Monday, April 4, 2011

Some People Are Too Interesting to Kill: A Review of Seth Grahame-Smith's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Synopsis: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is, well, about Abraham Lincoln hunting vampires. It's the brainchild of Seth Grahame-Smith, the man who brought the world Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It follows the life of Abraham Lincoln from his birth to his assassination, except that there are vampires involved. Lots of them.

Review: I really didn't expect to like this novel. In addition to my silly personal beef with Abe Lincoln, I really don't like historical fiction, whether it be books or films. As someone with a BA in History, I tend to look down on the genre as a whole because I see blatant historical inaccuracies, misuse of primary sources (if they aren't ignored altogether), and wooden characters set in front of a historical backdrop that is, at best, a parody of what actually occurred. So, even though I was looking forward to reading this book, I wasn't expecting anything great.

I loved it. After a somewhat slow beginning, the book picked up and ran, taking me on a wonderful--but highly re-imagined--romp through the 1800s. Grahame-Smith manages to make both Abraham Lincoln and vampires ridiculously awesome and he brings a fun new twist to the Civil War--and American history in general.

After the death of Lincoln's beloved mother at the hands of a vampire, young Abe vows to hunt and kill every vampire in America. This is a pretty tall order for someone so young and untrained in the art of war, but Lincoln reads and studies on his own in order to prepare himself to kill the vampire that killed his mother and any other creature of the night that crosses his path. His first kill goes well but his next one? Let's just say that it could have been better.

Enter Henry, a mysterious figure who saves Lincoln's life. It is soon revealed that Henry is himself a vampire but as he nurses Abe back to health, the two form a tentative friendship. Henry tells him everything he needs to know about hunting and killing vampires. He also tells Lincoln something else: that he has a special destiny. From there the book follows Lincoln as he kills vampires, falls in love, enters politics, and, eventually, wins the presidency.

I was surprised at how well the book really did follow his life. I don't consider myself an expert on Lincoln, but being forced to read four books about him at least gave me enough background knowledge to know that much of what happened in the book is based off of real events--minus the vampires, of course. Most of the characters in this book were real people; it is only the details of the situations they were in that has been changed.

For example, Edgar Allan Poe makes an appearance in the book. He was a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln was an admirer of his literature. The two, however, probably never met and they certainly did not have a close friendship like they do in the book. Ann Rutledge, who has often been rumored to have been Lincoln's first love, although it has never been definitively proved, plays a major role towards the middle of the book but the vampire-y details of her story are obviously not real. Similarly, William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State, is a major character in the narrative of both this book and of Lincoln's life. (In fact, he's always been my favorite member of Lincoln's cabinet, although I really can't explain why.) He definitely was not, however, a vampire hunter, although this bit of characterization in the book made me appreciate him even more than I already did.

William H. Seward was a B.A.M.F.

Vampires are weaved into the story entirely. They are, in fact, the real reason behind and the true enemy during the Civil War. Without giving the reasons why away, I will say that Grahame-Smith does a pretty good job of folding the vampire mythos into the events of the Civil War and of Lincoln's life. While I'm not really a fan of vampires, I felt that the way they were portrayed in this novel was brilliant. They are not all attractive, they are not all evil, and they definitely do not sparkle. They are also violent psychopaths, leading to some gruesome and graphic, but really amazing, scenes. There are parts of this book that are not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach.

The character who I think rises above the rest in this novel is the vampire Henry. From the moment he first entered the story, I was immediately drawn to him as a character. I wanted to know more about him. Why did he save Lincoln? Why is he trying to help him kill vampires? And why is he so damn awesome? One of the coolest things about Henry's story is the use Grahame-Smith makes of the Roanoke Colony mystery. His relationship with Lincoln is intriguing as well. It's really his personality and the way he speaks, however, that made him my favorite character.

One of the things I loved most about this book was the way it resembled an actual biography of Lincoln. The idea behind the novel is that the author was given Lincoln's secret vampire-hunting journals and was asked to tell the world the truth about him. Much of the novel is told through quotes from this journal, giving it the feel of a work of non-fiction that is relying heavily on primary source material. Grahame-Smith also uses quotes from some of Lincoln's speeches (such as the Gettysburg address and his second inaugural address), as well as things that the president is purported to have said (such as the Lincoln family legend that when Abe first met his future wife, Mary Todd, he told her that he wanted to "dance with [her] in the worst way").

There are also real photos of Lincoln in the book, all of them Photoshopped in order to fit in with the story. I think my favorite is the doctored version of the famous photo of Lincoln and McClellan that was taken shortly before Lincoln fired him, giving command of the Union army to Grant. The only change made to the photo (at least that I can tell) is the addition of an ax, which, the author explains, Lincoln brought along with him just in case the inept McClellan turned out to be a vampire instead of just a piss-poor general.

In another show of Grahame-Smith's genius, shortly after I began reading the novel I got the feeling that I had seen it somewhere before. It wasn't until about the fourth chapter that I realized why that was:

This is a page from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
This is a page from Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals.

Grahame-Smith adopted a similar format for his book as Doris Kearns Goodwin had in her book on the political genius of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals. It was one of the four books that I had to read for my senior seminar class and it was actually amazing to me that I even picked up on that small detail.

The book does have some faults, of course. There are a few instances of wrong information (e.g., at one point Grahame-Smith inexplicably states that Lincoln's birthday was February 9th even though he had earlier mentioned the correct date of February 12th) and I felt that sometimes the quotes from Lincoln's supposed journal were too liberally applied, but things like that can be overlooked when a story is this good.

And it really is good. Frequently funny, as well. One of Lincoln's journal entries about his time serving in the Illinois militiamen during a conflict with some Native American's reads:
My men have suffered greatly (from boredom), much blood has been shed (by mosquitoes), and I have swung my ax mightily (chopping firewood). Surely we have earned our place in the annals of history--for never has there been so little war in a war (p. 145).
Lincoln's friendship with Jack Armstrong provides some very funny moments (especially the scene where they are hunting a vampire while Abe is suffering from love sickness) and many of the scenes with Lincoln's children are poignantly funny. All in all, Grahame-Smith does an excellent job of bringing to life this fictional version of Abraham Lincoln. He makes him not only likable, but also pretty freaking hardcore as well.

A quick note about the ending: Without giving away the very last chapter of the book, I wanted to say that there are probably some people who won't like it, but I actually really did. I felt that one of the great things about it was that it had been hinted at throughout the book so it wasn't really a surprise to me when it happened. It's like in a science fiction film where the day is saved by something implausible but the audience goes with it because that implausibility had been introduced at the beginning of the movie. It doesn't work if you don't talk about it early on, but if you do the audience will pretty much accept it. That's what the last chapter of this book was like for me.

There is so much more I could say about this book but most of it would probably be boring because it all has to do with the way Grahame-Smith intertwined fact and fiction. I was really amazed at how well he did it; even if the story itself was implausible, he made me want it to be real and he twisted fact just enough that for a moment you could almost imagine that it was.

I'm giving Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter five out of five stars. I borrowed this book from the library but I've decided that the next time I can afford to buy a few books that this is going to be on the top of the pile. It's that good.


PS: The video below is a slideshow of Abe Lincoln set to Aaron Copland's "A Lincoln Portrait". It's a really beautiful piece of music that is accompanied by some of Lincoln's most famous utterances. I've actually performed this piece before and the narration for that concert was provided by a retired military official who had a really powerful voice. This isn't that recording, but it's definitely worth taking a listen to.


  1. wow, Lincoln must be rolling in his grave right now. :]

  2. I'd like to think that he's rolling with laughter, though. :)

  3. I quite enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies despite knowing the original very very well. I'd seen a whole load of wannabes published and have been wary of them but this sounds quite good.

    There's quite a few historical fiction authors over in Europe that do a fantastic job of the research before they start writing. Yes they have to make bits up but the background is generally accurate. I've learned so much from this genre too though it triggers a stupid amount of time-wastage online reading up on some of the facts!

  4. I actually haven't read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, although I do own it. I love Austen's novel and I love zombies, so it's pretty much a match made in heaven.

    There are so many authors who do historical fiction well, I just can't seem to really get into the genre. It's partly because of the fact that I've disliked many of the books I've read by the authors who don't do it well and it's partly because I'm a nerd who prefers reading historical non-fiction. :)

    In my mind, reading up on history is never a waste of time. But, then again, I'm a little biased.

  5. You seem to be just a little biased about everything :] Ah well, sa la vie.

  6. Hahaha! I think "opinionated" is a better word than "biased"., "biased" is probably a really good word.

    We're all biased in our own way and that's fine. We should admit our biases and be willing to examine them from time to time. :)