As previously stated during my book review of the Zombie Killer’s Handbook by Jeff Kinley, I am a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, such as the sub-horror-genre of a zombie apocalypse. The nature of this fascination deserves further study in of itself, but I will save that episode of meta-cognition for another post. Needless to say, I knew at some point I would be drawn to read Seth Grahame-Smith’s recent addition to this trend–Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter–which was written in 2010, the same year Kinley’s book came out.
Now, this is more of a historical fiction with elements of horror intertwined (beware, it does contain a good amount of violence), but it is an account of how America narrowly escaped a post-apocalyptic future dominated by vampire hoards, so it clearly contains worthy components of the genre in which I am speaking.
The production of this novel was also guided by a second type of trend: historical criticism. Also known as ‘higher’ criticism, historical criticism attempts to reconstruct the actual events of a historical event or text, often toppling the scaffolding of the originally accepted story with some sort of major change or newly discovered information. This was originally reserved for the subject matter of scholarly debate, such as whether Moses was truly the author of the entire Pentateuch. Now, however, entertainment writers have drawn on this approach to bring about drastic new twists to traditional stories, allowing them to rehash and retell some well-known classics.
This is what Jon Scieska did when he wrote The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, which is, of course, a rewrite of The Three Little Pigs. Dan Brown also caused a commotion with his fiction The Da Vinci Code when his main characters purported that there was scandalous new information about Jesus’ life on earth. Producers of the musical Wicked turned the tables on who was good and who was evil from the original Wizard of Oz. In all these areas of entertainment, historical criticism has brought about very popular and well-received stories. This style presents an element of unearthing a mystery, whereby the premise begins by saying, “You have heard it said thus, but here is how it really happened.”
This is all well and good until it starts re-writing history, casting doubt on actual events, and confusing people to what actually happened. One would normally expect a reader to know the difference between fact and fiction, but this is no longer a given due to the embarrassing state of public education. So all I ask is for readers to be careful about what they believe when reading historical criticism in both fiction and non-fiction literature.
For Seth Grahame-Smith, I will not hold it against him–for his purpose was to make use of this strategy in order to create an intriguing plot, and to this purpose he succeeded. He clearly took great pains to mesh enough facts and quotations from the true history of Abraham Lincoln with the mechanisms of his fictitious vampiric notion to make the story flow as a unified whole. Since he wanted to make the alleged ‘history’ as believable as possible, he took what facts he knew and incorporated them into the narrative, though clearly embellishing when necessary. The end result was an intriguing story that drew me back to the couch so I could keep on reading, time and time again.
The obvious question nagging those who respect the historical Abraham Lincoln is whether this sort of book does justice to his memory. While keeping true to his modesty, Grahame-Smith does not make Lincoln to be the straightforward moralist we fondly remember him as. That is, he is not as patient or honest as the history books, or Spielberg’s excellent film Lincoln, depict. Instead, Grahame-Smith assumes the role of a writer who is given the lost journals belonging to the 16th president, revealing his second life as a vengeful vampire hunter. He is every bit as witty and every ounce the abolitionist we could hope for however, and the travesties of slavery are clearly laid out, and more so.
When evaluating a book, I have a tendency to give authors the benefit of the doubt, usually relating to creative license and/or personal preference. So if someone is practically re-writing the story of a beloved president, I don’t so much have a problem with it so long as he doesn’t run contrary to the obvious elements of the person’s life, beliefs, and accomplishments. I believe Grahame-Smith intentionally fit that bill, not only out of respect for Lincoln, but out of respect for his integrity, and of what he accomplished.
It is true, however, that at the same time readers must be vigilant to maintain a distinction between the historical from the fictional with novels like these. Just as I would urge one to be vigilant against the fictional elements maintained in the Da Vinci Code (i.e.: that there are ‘extra-biblical’ resources that give an account of a secret side to Jesus’ life that the church has covered up, contrary to overwhelming historical evidence) . To actually believe the wild, fanciful claims in either story is the very antithesis to logical reasoning. But I have nothing against authors who use elements of the fantastic in order to create an interesting story, while at the same time still supporting a deeper truth. Grahame-Smith maintained Lincoln’s abhorrence to slavery, and effectively preaches to the choir for those reading the story.
I read Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter on my Kindle Paperwhite and found it pleasant enough, although there were pictures here and there in the book that were harder to view on an electronic reader.