Editor's note: The film version of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter opens in theaters tomorrow. To get you prepared for this exciting event, here is Mark Schelske's review of the novel that inspired the movie...
Seth Grahame-Smith gave me fits of laughter with his Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so I expected to chuckle when reading Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I went to Barnes & Noble on May 6, 2011 (I kept the receipt as a bookmark) to get this book. When I pulled it off the shelf I observed the historical picture of Lincoln with a bloody handprint on his jacket. He held a blood-tipped ax behind his back. The whole ridiculousness of Lincoln smeared with blood and hunting vampires made me snort with glee. In the upper right corner a Los Angeles Times review is quoted:
“An original vampire tale with humor, heart, and bite...a rare find indeed.”
I turned the novel over. The back cover featured Lincoln holding a vampire’s head behind his back. This elicited a smile. I read the Vanity Fair snippet in the left corner and it sealed my purchase:
“Not just the Lincoln biography we’ve all been waiting for. It’s also the funniest, most action-packed, and weirdly well-researched account of the Civil War you’ll probably read in a long time...”
And in sum, I agree with these reviews. The novel is an original vampire tale with a well-researched biography of Lincoln’s life through the Civil War and culminating in our 16th President’s assassination. Yet I failed to laugh, not once. It’s not a “vampire tale with humor,” nor does it read as funny. It’s tragic. How could it not be? Grahame-Smith claims that the most traumatic events in Lincoln’s life were caused by vampires. His fiction demands sympathy for Lincoln, not hilarity.
There are four pictures in the novel which represent some of the worst vampire moments in Lincoln’s life and they can be viewed here:
1) YOUNG ABE STANDS OVER HIS MOTHER’S GRAVE IN AN EARLY 1900’s ENGRAVING TITLED ‘A PLEDGE OF VENGEANCE’.
2) ABE WEEPS AS ANN RUTLEDGE WASTES AWAY IN AN ETCHING FROM TOM FREEMAN’S BOOK ‘LINCOLN’S FIRST LOVE’ (1890).
3) MARY LINCOLN POSES WITH TWO OF THE THREE SONS SHE WOULD LIVE TO BURY - WILLIE (LEFT) AND TAD (RIGHT).
4) JOHN WILKES BOOTH (SEATED) POSES FOR A PORTRAIT WITH CONFEDERATE PRESIDENT JEFFERSON DAVIS IN RICHMOND, CIRCA 1863. IT IS THE ONLY KNOWN PICTURE OF BOOTH IN HIS TRUE VAMPIRE FORM.
Grahame-Smith does a masterful job weaving historical fact with his own fiction. Nancy Hanks Lincoln died in 1818 at Little Pigeon Creek, Indiana when Lincoln was a mere nine years old. In Grahame-Smith’s fantasy, a vampire is the cause of her death, so Lincoln writes in a secret journal, “I hereby resolve to kill every vampire in America.”
At age nineteen Lincoln built his first flatboat to sell a neighbor’s “corn and bacon downriver in Mississippi.” For Grahame-Smith, that’s how he learned the even more insidious reason for slavery at a human auction in New Orleans. In this fantasy, Abe writes, “So long as this country is cursed with slavery, so too will it be cursed with vampires.” At age twenty-two Lincoln built his second, larger flatboat and was hired to ferry goods down the Sangamon River to New Orleans. It got stuck at a little settlement known as New Salem, where Lincoln eventually returned to make his own way in the world. It is also where he met Ann Rutledge. For Grahame-Smith, the tragedy of Lincoln’s mother and the slaves in New Orleans is repeated with Ann. Evidence of Abe and Ann’s actual relationship has been lost to history, so Grahame-Smith has Lincoln weeping at her bedside after she falls victim to a vampire. He even has Lincoln write about his desperation to be with Ann - even if it means her coming to life as a vampire: “I was tempted to the point of madness, but I could not. I could not indulge in the very darkness that had taken her from me. The very evil that had taken my mother.”
Lincoln lived to see the deaths of multiple sons, more tragedies that Grahame-Smith explains with the presence of vampires. Willie, Lincoln’s third son, is killed in a vampire attack at the White House. In the novel Lincoln writes, “He (Willie) has an insatiable appetite for books; a love of solving riddles. If there is a fight, he can be counted on to step in and make the peace. Some are eager to point to the similarities between us, but I do not see us as so very familiar - for Willie has a kinder heart than I, and a quicker mind.” In 1862, Willie Lincoln died, yet for Grahame-Smith it is not because of typhoid fever from drinking contaminated water.
Lincoln’s life ends in 1865 with his assassination by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. What more needs to be said? Grahame-Smith transforms Booth into a vampire. So though Lincoln won the Civil War, his life-long battle with vampires comes to a tragic end. Vampires assassinated Lincoln’s mother, his first love, his beloved son Willie, and then Lincoln himself at Ford’s Theater. Seth Grahame-Smith wrote a tragic story to mirror Lincoln’s tragic real life. Such a biography is not fodder for laughter, given the gut wrenching issues of poverty, slavery, death, and depression. In this unhappy setting, vampires are the perfect evil. I hope Tim Burton’s adaptation does not aim for humor on the big screen. If it does, it will backfire. Some material is not, nor ever will be, funny.
By Mark Schelske