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“Most men have no purpose but to exist, Abraham; to pass quietly through history as minor characters upon a stage they cannot even see. To be the playthings of tyrants. But you…you were born to fight tyranny. It is your purpose, Abraham. To free men from the tyranny of vampires.”
When Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out in 2009 it was an instant hit. I remember picking it up on my way to work, leaving it on my desk while I went to get a coffee and returning to find my boss reading it. After eventually wresting it from his hands, I got to check out this literary ‘mash-up‘, for myself. I was surprised to discover that Jane Austen meets zombies turned out not to be just an off-hand gimick. In fact I thought Grahame-Smith did a great job of reinforcing the themes of the original novel. Throwing in some zombies and ninjas helped, but I detected an incisive intelligence beneath the blood and grue.
This book is Grahame-Smith’s second in the sub-genre of horror mash-ups, although instead of throwing supernatural elements into a classic text he has taken the life of Abraham Lincoln as his ‘source text’.
Born in the wild frontierlands of Kentucky, Lincoln grew up with little formal education, but a burning desire to learn. In contrast to his lackadaisical father, his is physically active and eager to earn his own keep. In fact it is due to his father’s debts that the two most pivotal events in Lincoln’s early life occur. Firstly, at the age of ten, he loses his beloved mother to a mysterious illness. Secondly, he learns of the existence of vampires.
Believing his father responsible for the death of his mother, a consequence of the devilish fiend who murdered her seeking an alternate form of payment, he becomes consumed by anger at both his surviving parent and the entire species of vampires. Faster and stronger than humans, when revealed in their true state their eyes are black as coals and they possess prominent fangs. They hide in cities and roam the countryside looking for their prey. As the teenage Lincoln despairs “How could I worhsip a God who would permit [vampires] to exist?“ He sets about learning all he can about the vampire, after swearing to kill every last one of them in America.
Of course he is no match for the preternatural creatures. It is only through his unusual friendship with Henry Sturges, a sympathetic vampire and the sole survivor of the ill-fated Roanoke colony, that he acquires the necessary training and knowledge to fight the undead. Over the years Lincoln becomes a more proficient hunter, even recruiting other men to join him on his quest. The vampire is a hidden creature, but in certain circles its presence in America is well-known. Slave-owners and corrupt businessmen who have profited by associating with the monsters aid and abet them in their murders. Lincoln eventually decides to enter politics so that he can effect real change throughout the nation and defeat a second enslavement of humanity.
Initially my hackles were raised by the prospect of American slavery being portrayed here as entirely the invention of vampires. “So long as this country is cursed with slavery, so too will it be cursed with vampires.” This seemed to me one fictionalisation of history too many. Thankfully Grahame-Smith anticipates this in the plot.
There is real fun to be had here with its mixture of history and fantasy. Some of the author’s inventions are quite amusing. I especially loved the introduction of Edgar Allan Poe into the narrative, who expresses a ghoulish fascination with vampires, quite unlike Lincoln’s determined drive to eliminate their race. The book also has a canny sense of its own ridiculousness. Chapters have a tendency to end with a clever quip and there is some great banter between Lincoln and his vampire hunting colleagues. Of course, seeing as this is a horror novel, there are scenes of graphic violence, cleverly married to the excesses of war. The American Civil War is not only the backdrop to the climax of the novel, but a staging ground for a final battle between humans and vampires.
The novel’s framing device is that Grahame-Smith himself has been approached by a vampire with a collection of aged diaries belonging to Lincoln, revealing the existence of the undead. It is an entertaining conceit, one that allows for extensive artistic licence.
Well executed and very amusing.
Meredith nodded as she thought. ‘You know, I often wonder whether this place – the villages, the moors – has a certain mystical quality that draws people back – or which won’t let them go.’
There has been an interesting attempt to revive interest in classic novels lately. Not only do we have the fitfully amusing mash-ups of Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy with fantasy, or horror staples, but there was also a recent marketing push to design the covers of the likes of Wuthering Heights to appeal to fans of Twilight.
Today’s book not only carries an opening quote from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, it refers to the book itself frequently within the text. The contrast between the metropolitan lifestyle of protagonist Grace in London and her feelings of isolation on the Yorkshire moors indicate that there are places in this world where the clock can be turned back to the periods described by these classic novels referred to in Beneath The Shadows.
Grace and her husband Adam left behind their hectic lives in London to raise their newborn child Millie in a cottage inherited after the recent deaths of his grandparents. Hawthorn Cottage is an opportunity to escape from the pressures of paying exorbitant rents and nights of blaring traffic, as well as give Millie a proper childhood in the fresh air of the countryside. If the change is too drastic, Adam promises that after six months they can leave.
Then one night Grace returns to an empty home, finding only a cryptic note from Adam telling her he has something important to tell her. Hours pass without any sign of him and then she discovers Millie safe in her pram outside the house, but no sign of her husband.
Adam’s disappearance is treated by the police as an apparently intentional abandonment of his young family. Grace is unable to accept this and returns to the cottage a year later secretly looking for clues as to her husband’s vanishing. Grace’s parents are unhappy with their daughter’s decision to return and her sister Annabel agrees to visit to make sure she is not slipping back into despondency. Once back in the Yorkshire village of Roseby, Grace sets about trying to renovate the old cottage to make it more attractive to a buyer. She is determined to provide her daughter with a proper inheritance. She meets a stoic man named Ben, a one-time native who has only recently returned to Roseby after years overseas who agrees to help with the renovations.
Local woman Meredith acted as caretaker for the cottage in Grace’s absence. Through her she learns more about Adam’s family, the history of the area itself, as well as much of the local folklore about spirits and ghosts. Grace becomes disturbed by a recurring nightmares involving Adam and supernatural creatures inspired by Meredith’s stories. When Annabel arrives and takes a fancy to the kindly yet mysterious Ben, she also cannot help but feel disturbed by how her sister’s flirtation affects her.
Then winter comes to North Yorkshire, covering the vast landscape outside the cottage with a blanket of snow, but also completely isolating Grace and her child, with no company save for the buried secrets of Roseby. The more she learns, the more she begins to question what she knows about Adam. She becomes convinced there is someone close to her, someone living in Roseby, who knows what really happened to her husband.
Sara Foster has followed up her debut Come Back to Me with a winning evocation of novels such as Wuthering Heights, The Turn of the Screw, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, – each namechecked along with Rebecca in the story – as well as the natural sights and sounds of the Yorkshire landscape. Ben makes for an entertaining reincarnation of Heathcliff, whose past is indelibly linked to Grace’s. I enjoyed how Foster updates the themes of these classic novels to a contemporary setting. The hints of supernatural forces dropped throughout the texts, with copious mentions of ghosts and barghests, add to the prevailing mood of menace. Grace and her sister’s relationship is also well established, comic sibling rivalry a more contemporary concern than classic naturalism.
All this is combined with the literary trope of a family with too many buried secrets to produce a work that casually merges classicism and contemporary to winning effect.
With thanks to Random House for my review copy.