By J. Keith Haney
Grahame-Smith, Seth. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Grand Central Publishing (March 2010). $14.95 USD. 336pp. ISBN 978-0-446-56308-6.
Of all the 19th-century politicians and presidents to dominate American politics, no one stands taller (in more than just the physical sense) than Abraham Lincoln. His successful prosecution of the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation (which, while it only applied to those states still in rebellion, laid the later groundwork of the 13th and 14th Amendments, which destroyed the institution of slavery) have elevated him to an exalted position equal to that of the country’s Founding Fathers (bringing to mind the honorific of Kievan princess and regent, St. Olga, “Equal-To-The-Apostles”) in both historical impact and popular imagination. His life and times were the subject of thousands of books and biographies over the 20th century, filling in details that the myth either downplayed or left unaddressed. When I first saw this book, it struck me as being slightly ridiculous. Still, the image of Lincoln in one of his familiar poses, with an ax behind his back and bloody palm prints on his coat and the walls, was darkly amusing (the back image of said cover with the severed head made for a nice punchline). It did what a good cover should do: make me take a closer look. It would have to wait until I checked it out from my local library some weeks later, but I am so glad that I did.
The conceit of the book (a concept that dates back to, at least, William Hope Hodgson’s “House on the Borderland”) is that Grahame-Smith actually discovered the legendary diary of Abraham Lincoln, thanks to the intervention of a vampire known as ‘Henry’. Actually, it is a collection of several journals spread out over the several decades of his life from age 12 to the day of his assassination, detailing his life-long struggle against vampires. It is a quest that has cost him plenty on a personal level, but, like all good scholars in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, he is compelled to follow the path to its conclusion. We never hear about how his struggle turns out, but that’s far from important. The real star of the show is Abe Lincoln, after all, and fifteen pages is more than enough for a warm-up act.
The thing that impressed me about this book was how true to the historical facts Lincoln’s life was portrayed. Several details of his life – his mother’s death at an early age, the estrangement from his father, his early friendships – are tweaked to include vampires in the mix. There are certain gaps in the historical record, such as when he shipped goods down the Mississippi and his time as a circuit lawyer in Illinois, that are used to incorporate hunts and other odd events, such as a pair of meetings with Edgar Allan Poe (whose “Premature Burial” is quoted at the beginning). Henry also plays a part, meeting Lincoln as a young man and mentoring him as to the truth of vampires. The vampires were the greatest proponents of slavery, apparently, given them a herd to feed from with impunity as well as an exploitable workforce. Henry’s explanation of the traditional vampiric weaknesses are thoughtful (no sunlight for the first century; holy symbols mean absolutely nothing) as is what happens to most vampires who make it to three hundred years or older (suicide is a frequent option). Lincoln is appalled to even be thinking about working with Henry when he proposes sending Abe targets. But, as is said several times throughout the text, he quiets his conscience with Henry’s thought of “some of us deserve it sooner than others.”
Lincoln’s own personality is faithfully represented here, coming across as determined, likeable, unshakably loyal to friends and family, and racked with black episodes of guilt and melancholy. Sadly, this last tendency became a more frequent occurrence throughout the latter part of his life, from his stormy engagement with Mary Todd (which nearly drove him to suicide) to the death of his young son, Willy. Another documented occurrence of Lincoln’s life was his prophetic dreams regarding his own death. These are used to great effect throughout the text, especially the final one with him looking at his own casket and asking the guard who lies within it (immortalized by Gore Vidal in “Lincoln”). Another lovely addition to the text is the retouched pictures and photos which take even the most iconic pictures of the period and give them a vampire quotient.
I do have a few historical gripes with the text that I’d like to point out. First, little to nothing is mentioned about Lincoln’s relationship to his oldest son, Robert, which had many uncomfortable similarities to his relationship to his own father. Vampires didn’t have to be involved, but some exploration of what passed between them would have been nice (as would have been some mention of Lincoln’s getting Robert an appointment to Captain as part of General Grant’s staff). Second, I absolutely loathe the brief depiction of Jefferson Davis as an eager collaborator with the Confederacy before it even became official. By the account of his own wife, Verena, he spoke of his elevation to the Confederate presidency as though it were a sentence of death. Davis commuted every death sentence of his troops that ever crossed his desk, saying, “The poorest use of a soldier was to shoot him.” Neither of these tendencies squares with the absolute relish for the coming slaughter that Davis is depicted with here. It’s a characterization more in tune with Snidely Whiplash. Finally, John Wilkes Booth as a vampire? Seriously?! Not only does this neglect the psychological portrait of a man who was eerily similar to his target, but it flies in the face of the plot’s own logic. Remember, vampires going out in the sun during their first century is about as smart as taking a bath in gasoline before getting next to a campfire. Booth was actually at Lincoln’s second inauguration and boasted about how it was a wonderful opportunity to shoot the president “if I had wished.” It’s even more galling, considering that Grahame-Smith managed to get the conspiracy that Booth headed up right on the historical details. All that being said, I also realize that Grahame-Smith is writing a novel, not a documentary, so I can let that go.
The fact is this novel is truly about Abraham Lincoln, period. The vampires add a welcome and exciting element of fantasy, but, as Grahame-Smith notes in his acknowledgements, our 16th President led a life so extraordinary that it hardly needed that sort of embellishment. In much the same way that Max Allan Collins writes his Nathan Heller detective novels, Grahame-Smith marbles the history with the action sequences to make the history tastier. If this inspires a bunch of vampire fanatics to look into Abraham Lincoln’s life beyond the platitudes, then it was worth the writing involved.
You can purchase Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter from Amazon.com.