Critique of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Matt Dorfmann for TIME
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In 2008, Jason Rekulak, an editor at a small Philadelphia publishing house, had the bright idea to combine classic works of literature with pop-culture tropes for fun and profit. He phoned Seth Grahame-Smith, a.k.a. the luckiest freelancer in the world, and told him to write Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Grahame-Smith did — in two months flat — and it sold more than a million copies. Now it's being made into a movie starring Natalie Portman.

The success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies kicked off a literary land grab, with publishers rushing spin-offs and clones of the quote-unquote original to press. (Note to self: Clone With the Wind? A Room of One's Clone? A-clone-ment?) As for Grahame-Smith, he turned around and sold a novel called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to a large New York City publisher for a sum rumored to be in the mid — six figures. Bennett Cerf, founder of Random House, once remarked that the most surefire best seller imaginable would be a book called Lincoln's Doctor's Dog. He was close. (See TIME's photo-essay "The Rise of Zombies.")

But there are specific reasons Pride and Prejudice and Zombies worked that don't necessarily pertain to the knockoffs. It wasn't an arbitrary mashup. Austen's novel is about the comedy and pathos of people whose lives are shaped by monstrous realities that they're too polite to talk about, namely money and sex. Zombies are just another unspeakable thing to tiptoe around. There's a certain dream logic to it, but it doesn't follow that the trick will work twice.

The conceit of Abraham Lincoln is that Grahame-Smith — his very name is a mashup! — has come into possession of Lincoln's secret diaries detailing his life as a stalker of vampires. As a frontiersboy, Lincoln loses his mother to the undead and swears lifelong vengeance. A giant among men — he was 6 ft. 4 in. (1.9 m) tall — Lincoln adopts the ax, that most American of edged weapons, as the tool of his trade, hiding it inside his signature long black coat. (See pictures of Hollywood vampires.)

From there, Grahame-Smith scrolls forward through Lincoln's life, concocting a vampiric explanation for its every bump and wrinkle. The death of Lincoln's grandfather Abraham? Vampire. The death of his first love, Ann Rutledge? Vampire. Civil War? Vampires. He doesn't explicitly state that Millard Fillmore was a vampire, but I have my suspicions. (See portraits of Abraham Lincoln.)

Vampires are like health care plans: everybody has his own idea about how they should work. Grahame-Smith's are inhumanly strong and only mildly fazed by sunlight. Like the vamps of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they appear human until they show their true form: fangs, gross veiny blue skin and all-black eyes. Grahame-Smith describes a vampire getting his game face on: "His eyes turned black in the space of a single blink, as if the inkwells in his pupils had suddenly shattered — the spill contained behind glass." (See why zombies are the new vampires.)

As that evocative image suggests, Grahame-Smith isn't just lucky. He's a lively, fluent writer with a sharp sense of tone and pace. And as in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the mashup is not as arbitrary as it first seems. Vampirism is a metaphor for slavery: like slave owners, vampires live off the blood of others. (See the 100 best novels of all time.)

The fit is actually a little too neat. Once the connection is made, it feels obvious, and neither slavery nor vampirism reveals anything in particular about the other. One could imagine a richer, subtler treatment of the subject, in which the two horrors multiply each other rather than cancel each other out. The institution of slavery revealed something about the true face of young America, something unspeakable, but literalizing it in the form of a vampire turns out to not get us any closer to understanding what it is.

Then again, if one were seeking richness and subtlety, one wouldn't be reading a book called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

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