in their stomachs; the nosferatu ache was a pulsing fire in the heart, accompanied by a gnawing need in the throat and on the tongue. The sustenance of blood was as much in the taste as the substance, and in the spiritual mingling that came with the vampire communion.

  Confining him to the ghetto, Prague's ancient repository for the alien and unloved, was ingeniously cruel. Under the Edict of Graz, proclaimed by Franz Joseph and Kaiser Wilhelm, it was forbidden for a Hebrew to be turned. Therefore Jews considered vampires predators and kept their women away from him. As with most edicts proclaimed at the dictate of Graf von Dracula, the specified penalty for transgression was impalement.

  It was hard to nurture his inner vampire. He was reduced to. procuring animal blood from a kosher butcher. The Israelite was a cursed gouger. In three years, the price of a few rancid drops of cow gore had risen tenfold. Sometimes the need for the sweet and scented blood of women took him to the brink of madness. Looking into a maelstrom, he was strong yet weak. With half dread and half delight, he foresaw a night when need would overcome him. He would claw ferociously into a nearby garret, forcing a fat wife or daughter to give herself up. Then, glutted, he would drift,in poetic reverie, words flowing from his mind like water from a spring. Jews would come for him with a stake and his unhappy career would be at a sordid end.

  In May 1917, Poe had risen from lassitude one evening to discover the myopic poltroon Wilson had committed the United States of America to the European conflict. With a pen-stroke, Wilson transformed Edgar Poe into an enemy of the Central Powers. He was then living in a moderately uncomfortable rooming house in the Sladkovsky Platz, eking out an income as a lecturer. The brief prosperity of The Battle of St Petersburg had passed but his name retained some of its lustre. If all else failed, he could recite 'The Raven', the sole constant in his life and reputation. He no longer thought of the piece as something of his own creation, and had come heartily to detest its bleat of 'nevermore, nevermore'.

  Eight months later, he was quartered in an attic little larger than a coffin. The ghetto was a slum labyrinth of narrow covered passageways, more like tunnels than streets. This hive of wood and plaster was infested with chattering, chanting Hebrews. Each room harboured unlikely numbers. Europe was choked with inferior peoples. If he ventured beyond the Salniter-Gasse, Poe was required to wear an arm-band signifying his status as a hostile alien.

  Upon leaving the sullen and chaotic shores of his native Philistia for an old world of kultur, this was not the situation he had expected. He had sought freedom and found only his old enemies, the envy of lesser men and the temptations of despair. The few inclined to ponder his case treated him as a conundrum concealed within a nuisance, an occasionally diverting specimen but not one whose study offered much in the way of reward.

  His gums receded and his sharp teeth hurt. An iron fist gripped and released his heart. He could bear no more. Despising his weakness, he took the jug and poured the sludgy remains into his burning mouth.

  Indescribable foulness swarmed into his throat and a black ache split his skull. It was over quickly. Red thirst dissipated, for the moment. There was a nasty aftertaste, as if the blood were laced with machine oil.

  Blood blurred his mind. He thought of pale women with active eyes, bright smiles and long, fine hair. Ligeia, Morella, Berenice, Lenore, Madeline. Many faces coalesced into one face. Virginia. His wife had died with blood in her mouth, child's voice choked in the midst of song. Later she returned from her grave, bestowing toothed kisses. She suckled him with her blood and turned him. Virginia was truly dead now, burned with Atlanta, but she was wife and daughter and sister and mother to him. He lived with her taste on his tongue and her blood in his undying body.

  Something thumped mightily at the door. He jumped, alarmed, from his cot. His swimming head banged a beam and he groaned. He pulled open the door, scraping carpet away from bare boards. Outside, on the topmost landing, stood a uniformed vampire, glaring angrily from beneath an eagle- crested shako. He wore spiked and waxed moustaches. Poe recognised the Enemy Alien Commission's messenger.

  'Guten morgen, Herr Unteroffizier Paulier,' Poe said. German was the official language of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There were Czechs and Poles who did not know a word of their own tongues. 'What brings you to call on Prague's most dangerous belligerent alien?'

  By way of an answer, Paulier stuck out an artificial arm. An envelope was fixed to his wood-filled glove by a pin. Like many functionaries, the messenger was a crippled by-blow of the war. His blood was not strong enough to regenerate a lost limb. Poe tore the letter loose and slit it with a sharp fingernail. Without speaking, Paulier turned and descended the many flights of stairs, false hand clattering against slats.

  A door opposite opened a crack and, about three feet above the floor, large wet eyes glistened. The building was aswarm with rats and Semitic children. Degenerate races bred without restraint. Dracula was correct to bar them from turning vampire. Poe bared fangs and hissed. The door shut. He read the note from the Commission. He was summoned again to the tribunal chambers in the Hradschiner Platz.

  Afternoon ground on. Poe sat alone in a cathedral of a waiting room, listening to the clock. He was sensitive to the passage of time. Since turning, his ears had grown so acute he could distinguish the workings of a clock. A plague of tiny creaks and clicks accompanied every second. Each tiny noise resounded in his head like raindrops on a drumskin. He thought of the offices of the Commission, to which he was frequently recalled, as the Palace of Vondervotderteimiss. Its dusty corners and cold, hard benches were unaffected by the passing of history.

  Four years ago, at the outbreak of war, the Empire had known what to do with enemy nationals trapped within its borders. There were internment camps and repatriation schemes. The bureaucrats and diplomats who dealt with those niceties were lost, gone into the armies and probably dead. The late entry of the United States into the war stranded few citizens behind the lines. Poe, who had long ago ceased to consider himself American, was almost unique in his predicament. Few in the street understood precisely the significance of the ridiculous arm-band. He was more often harangued by gentlewomen who thought he should be doing his duty in uniform than by patriotic souls who recognised him as a deadly foe of the Habsburgs.

  The face of the dock, wide as a wagon-wheel, was embedded in a classical orgy of grubby marble fixed above doors twice the height of a tall man. Its seconds were half as long again as those of Poe's watch. When he checked his chronometer against the clock, the timepieces conspired to suggest they ran at the same speed. With his watch back in his vest, the clock slackened again. Excruciating pauses prolonged each tick.

  A man without a country, his case was complicated by The Battle of St Petersburg. Though its reputation was entirely trodden into the mud, the book kept him out of a prisoner-of-war camp. If repatriated, Poe knew he would merit no kind reception in the land of his birth. An adherent of the Southern cause during the late war of Secession, he refused to recognise the United States as it was currently constituted. Wilson had preached hypocritical n
eutrality while surreptitiously succouring the Triple Entente; Poe openly and famously championed the inevitable and just triumph of the Central Powers.

  At the beginning of the war, he had tried to secure a commission in the armies of Austria-Hungary. Kept out of the fight by envious fools, he whipped his long-silent muse to action. Written in a week-long white-hot burst, The Battle of St Petersburg foretold that the Kaiser and the King-Emperor would sweep through France within the month, then turn to the solemn duty of conquering the Russias. It was a story of gallant steam cavalry charges and aristocratic feats of daring, the fighting spirit of the great days allied to the marvels of modern science. All Europe was thrilled by his account of Zeppelin fleets laying siege to St Petersburg and the utter subjugation of the Cossacks by motorised Uhlans. Dracula himself was struck by the notion of locomotive juggernauts laying tracks before them as they thrust into the heart of the Tsar's dominions, and insisted the practicalities of such devices be gauged. Engineer Robur, the agitator for aerial warships, lent an endorsement. Pirate editions appeared in England and America as by 'the celebrated author of "The Raven"'. An unscrupulous Belgian calling himself J. -H. Rosny a?ne imitated the book chapter for chapter as La Bataille de Vienne, with German characters turned to Frenchmen and Russian place-names replaced by locations in Germany and Austria-Hungary. Poe recaptured the visionary reputation to which he had aspired in his warm days and was in great demand as a speaker. He visited gymnasia to share his vision with smart ranks of newly uniformed young men who would make it a reality. It seemed he would submerge forever the reputations of such infantile plagiarists as M. Verne and Mr Wells.

  An old man scuttled through the waiting room, dragging a wheelbarrow piled with bulging string-tied bundles of yellow paper. He was warm but smelled bloodless and dry. The clerk ignored Poe and disappeared through a side door into a labyrinth of records. The tribunal hall of the Commission was a castle of forgotten fact, an Alexandrian Library of the irrelevant.

  Even with the 'prophecies' of The Battle of St Petersburg scorned by those who had once hailed them as a model to be matched, Poe believed his vision truer than that of the front-line correspondents. His was the world that should have been; not the muddy, entrenched, life-devouring stalemate that existed across Europe. The British should have stayed neutral or ranged themselves against their hereditary enemy, the French. Truly, what did a Briton care for snivelling little Belgium? Zeppelins would now sail majestically over the enslaved hordes of the steppe. The great empires would purge themselves of impurities and govern the destiny of the planet.

  Edgar Poe would be the prophet of the age. It was said no vampire could produce a work of lasting aesthetic or intellectual merit. He hungered to disprove the saw. But the world of glory that seemed about to be born was turned to a nightmare of boredom and starvation.

  The cuffs of his trousers were frayed and he wore a celluloid collar that had to be cleaned with an India rubber. It was a mercy Virginia had not lived to see her Eddy reduced to this miserable condition.

  An official entered. He wore a floor-length apron and an oversized cap with a green eyeshade. He held up a small bell, which he tinkled. The tintinnabulation assaulted Poe's ears.

  'Herr Poe, if you will come,' the official said in formal German.

  The meeting was held not in an office but in a high-ceilinged corridor. Thin windows allowed dusty light in. Attendants trundled trolleys by. Poe had to flatten himself against the wall to let them past.

  Poe had dealt before with Kafka, a sharp Jew with queer batwing ears and a penetrating gaze. The clerk seemed to find the idea of an American in the ghetto disturbing and gave the impression of a genuine eagerness to help resolve the case. Thus far his efforts had yielded only a creeping plague of contradictory memoranda from higher-ups. Withal, he had almost taken to Franz Kafka. The only soul in Prague who had heard of Poe for anything other than The Battle of St Petersburg and 'The Raven', he had once asked him to inscribe a cheap edition of Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Kafka mentioned he was himself an occasional writer, but Poe had not wished to encourage further intimacy with the Jew and made a pointed display of indifference.

  Poe was summoned to meet one Hanns Heinz Ewers. A vampire, of course, he was well-dressed and thought himself distinguished in several fields. Unusually for a German, he wore a suit rather than a uniform.

  'It is ironic, Herr Poe. ' Ewers said. 'We are truly doubles, mirror images, doppelg?nger. When the war began, I was in your country, in New York City . . . '

  'I have ceased to regard Federal America as my country, sir. I lost my nationality at Appomattox. '

  'As you wish. I too was frustrated, as you must be now. I too was a poet, an essayist, a visionary, a novelist of sensation, a philosopher. I have conquered new fields of art, including the kinematograph. Employed by my Kaiser as a lobbyist, my efforts were insufficient to prevent the misunderstanding that exists between the New World and the Old. I was interned in and deported. I have long wanted to meet you, Herr Poe. '

  Poe fixed Ewers's eye and found something lacking. He was a half-formed imitation, exaggerated to compensate for inner deficiencies.

  'I once considered instituting a lawsuit against you, Herr Ewers,' Poe said, plainly. ' The Student of Prague, a photoplay which you signed, is an arrant plagiarism of my tale "William Wilson". '

  Ewers was slapped by the accusation but recovered in an eyeblink. 'No more, surely, than your "William Wilson" is plagiarism of E. T. A. Hoffmann. '

  'There is no comparison,' Poe said coldly.

  Ewers smiled. Poe was struck by the man's detestability. His manner was as contrived, ungainly and fraudulent as his fictions. It was entirely fitting that he should work in motion pictures. There was a vulgarity about the stuttering, posturing, face-pulling foolery of the kinema that stuck to Ewers like mud.

  'The case of Edgar Poe is under review,' Kafka reminded Ewers, holding up a thick folder of papers.

  'No,' Ewers said, gripping the folder's edge with undead strength. 'As far as you are concerned, the case of Edgar Poe is concluded. Germany has need of him, and Prague will surrender him to me, as representative of Kaiser and court. '

  Kafka's eyes wavered. Poe was unsure but it seemed the clerk was wavering out of concern for him.

  A one-legged man, face hooded, stumped by, a basket slung upon his back like a peasant's pannier, half full of stopped watches.

  'Herr Poe,' Ewers said. 'It has been decided you are just the man for a certain task of great national importance . . . '

  'A tune has been changed, Herr Ewers. I've a distinguished military record in my former country, including study at West Point Academy, but my attempts to volunteer for the armies of the Empires were ungraciously rebuffed. Though I am an internationally recognised authority on the conduct of modern warfare, my many letters of suggestion to Generals von Moltke, von Falkenhayn, Ludendorff and von Hindenburg have gone unacknowledged . . . '

  'In the name of the Kaiser and the Graf von Dracula, I extend the apologies of a nation,' Ewers announced, sticking out his hand as if offering a benediction.

  Kafka's eyes darted between Poe and Ewers. Poe's impression was that the Jew shared his opinion of the German but had more empirical evidence to justify his dislike.

  'What do you wait for?' Ewers snapped at Kafka. 'Herr Poe is an important man. Give him travel papers. We are expected in Berlin tomorrow. '

  Kafka opened his folder and handed over a document.

  'You won't need this any more,' Ewers said, clawing at Poe's sleeve, ripping away his armband. 'From now on, you are as safe in the Empires as if you were a pure-blood German. '

  At a stroke, Poe felt himself transformed again.

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