Seth Grahame-Smith’s mash-up novel offers a bloody new motive for civil war.
Owing perhaps to the current mania for the undead, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter became a runaway best-seller for author Seth Grahame-Smith last spring. Now a movie is planned by director Tim Burton, who has also tapped Grahame-Smith to write a film adaptation of the 1960s gothic soap Dark Shadows. So we asked avowed Lincoln fan and Dark Shadows alum David Selby—who frequently portrays the 16th president—for an analysis.
In Seth Grahame-Smith’s fairly quick read, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, Henry Sturgis, a vampire with a conscience, pays the author a visit and leaves him with what turns out to be the diary of Abe Lincoln. The premise is that Grahame- Smith has been given Lincoln’s diary so he can write the true, untold story of Lincoln’s professional and personal life.
In the diary, Sturgis has called on Lincoln to accept a high calling—to save “a nation from enslavement” and drive “darkness back into the shadows”—or in other words, rid the world of wicked vampires, who sometimes appeared in the guise of slaveowners. Lincoln, rightfully upset when he learns that his mother was administered a fatal dose of vampire blood, readies himself and sharpens his trusty rail-splitting ax in order to beat the bushes for parasitic evil doers.
Some wealthy plantation owners were easy to identify with their pale faces, and sunglasses covering their black eyes. These vampires, symbols of greed and depravity, desired slaves to feast upon, much like the aristocracy of the 18th century fed on the young blood of the peasants. Lincoln, after witnessing a slave auction in New Orleans, buys a leather-bound journal. His first entry reads: “So long as this country is cursed with slavery, so too will it be cursed with vampires.”
I agree completely. Slavery sucked the blood out of both slaveowner and slave. Indeed, slavery sucked the blood not only out of the South, but—as we saw in its long-lasting legacy—from the whole country.
Sturgis, along with other “good” vampires who are able to restrain their impulses, primes Lincoln for the presidency, having identified him as a man strong enough to fight a war against the evils of slavery, and thus remove a food supply from the vampires, forcing them to go abroad to seek out new peoples to conquer.
As the Civil War rages, Sturgis wants Lincoln to terminate Jefferson Davis, who is guarded by two vampires at all times. Davis figures that by siding with the vampires, he will enjoy his “remaining years in comfort and wealth.” Eventually, however, the good vampires, with their own war room in New York, help Lincoln win the war—though at one point Lincoln loses his composure and accuses General George McClellan of being on the dark side:“Your fangs, General. Let me have a look at them.” McClellan’s less than satisfactory victory at Antietam—allowing General Robert E. Lee to escape to Virginia— cost the Union a chance to win the war right then and there. But the loose-mouthed, ineffectual general was not a vampire, and Lincoln is upset with himself for letting emotion trample over his usually cold, hard reasoning.
Still, Lincoln took Antietam as the victory needed in order to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln the vampire hunter would turn the tables on Southern vampires, who had tortured and eaten Union prisoners, and starve “the devils into defeat by declaring every slave free.” Lincoln was vindicated when the freed slaves took up arms against their vampire captors, much like the real slaves who went to battle against the Confederacy. In effect the turning point in Lincoln’s war came when he freed Southern slaves.
By the end of the Civil War in Grahame-Smith’s book, Lincoln has driven most of the vampires out of America. But alas, one escapes—John Wilkes Booth. Sturgis, after disposing of Booth, is convinced “that some men are just too interesting to die.” So he endows Lincoln with the power (or curse) to live forever. One assumes Lincoln, in fashionable Ray-Bans and “floppy brimmed hat,” has become one of the good vampires. Together, Lincoln and Sturgis, also sporting sunglasses and carrying a black umbrella to keep out the dreaded sun, drive out the vampires who continue to make life a living hell for emancipated slaves. They then take on the next major wave of vampires in Hitler’s Germany. Next, Grahame-Smith has President John F. Kennedy inviting Lincoln for a sleepover at the White House so that Lincoln can take in Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln is grateful to the president and, I presume, is pleased with the Memorial. Or he might have asked, “Is this all there is?”
One might think of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter as yet another commercial venture to make money off the Lincoln phenomenon. I personally find it difficult to enjoy any venture that paints Lincoln in such a manner—it seems somewhat distasteful and disrespectful of the man and of the position he held. But Grahame-Smith manages to allow Lincoln to hold onto some dignity. And frankly, Lincoln was subjected to many indignities throughout the years. He was slandered, lampooned, called all sorts of names. Being labeled a vampire hunter would probably bring a chuckle from him. He might very well muse that some of his enemies and detractors consorted with vampires. He was unsparing in going after the enemy.
The author gives more than a cursory nod to history, credibly interweaving it into the story and including a generous sprinkling of Lincoln quotes as he takes us from one vampire episode to another. He is in legitimate territory in that there was a certain belief in vampires in this country in the 18th and 19th centuries. The last case was in 1892 in New England when a man, fearing his dead and buried daughter was afflicted, dug up her body, cut out her heart and burned it. So one tries to take Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter on its own terms.
One of the most interesting pieces of theater I was involved with was a 1965 staging of Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem “John Brown’s Body.” It looked at the toll of war on men and women of both sides, and spurred my reading about Brown and how he helped bring attention to the evils of slavery. It was only in John Brown’s death that his cause was truly felt. Brown had foretold that blood would be spilled. In the end, I came down on the side of Brown, not as a terrorist but more of a hero, just as the “reluctant vampire” Barnabas in Dark Shadows—cursed to walk with the undead after a love affair gone wrong—went from being a menace to someone who was misunderstood. Barnabas, like Henry Sturgis, even with his affliction, could find some redemption. Sturgis’ redemption was Lincoln.
With the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln put a moral responsibility on the citizens of this country. Lincoln’s truth has a long shelf life, but we cannot redeem slavery any more than a vampire can quench his appetite. We can only own up and try to make honest amends. Today, the country is feeling drained, weak and bled dry by a host of evils: terrorism, war, economic woes, environmental degradation. Where does it all end? We might enjoy the off-screen bloodletting of a conflicted, sympathetic vampire on Dark Shadows or the fictional twist on history in Grahame-Smith’s book. But where is our redemption? How long will Henry and Abraham have to be on the job?
Actor-writer David Selby most recently portrayed Abraham Lincoln in The Heavens Are Hung in Black at Ford’s Theatre. He played Quentin Collins—a werewolf—for four seasons on Dark Shadows and still has a howling good time at the show’s fan conventions.
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.