Friday, June 15, 2012

Book Review: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2011), Seth Grahame-Smith. Paperback, 352 pages.

Summary: Abraham Lincoln's secret history as a vampire hunter is revealed in a series of personal journals. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences:
I was still bleeding . . . my hands shaking. As far as I knew, he was still here -- watching me. Somewhere, across a vast gulf of space, a television was on. A man was speaking about unity.
Excerpt:
     By sunrise, Crowley had dragged most of his fellow settlers into the woods. He'd been left no alternative. Explaining a plague was easy. Almost as easy as explaining a man falling from a crow's nest, or a girl jumping overboard, or a fisherman being attacked by savages. But screams in the night, followed by the disappearance of four men, a woman, and an infant? That he couldn't explain. They would question him. Discover him. And that, he couldn't have. One by one, he dragged their battered bodies away. Of his 112 fellow settlers, only one had been spared his wrath.

     Crowley had hesitated to kill Virginia Dare. A baby that he had personally delivered? The first English soul born in the New world? These things had sentimental value. Besides, she would have no memory of what had happened here, and a young female companion might prove useful in the lonely years to come.

     "He returned from the woods with the baby in his arms. I daresay he was surprised to see me alive -- though barely so -- struggling to keep my feet while I carved the letters 'CRO' into a tree with a knife. My dying effort to expose the identity of my murderer. Of my wife and child's murderer. His shock subsided, Crowley could not help his laughter, for I had unwittingly given him a brilliant idea. Setting the baby down and taking my knife, he carved the word 'Croatoan' onto a nearby post, all the while smiling at the thought of John White massacring scores of unsuspecting natives in retaliation."
STATS

Writing Quality: 5/10

Depth of Concept: 5/10

Rounded Characters: 6/10

Well-Developed World: 6/10

Page Turner: 7/10

Kept Me Thinking: 5/10
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Overall Recommendation: 5/10


DETAILS

Writing Quality: 5/10. Seth Grahame-Smith (hereafter shortened to "Smith") is a passable writer. I rarely found amateurish mistakes, and he certainly does not write using the sort of maddening cutesy repetitions that you'd find in another author of Vampire Literature whose name rhymes with "Bethany Buyer." Still, I never once noted a passage that seemed particularly clever, artful, or beautiful. What came as something of a surprise was that the "journals" of Abraham Lincoln were probably more engaging to me than the more modern-style prose of Smith. That's both good and bad. It means Smith's natural writing voice is kind of clunky and unoriginal . . . but that he did a respectable job of recreating the syntax of Abraham Lincoln's era. One is unfortunate, the other laudable. Still, in recreating those journals, it's not as though he recreates anything of the brilliance of Lincoln's special ability with words; he merely captures the syntax that an average man might use in 1860. He does so without much humor or cleverness, which puts it inferior to, say, Terry Pratchett's Night Watch, or certainly Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or A. S. Byatt's Possession. Perhaps what was most frustrating was the way Smith jumped between viewpoints -- between the narrator's modern prose and Lincoln's first-hand epistles. This is not a book of smooth transitions (you've also got inexplicable flash-forward and flash-back sections). The modern bits are kind of obnoxious in the way they seem to waffle between wanting to mimic biography at one point and contrived fiction at others. For instance, there's no shortage of moments where Smith's modern narrator mentions that Lincoln "smiled slightly," as though that's something that Lincoln would have included in these secret journals.

Depth of Concept: 5/10. There's nothing very insightful about this novel, and most people wouldn't consider that any sort of surprise. The interesting thing is that I think Smith was actually trying to craft something that had at least some intellectual value. There are inklings of it here and there, they just don't add up to any really meaningful message. I DO think he sounds like a smart guy, who is honestly engaged by history and research. However, this story doesn't really offer any interpretation much more meaningful than this: slavery is bad, vampires are mostly bad, therefore the two go together. I'll admit that you might gain SOME mileage from the analogy that slavery is kind of like vampirism . . . but the book doesn't get a lot deeper with that concept than what I've already expressed in this sentence. Additionally, Smith misses a real opportunity to provide depth to Lincoln's killing spree, in that there is no real consideration of the morality of destroying vampires. The vampires are either noble, like Lincoln's helper, or degenerate and evil, like the ones Lincoln kills. There could have been some real poignancy and ambiguity presented had there been some sort of middle ground described for these creatures, and some sort of depiction of Lincoln's inner turmoil about whether the killings were justified. Still, the events of the day, including the outbreak of the Civil War, provide scenarios in which you might flex one or two of your interpretive muscles.

Rounded Characters: 6/10. I didn't find myself extraordinarily engaged by any of Smith's characters, but I do think he did a reasonable job at constructing a believable Lincoln, one that roughly fits my (admittedly limited) knowledge of the dude. He wasn't merely an action hero, but was portrayed as loving his family, having loved and lost people near and dear to him, being haunted by those losses, and even struggling to scrape by in various odd jobs and professions. The other characters didn't get nearly as much page time, but none of the human characters seemed mere caricatures, which is to Smith's credit, and which suggests a vision beyond that of most best-selling fantasy authors. All of the characters, I think, seemed believable in the time period. My main gripe with the historical characters was that there did not seem any consistency to how difficult it was to kill a vampire. We learn at one point that a single Vampire could swiftly kill 100 people, barely breaking a sweat. But their power seems almost paltry in comparison to Lincoln and his fellow hunters. The character I questioned most was the narrator, who is supposedly Smith himself. The thing is, we never get any real insight into this character, and Smith never writes the narration to include any personal asides, nothing like what you get in Rushdie's masterful Midnight's Children, for instance. Rather, we're introduced to the narrator in the first chapter, and he never returns to explain anything about himself, which just struck me as a little odd. 

Well-Developed World: 6/10. The pre-Civil War America is described believably, though it is not particularly detailed, nor does it seem to add anything new to my understanding of frontier communities, plantation communities, or urban centers. Smith includes somewhat sparse footnotes that describe such things as what substance "pitch" is or the way that cities have changed names over time. But this is not a novel to read to learn a lot about the time; rather, you mostly get a "a feel" for the time that his characters inhabit. For instance, Smith mentions the early development of substances used to make what we'd call matches today. It's a nice little detail. But we hardly get anything else about any of the technological discoveries that would have occurred over Lincoln's lifetime, and the only reason we get that detail is that Lincoln uses it to blind vampires. The "world" is well-done in a schematic sort of way, but it's not a really rich or detailed setting. You barely get, for instance, any real exploration of class division, of divisions of wealth and poverty, of political machinations, of the technological or social trends. For a star in this category, look to Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Page Turner: 7/10. The main reason to read this novel is that it's a page-turner. The surprising thing, though, is that it's not as gripping as you might expect, given its title. There's a lot of Lincoln's life that happens in-between vampire killings, and while it helps to make this a somewhat less exploitative novel, it doesn't make it as fast-paced as some might hope.

Kept Me Thinking: 5/10. I don't think Smith raised any particular concepts that got me thinking; in other words, the inclusion of vampires, which is the major gimmick of this novel, doesn't seem to add anything particularly meaningful to our understanding of pre-Civil War politics or the social milieu. Still, Smith's descriptions of the time period were adequate enough that I did find myself thinking about that time period, and about the Civil War and secessionist feelings generally. But when I thought about those things, I have to admit that I was as much remembering things from high school history as anything that Smith deliberately included. Finally, Smith went out of his way in the introduction to describe writing this novel as something that "nearly ruined [his] life;" you'd expect some sort of extra commentary about what that means or to justify the resurfacing of Lincoln's secret journals, but the issue is never raised again.
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Overall Recommendation: 5/10. This is a really interesting novel to me because it's neither a fast-paced, swash-buckling roller-coaster ride, nor is it a really richly detailed biography. It's something in the middle, and if it somewhat fails at being really excellent at either one, I still respect Smith's efforts to do something a little different, and to try to do it intelligently. I've not read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so I can't say whether this is better or worse, but I DO think that Smith has interesting ideas and I'd be curious to see what he does next, and if he can break out of the rather gimmicky niche that he created. Smith is still young. Perhaps he'll produce more sophisticated works as he matures, because I think his works indicate some potential. I should note that there are a lot of bloody scenes in the novel, rivaling anything you'd find in, say, A Game of Thrones, and that might be off-putting to some readers, though there is not the same level of uncomfortable sexual content.

Books To Compare: The epistolary novel was something of a fad during the 17th century, and this novel draws from that tradition, although it doesn't stand up to the greats. A. S. Byatt's Possession is a modern exemplum of the style, and fuses modern and period texts brilliantly. Smith could probably learn from her efforts. Dostoevsky's first novel Poor Folk was entirely made of letters traded between friends, but perhaps more relevant to Smith's subject matter, both Frankenstein (1818) and Dracula (1897) used the epistolary form. Both are more valuable than Smith's efforts, but also provide interesting comparisons to what Smith was trying to do. It's curious that a lot of the well-known epistolary novels have involved supernatural or macabre subjects, including later novels like Theodore Sturgeon's vampire novel Some of Your Blood, Stephen King's Carrie, and Max Brooks' World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Similar in subject matter, if not form, would be many of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe (he is, in fact, a character in the novel). However, Poe's works were subtly crafted even while they were often gruesome, and they truly explored the workings of fevered minds in fascinating ways that Smith hardly touches on. And among other things, Poe was a thoughtful philosopher, though not particularly respected by his peers.

Check out Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter on Amazon.

10 comments:

  1. I'm interested in reading this because I liked Pride and Prejudice and Zombies so much. However, a lot of the complaints you have about Smith's writing, character development, etc aren't really a problem in P&P&Z, given that so much of the text is Austen's. He did a good job weaving in the zombie elements, but a lot of the heavy lifting was done for him.

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    1. I wonder if it only warranted a recommendation of "5" since I'd really like to test Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and a lot of other books I'd rate a "5" I'd really rather not continue with the author. But I suppose the reason I can admit is that while Smith certainly lives and dies by his gimmick, I still LIKE the gimmick. Probably it's a genre thing - I just like zombies, and I'd love to see them thrown into almost any beloved work, just for fun. Does that mean what Smith is doing offers any real literary value? I don't know, I'll have to read more to decide...Pride and Prejudice, like you say, has the benefit of Austen's excellent prose.

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  2. I want to see the movie, but I haven't really decided about the book. I have the zombie one somewhere, and I'll read it if I ever find it.

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    1. I'm sort of curious about the movie, because the book was really a lot slower and heavy on the non-vampire aspects of Lincoln's life, and I wonder if they've dropped everything but the fun combat parts. We'll see, I guess.

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  3. I just got this book from a friend, and have been sort of excited about it (because vampires, I guess). Your review throws a bit of dampner over the excitement... if it's not cleverly written then the quirky idea(of a vampire hunting president) will go flop.
    Thanks for the review! Do visit!

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    1. I DO think it's a fun idea, but it never quite reaches the level of art that would justify it, I think.

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  4. High concept novels tend not to deliver the goods. Still, the title alone means I'm probably going to read this.

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    1. Yeah, it certainly could have been worse. In a way, the fact that it wasn't TERRIBLE, given its premise, is a bit of a nice surprise. I sort of wish that Smith and Susanna Clarke could get together and balance each other out - Smith could get Clarke's beautiful prose and really thoughtful character and world-building, and Clarke could get Smith's sense of the utilitarian, his ability to get to the point, and deliver fun genre action.

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  5. It looks like the whole is less than the sum (or average?) of the parts- seems like most things were rated 5 or up, but the book itself just didn't deliver, huh? bummer :-( Maybe the movie will be better!

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    1. Yeah, you hit it on the head, I think. I try to give credit where it's due, but the the truth is that even if a novel has some qualities that are slightly above average, those may still not be enough for me to recommend it as an "above average" book. I don't really think of my final recommendation as an average, but just a final gut reaction of whether it's worth a read, and how it compares with other stuff out there.

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