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Onyx reviews: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

Not long ago, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter would have been called alternate history but, thanks to Seth Grahame-Smith's earlier work, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (PPZ), a new classification has emerged: the literary mash-up. This sub-sub-genre is all the rage at the moment, though it probably (hopefully) won't last long. PPZ arose from an inspired idea and became a bestseller, but most of the subsequent imitators have been less inspired and, for the most part, seem like attempts to cash in on Grahame-Smith's success.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a little different than PPZ. Instead of tinkering with a public domain novel, the author rewrites history. The 16th US president wasn't just an inspirational speaker with strong abolitionist beliefs, and the Commander in Chief during the Civil War, he was, according to this novel, a determined and ferocious slayer of vampires.

A prologue "explains" the existence of this book. A fictitious version of Seth Grahame-Smith is entrusted with previously unknown Lincoln diaries that relate this secret history. The books are given to him by a vampire who wants this aspiring but failed writer to write about the diaries. The resulting book features excerpts from the diaries (some consisting of Lincoln's real, documented writings, or variations thereof, generally taken out of context) but, for the most part, it is a narrative account of Lincoln's life, told in third person. Unfortunately, the prologue is devoid of payoff. The book contains no insight into the effect these revelations have on either Grahame-Smith or its ultimate audience.

Lincoln's motivation is clear—his mother was killed by one of these repugnant creatures, many of whom migrated to America from Europe, intent on taking over the New World. Though most people are oblivious to their existence, a small cadre of wealthy Southerners supports them. In what is probably the book's most controversial conceits, it turns out that slavery is motivated by more than being a source of cheap labor. Infirm and aging slaves are sold to the vampires as fodder. In return, the vampires back politicians and policies that support the status quo of slavery. 

Grahame-Smith tinkers with the vampire mythos to a certain extent. New vampires suffer from exposure to the sun, but as they get older this is less of an affliction. His vampires are strong and powerful, able to leap across rivers in a single bound, but they are not vulnerable to many of the standard totems: crosses, garlic, holy water. They can be beheaded and even shot to death. 

Lincoln embarks on a solitary mission to hunt down and destroy as many of these creatures as possible while simultaneously eking out a living and breaking into politics. Many of his victims live in plain sight, operating businesses, living on plantations. However, his mission is limited by his resources. During one nocturnal attack along the banks of the Mississippi, he is captured by a vampire named Henry Sturges, who has an agenda of his own. Not all vampires are the same, and many oppose the Southern cabal that is behind the slave trade. The real "Union" is, in fact, a group of like-minded vampires who use mortals like Lincoln as assassins of the more malignant vampires. Sturges becomes Lincoln's "handler," periodically sending him assignments that name vampires who need to be destroyed sooner rather than later. Lincoln is only too happy to comply...up to a point.

Grahame-Smith weaves this secret part of Lincoln's life into his known biography. It isn't an alternate history, therefore, since all of the touch points of Lincoln's history are conserved as the framework of his story. However, there are vampires everywhere, and they are responsible for some of the greatest tragedies in his life, including the death of his first love, and the loss of at least one of his children.

Apart from diminishing the reprehensible nature of slavery by assigning responsibility to supernatural creatures, Grahame-Smith relies too much on dream sequences to generate shocks. The first dream in which terrible things happen to Lincoln or to those he loves has some emotional impact, but by the time the third or fourth disaster is revealed to be only a dream, the approach becomes a cheap trick.

Constrained by history, the book's progress is somewhat inevitable, and the last twenty or thirty pages, which deal with the well-known vampire John Wilkes Booth, are pretty much by the numbers.

The book is lightly illustrated with doctored photographs showing Lincoln in the company of vampires, living or destroyed, and in one case with Edgar Allan Poe, who sought out vampires for their stories rather than to slay them. It might inspire readers to become interested in the real life of one of America's most famous presidents, but one can't be sure if any of the personality the author gives to Lincoln is real or fictitious. Fortunately, the novel doesn't take itself too seriously. The book is a slight piece of entertainment and hopefully one of the last entries in a passing fad.

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