The film Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter comes out today, so I decided to read this book and see for myself what this is all about. I have not read Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so I was not quite sure what to expect from this one. I wasn't sure exactly how seriously the book was going to take itself, or just how crazy the vampire references would get. What I found, I think, is a healthy mix between both the fantastical horror, and the real history behind one of this country's greatest presidents.
The Situation: Young Abraham Lincoln lives a fairly hard but content existence with his mother and father, and sister Sarah. The hard parts of his life mostly result from his father's inability to keep the family settled in one place. Also, the elder Mr. Lincoln his constantly and consistently in debt. Abraham's father is also a hard man who works the young future president to the point of exhaustion. But Abraham finds comfort in both his mother and often times his sister. We all know that he grows up to become the President of the United States during one of the most crucial points in US history. And while most biographies and history books do show that his road to the White House was not an easy one, Grahame-Smith's book supposes that it was even harder than we have been lead to believe.
The Problem: Vampires do exist and have a very real presence in the America that Abraham lives in. He learns of the existence of them from his father during one of his many drunken nights. And not only do they exist, but they are responsible for the death of Abraham's grandfather, and also, his mother. After resolving to not be helpless and useless as his father had been while vampires killed both his grandfather and mother, Abraham starts to train with extreme vigor. He would grow up to be tall, and because of his resolve, he is also incredibly strong and handy with an axe. But ridding America of every vampire is not a simple case of hunting them all down and throwing an axe into their heads. Abraham learns that there are some vampires that are on his side, that they can be incredibly difficult to subdue, as well as difficult to identify. But most importantly to American history, they play a crucial role in the South's insistence on keeping the peculiar institution of slavery. In other words, the task of vampire slaying goes well beyond Abraham Lincoln's personal vendetta; and his successes and failures, in both the political and personal, will have a much greater effect on an entire nation.
Genre, Theme, History: This book has been referred to as a mash-up, horror fiction, mock biography, comic novel, historical fiction, comic thriller, etc. I will go ahead and say that it is incredibly bloody...but really I'm not sure why I was surprised, I mean, it's in the name. Graham-Smith takes real events in history and simply (or maybe not so simply) adds vampires. The premise of the book, which is written in an epistolary fashion, is that a struggling writer is given the secret diary of the former president, which includes the accounts of Lincoln's hunting excursions as well as personal agonies throughout his life. And unlike many recent books about vampires, mostly all of the vampires that Lincoln encounters are pure evil. They are not romanticized. They are not pretty or charming or enchanting in any way. If Lincoln were alive today and were to pick a "team" for Twilight, he would be on Team Van Helsing.
The one thing I don't think people will expect when reading this book - and again, I don't know why we would be surprised - is the theme of slavery and just how much of a presence it has in this story. This is what makes it hard for me to see this novel as comical, although I do understood where people get that. The novel makes it very clear that (spoiler alert!) the vampires are on the side of the South because slaveholders have been providing them slaves to feed on since they made their way over to this country from Europe. Yeah, it makes this story horrifying in a whole new way.
The Verdict: Grahame-Smith does a very good job of bringing the vampires into the history without making it seem too crazy or too far out there. Sure, there are moments that a serious suspension of disbelief is necessary; however, I think the author pulls it off bed well. There are also moments where I did wish the vampire element would disappear just so I could read the story without some link to the paranormal in there, but those moments were fairly rare. And because I myself am on Team Van Helsing, I do appreciate not having to read about vampires that are simply glorified and over-sexed.
Favorite Moment: When the fairly reserved and stoic Abraham falls in love for the first time and fawns so much over his love interest that his vampire hunting partner would rather put the axe into his skull.
Favorite Character: Edgar Allan Poe. Yep, he's in this. And he is just as weird as we would think he would be. He makes a good contrast to Abraham as he is this short, sickly, pale guy who has a different kind of fascination with vampires that borders on admiration.
Recommended Reading: Of course I have to recommend Bram Stoker's Dracula. To really enjoy something like this you have to go to what is arguably the best vampire story every told. Although, reading some of Edgar Allan Poe's stuff couldn't hurt either.