Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is an alternative history with fantasy/paranormal elements thrown in. It reexamines Abraham Lincoln’s life, his presidency, and the American Civil War, with a twist: the US is overrun with vampires, mostly unknown to the public, who are secretly pulling the strings that shape Abe’s life, the institution of slavery, and war. The book opens with a charming sequence in which a would-be novelist in a small town on the Hudson Valley meets a new resident and gets a book idea from him. The foreboding sense in the idyllic setting reminded me of Stephen King, which is a compliment.
It is a rather fascinating concept. I had my doubts at first – again, the whole vampires-in-pop-fiction trend gave me pause; it’s not a trend I have bought into in the past. But as soon as I began the book, I was drawn in. So full points for intriguing me early on. I loved the parts about Abe’s early life; the atmosphere, the mood of tension, of Abe’s efforts against long odds, his determination in the face of tragedy, are all well executed.
But I think the middle section of the book dragged on far too long; it’s a great concept that Grahame-Smith indulged in for too many pages. All of which is to say, it probably made a great movie! That may be the proper format.
Another concern: I had some misgivings about the use of vampires to explain some of the evils in our national history. Slavery, secession, civil war, all belong to vampires in this book (with a quick mention of WWII’s genocide apparently coming from the same source). While Grahame-Smith struck me as careful to always treat these heavy topics with due sobriety, it still makes me a little uneasy to play with them in this way. Slavery and civil war are unsettling, terrifying, gruesome, disturbing enough in fact; it rather feels like diminishing their somber import to make them the fictional playthings of entertainment in this way, no matter how carefully treated. And again, the tone of this book is serious and in always respectful. But I’m just not entirely sure. It gives me pause.
Late in the book, I really missed our narrator of the beginning section: the writer, that is, who is approached by the mysterious stranger and given the lost diaries of Abraham Lincoln. The quick sketch of small-town life and the birth of this novel was a definite strength, and I regret that we never returned to that early narrator at the end of the book. I was looking forward to revisiting him.
So I have my criticisms, as you can see; but I really did enjoy this audiobook, and never considered putting it down. I think Grahame-Smith could have executed his rather genius story concept in less space: my audio ran to 9 CDs, and he could have kept it under 6, in my opinion. But again, this only makes me more interested in the movie version. Apparently the screenplay is written by Grahame-Smith as well, which is a good sign; and hopefully that format will push for a little more condensed action, which the book could have used as well. Call this a rare case where I am excited for the movie after reading the book.
The audio narration by Scott Holst was good. He emphasizes mood as a narrator should; he varied the voices of his characters a little, was not overly theatrical, but lent atmosphere where it belonged.
As always when I read historical fiction, I found myself contemplating the line where fact meets fiction. In this case, I’m sad to say (and it’s far too often that I’m sad to say this!) I don’t know the subject well enough to judge for myself; but here are a few notes of interest. At the end of my audiobook is a short interview with the author, in which I learned: first, that he was in fact quite purposefully following the aforementioned trend of vampires in pop fiction; and secondly, that he had great respect for his subject and did a fair amount of research. Now, this is a subjective measure (and he’s judging himself, which makes the judgment even more subjective), but I still find it encouraging. Finally, he mentioned a particular source of nonfiction inspiration: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which I have in my iPod just waiting my attentions. And that was the most encouraging detail of all.