Vampires: they’re everywhere. Ever since Stephenie Meyer’s atrocious Twilight Saga made its appearance on bookstore shelves, more and more writers have been hopping aboard the vampire train and pretty much flooded the shelves with new takes and variations on this blood-sucking (or soul-sucking, in some cultures) creature of the night. In many cases, these new takes aren’t any better than Meyer’s attempt at creating a new vampire mythology, at which the Twilight Saga fails spectacularly. Most of these new attempts seem to focus on making the vampire a mysterious, attractive creature, quite irresistible to the hordes of hormonal teenagers who are the inevitable audience of these books.
As a result, it’s been incredibly difficult for readers such as myself, who like vampire fiction but are extremely reluctant to go wading into the toxic pool that Meyer’s books have made the genre into. Thankfully, though, there have been a handful of writers who have successfully managed to take back a small corner of the genre for those of us who like our vampires more monstrous than romantic. The most notable of these authors has to be Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, whose spectacular novel Let the Right One In chilled me all the way down to my toes when I first read it – a feat not even the excellent Swedish movie (not the watered-down American remake) managed to do so totally and so completely. That novel restored my faith in all things vampire, and I’ve been scoping the shelves out with a bit more confidence.
It was partly due to this renewed faith in the genre that I decided to pick up Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith. I’d read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies before, and though I found it amusing in its own way, I didn’t find it especially worthy of notice aside from the fact that it made reading Pride and Prejudice a mite more amusing to read. But Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was just a pastiche of Austen and zombie apocalypse literature. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, on the other hand, struck me as being something more like alternate history with a supernatural twist, created by reimagining Lincoln as a vampire hunter, and how that might have played into what is known of him today. This sounded particularly intriguing, so I gave it a shot, despite not really being all that interested in Lincoln to begin with.
The result is an attempt by Grahame-Smith to create a biography, of sorts, using material from a set of secret diaries that Lincoln supposedly wrote over the course of his lifetime. In those diaries, Lincoln recorded his life as a vampire hunter and his struggle against all vampire-kind in the United States – one which was deeply connected to not just Lincoln’s personal vendetta against them, but the greatest struggle of his time: the Civil War.
Before I proceed, I would just like to say that I have some difficulty discussing certain aspects of this novel; in particular, I cannot judge for certain which aspects of it are actually fact, or fiction. As I mentioned earlier, I am just not that interested in Lincoln. He is an important figure, to be sure, but I’ve always been more fascinated by the Civil War itself. While I do not doubt that many key decisions were made in the high political circles where Lincoln, as President, was most powerful, I’ve always been more drawn to the civilians caught up in the war, as well as the common soldiery.
As a result, I can only say for certain that anything involving vampires cannot have happened, or that certain events were manipulated in order to better make the vampires fit into the story. In this, however, Grahame-Smith does a pretty good job of making sure everything fits together. It all appears to have been seamlessly done, so that while I know vampires do not really exist and certainly had nothing to do with the Civil War, Grahame-Smith seems to know how to ensure that everything remains within the realm of plausibility. For the greater part of the book, Grahame-Smith strikes a pretty good balance between fact and fiction, maintaining that balance pretty handily. It’s only towards the end that things went downhill, beginning the account of Lincoln’s assassination. The idea of John Wilkes Booth being a vampire was, I felt, just a bit much. Never once does his identity as a vampire become crucial to his ability to assassinate Lincoln: all it does is provide an explanation as to why he does so, which, in my opinion, is a pretty flimsy reason. Booth could have wanted Lincoln dead for a variety of reasons; he didn’t need to be a vampire in order to give him that excuse.
Another thing I found rather ridiculous was the fact that Lincoln was actually made into a vampire by Henry Sturges – the very same Henry at the beginning of the book, who supposedly gives Grahame-Smith the journals upon which the “biography” is based. This is something I find rather silly, since in much of the last third of the book Lincoln constantly mentions that he wants to give up hunting vampires; in fact, he’s already pretty much retired from vampire-hunting, focusing instead on his family and later on his political career. Lincoln’s disdain of vampires is only rarely overcome, and though Henry constantly offers to bring Lincoln’s loved ones back to life by turning them into vampires, Lincoln always refuses. In light of this, I find it rather impossible for Lincoln to want to come back to life as a vampire. Even if Henry hadn’t exactly given him a choice, I think Lincoln would have killed himself a second time. He certainly wouldn’t have lasted long enough to see Martin Luther King deliver his speech in Washington D.C., that’s for sure. And although it might be argued that Henry would have given Lincoln a reason to keep on living in undeath, I sincerely doubt Lincoln would have made it as far as the sixties. This conclusion stands in such direct contrast to everything else that’s gone before in the novel, it’s almost painfully jarring to read it. Sure, there’s something awesome about the idea of Lincoln being around to listen to Martin Luther King give his speech, but it loses much of its luster when the reader knows it’s not exactly plausible.
Something else that bothers me about the book are the supposedly “historical photographs” of Lincoln as a vampire hunter. I understand, of course, why they were included: photographs are invaluable inclusions in biographies and autobiographies. They emphasize the “reality” of the events in the subject or subjects’ life, succinctly encapsulating a moment that would otherwise take a page or two of text. Used properly, photographs can add much to a biography in a way that pure text cannot.
Unfortunately, the images inserted into the novel aren’t exactly of the sort that add anything to the story. They are photoshopped, of course, and to be fair the photoshopping seems to have been done pretty well. However, they don’t really add much to the story already being told, and could have been eliminated from the text entirely without making the book less readable. I suppose they were included to make the book feel even closer to an “authentic” biography, but I think it’s already clear that this isn’t a biography, but a novel, and so the photographs could have been easily eliminated without sacrificing a single aspect of the story itself.
Despite those flaws, however, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a pretty enjoyable read. Lincoln is portrayed as a sympathetic and very human character; every time he loses somebody in his life to the vampires, I truly felt quite sorry for him, and genuinely hoped he’d achieve his goal to eliminate all the vampires he could. And even when he got older and decided he wanted to stop hunting in favor of being happy with his family, I agreed right along with his decision. By that point I was rather glad that he stopped, because it felt as if his vendetta against vampires hadn’t allowed him to live much of a life, to seek happiness. I knew, of course, that he’d never truly have peace, but I was quite satisfied to see him attempt to build it for himself. The supporting characters are equally intriguing – especially Henry Sturges. Of all the supporting characters he is the one that the reader encounters most often, and is also the most important: he’s a vampire who teaches the young Lincoln how to be a better vampire hunter, and later on paves his way to the presidency. His relationship with Lincoln is complicated at the best of times, but this is what makes Henry the most interesting supporting character in the entire novel.
Overall, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is an enjoyable read. The characters, especially Lincoln himself, are engaging and sympathetic, and are capable of holding the reader’s interest throughout the book, whether or not they’re familiar with Lincoln’s actual history. However, some might find the pictures scattered throughout the book unnecessary, but since they don’t really add much to the story, skipping right over them doesn’t affect the story itself. The ending, however, is far more problematic, and might be a deal-breaker for some readers who were hoping for something a bit more logical.