Thursday, September 20, 2012

Obliterating the Fine Line Between History and Fantasy

I have written several posts on the fine line between history and fantasy, noting how subtle that line can be. For works set back in the Middle Ages or earlier, for example, what is “true” history gets a bit murky, so the line between history and fantasy can become quite blurred. The same is true for fiction in a historical setting with subtle supernatural or magical elements. Jo Graham’s Black Ships and Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles are two great examples. But once in a while, a novel comes along that absolutely obliterates the line between history and fantasy. Such is the case with Seth Grahame-Smith’s bestselling novel, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Love the cover art!

I bought this book after seeing the trailer for the movie adaptation, amid murmurs from the audience of “seriously?” and “is this a joke?” Obviously these folks weren’t familiar with Mr. Grahame-Smith’s book, but it’s clear they found the premise absurd. I’m sure the author realized that, but thanks to his considerable talents, he’s crafted a fun and very good read. Yet before I could appreciate this, I had to realize something: this book is not just historical fantasy – rather, it is seriously altered history.

Spoiler alert beyond this point. You see, other than the fact that this Abe Lincoln is a secret vampire hunter when he’s not serving in Congress or as president, the central premise is that slavery and the Civil War was all driven by vampires. They viewed slaves as a convenient food source, so they needed the Confederacy to defeat the Union, hoping to someday enslave the whole human race. So this doesn’t just cross a fine line between history and fantasy, it abolishes that line by transforming one of the most significant events in U.S. history into a secret war between Southern vampires and vampire hunters, like good 'ole Abe.

I can see how audiences might find this a little strange ...

Once I was able to accept the book’s premise, I found Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to be a very good read. Seth Grahame-Smith does a wonderful job with Lincoln as a character, chronicling his life from boyhood to the presidency, and mixing real history with his version of altered history so expertly, I often found myself going back to the encyclopedia to figure out which parts were “real” and which were not. Obviously, I don’t mean the vampire elements, but, for example, the Abe in this book is friends with Edgar Allen Poe. I thought that was cool, but wondered if it was real (it’s not; indeed, one blogger on Abraham Lincoln has a post devoted to which parts of the book reflect real history, and which parts don’t). The author tracks real history fairly well, but then alters it in both subtle and extreme ways by tying slavery and the Civil War to the designs of Southern vampires. The end result is a well-written, entertaining yarn that’s part vampire novel, part history lesson, and I would recommend it to anyone willing to take suspension of disbelief a step further than the norm.

Now for a brief cautionary note: Although I enjoyed this novel, at times I wondered if obliterating the line between history and fantasy comes with a price. Some events in history are so important that we run the risk of diminishing them in the name of fiction. For example, if a story suggested that Martin Luther King made his stand not only to bring equality to African Americans, but also because those who opposed his cause were werewolves, it could cheapen Dr. King's tremendous work. Likewise, Lincoln's emancipation of America's slaves was one of the most noble acts in U.S. history. Slavery was one of the ultimate evils, but to suggest Lincoln was the Great Emancipator not only because slavery is wrong, but also because slavery fed the cause of Southern vampires, threatens to diminish the greatness of the real Lincoln’s achievements. That said, this is a work of fantasy and anyone who reads the title goes into it knowing it’s fantasy, so it’s hard to be critical of the novel. After all, works of fantasy are read for enjoyment, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter certainly fits that bill.


redhead said...

yes, the premise of this novel sounds a little silly. but you know what? it sounds like an absolute blast, and i can't wait to give it a try.

I've been on the waitlist for months at the library!

Joseph Finley said...

Thanks for the comment - I suspect you'll enjoy the book!

James T Kelly said...

I'm of the same opinion! I saw the trailer in the cinema and I think I was the only one who was murmuring "that looks brilliant". I'm glad I haven't seen it yet, though; I wasn't aware it was a book so now I can go and read it first. Thanks for the recommendation!

Lauren's Loquacious Lit said...

I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies a few years ago, and it WAS a lot of fun but I can see what you mean about this one. Yes, on some level, it's purely for fun and for those looking for a bit of silly entertainment, it works. But, as you said, the civil war was an incredibly important event in history and you'd also like to see justice done.

I've read a few steampunk books and after having studied 19th century culture and history over a few subjects, it was fascinating to see it brought to life from a modern perspective and with the addition of vampires, werewolves and all sorts of other delights. They're still fairly respectful of the time period, they just take the Industrial Revolution a bit further.

I enjoy alternate histories when they force me to consider how that event has shaped the current world, and how different things could be if the war/event had ended differently - if JFK wasn't assassinated, if Russia got to the moon first, if someone else had won the world wars etc but a lot of the time they still show great respect to all those involved and the efforts involved in the process.

Joseph Finley said...

Lauren - thanks for the great comment! When I started writing this post, I called the book "alternative history," but it's not. It doesn't show how history would have been different if a major event changed (like someone surviving an assassination in Ford's Theatre). Instead, it just seriously alters the reason behind real events by tying them to the cause of vampires.

James - I hope you enjoy the book. I'm waiting on the movie until it comes to HBO. Thanks for the comment!

Leslie said...

I'm torn on this one. On one hand, I love things like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Jane Slayere. So I was looking forward to Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter... until I saw the previews. The allure for me in stories like these is how campy they are. They should be funny, but not always directly so. This movie just looked like it was taking itself too seriously for me to take it lightly. (I'll admit I haven't read the book, though.)

Ultimately, I decided not to see it, and I don't plan to. Especially after hearing a friend call it "the 2nd worst thing to ever happen to Abe Lincoln in a theater."

Joseph Finley said...

Leslie - Thanks for the comment. Your friend's quote made me laugh out loud!