Sunday, September 20, 2015

Book Review - Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, by Seth Grahame-Smith

I have just finished reading the oddly enjoyable Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, by Seth Graham-Smith. It is the first novel of his I have read, although I have certainly heard of his other works.

The novel is written with a biographer's dispassion, summarizing the defining episodes of Mr. Lincoln's life, based on a series of well-repressed journals that Lincoln penned throughout his life, as well as on interviews that the narrator conducted with several unnamed people - who, I suspect, are vampires.

What follows is a nearly seamless blending of American history and dark, gothic fantasy. It is at once a brilliant satire on revisionist history, a wonderful tale of mythological creatures, and a subtle set of jabs at what we think we know about our beloved 16th president. Lincoln is, after all one of the most controversial presidents in our history. He led an attack against what was essentially one half of his own country; he was the first president to be born in poverty, with very little formal education; he was the first president to be successfully assassinated; and in spite of the fact that more books have been written about him than about any other president of this country, he remains today a subject of debate, inspiring authors even today to raise new questions about him, attacking his supposed rational for trying to "preserve the union." There is even a webpage - and I apologize in advance for bringing this up - that questions the existence of Abraham Lincoln:

But, enough about that. What about the vampires?

Lincoln's hatred of vampires began with an event that took place before his very conception: his father, Thomas Lincoln, witnessed his own father, Abraham Lincoln Sr., being brutally murdered by a vampire. Thomas Lincoln tells young Abe of this terrible day, and then Abe watches in horror as Thomas Lincoln suffers at the hands of another vampire who demands redress (Shylock-style) for a loan which Thomas failed to pay back. Abe makes a wooden stake, confronts the vampire, and stabs him through the heart. But Abe's thirst for vengeance is not quenched, and so he sets off on a journey to rid the country of vampires - only to find that this mission is far more difficult than he would ever have imagined. Abe (thus the author refers to Mr. Lincoln throughout the book) eventually finds help, from the most unlikely source: another vampire.

Henry Sturges, vampire and 16th-century Englishman, claims to be the only survivor of the doomed Roanoke Colony. He carefully advises Abe that some vampires prefer to be left alone and to do as little damage to society as possible, while other vampires crave dominance over the human race. "Judge us not equally," he tells Abe; "We may all deserve hell, but some of us deserve it sooner than others." After this life-changing encounter, Abe begins to receive letters from Henry, instructing Abe to hunt down certain vampires who threaten innocent citizens of this country. These letters increase in number, and this crescendo is paralleled by another crescendo, that of slavery spreading and gaining political justification (as with the Dredd Scott Case, which is mentioned briefly).

Eventually the two issues meet, in a revelation that is at once horrifying and strangely logical: the vampires are in league with the southern confederates. Vampires are planning to take over the country, and the southern slaveholders have agreed to help them in return for a few positions of power in the new undead regime (actually, I do not think Grahame-Smith ever gives a name to the supposed new country that the vampires wish to create; perhaps it would just continue to be called the U.S.A., and other people around the world would come to think of "America" as synonymous with "Vampire"). The vampires like the slaveholders, because the partnership gives them first dibs on the flesh of slaves. Thus, it is with the help of super-powerful "vampire soldiers" that the South successfully fends off Lincoln's armies for four blood years.

Now, I can see a problem here. So easily we can come to the conclusion that we might already be seeking: here's the proof that the Confederate States of America was evil. They were allied with vampires! Aha, I knew it! Those damned slaveholders had a deal with the devil, right there, it's finally just black and white. Yes, it's very easy to say that about a lot of things. Maybe it would be better to think of all southerners as people who are bedfellows with vampires. Swap "southerners" with "Jews," and you would more or less have what a certain Austrian said eighty years ago. The book approaches this idea of absolutism, but does not carry it through entirely, and this ambiguity is one of the book's finest qualities. "Judge us not equally," Henry's refrain goes. There are shades of grey in the humans of the story, just as there are shades of grey in the vampires. Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln's rival, eventually comes to support Abe. Jefferson Davis is portrayed as a vile man, but also as a victim of supernatural creatures who give him very few options.

Whatever its messages, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a splendid novel. It is fast-paced, brilliantly researched, and includes many early "daguerreotypes" that show the dark-eyed vampires lurking in the midst of our history. I do not think there is much didactic intent in the novel. The vampires are not models of virtue, nor are they evil incarnate. They are simply higher forms of life (or "un-death"), making attempts here and there to interfere with human society for their own gain. Abe's rashness to kill the vampires gets him in trouble more than once. Toward the end of the novel there is heartbreaking scene. Abe, having just lost his youngest son to a poison administered by a vampiric assassin, admits an apologetic Henry Sturges to his office. Yet anything Henry says will only incense Abe more, reminding Abe of how vampires, whether southern or abolitionist, have taken over his life and turned it into a waking death. Abe grabs his axe and tries to kill Henry, and Henry takes the icon and snaps it in two. When a man has lost so many things that used to define him, what is left? Where does the man begin and his surroundings end? When Abe resolved to spend his life destroying vampires, did his life become a force of destruction, dooming any possibility of peace for the man?

Because that image of destruction, however fantastical, epitomizes Lincoln's plight when he became president. In order to keep his country, he had to attack it. Can this plan of action ever be truly justified? The killing of approximately one million American people, just so that a few more million people could be free? If southern slaveholders were so narrow-minded as to enslave their fellow man, then why did Lincoln want so badly to keep them a part of his own country? Might we have been better off without them? Most of the countries in Europe had already abolished slavery by the 1860s; I'm sure the Confederate States would have freed them eventually, though every day of slavery was another day of godlessness.

I think Grahame-Smith's reason for choosing Lincoln as his novel's vampire hunter (as opposed to, say, Jack Kennedy, or Alexander Hamilton, or Cab Calloway, or Regis Philbin), was to show that resolution is simply a part of life. We have to make decisions sometimes. Lincoln made a great and terrible decision when he chose to wage the Civil War. Grahame-Smith focuses on that decision, enhances and exaggerates it, when he portrays Lincoln as a man who has accepted a double-life. I think that, in a way, Abraham Lincoln was the 19th-century Peter Parker, pushing himself to do more than one man would ever be expected to do, while still trying to lead a normal life. No one will ever know if he did the right thing, but one thing is certain: he will never be forgotten.

Judge us not equally. Because how can we ever be sure who a person really is?