10 Impressive Uses of Borrowed Characters in Literature


Kim Newman, whose latest book, Johnny Alucard, is out now, tells us: “In the Anno Dracula series, I’ve made use not only of characters and situations appropriated from Bram Stoker’s novel but a host of other preexisting fictional folk to populate the next-door-but-one world where Dracula defeated Van Helsing and became a dominant power in the 19th and 20th centuries. I didn’t invent this approach – in the wholesale borrowing of other authors’ creations, I was mostly inspired by Philip José Farmer’s interlocked series of books and stories which did something similar. Here are my favorite ten novels built around other novels.”

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys (1966)

The backstory of Mrs. Rochester, the madwoman in the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, is the subject of this slender, exotic, pointed story, which involves voodoo in the Caribbean. Wide Sargasso Sea is not just an attempt to fill in a blank, but engages in a debate with the assumptions of the original book. I think this kind of approach is very fruitful. Rhys plainly admires Jane Eyre, but wants to make us think about the marginalized monstrous woman and wonder if the passionate, bipolar Antoinette is not as admirable and victimized as the meek yet determined Jane. It’s not a simple reverse view but a complicated, flavorful-in-itself engagement with what little we are told about Mrs Rochester in the original.

A Study in Terror, Ellery Queen (aka Paul W. Fairman) (1966)

I first read this under the title Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper without knowing that it was originally published as that most despised of literary products: a movie novelization. Donald and Derek Ford crafted a smart, clever script for a film that pitted Doyle’s detective against the real-life uncaught killer Jack the Ripper, and Fairman – writing under the house pen name Ellery Queen – complicated things by adding a contemporary wraparound in which Inspector Queen and his sleuth son Ellery, who had featured in their own series of books, find a Watson manuscript covering the events of the film. In a masterstroke, the Queens realize that Holmes let Watson write up only half the mystery and deduce a solution that goes beyond the ending of the film.

Colonel Sun, Robert Markham (aka Kingsley Amis) (1968)

Thanks to the movies, James Bond was a franchise by the time Ian Fleming died. Over the years, the estate has licensed a series of authors to deliver new Bond novels to keep the secret agent in business. First up was Fleming’s devoted fan Kingsley Amis, who dashed off a tough, smart little book which certainly reads better than Fleming’s later, odder novels and tries – in the way the recent Bond films have – to get a little under the skin of the hero, and to explore the perhaps-seamier, dysfunctional aspect of his lifestyle, notably the masochistic streak that carries Bond through so many torture scenes.

Royal Flash, George Macdonald Fraser (1970)

Fraser wrote a whole series based on the conceit that Harry Flashman, the odious bully from Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays, grew up to be a sham hero of the British Empire and, after a long and disgraceful life, set the record straight with admirably candid memoirs of his involvements with major events like the Indian Mutiny, Custer’s Last Stand and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Royal Flash, second of the series (admirably filmed by Richard Lester) is set during the Revolutions of 1848 and has another layer of literary reference in that it parodies/demolishes Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda.

Tarzan Alive!, Philip José Farmer (1972)

“A definitive biography of Lord Greystoke,” this examines the whole series of Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs and tries to piece together a ‘truth’ behind them – rationalizing continuity slips, eliminating the more unbelievable elements while suggesting credible alternatives, and picking out a complicated series of family relationships that connect Tarzan with Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage (a less-remembered character Farmer also took as a biographical subject), Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, Wolf Larsen and dozens of others. It’s a bizarrely convincing book, complete with a lengthy entry from Burke’s Peerage – and was a bigger influence on me than the Burroughs pulps it builds on.

Morlock Night, KW Jeter (1979)

H.G. Wells has inspired many sequels — mostly to The Time Machine (Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships is excellent) and The War of the Worlds (Howard Waldrop’s story “Night of the Cooters” is brilliant), and once to both (Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine); arguably, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is a sequel to Kipps. Jeter’s underrated novel picks up the threads of The Time Machine and has the “morlock generals” – the clever monsters behind the scenes in Wells’ novel – use the time machine to return to a richly imagined Victorian London, where they clash with the hero who always rises in England’s hour of greatest need.

Usher’s Passing, Robert McCammon (1984)

This 1980s gothic novel assumes that the Usher family, as chronicled by Edgar Allan Poe in The Fall of the House of Usher, has survived the collapse of its family mansion and persisted to the present day as an enormously powerful business concern, specializing in armaments and nurturing many nasty secrets, including predilections to incest, insanity, and cannibalism. McCammon successfully looks at the 1980s through the fractured mirror of Poe’s vision.

Mary Reilly, Valerie Martin (1990)

The story of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as seen from below-stairs, by an Irish maid who has her own demons. Stevenson’s short book is oddly free of female characters (most of the film versions add them in), and Martin picks up on the traditional invisibility of servants to fit in Mary. An authorial touch of brilliance is the assumption that we all know the original story and are aware of what’s really going on in the seeming triangle between Mary, Jekyll and Hyde, though it’s constantly just beyond the viewpoint character’s comprehension. Steven Frears’ film, though critically lambasted, is also worthwhile.

Phantom, Susan Kay (1990)

In Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, we get only the briefest mention of the strange career the skull-faced Erik had before taking up residence under the Paris Opera. Kay wrote a full-on, epic-length historical novel that takes the malformed prodigy through time as a labyrinth builder in Persia and details the construction of the Opera House during a very busy and traumatic period in the city’s history. At the heart of the book is another reassessment of a character who has been too easily stereotyped as a freak or a doomed romantic – assessing him as a man and a monster.

Mister Creecher, Chris Priestley (2010)

The rise of the literary mash-up novel has overpopulated this section of the bookshop with too much cynical tosh – if I’m at all responsible for inspiring this, I’m sorry. But here’s a genuinely outstanding book, published as a young adult novel, which takes the Monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein into the London rookeries of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, teaming the hulking, articulate, vengeful brute with an urchin character from Dickens (ah, but which one?). It delves into the literary and social underpinnings of both key texts — with appearances by Mary and her crowd — and makes some very pointed observations about how real monsters are created.