Vampire-Slaying Presidents

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter hits theaters on Friday.  Unlike a lot of people amongst moviegoers, I read the book before the trailers were whispered.  I’m not one of those assholes who sees a preview, gets excited, and then claims to have had a hard-on for the subject since day one.  Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (the book) by Seth Grahame-Smith left a profound mark on me as a reader and a writer.  Along with Dacre Stoker’s Dracula the Un-Dead, it’s one of only two novels that I’ve read nearly cover to cover in one sitting; actually, I read nearly three-quarters of Grahame-Smith’s book without my ass leaving the chair.

As we all sharpen our metaphorical stakes, I’d like to take a moment to tell you why this book is so important to me.

First, it immediately hooked me.  Lincoln stood tall on the cover of the book with an axe behind his back and a bloody hand-print on his coat.  And when the 16th president is bloodied, and not in Ford’s Theater, the first question that pops to mind is, “Why is he covered in blood?”  I picked up the book and the details sucked me in further right from the opening.  I still remember it, the author describing his (fictional, I presume) meeting with the vampire Henry Sturges, and talking about Lincoln’s journals.  I still remember the description of those journals on the first page: “The books laid out in front of me were the only things now.  The ten leather-bound books of varying size – each one a different shade of black or brown.  Some merely old and worn.  Others barely held together by their cracked covers, with pages that seemed like they’d crumble if turned by anything stronger than a breath.”  I’m a sucker for details, and the weight of the age of the journals drew me in.  I had to know more.

Second, Lincoln is human.  We have, I think, a somewhat mythologized view of Abraham Lincoln, the man who saved the Union, who ended slavery.  We don’t stop to think about his baggage.  What I like about this version of Lincoln is that he does something very noble out of a very dark motive.  He’s vengeful.  He’s fueled by hate.  I always knew that flawed characters – from Oedipus to Darth Vader – where the most interesting, but Grahame-Smith seemed to nail it home for me.  Any pivotal character I write about must be fundamentally scarred because, as a reader and a writer, I have to know whether or not those flaws will ultimately do him in.

Third, it’s a great genre story.  I’m a big fan of alternate history.  Just mention Harry Turtledove to me.  But this is meant to be a secret history.  Beneath the election, the Civil War, the assassination, what readers find is a fictional story woven in with historical fact.  To make up a story while keeping it within the boundary of fact is a very difficult thing to do.  I’ve tried, and almost always failed.  Grahame-Smith does it well.

Finally, the book and the writer have both inspired me to do better with my own work.  I met Seth Grahame-Smith just once in March of 2010.  He did a talk and book-signing at Vroman’s in Pasadena, which stands out as one of the best author meet-and-greets that I can think of; we talked about the bullshit that is Twilight – “In my day, vampires were for killing, not for kissing,” he said – and had a short, lighthearted debate over just how much justice Francis Ford Coppola did to Dracula.

I was still finding my feet in grad school and asked him if he had any advice for an aspiring writer.  Looking back, I think it was unfair of me to put him on the spot like that, but he was gracious enough to write something in my copy of Abraham Lincoln: “Don’t let yourself get up to pee until you’ve written 1,000 words.”

Seth, I’m halfway there and getting closer.  Thanks.

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