Monday, July 06, 2015

One last entry from the current batch of quick reads!

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” was an unexpected pleasure that I encountered several years ago. As someone who considers both Jane Austen and zombie movies to be guilty pleasures, it amused me greatly to see them mashed up in such a skillful way. The most impressive aspect of this work were the transitions: how seamlessly the author would segue from the original comedy of manners into bone-crunching flesh-chewing mayhem.

So the follow-up, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” has been on my list for a while. In the manner of many sequels, it has been improved and also fundamentally changed. It doesn’t draw upon any single novel or document for a framing structure: it reads much like a work of popular history, following a singlular biographical thread, venturing out into a wider historical context when appropriate, and incorporating quotations, footnotes, and vintage photographs when appropriate. The effect is still similar to 19th century novels, which seemed to invariably rely on some contrived idea that the author had “found” this remarkable manuscript, but here it’s author-as-editor and not author-as-finder. He’s drawing upon a secret source (Abraham Lincoln’s lost journals) and synthesizing them with the sort of stuff we could look up on Wikipedia.

On the whole, I really enjoyed it. It’s been a while since I read P&P&Z, but I think I slightly prefer the earlier work, partly because Austen’s original prose is so fun while the faux-historical tone of AL:VH can be dry. When it isn’t dry, it veers towards the melodramatic, with Abraham loudly dedicating his life to the abolition of vampirism and weeping for his lost family members. Part of what I loved about P&P&Z was how blasé people could be about the zombies: they were a problem that needed to be dealt with when they appeared, but were not inherently more worrisome than courtship or financial debts.


In contrast, vampirism is absolutely the focus of AL:VH, in a way that seems like it could be really bad but somehow ends up avoiding. The text early draws a parallel between vampires and slavery: vampires arrived on the continent at the time of the Roanoke settlement, and see the institution of slavery as a means by which they can be assured of a large and pliant population upon which to feed. They are mostly concentrated in the South, lend their support to prominent slaveholders and (later) leaders of the Confederacy, and directly fight to promote their interests.

All this seems to run the risk of minimizing the evils of slavery. Isn’t the idea of one man owning another man bad enough to need to be opposed, without needing to also invent a supernatural reason to combat it? In fact, the motives of the Union side ultimately seem like they could be selfish: the problem isn’t just that the vampires will feast upon the black population, but after the Confederacy triumphs, they will similarly turn the white majority into chattel, with only a select few collaborators maintaining their freedom. It’s a bit gross to think that people would stand on the sidelines for black slavery and join the fight against white slavery.

That said, I felt like the book ultimately works pretty well. It focuses on the awfulness of slavery, even prior to any vampires being introduced, and once vampires do come on the scene it emphasizes how this macabre arrangement is only possible thanks to America’s legal sanctioning of human ownership. Vampires make slavery worse, but it was already terrible without them, and they serve as an illustration for the total abasement of human rights in this context.


Final note: I was surprised to see Lincoln still “alive” at the end - it was a fun little sting, like the post-credits reveal in a movie. Of course, it’s a lot of fun to imagine Abe and Henry striding around America staking villains through the heart. We never hear this Lincoln speak or even see all that much of him, so I’m left curious just how happy he was about this arrangement. Abe resisted all of Henry’s offers to raise his sons, but given that he had already lost much of his family, I could imagine this character dedicating his afterlife to destroying those who had brought so much grief to his life and that of his nation. I like the idea of an immortal Abe continuing to work in the shadows, sacrificing his eternal reward to ensure the continued freedom of his people.


There's a movie version of AL:VH which I imagine I might check out at some point - it sounds like the sort of stupid fun that's perfect for certain moods of mine.

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