Alternate histories usually come in two forms. First, there’s the “big idea”. These stories can tackle big questions like, “What if the South had won the Civil War?” or “What if Germany had won World War II?”, or they can ask a fantastical question like, “What if magic really existed in Elizabethan England?”
From there, the story goes on to ride the currents of a broken timeline, ideally transforming tons of research into a viable alternate universe. Harry Turtledove might be the best example of this, blending radical ideas and thorough research to create a world with roots in the history we know, but which goes off in its own logical direction.
Then there’s the story in which the world is, as far as we know, exactly like the one we know — except for the small matter of a secret history that would shake civilization to its core if it were ever revealed. A little light Internet reading will get you pretty well-versed in pedestrian conspiracy theories about Freemasons, the Illuminati, or black helicopters, but you can’t beat the realm of the fantastic for real secret history fun. Author Tim Powers’s The Stress of Her Regard, for example, imagines Keats, Byron, and Shelley haunted and inspired by a vampiric monster. The Hellboy comics and films gleefully wallow in a world where Hitler’s fascination with the occult led to contact with Elder Gods and an alliance with a resurrected Rasputin (oh, and Hitler’s death in 1958 ended the secret Occult Wars, in case you’d been fed that bunker suicide bunk back in school).
Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter straddles both of those camps a bit. First, there’s the big idea (and this is hardly a spoiler, since it’s right there in the book’s title): what if America’s 16th president had sworn an oath as a boy to kill every vampire in America? However, instead of going completely off the historical rails and crafting a brand new destiny for Lincoln, the book leaves the highlights of Lincoln’s life unchanged. He still becomes a lawyer, still gets elected to the Illinois State Legislature, and still occupies the White House during the Civil War.
There’s just lots and lots of, you know, vampires. Vampires kill members of Lincoln’s family, setting him on his path to vengeance. They run businesses and walk among polite society, and they have a strong interest in the slave trade. There’s no part of society free from their (sometimes not so) secret influence, but the only way we know any of this is that Lincoln’s secret diary has been delivered to our narrator.
Grahame-Smith made his name with 2009’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, in which zombies roam the English countryside and the Bennet sisters stop fretting over suitors as they sew and start fretting over suitors as they learn combat skills. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies gave a rotted face to a blip on the cultural radar in which classic stories have been remade into fantasy or horror stories. Regina Jeffers’ Vampire Darcy’s Desire: A Pride and Prejudice Adaptation and Ben Winters’s Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters continued the strip-mining of Jane Austen’s canon, while other efforts pillaged Huckleberry Finn and H.G. Wells. As literary microtrends go, it was funny at first, but hopefully it wears out its welcome before we get something like War and Peace and Goblins or Ahab vs. the Were-Whale.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, though, moves past literary mash-ups, and deserves to be judged on the merits of the alternate universe it constructs. This reader’s opinion is that it’s fine, if sometimes a bit simplistic. Grahame-Smith has obviously done his research, using numerous smaller moments from Lincoln’s life to advance his story. In that regard, he follows the Tim Powers template of finding actual persons and events, however minor, and weaving them into a larger tapestry of imagined history. As Grahame-Smith tells the tale, Lincoln’s hatred was born early in life due to the swath a vampire cut through the Lincoln clan. He trained himself to be deadly with his famed axe and began hunting vampires in surrounding towns, nearly dying at the hands of one of his targets. A rescuer, however, heals Lincoln and guides him through his destiny.
Since this is a secret history of Lincoln, it’s not too revealing to say that all of the familiar signposts of his life still punctuate the story. Grahame-Smith is at least restrained by that, but he does allow himself the occasional flight of fancy beyond the vampire-slaying. Lincoln meets a vampire-fancying Edgar Allen Poe in New Orleans, for example, and later embarks on a very memorable, very imaginative assassination mission as the Civil War looms. As a tale about Lincoln’s hatred of vampires, and the toll it takes on him both physically and spiritually, Vampire Hunter works well. It doesn’t hurt that our popular perception of Lincoln is of a somber, thoughtful man. Much of Grahame-Smith’s work is done for him by the tragedies of Lincoln’s real life.
It’s disappointing, though, that the story uses vampires as the default reason for practically every evil, every mystery, every historical shift in the world. Early in the book, it’s revealed that the failure of the French aristocracy to protect their subjects from the vampire scourge sparked the French Revolution. At that point in the story, this little tidbit was a nice bit of flavor. By book’s end, though, you wish for at least one villain or plot twist that doesn’t sport a pair of fangs (although an aside about World War II at book’s end screams ready-made sequel if Grahame-Smith’s ever so inclined). That said, Grahame-Smith’s link between vampires and the slave trade — not to mention Lincoln’s more pragmatic reasons for freeing the slaves — is provocative, and serves the story well.
Despite the bluntness with which it works vampires into the American fabric, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a fun read. Personally, I have misgivings about a couple of its illustrations: if they are indeed Photoshopped pictures of real Civil War dead, they strike me as being in bad taste. If you want to be a stickler, you could also probably poke several holes in the book’s contention that a nationwide plague of vampires could remain secret, or even be dismissed as the superstitions of an earlier time. As a secret history, though, it rests on a good idea, and stays true to its own internal logic and to the world it builds for itself.