We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both.
For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!
Book: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” by Seth Grahame-Smith
Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, March 2010
Where Did We Get This Book: Kate owns it,
Genre Mash-up: True Crime and Speculative Fiction (a doozy to be sure)
Book Description: Indiana, 1818. Moonlight falls through the dense woods that surround a one-room cabin, where a nine-year-old Abraham Lincoln kneels at his suffering mother’s bedside. She’s been stricken with something the old-timers call “Milk Sickness.”
“My baby boy…” she whispers before dying.
Only later will the grieving Abe learn that his mother’s fatal affliction was actually the work of a vampire.
When the truth becomes known to young Lincoln, he writes in his journal, “henceforth my life shall be one of rigorous study and devotion. I shall become a master of mind and body. And this mastery shall have but one purpose…” Gifted with his legendary height, strength, and skill with an ax, Abe sets out on a path of vengeance that will lead him all the way to the White House.
While Abraham Lincoln is widely lauded for saving a Union and freeing millions of slaves, his valiant fight against the forces of the undead has remained in the shadows for hundreds of years. That is, until Seth Grahame-Smith stumbled upon The Secret Journal of Abraham Lincoln, and became the first living person to lay eyes on it in more than 140 years.
Using the journal as his guide and writing in the grand biographical style of Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough, Seth has reconstructed the true life story of our greatest president for the first time-all while revealing the hidden history behind the Civil War and uncovering the role vampires played in the birth, growth, and near-death of our nation.
I first read this book when it came out in 2010, having been taken in by the concept of taking one of the country’s past and most beloved Presidents and making him a vampire hunter. I mean, it sounds ridiculous, and yet I was so enamored with the idea that I got my hands on this book and then spent almost all of my free time devouring it. I was very much into vampire mythology in my younger years, and I had grown weary of vampires as love interests and yearned for them to be scary again. And while “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” didn’t make them scary, per se, at least they were antagonistic to a degree. So I read it, loved it, and it had been sitting on my shelf ever since.
Re-reading it for book club was something that excited and scared me. I had such happy memories of this book, and I was afraid that revisiting it eight years later was going to be disillusioning. I’m pleased to say that my fond memories weren’t totally tainted by the re-read, but going back and looking at it critically was something that, while necessary, was a bit bittersweet. But I’ll start with the things that did still work for me. As a person who really likes American History, especially during the Victorian Era (as yes, much of Lincoln’s life was during the Victorian Era), I love how Seth Grahame-Smith uses diary entries, letters, historical documents, and footnotes to tell this alternate history where Lincoln fought and killed vampires. I greatly enjoy the various connections that he makes between world events that have enough ambiguity that they could have a vampiric element, one of my favorite examples being the Colony of Roanoke. I always had a fun time seeing various other historic figures, from Edgar Allan Poe to Marie Laveau, play into the story. Easter Eggs like this are my bread and butter.
But the biggest problem that I had with it this time around that I wasn’t really thinking about the first time I read it was that one of the biggest plot devices in this book is the Civil War. Namely, the practice of chattel slavery. In this book, one of the big plot points is that vampires were working directly with the Southern elites in order to keep slavery around, as it directly benefited both of them (the humans in terms of money, the vampires in terms of food). When I first read this book I thought that it was a clever way to show an evil and yet symbiotic relationship, but looking at it again now it just makes me uncomfortable. Slavery in this country was an evil practice, and the repercussions of it are still seen and felt today because of generational trauma, lingering systemic racism, and marginalization towards African Americans in this country. To flippantly say ‘and also, VAMPIRES!’ just feel uncomfortable, and a little too cheeky at the expense of very real pain and injustice.
That said, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is overall a bit of crazy stupid fun, and it’s written in a way that history buffs and vampire fans alike will probably find it enjoyable. It didn’t fully stand the test of time, but there were still plenty of moments that made me grin.
I had not read this book before, but I’m pretty sure I saw the movie at some point (though my super vague memories of it or what I even thought of it at the time might say more than anything). I think at the time I was still in a huff about “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and mentally sorted this book into the same category and wrote it off. That said, I was pleased when it was picked for bookclub as I generally try to avoid tendencies like the one I used for this book: judging it without reading it. I was even more pleased to find that I enjoyed it! (Though, it must be acknolwedged that this was always going to be an easier sell then trying to convince me that Elizabeth Bennett killing zombies is something I should take seriously).
What I enjoyed most about the book what its historical aspects and the stylization of the way the story is told through letter and other historical documents. These were all used to great affect and very much sold the concept of telling a story that could be wedged in alongside the version of true history that we are more or less familiar with. One’s own knowledge of the actual history of the time period also goes along way as, like Kate mentioned, there were nice references to other happenings of the time that would reward diligent readers. Not an extreme history buff myself, I can’t even be sure I knew exactly where some of these lines between fiction and true history were being drawn.
The story itself was also the kind of semi-campy fun that simply makes for an enjoyable read, and I think if approached in this way, it is best appreciated. As Kate also referred to, a closer examination of the work can lead to potential discomfort with superimposing layers of vampire nonsense over a truly challenging time in American history. I, for one, was generally ok with this aspect of the story as I think the point of the book was to do just that: make up a nonsensical version of a traumatic period of history and essentially make a satire out of it by highlighting just how truly horrible it was! The addition of vampires merely underscores the fact that, while they are fantasy creations, the true human players in this existed. Plus, the Civil War has, deservedly, garnered a huge wealth of books that cover its history in a more serious, thoughtful tone. And I don’t expect every book set in this time period to do the same thing, which I think does a disservice to the creativity of tactics that can used in criticizing events such as these.
Overall, I enjoyed this read. It wasn’t the type of book that I likely would have picked up on my own, and while fun enough, it also didn’t neatly fit into my wheelhouse and I came away with it pleased, but not feeling as if I had been really missing anything by not reading it before now.
Kate’s Rating 8: While it didn’t hold up as well from when I first read it, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is still a bit of silly fun that entertained me as person who likes horror and history.
Serena’s Rating 7: I liked it; I didn’t love it.
Book Club Questions
- What did you expect from a book that brings a vampire and supernatural spin to an actual person and an actual time in history? Did you feel that the author integrated the two ideas well?
- Were there any characters or moments from history you especially liked seeing in this book? Were there any that you could have done without, or felt didn’t work as well?
- What were your thoughts on the character of Henry? Did you feel that you got a good impression of him as a character?
- What did you think of the theme of vampires and slavery in this book? Did you think that it was a good metaphor, or do you think that it was inappropriate to use it as a plot point?
- What did you think of the ending? Did you fee like the revelation at the end fit with the rest of the story and the themes given Lincoln’s relationship and opinions towards vampires?
Find “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” at your library using WorldCat!
Next Book Club Book: “The Shadow Cipher” by Laura Ruby.