Imagine this one like a movie trailer.
This guy? A slayer? That doesn't sound right.
Oh, but it is. See, that's pretty much the concept of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter—let's take some real history and add vampires. Et voilà. We get the biography of Lincoln we've all been waiting for, the one that finally tells us the truth about how Honest Abe secretly killed toothy tyrants throughout his life, from his boyhood adventures staking creatures of the night all the way to the Civil War, which was, it turns out, actually all about vampires. (Hint: it wasn't.)
Seth Grahame-Smith is something of an expert at these literary mash-ups (take X, add monsters). His first fiction book was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), which takes Jane Austen's great novel (and we'll fight you if you say it's not) and adds zombies. After that, he wrote Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2010). And his next book, Unholy Night, takes the Three Wise Men from the Bible and asks, "What if they were wise monsters instead of wise men?" (Luckily for him, Seth Grahame-Smith mostly mashes-up things that are out of copyright, so he won't get sued like so many musical mash-up artists have been.)
According to Seth Grahame-Smith, the idea for Slayer Abe came to him in 2009, when every new book in the bookstore was either about vampires (usually sparkly) or about Lincoln (source). Lincoln was born in 1809, so 2009 was the bicentennial of his birth, which is the kind of thing that publishers love to cash in on. So Grahame-Smith thought, hey, why not cash in, doubletime?
Since this book has such a fun premise, it's no surprise that there's a movie being made of it. And since Seth Grahame-Smith is also involved in movie and TV production, he wrote the screenplay for it. So you know it's gotta be good.
But just because there's going to be a (cool) movie and the idea of Abe Lincoln fighting vampires is funny, don't think that this book is pure silly. It's only about fifty-percent silly. The other half is all about serious issues that are still relevant today. You know, the Big Ones, like racism and equality.
See, Abe isn't just fighting against vampires. He's fighting injustice. Those pesky bloodsuckers happen to be associated with rich slave-owners, who also happen to be the exact opposite of poor, abolitionist Lincoln. So by vexing vampires, Abe's also battling bigotry. Bonus!
Plus there's politics galore. It turns out political corruption and paralyzing gridlock—or as our Congress calls it, Tuesday—were problems way back in Abe's day, too. Compromise? Shmompromise. And when two political parties couldn't get along in the 1800s, they didn't battle it out in televised attack ads. They duked it out on the battlefield.
Which brings us, finally, to this book's rather interesting take on history. We like to remember our Founding Fathers and great presidents as perfect—as superheroes, even. So we remember Abe Lincoln as the Great Emancipator who freed the slaves and championed equality. But Abe (in reality and in this book) was a lot different from the ideal we have of him.
Sure, he freed the slaves, but at first, only the slaves in the Confederacy; and when he was running for public office, he made clear to people that he wasn't all for racial equality. While that particular character complexity isn't so front and center in this book, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter still asks us to confront the divide between the history we like to tell ourselves ("and then on Wednesday, the Good Side won and everything was fixed") and the real history that's much messier.
This book is so nice to readers that it tells you in the introduction why we should care:
Abraham Lincoln's secret journal on vampire hunting "casts new light on many of the seminal events in American history and adds immeasurable complexity to a man already thought to be unusually complex" (Introduction.76). Oh, and it's also "astonishing, heartbreaking, and revolutionary." But so many vampire-hunting journals are.
What Seth Grahame-Smith is really saying is that when someone says "Abraham Lincoln" to us, we see a tall, sideburned man wearing a stovepipe hat and holding the Emancipation Proclamation. We can't picture him as a baby or as a young man in love—whenever we try to see him that way, we just see that stinkin' hat, which would look pretty freaking cute on a baby.
But now, thanks to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, we can see him a little differently (if a little less accurately). We can picture him pining for his first love, writing mushy notes in his journal; we can see him crushed with depression when his kiddos keep dying on him; we can imagine him fighting against slavery while also maybe believing black people might not be equal to white people (yikes). What can we say? The guy was complicated. And this book stays true to that.
And, of course, we can picture him fighting vampires. Maybe it seems silly to add vampires to Abe's story, but by doing so, Seth Grahame-Smith opens a lot of doors into Abe's life. We get to see the president, the vampire hunter, and most of all the man.