What if vampires exist and the 16th president of the United States made a vow to destroy each and every one of them? It’s the central idea of the novel, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, by Seth Grahame-Smith.
Lincoln’s hatred for the undead begins when he learns that a vampire took his mother’s life. Hot-headed and heedless of danger, he clumsily seeks them out, swinging his trusty ax into the heads and hearts of those he finds. Along the way, he gains allies and a patron, who reveals to Lincoln that the vampires have a grander design for America, and he, Lincoln, has a greater destiny in opposing them.
The idea certainly intrigued me, but while there are admirable elements found in the novel, on the whole, the idea was more gimmick than story.
The writing quality is strong and the author captures the voice of Lincoln and those around him with apparent authenticity (as well as this non-Lincoln-expert can tell). To the point where, especially in passages of Lincoln’s younger life, the writing could pass for creative non-fiction. The voice is authoritative and engaging, painting vivid scenes of young Lincoln, his father and mother, and their hardscrabble years. The details are either well researched or well fabricated. (Less convincing are the “historical” pictures interspersed in the novel.)
But the life of Lincoln is as well known as any historical figure can be. What is really there to add? Where is there room? We all the know the arc of his story. The novel is much like those photographs — something lifted from real history and manipulated to insert a vampire. And like those photographs, flat, bordered, awkward.
I had joked on Twitter while reading this that the story would have been better served if it was Millard Fillmore: Vampire Hunter. Take the most forgettable, inconsequential of U.S. presidents and give him the story of fighting vampires. There would be more potential for humor and suspense. Whereas Lincoln might turn over in his grave with this novel — hadn’t he enough real horror and tragedy in his life? — Fillmore might sit up and read it. A chance at being talked about, remind the world he existed as the last Whig party president and opener of relations with Japan.
I was willing to read further than I otherwise would have as the first third of the book was slow to start. What didn’t help also was the framing, such as it was. The narrator exists in present day and is entrusted with the secret journals of Abraham Lincoln. The narrative flits between the narrator (third-person) and the journal entries (first-person). I did not care for this, finding it distracting too often.
Also, the narrator has no story of his own. He does not even complete the “frame,” as he doesn’t “appear” after the setup in the introduction. It’s as though he was forgotten. And it isn’t convincing that the narrator, as much as we are to know him at all, could relate the tale in the voice and with the knowledge that he does.
At the bottom of it, I guess I just wasn’t that interested in the fate of any of the characters. Again the writing is good, but somehow it failed to connect with me.