Book Review: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

By Seth Grahame-Smith

Published March 2, 2010

Grand Central Publishing

352 pp.

ISBN 0-446-56308-0

Reviewed May 18, 2010

It’d be hard to find a classic monster more annoyingly reinvented in the last few years than the vampire. Thanks to novel series like “Twilight,” “The Vampire Diaries” and “The Southern Vampire Chronicles” (better known by its TV incarnation “True Blood”) the public perception of vampires has shifted away from the shadowy children of the night into gleaming fashion model types with more concern for snark and sexual tension. The quiet power and authority of Dracula has been supplanted with the brooding of Edward Cullen, and the archetype has suffered as a result, inspiring dread for all the wrong reasons.

Despite the genre’s bad reputation, the announcement of “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” remained intriguing to me. First of all, it was written by “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” author Seth Grahame-Smith, who proved that he is capable of smartly meshing a historical time period with fantasy elements beyond a good title. Additionally, it promised to do something new with the fledgling mash-up literary trend, emulating the biographical styles of authors like David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin for some potentially deeper fiction. It was a title rife with potential – unfortunately, the result shows only about half of that potential was in reach.

“Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is exactly what it promises on the title – a retelling of the life of the sixteenth President of the United States, with the added caveat that the great orator and wartime president was also an accomplished dispatcher of the undead. After losing his mother to a vampire’s power, he cultivates himself into a slayer without peer, hunting vampires with axe and stakes as they move secretly amongst us. As he uncovers proof of their deep influence, Lincoln finds himself carried to the highest office in the land, forced to enter a war to keep the fledgling United States from turning into an exsanguinatory buffet.

The Quirk Classics series (“PPZ” and its spiritual successors) proved that there is an important balance that needs to be struck between the established setting and the mythological construction, and Grahame-Smith once again finds that niche. Vampires hide in plain sight – their dark glasses and parasols the only indicator of their true nature – and have found a ready-for-purchase source of food in the slave markets. They pull the strings of the politics between North and South to keep the institution legal, serving as undead lobbyists who support Southern politicians to the point that vampires are whispered about in the halls of Congress as a political concern. It’s an argument that extends its premise logically, and serves to further justify Lincoln’s political decisions.

But while the book does competently weave vampiric mythology into American history, the method in which it tells its story disappoints. While branding itself as a biography, “ALVH” comes across more frequently as a pulp fiction dime novel, given to some overwrought sentences for suspense’s sake (“Too frightened to warn his father that it was coming. Right above him. Right now”) and moving rather quickly over the political climate Lincoln had to navigate. It’s also willing to indulge in some historical crossover fan fiction, making Edgar Allen Poe an occasional friend of Lincoln and a friend of vampires, who are impressed by his skill in capturing death on the page.

None of these additions is a deal-breaker by itself, but “ALVH’s” meshing of history with fantasy make it seem continually uncertain about what kind of book it wants to be. At times it seems to be going for solid biography as sections of Lincoln’s journal or letters from his vampire-hunting allies are reprinted to give hints as to his motives and mindset, and footnotes allude to political figures or Shakespeare references. To his credit Grahame-Smith does manage to establish Lincoln’s voice in these entries, and the language feels appropriate for the time and the author.

Almost immediately after these sections though, this capital is squandered as “ALVH” segues into traditional suspense, with lines like “These are the last seconds of my life” and “Judge us not equally” cropping up in constant fight scenes. Conversations between Lincoln, his vampire-hunting allies and his political rivals are presented as straight dialogue a biographer would have no way of knowing, and there’s an annoying over-reliance on presenting Lincoln’s dreams, showing plantation manors as houses of torture or a demon staked through the heart in his son’s crib.

(Particular admonishment goes to the book’s prologue, where a fictionalized version of Grahame-Smith is given the diaries of Lincoln by a vampire who wants the story told, and he emphasizes how the quest to write this book nearly destroyed his sanity. It derails the historian’s voice a book should have possessed before it even gets started, and adds nothing to the core narrative.)

These complaints don’t make “ALVH” necessarily a bad book – the fight scenes are competently done and Lincoln’s journals do have their tense moments – but it fails to make the lightning strike in the same way “PPZ” did. It restores some subtlety to vampires but completely removes that subtlety in the rest of its presentation, choosing to indulge itself in purple prose rather than paying serious homage to the books that inspired it. The upcoming film version is likely to be entertaining (despite Tim Burton’s track record on literary adaptations) but one can’t shake the feeling that if done right this idea would have inspired its own miniseries.

It’d be hard to find a classic monster more annoyingly reinvented in the last few years than the vampire. Thanks to novel series like “Twilight,” “The Vampire Diaries” and “The Southern Vampire Chronicles” (better known by its TV incarnation “True Blood”) the public perception of vampires has shifted away from the shadowy children of the night into gleaming fashion model types with more concern for snark and sexual tension. The quiet power and authority of Dracula has been supplanted with the brooding of Edward Cullen, and the archetype has suffered as a result, inspiring dread for all the wrong reasons.

Despite the genre’s bad reputation, the announcement of “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” remained intriguing to me. First of all, it was written by “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” author Seth Grahame-Smith, who proved that he is capable of smartly meshing a historical time period with fantasy elements beyond a good title. Additionally, it promised to do something new with the fledgling mash-up literary trend, emulating the biographical styles of authors like David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin for some potentially deeper fiction. It was a title rife with potential – unfortunately, the result shows only about half of that potential was in reach.

“Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is exactly what it promises on the title – a retelling of the life of the sixteenth President of the United States, with the added caveat that the great orator and wartime president was also an accomplished dispatcher of the undead. After losing his mother to a vampire’s power, he cultivates himself into a slayer without peer, hunting vampires with axe and stakes as they move secretly amongst us. As he uncovers proof of their deep influence, Lincoln finds himself carried to the highest office in the land, forced to enter a war to keep the fledgling United States from turning into an exsanguinatory buffet.

The Quirk Classics series (“PPZ” and its spiritual successors) proved that there is an important balance that needs to be struck between the established setting and the mythological construction, and Grahame-Smith once again finds that niche. Vampires hide in plain sight – their dark glasses and parasols the only indicator of their true nature – and have found a ready-for-purchase source of food in the slave markets. They pull the strings of the politics between North and South to keep the institution legal, serving as undead lobbyists who support Southern politicians to the point that vampires are whispered about in the halls of Congress as a political concern. It’s an argument that extends its premise logically, and serves to further justify Lincoln’s political decisions.

But while the book does competently weave vampiric mythology into American history, the method in which it tells its story disappoints. While branding itself as a biography, “ALVH” comes across more frequently as a pulp fiction dime novel, given to some overwrought sentences for suspense’s sake (“Too frightened to warn his father that it was coming. Right above him. Right now”) and moving rather quickly over the political climate Lincoln had to navigate. It’s also willing to indulge in some historical crossover fan fiction, making Edgar Allen Poe an occasional friend of Lincoln and a friend of vampires, who are impressed by his skill in capturing death on the page.

None of these additions is a deal-breaker by itself, but “ALVH’s” meshing of history with fantasy make it seem continually uncertain about what kind of book it wants to be. At times it seems to be going for solid biography as sections of Lincoln’s journal or letters from his vampire-hunting allies are reprinted to give hints as to his motives and mindset, and footnotes allude to political figures or Shakespeare references. To his credit Grahame-Smith does manage to establish Lincoln’s voice in these entries, and the language feels appropriate for the time and for the author.

On the next page though, this capital is squandered as “ALVH” segues into traditional suspense, with lines like “These are the last seconds of my life” and “Judge us not equally” cropping up in constant fight scenes. Conversations between Lincoln, his vampire-hunting allies and his political rivals are presented as straight dialogue a biographer would have no way of knowing, and there’s an annoying over-reliance on presenting Lincoln’s dreams, showing plantation manors as houses of torture or a demon staked through the heart in his son’s crib.

(Particular admonishment goes to the book’s prologue, where a fictionalized version of Grahame-Smith is given the diaries of Lincoln by a vampire who wants the story told, and he emphasizes how the quest to write this book nearly destroyed his sanity. It derails the historian’s voice a book should have possessed before it even gets started, and adds nothing to the core narrative.)

These complaints don’t make “ALVH” necessarily a bad book – the fight scenes are competently done and Lincoln’s journals do have their tense moments – but it fails to make the lightning strike in the same way “PPZ” did. It does well in restoring some subtlety to vampires but completely removes that subtlety in the rest of its presentation, choosing to indulge itself in purple prose rather than paying serious homage to the books that inspired it. I’m optimistic that the upcoming film version will be entertaining (despite Tim Burton’s track record on literary adaptations) but one can’t shake the feeling that if played smarter it could have inspired its own miniseries.

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