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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.

“And you did get into the coffin?”

“I had no choice. I begged Lestat to let me stay in the closet, but he laughed, astonished.”

Confession time folks. It’s my birthday in ….ooh, six hours. So my wife and I treated ourselves to a nice bottle of Verdelho mid-way through my reading of this book. I am slightly tipsy.

That being said, I think I’m in the perfect position to review this book. It is, after all, a bit dull.

Sorry this review seems to have started early. Let me take a moment to explain the plot.

Louis is the son of  a wealthy French family, with a Louisiana plantation near New Orleans to his name. He feels bowed down by guilt after spurning his younger brother’s religious visions, compelling the family to sell their property in America and return to France to fight the revolutionary scourge of anti-monarchist atheists. When his brother dies mysteriously, Louis refuses to reveal to his mother and sister that madness was the cause of his death. He confesses this to a priest, who blithely dismisses his brother’s religious ecstacy as the result of possession by the devil.

This leaves Louis primed for seduction by the vampire Lestat. Callous, profligate and in need of property, the vampire chooses him in order to gain access to his wealth and status. While Lestat has the appearance of a man of style, he has no head for money. Louis, in effect, once transformed into a vampire becomes manager of his sire’s financial affairs, investing the monies stolen from his victims astutely to provide for them. Immortality has its own challenges, such as a ready access to capital.

Eventually he begins to tire of Lestat’s vain and selfish behaviour, and seeks to go his own way. The two vampires become rivals, with the latter deciding to transform a five-year old girl into a proxy daughter for their undead family.

“I want a child tonight. I am like a mother…I want a child!”

Claudia becomes a companion to Louis, encouraging him to investigate the origins of vampires. They travel to Europe, discovering only haggard  revenants, with the secret of a vampire retaining any semblance of a conscious self seemingly an accident of Lestat’s invention. Until, that is, they come to Paris and find the famous Théâtre des Vampires.

I am sorry to say I did not enjoy the experience of reading this book at all. It is incredibly frustrating. At times Rice‘s plot fascinates – Louis’ ruminations on damnation inform an interesting perspective on religious faith; his relationship with Lestat is reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s tortured association with Henry Irving – only for these passages to give way to interminable ramblings on the pain and suffering of life as a vampire. It is not even internally consistent. Rice establishes that the undead are perfect beings, preserved in time having expelled any human functions upon the moment of conversion. Then there is a passage when Louis is described “defying the sweat which had broken from every pore”.

Of course I have not mentioned the ‘interview’, of the title. Louis, it turns out, has approached a young man, referred to throughout as a ‘boy’, to record his testimony as to his existence as a vampire. With the religious subtext of the book, this interview comes to resemble a secular confession. One of the highpoints of the novel is Louis’ confrontation with a priest. Disillusioned after years of living in fear of damnation, he finds himself standing in a church, gazing at the marbled statues of saints and heavenly powers. Suddenly he realizes the pomp and decadence of the Catholic Church and takes out his frustration on the priest present. It’s a rare moment of passion in amongst the mumbled misery and depression of this novel, a sign of how powerful Rice’s themes could be if applied properly.

As for Lestat, the hero of a number of Rice novels, he appears to be nothing more than a vain, vulgar and impudent child. I have no desire to read another book describing his adventures.

A sad disappointment overall, frustrating and for the most part, quite boring.

“All right,” I said; “suppose the characters exist in the author’s mind, like the events; where does the value of invention come in?”

“Where the value of any invention comes in,” he answered. “In its purpose or use. A wheel spinning aimlessly is worth nothing; the same wheel on a cart or a pulley changes destiny.”

“You can’t learn anything from fairy tales,” I persisted stubbornly.

He smiled. “Maybe you havent read the right fairy tales.”

Damn. I got very excited by a certain stylistic quirk that I noticed in this book. Mr Ward Moore had seemingly written the entire thing without using apostrophes. You might see above he has written the contraction ‘havent’. Unfortunately right above that line of dialogue, he gives narrator Hodge Backmaker ‘can’t’.

Well there’s that theory blown out of the water.

Eight years ago I was working with a woman from Texas who used to proudly claim to share common descent with George Bush and Queen Elizabeth. What I found odd was not the claim itself, but that it was obviously so important to her. Of course I say that as an O’Cuana and we have done anything to be proud of in a thousand years.

I say this as the notion of historical prestige is not something I guess I can understand. Moore with this book examines not just the premise of an America with an alternate history, but the importance of being able to draw descent from the respective sides of the Civil War conflict.

Hodge Backmaker begins his narration telling us that he was born in 1921, but that this is being written in 1877. Neither the dates nor the tenses are error – let me explain. The fortunes of the Backmaker clan are inextricably linked with the events of the Civil War, when the Union lost to the Southron forces. What ensued was a near half-century of economic ruin for the Yankee territories. A prevalent xenophobia for foreign nations became the dominant political rhetoric. What’s more while slavery was abolished,  most citizens are so impoverished they agree to a system of indenture to corporations until they are too old to be of use. Moore even includes a few alternate history jokes. George Bernard Shaw died a little-known reverend. Carl Jung became a police chief.

Hodge is something of an anomaly, in that he sees no future in labouring to support his family and prefers to spend his time buried in books. He dreams of putting his love of reading to some good use, perhaps even becoming an academic in one of the dilapidated academies that still exist in the Union. To that end he sets off for New York with his fortune of three dollars in his pocket.

The countryboy from Poughkeepsie notices that the metropolis lacks the skyscrapers of Confederate ruled Washington, but remains a glamourous sight, with its airborn zeppelins and thronging multitude. Of course the awe-struck yokel quickly falls on bad luck, which sets him on the path to a meeting with a bookseller named Mr Tyss and the revolutionary Grand Army.

Moore’s novel is concerned not only with history, but with the notion of an objective observer of history. Hodge learns a new understanding of events from two men, Tyss and the Haitian Ambassador  M’sieu Enfandin. The one insists that history itself is predetermined; the other that man is free to choose his destiny. Hodge himself lives frozen by indecision. In that his character is a sly dig at the pretence of historians to be unbiased spectator to events. Tyss mocks him for even desiring to be impartial, stating that his love of history is simply a desire to hide from action.

It is a very fine joke, made all the funnier by Moore then sending Hodge on a fantastical adventure that explains the riddle of the book’s opening lines. This is a gripping novel of ideas, one I am very surprised to have never heard of before. Much like Philip K. Dick‘s The Man In The High Castle the book seeks to outstrip being merely an alternate history yarn, with far loftier themes in mind.

I also enjoyed how like Hamlet, Hodge is not the virginal prevaricator popular opinion might assume him to be. He’s actually quite the ladies man. He simply refuses to take responsibility for his actions, or indeed any commitments at all.

A thoughtfully written investigation of American history, with a sf glaze.

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