It goes without saying that Seth Grahame-Smith is the originator of the literary mash-up novel, a genre that, since the initial publication of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, has multiplied and spawned a whole rash of imitative books. (Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, anyone?) This, of course, just makes it harder and harder for the likes of an originator to remain heard above the din. However, Grahame-Smith proved with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that he was more than a one-trick pony – but instead a writer who moved away from simply mashing a Jane Austen story with George A. Romero-level bloodletting by crafting a book that was based on the fictitious writing of America’s 16th president with a spice of Anne Rice.
It wasn’t far from where the author had begun, but it was a bit of a new wrinkle that he added with his sophomore novel – a feat that could have been made easier had he just decided to take another literary classic and transpose it with the stuff of nightmares. Now, for Grahame-Smith’s latest novel, he goes one step further – arguably into blasphemous territory – by raiding the Biblical tale surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ and mixing it with a dash of honest-to-God historical detail as well as rampant speculation. Essentially, Unholy Night poses the question: what if the three wise men who visited Jesus in Bethlehem weren’t exactly magi at all, but were, instead, treacherous and deceitful thieves (but generally likable thieves, who just so happen to possess a small dose of honour)?
So, yes, Unholy Night is new-ish and yet familiar territory for the genre-blending author, and might not be all that surprising in terms of topicality. The sword and sandal epic, after all, is a mainstay of Hollywood and Grahame-Smith has clearly gone Hollywood, not least the recent release of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Grahame-Smith also had a hand in bringing Tim Burton’s take on ’60s Gothic soap sudser Dark Shadows to the silver screen this summer, as well. It turns out that, on a similar note, Unholy Night has been optioned by Warner Bros. for a filmic treatment – with Grahame-Smith co-producing and again writing the script. In fact, the novel does in some ways read like an extended screenplay: it’s a lighting fast read at even 300 pages or so, and I managed to almost finish it within the space of a single weekend.
And, insofar as Hollywood’s interest in the book, the Biblical sword and sandal genre is as old as the medium itself. How many times has Ben-Hur been remade for the big and small screens? According to a quick glance at IMDb, no less than five times – dating back as early as 1925. And let’s not forget the more recent critical and commercial successes of movies like Gladiator and 300. So, if anything, Unholy Night is one of those books whose Tinseltown ambition and scope is pretty much already a given.
Despite being a book that is, in short, one long chase sequence between our three “wise” men with human cargo and a fleet of Roman soldiers on their heels, Unholy Night is a novel that also is remarkably, believe it or not, deep in a number of places. We learn that the main protagonist (no, not Jesus) named Balthazar – who also goes by the handle, “the Antioch Ghost”, for his ability to disappear from hairy situations quite handily – is not just a thief for the sake of netting a little coin, he’s after the far bigger prize of getting revenge on the Roman centurion who murdered his young brother a decade prior. That—and not the lust for glory—is what spurs him on.
Thus, naturally, when Judean soldiers begin their slaughter of the newborn children of Bethlehem in their search for the Messiah, Balthazar’s motive to save the lives of Mary, Joseph and their tiny son along with two of his comrades in thievery becomes all too clear: failure to protect the child would be doing a disservice to his brother’s memory. However, there are other tidbits that cause one to sometimes reflect while reading this very popcorny book, beyond character development. For one, King Herod – the antagonist of the birth of Christ tale in every rendering of the story – makes a comment that sounds remotely modern and could have come from the mouth of a white supremacist or anti-Semite:
“In thirty years of ruling over Jews, I’ve come to believe in one very simple truth… That their time on this earth is almost at an end. All they have are old stories. Old traditions. All they have are tales of ancient leaders and kings, ancient magic, and a messiah who keeps promising to arrive but never does. Everything about them is old. Everything about them is the past.”
It’s moments like the one I just mentioned that might stop you cold in your tracks, and reflect that if Grahame-Smith has a somewhat higher ambition in mind that just putting a bunch of seemingly divergent elements together and fusing them. This isn’t just writing that is all about flash and inventiveness. This is writing that is probing and thoughtful, and makes one wonder if Grahame-Smith is really writing about the now, and of certain dangerous attitudes among certain members of the population, instead of the past.
I wouldn’t exactly call Unholy Night high art or even seriously-minded literature, but there are layers to this story and the gradual layering in of sub-plots and back-stories that makes you marvel at the gift of Grahame-Smith’s prose. There’s something magical going on here, and Unholy Night is fun, fascinating and brow furrowing in equal measure. It is, in no small part, a morality tale with much relevance.
Still, for all that’s going on underneath the tow of the main story – basically, getting baby Jesus and his family out of Judea and into the relative safety of Egypt – Unholy Night can be taken less seriously and readers can just sit back and enjoy the ride as our (anti)-heroes amble from one precarious situation to the next. And, yes, as fitting for a book written by Grahame-Smith, there are zombies to be found here. And much gore and bloodletting.
Just on a purely visceral level, this novel does not in any way, shape or form disappoint. And while the subject matter of the material may be a touch scandalous to some, Unholy Night does have a healthy reverence for its source to a degree, and the historical characters aren’t sketchy or demeaning.
The only downfall of Unholy Night lies in its climax, in which our protagonists are painted into a corner one time too many and in which involves a scene of torture and brutality that is a bit reminiscent of Braveheart, and is thus not really for those easily troubled by such things. Still, Unholy Night is quite a rush and a wild ride, and goes over what is seemingly familiar ground – the Nativity story – in unexpected and enjoyable ways. Seth Grahame-Smith might be coming into his own as a screenwriter, but Unholy Night proves something else: he’s a pretty commanding novelist in his own right, even if he has to rely on stories already told to mine his creativity.