Pride And Prejudice And Zombies was a legitimate hit, thanks in no small part to Seth Grahame-Smith’s faithful attention to Jane Austen’s style and delightful admixture of swordplay, ninjas, and the bloodthirsty undead. Now Grahame-Smith tries to extend the franchise on his own, outside the Quirk Classics imprint, with decidedly mixed results. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter purports to be derived from the secret journals of the 16th president, starting as the boy Abe watches his mother die of unholy poisoning after his father defaults on a debt to a local vampire. The novel features all the gory ax-wielding action readers could desire, but the tone suffers from an excess of melodrama. It’s counterintuitive, but AL:VH would have benefited from a drier, more historical approach.
Grahame-Smith introduces the conceit with a mysterious stranger giving him a parcel of leather-bound diaries while he toils in a Rhinebeck, New York five-and-dime, mourning his fallow writing career. Then he re-narrates Lincoln’s life with dual aims: to jazz it up a little with sidekicks and night patrols, and to reveal how the war against vampires constitutes the secret history of the Civil War. The latter theme works surprisingly well. Lincoln discovers that vampires, increasingly beset by torch-wielding mobs in the Old World, migrated to America in search of—what else?—freedom. But they found a congenial home in the South, where fresh food could be bought at the slave markets of New Orleans, already shackled and ready for slaughter. Once in Washington, Abe delves into the unholy alliance Southern politicians forged with powerful vampire benefactors to keep the peculiar institution alive and vigorous. What the legislators don’t grasp is that vampires aren’t content with the status quo; they hope to enslave all humans in the New World. So Lincoln’s struggle against slavery isn’t about race or economics, but freedom itself—the kind the founders envisioned for all those created equal.
But what must have seemed like the project’s sexier elements—the Illinois rail-splitter splitting open vampire heads—undercut the book at every turn. Abe acquires allies named Speed and Armstrong, has a mysterious vampire patron who supplies him with vampire super-bodyguards, and writes, in the portions of the diary excerpted throughout the book, in purple prose better suited to Edgar Allen Poe (who makes a couple of cameo appearances). Worse, Grahame-Smith interjects his hero's running mental commentary into his own narration: A goddamned vampire… I’ll tear you to pieces when I catch you… I beg you, Lord… The effect is ludicrous, and not in a good way. Shouldn’t Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter be a vision of 19th-century secessionist vampires through the sober, tragic eyes of an eloquent orator? Instead, Lincoln becomes little more than a standard-issue thriller protagonist in a stovepipe hat. It raises the question of why Grahame-Smith bothered to write this novel at all, instead of going straight to the screenplay where his ambitions clearly lie.