Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Book Review Club: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

(This is the May 2010 entry for Barrie Summy’s Book Review Club. For the complete list, click the link at the end of this review.)

When "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" was unleashed upon the world, I gave it a raised eyebrow. I had never read the original novel (although I enjoyed the BBC production) so I didn't think I'd appreciate the new spin on the classic characters. The same idea struck me when "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters" followed. I knew even less about that one. I started wondering if there would be a mash-up based on something I did know.

I no longer have to wait. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. As soon as I heard about the book, I knew that I would eventually read it. I know a thing or two about our sixteenth president. I have two degrees to prove it. My mother was aghast ("What have they done?"), my wife incredulous. Me? I was intrigued. Judging by the care and heavy level of detail author Seth Grahame-Smith put into this project, I'm guessing Jane Austen fans appreciate the other books, too.

The basic gist is this: vampires have existed for centuries. Originally from Europe, the discovery of America enabled the persecuted vampires a way out. By 1809, when Lincoln was born, they had established themselves in our country primarily in the South. It doesn't take a doctorate in history to guess why: easy access to the slave population, a food source. Obviously, vampires in the South ally themselves with human Southerners to protect and spread the institution of slavery.

What Grahame-Smith has done is basically created a secret history of Lincoln. For many real events that we know about Lincoln, there is a fictional reason for it. Take his mother. She really did pass away when young Abraham was nine years old. The cause was milk sickness. In the novel, Nancy Lincoln died of vampiric infection (she was given a few drops of vampire blood, enough to sicken her to death but not enough to turn her into a vampire). Thus, he devoted his life to eradicating all bloodsuckers. Hey. I'm not giving anything away here. Grahame-Smith incorporated as much real history as he could, something that I particularly enjoyed.

Now, with a front (and back!) cover as unique as this one, you don't have to guess that Lincoln becomes the best vampire hunter in America. Sure, it may take you a bit to reconcile the stately visage of the demigod Lincoln wielding an axe, but you can do it. You'll even get a fantastic one-liner any action movie star would chew up. When a character looks to Abraham after the future president has killed his first vampire, the character says, "More will come you know." Lincoln's cold response: "Then we'll need more stakes."

As a historian, it was fun to see how Grahame-Smith incorporated real history into his novel. More than once, I smiled at his cleverness. The one thing not done in this imagining is change the course of Lincoln's life. In a pseudo-real introduction, a character named Seth Grahame-Smith is given a package containing Lincoln's journals. The "fictional" Seth is asked to write a new history. Thus, Lincoln still dies at the hands of John Wilkes Boothe. The actor, however, isn't the same (give you zero guesses what he is). What this structure allows is for the real Grahame-Smith to write a historical narrative--complete with quotes (real and fictional)--giving rise to my constant assertion that real history is, when you get down to it, compelling storytelling. I know that Lincoln will be shot in Ford’s Theater but I still feel dread as Booth walks up those stairs.

If there's a flaw in the book, it's the ending. Sure, the last line of the novel explains away the ending and I did smile at it. Somehow, it just didn't seem right. But it didn't detract from a fun and entertaining read. Heck, it made me want to read another biography about the man from Illinois. If non-historians have that kind of reaction and they pick up a real biography of, arguably, our greatest president, I say we give Seth Grahame-Smith a medal.

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pattinase (abbott) said...

It makes me uneasy to see a President used this way, but I'm going to take your word for it.

Charles Gramlich said...

It's irrational but this whole new "pseudogenre" really sets my teeth on edge. This is better than the Pride and Prejudice thing because at least the writer appeared to write it all rather than inserting stuff into an already finished work. Still, I probably won't read it simply because the link with the other stuff leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Paul D Brazill said...

There are Oscar Wilde Mysteries now too which , as Wildean, I find apealling since there really should be no sacred cows. However, I bet the're crap.

Beth Yarnall said...

This is the only one of this new genre that has me curious enough to maybe read it. Thanks for the review.
And just to add to the ridiculousness here are some more titles to look for- Wuthering Bites, Little Women & Werewolves and the one that really put my teeth on edge.... The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim.

Anonymous said...

Now I've seen everything - even Abe Lincoln is getting into the vampire thing. :)

Perplexio said...

Other than Christopher Moore's rather humorous vampire trilogy (Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story, You Suck, and most recently Bite Me) I've never really been able to get into the whole vampire thing and even though I'm a history buff (also with a degree to show for it), I can't quite buy into this one. Maybe it's just my anti-Vampire bias shining through.

Speaking of John Wilkes Booth, have you ever read American Brutus? It's an excellent read on Booth and the Lincoln assassination.

Richard R. said...

I think there may be a new one on the way, Sponge Bob the Vampire Drowner. Apparently the hero sits on the vampires and squeezes his spongy self till they drown and die. Should be a bestseller, considering they way anything with "Vampire" in the title seems to sell.

Barrie said...

It takes a lot of imagination to pull something like this off. The book sounds impressive.

Scott D. Parker said...

Patti - Our president, marble demi-gods that they may be, are ripe for almost anything, even hunting vampires. Heck, I put Truman in an adventure. It's kinda fun.

Charles - I think that fad is almost over, too. I keep waiting for stories where, say, Gatsby is a zombie.

Paul - Oscar Wilde mysteries. Interseting. I like that there aren't sacred cows, too.

Beth - Are these real titles? Yikes.

Kathy - Heh. Yeah, but if Beth's titles are true, there's still more to come.

Perplexio - I don't dig vampires too much, either, at least as a lead story item. As supporting players, I'm okay with them.

Richard - HA! That's good.

Barrie - I agree with your imagination comment. Grahame-Smith weaves real and imaginary history very well. It was enjoyable.