Friday, January 6, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: The Good of the Many . . .

Title: Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter
Author: Seth Grahame-Smith
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
ISBN: 978-0-446-56308-6
Pages: 336

Last April, my husband and I were in New Orleans for a conference. On the way out to the zoo, we stumbled onto a movie set. It was clear the movie was set in the 1800s. The horse and wagons, the period dress, and building architecture seemed both in-congruent and completely plausible in a city like New Orleans. I guess it is not an unusual thing to find a movie set in New Orleans. The week we visited, there were almost a dozen movies being filmed in and around the city, or so we were told by an extra. Like most other tourists, we took pictures of the actresses in long dresses, bonnets, and corsets while they listened to their iPods and texted on their smart phones. Then filming began and I saw a tall gentleman in a cream colored three-piece suit and top hat. It was clearly Abraham Lincoln. However, come to find out, he was a vampire slayer! Who know?

Benjamin Walker as Abraham Lincoln - wrapping for the day.
That brings me to today's book - Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith, first known for his book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Many people want to read a book before seeing the movie, or end up reading the book because of the movie. I picked up this book because I saw the filming of the movie. Reading the book reminded me of paging through the historical book Then and Now: The Wonders of the Ancient World Brought to Life in Vivid See-Through Reproductions by Stefania Perring, which has pictures of historical buildings and places with a transparent overlay that shows what the place looked like in history. I recognize the Coliseum with chunks of it missing and looking like a relic, but with the overlay it became a vibrant theater filled with cheering people watching the gladiators bleed to death. I know the story of Honest Abe - his humble beginnings, his struggle to become a lawyer and president, and the tragedies in his life. Grahame-Smith overlays a secret life of vampire hunting, weaving an interesting combination of fiction and nonfiction. I was constantly lifting the overlay to check what was real and what wasn't. There was enough reality to make it plausible and enough fantasy to delight the Buffy-fan in me.

For some reason, Grahame-Smith bookends the story with an explanation of how this story came to be, with himself as the main character receiving secret diaries of Abraham Lincoln. It is his duty to take the ten journals of Lincoln and write a book that tells the truth about Lincoln's life. As Grahame-Smith says,"it turns out that the towering myth of honest Abe, the one ingrained in our earliest grade school memories, is inherently dishonest"(p. 15) "Vampires exist. And Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest vampire hunters of his age"(p. 14). And thus begins the "true" story of Lincoln.

Lincoln was propelled into vampire hunting when his mother was poisoned by vampire blood in retaliation for his father's debt. His motivation for learning to read and write was to learn the secrets of vampires to hunt them down and destroy them. In one of his early killings, he becomes friends with a "good" vampire, Henry, who recognizes the deep infiltration of vampires into the foundation of America's constitution and government. It seems slavery was a boon to vampires as there was easily available blood without retaliation. Therefore, the Civil War was not necessarily fought over the freedom of slaves but rather a war between factions of vampires for control of the country, with humans being the pawns. Lincoln may be the Great Emancipator, but, according the Grahame-Smith, the emancipation was actually to reduce the food supply for the Southern Vampires. Some of the most famous figures of the Civil War, such as Jefferson Davis and John Wilkes Booth, were either in league with vampires, or vampires themselves. If you are looking for an alternative reality book - this one clearly is for you!

I think I have forgotten how to read books just for pleasure, or fun. My analytical mind would not turn off while I was reading and I continually tried to sort out how much was fact and how much was fiction. Grahame-Smith has done an intriguing job of tweaking famous pictures of Lincoln in ways that made me think, "But wait, is that ax really in the picture of him talking to the General? " (The ax being his choice weapon to behead vampires). Or, taking famous speeches and reinterpreting them to indicate the subtext of the war with the vampires. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I used to watch faithfully, he is a tragic figure who knows the implausibly and impossibility of his situation yet continues to forge ahead, so the ignorant majority of the population can enjoy the daily pleasantries of life. His secret work takes a toil on his health and family, yet he continues to sacrifice as (in Spock's words, echoing John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism) "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one."

The movie should be in the theaters this summer. I'm looking forward to seeing the scene I saw being filmed in New Orleans, and as an action/fantasy film, it is based on a solid premise. Here is the trailer for the film:

If you want to know a little more about the book, this is a good review:

When I finished reading, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, I felt much like I did when I finished reading Wicked. I had the MGM techno-color version of The Wizard of Oz in my psyche since childhood and Gregory Maguire shattered that image. Yet, his new creation was intriguing and I've often thought of his portrayal of the images of good and evil, and the difference between intentions and consequences. Grahame-Smith similarly made me confront how much my image of Lincoln was based on the Disneyfied version of history and how much can actually be hidden from the general public. How much of our political system is generated and run by interests outside of the good for the many, and instead for the good of the few or the one?

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