by BJW Nashe

In the world of fiction, Abraham Lincoln has been involved in some pretty wild escapades during the past few years. He has not only won the Civil War and freed the slaves, but also hunted scores of vampires, and been impeached by Congress. He has swung his axe in our swamps and hinterlands just as forcefully as he has wielded power in Washington.

These thrilling developments have only enriched our appreciation of our greatest president. Perhaps he rightfully belongs to fiction now. Maybe horror stories and crime thrillers are the best way to deepen our understanding of him and his legacy. The historians have more than had their say. Over 15,000 books have been written about Lincoln. We have so much information and analysis at this point our heads are spinning. Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her masterful book Team of Rivals (2005), nearly flogged the facts to death. And yet “Honest Abe” remains a mystery to us. So why not go ahead and get weird and creative with the great man’s life and work? Surely Lincoln himself–a fan of Shakespeare and Poe–would appreciate his recent imaginary adventures.

sethA few years ago, Seth Grahame-Smith decided to give Lincoln an irreverent, full-blown horror treatment, by retelling the dead president’s tale as a bloody vampire saga. And now we have a new alternate history novel by Stephen L Carter, one of our most successful authors specializing in sophisticated mysteries. In Carter’s book, Lincoln has somehow survived John Wilkes Booth’s assassination attempt, only to be caught up in a dense web of Washington conspiracy, including a bitter Congressional impeachment trial. At this point, we as readers might as well mash up both of these books into a single inspired saga: “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.”

Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2010) proceeds upon the supposed discovery of Lincoln’s “private journal,” in which Abe’s secret history is revealed. The big secret turns out to be Lincoln’s lifelong struggle to defeat the great vampire menace that threatened to take over America entirely. Who would have known? The Civil War, according to the private journal, was not fought simply to end slavery and limit states’ rights. It was also, unbeknownst to most of us, a battle to save the country from an imminent vampire takeover.

This premise no doubt seems ridiculous to many. However, the vampire mythos works quite well as a metaphor for the worst aspects of nineteenth century America–in particular slavery and racism. Slave-owning as a systematic way to serve the vampire elite, who are feeding off of the blood of the oppressed, is not that far-fetched, when you think about it. It makes a kind of twisted sense, just as the zombification motif seems appropriate for the “living dead” trapped within England’s historically rigid social structure in Grahame-Smith’s prior book–a Jane Austen remix called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009).

abeGrahame-Smith succeeds at grounding his tale in the known facts of Lincoln’s life, which he then supplements with gory vampire-hunting adventures. Lincoln’s major challenges–the numerous deaths in his family, the personal depression, the political campaigns, the Civil War itself–are re-contextualized in terms of fighting the evil vampires. The horror of slavery, which Abe witnesses firsthand during a trip to New Orleans, proves that the American South is overrun with vampires, who find slaves to be a convenient source of blood–a quick fix for their ghastly addiction. The journal describes how young Abe, seeking vengeance for the death of his mother, and being a big, strong, rawboned frontiersman, takes up his trusty axe and sets out to rid the world of these monsters. He receives valuable training and assistance from a sympathetic vampire named Henry, who though “infected,” wants no part of the vampire plan for world dominion.

Grahame-Smith’s portrayal of Lincoln’s double life is skillfully handled and highly entertaining. As is true for most good horror fiction, there is an undercurrent of dark humor running through all the action. It’s suspenseful. It’s preposterous. It’s fraught with deeper meaning. What’s not to love? By day, Abe grows up and takes on the role of lawyer and aspiring politician, eventually becoming the president we all revere. By night, he hunts vampires. And make no mistake about it, just as he masterfully hones the political skills for which he will become famous and powerful, Lincoln also kicks some serious vampire ass in this book. We are talking axe-murder here, as bloody and relentless as you can imagine, in all of it’s gruesome, sweaty, skull-crushing detail.

Grahame-Smith presents Lincoln’s life as a vampire hunter in vivid pulp-fiction prose. Consider the following passage, for example, in which Abe confronts the truth about his mother’s death at the hand of a vampire named Jack Barts, with some collusion from Abe’s father. This is the point where Lincoln, sickened at the sight of the vampire, decides to embark on his secret lifelong quest:

axeThe very sight of him awakened some heretofore unknown hatred. Hatred of my father. Of all things. He revolted me. I ran into the night for fear of what I might say; what I might do if I were in his presence a moment longer. My anger kept me away for three days and nights. I slept in the barns and outbuildings of neighbors. Stole eggs and ears of corn. Walked until my legs shook from exhaustion. Wept at the thought of my mother. They had taken her from me. Father and Jack Barts. I hated myself for being too small to protect her. I hated my father for telling me such impossible, unspeakable things. And yet I knew they were the truth. I cannot explain how I knew with such certainty, but I did. The way my father had hushed us when we spun vampire yarns. The screams that had carried on the wind at night. My mother’s fevered whispers about “looking the devil in the eyes.” Father was a drunk. An indolent, loveless drunk. But he was no liar. During those three days of anger and grief, I gave into madness and admitted something to myself: I believed in vampires. I believed in them, and I hated them to the last.  “When he finally came home (to a frightened stepmother and silent father), Abe didn’t say a word. He made straight for his journal and wrote down a single sentence. One that would radically alter the course of his life, and bring a fledgling nation to the brink of collapse. I hereby resolve to kill every vampire in America.

Note how easy it is to substitute “racist” or “slave-owner” for “vampire” here. This double thread runs through the book, but the concept never gets in the way of the action. Grahame-Smith keeps the pace fast and furious right on up to Lincoln’s assassination. Amidst the vampire-slaying, the deep feelings of Lincoln’s tragic family life, and the horror of the Civil War, are put on full display. Reading this book gives us a new appreciation for the painful loss of Lincoln’s son Willy. The Battle of Gettysburg becomes an unforgettable gothic nightmare. I will never again look at a daguerrotype photograph of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis without seeing a clear image of a vampire. The thematic link between racist oppression, slavery, and vampirism holds up well, and Lincoln’s raw strength and determination comes through loud and clear. Straight scholarly history tends to avoid this level of horror when it comes to Lincoln. Seth Grahame-Smith, in his own cheeky way, makes us realize that much of Lincoln’s life was in fact shocking and terrifying.

impeachFinishing the vampire book with the assassination attempt at Ford’s Theater, we are not ready to let go of Lincoln yet. Thankfully, we can pick up the story with Stephen L. Carter’s new novel, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln. Here we shift from war and axe-murder to political intrigue and courtroom drama, with some cloak-and-dagger suspense thrown in for good measure. Carter imagines that Lincoln has survived the serious gunshot wounded to his head. It was Vice President Andrew Johnson who ended up being killed. Secretary of State Seward was severely wounded, and is now forced into retirement and seclusion. The country, in the aftermath of war, is awash in chaos and confusion. The nation’s capitol is rife with conspiracy.

We might assume that the vampires, after the Civil War, are all but vanquished. Or are they simply fewer in number, and keeping a low profile, as they plot their next move? Carter doesn’t mention them outright. But reading between the lines of his novel, we get the sense  there are still plenty of bloodsucking fiends (i.e. racists and exploiters) lurking around Washington. Some things never change.

In fact, the treachery Lincoln faces in Carter’s novel may be more extreme than what he had to deal with in the vampire extravaganza. Carter’s main plot line consists of Lincoln, now two years into his second term, being impeached and put on trial in Congress. Sound far-fetched? Not as wacky as vampire-hunting, by any means, but still a bit left-field. Well, Carter begs to differ. In his “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, he explains that the hypothetical impeachment requires no great leap of imagination:

“Great people can sometimes do terrible things, and Presidents of the United States are no exceptions. Perhaps Franklin Roosevelt should have been removed from office for herding Japanese-Americans into internment camps, or Harry Truman for incinerating, by design, tens of thousands of innocent people. Then there is Woodrow Wilson, whose contempt for the First Amendment was so complete that he argued, fervently, for the incarceration of critics of American entry into World War I, on the ground that they were disloyal—and partly accomplished his unconstitutional goal. As for Lincoln, the accusations set forth in my novel are nearly all matters of historical record. Lincoln did shut down newspapers he believed were impeding the war effort. He did arrest opposition spokesmen. He did suspend habeas corpus, and ignore court orders demanding the release of prisoners. He did place Northern cities under martial law. He did shut down the Maryland legislature by force. Are these impeachable offenses? That question I leave for the reader to decide; bearing in mind that no recent Chief Executive, no matter how controversial, has any similar litany to his credit.” “Those are the facts. What about the fiction?”

carterThe fiction Carter is more than happy to provide, and he is certainly well-qualified for the job. As the distinguished William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale, Carter has written a number of books and articles on law and politics. He has enjoyed great success, though, as an author of high-brow legal thrillers. His first novel, a compelling murder mystery called The Emperor of Ocean Park (2002), was a worldwide bestseller that explored the complexities of life among America’s black bourgeoisie. Subsequent novels showed that this stunning debut was no fluke. The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln may be his best work yet.

Carter digs deep into Lincoln’s challenging life and times in this novel. As in his previous work, it is Carter’s unique rendering of the African American experience that makes his story so rich and substantial. We need black perspectives here in order to truly bring Lincoln to life. To write about Lincoln truthfully, even in a fictional setting, without involving fully-rounded black characters seems absurd–as ridiculous as writing a sex manual by interviewing virgins. Here is Carter, once again in his Author’s Note, explaining the key role played by black characters in his Lincoln novel:

“What about the black community at this time? Our shared notion that the entire darker nation in the middle years of the nineteenth century was just out of slavery and grindingly poor is the sort of racist nonsense that continues nowadays to provide a peculiar comfort to black and white alike. Although history has little to say about them, there were indeed a handful of wealthy black families in America at this time, and the Berryhills [a family in the novel] in particular are something of a composite. Moreover, there were at that time many black families in what we might now think of as the middle class. Business ownership was not unusual, and not a few held college degrees and were trained professionals. And so an ambitious and well-educated young woman like Abigail Canner could indeed have traveled in the circles she does in my story, and dreamed of involvement in great events.”

Abigail Canner is the key character in Carter’s novel. Her perspective as an intelligent young black woman drawn into Lincoln’s complicated travails–who even functions as a fictional double for the president–is a stroke of genius on Carter’s part. Through her, we gain crucial insight into the Lincoln legacy–insight that tends to be missing from, or beyond the reach of, straight historical realism. Note, for instance, how black characters tend to be sidelined in Spielberg’s celebrated film Lincoln. Here, on the other hand, Abigail Canner is able to take center stage, right along with the president. And our understanding of the president, and the challenges he faces, is all the richer for it. The “fiction,” in this case, rings more true than the “non-fiction.”

In the novel, Ms. Canner is a graduate of Oberlin College who is hired as a clerk at the Washington law firm of Dennard and McShane, which just happens to be the firm taken on to handle the President’s defense at his upcoming impeachment trial. When McShane is found murdered outside of a house of ill-repute, the firm is swept up into a whirlwind of political treachery and legal intrigue. As Ms. Canner navigates the elite circles of power in Washington, even interacting with President Lincoln and playing a crucial role in his legal affairs, we too are navigating through some important lessons about our nation’s history.

beatenIt is worth noting that Ms. Canner, like President Lincoln, is about as far from being a “victim” as you can get. Not that she is disconnected from historical reality. She knows what the stakes of the impeachment trial are. She knows what Lincoln has been up against–before and after the Civil War. She knows all about the “night riders” who are lynching blacks all over the South. Who knows, she might even know all about the vampires. The nightmare of history, however, has not defeated her. In fact, she plays an active role in shaping that history as it unfolds all around her. Her personal, professional, and political life–not to mention her insider/outsider status in society–is rich and complex. It is as rich and complex as Lincoln’s is. The relationship she forms with Jonathan Hilliman, a fellow law clerk who happens to be a white man, is a stunning example of Carter’s strengths as a novelist. In the end, we like to think that no vampire menace, no political conspiracy, no “night riders,” and no impeachment trial will ever be a match for the likes of Abigail Canner, Jonathan Hilliman, and President Abraham Lincoln. In Carter’s portrayal of the president, expertly filtered through the prism of Abigail Canner’s awareness, we see the man’s deep moral convictions accompanied by plenty of folk wisdom and no shortage of political guts.

It would be easy to dismiss Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as a surreal joke, while praising the depth of Stephen L. Carter’s sophisticated impeachment thriller. Not so fast, though. I prefer to view these two very different books as unwitting collaborators. Both texts use fiction to test and re-formulate the character of Lincoln, taking him places where straight historical realism is unable to venture. The vampire tale and the alternate history/impeachment story both show us a flesh-and-blood character who is more than capable of facing tremendous adversity with ferocious skill and determination. His own flaws, and the tragic circumstances of his life, only serve to strengthen him. In spite of the horror of death and war, the nightmare of slavery, and the snake pit of American politics, Lincoln is able to “look the devil in the eyes,” and then go on and make a difference. Thus his influence is deep and profound. For African Americans such as Abigail Canner, Lincoln’s achievements are immeasurable–the foundation upon which the future Civil Rights movement would be built. For vampires such as Jefferson Davis and John Wilkes Booth, there was no greater threat imaginable. And no crime committed by a deranged assassin will ever diminish these truths about Lincoln. We have the fiction to prove it.


One Response to The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

  1. […] At this point, we as readers might as well mash up both of these books into a single inspired saga: “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.” …… […]

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