Last year around this time, Barack Obama gave a stirring speech in Springfield, Illinois to commemorate the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial. “Why did he land on the side of union?,” Obama wondered aloud about our 16th president. “What was it that made him so unrelenting in pursuit of victory that he was willing to test the Constitution he ultimately preserved? What was it that led this man to give his last full measure of devotion so that our nation might endure?” Despite dozens of new books about Lincoln’s legacy published in 2009, nobody came up with a satisfying answer. Until now. Seth Grahame-Smith, an author and amateur historian, claims in his latest tome that Lincoln’s entire life and political career was driven by a single purpose: “To free men from the tyranny of vampires.”
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, published by Grand Central and available everywhere next Tuesday, March 2, is not just the Lincoln biography we’ve all been waiting for. It’s also the funniest, most action-packed and weirdly well-researched account of the Civil War you’ll probably read in a long time. Every chapter is filled with familiar and semi-familiar names from that dark period in our nation’s history—like William Seward, George B. McClellan and Jefferson Douglas—and some surprising guest stars like Edgar Allan Poe, who visits Lincoln while researching a lesbian vampire story, the greatest work of fiction Poe never actually got around to writing. Political history can sometimes be a little dry, but not with lines like “Senator Charles Sumner lay unconscious on the Senate floor, face-down in a pool of his own blood.” Grahame-Smith could be poised to become the Howard Zinn of vampire-related alterna-history. Either that or he’ll just have another runaway bestseller on his hands, rivaling his Jane Austen mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
I called Grahame-Smith to talk about monsters and presidents. He admitted that he hopes Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will get at least a few nerdy history buffs laid by girls with vampire fetishes, if only because “I’d be doing my former self a huge service.”
Eric Spitznagel: When you got the idea for this book, were you thinking, “I sure do love Abe Lincoln, but I wish his story had more vampires?” Or was it, “I’m sick and tired of all these vampire novels without any historical context?”
Seth Grahame-Smith: To be honest, I don’t know which came first in that chicken or the egg scenario. I’ve been a lifelong horror fan, but at the same time, I would say 90 percent of my reading is biographies and nonfiction history. I read a lot by Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough and Walter Isaacson. I’ve always enjoyed reading history, particularly presidential biographies. I guess where it really came from was, I like to wander around bookstores and see what people are reading. Last year, during the Lincoln bicentennial—and this was when Twilight was really blowing up—it seemed to me like every book on the front shelves was either a Lincoln biography or a vampire novel. So it was like an instantaneous click in my brain.
You thought, “If I can find a way to combine these two genres, I will rule the world?!”
(Laughs.) Something like that. It was a weird chocolate-meets-peanut-butter moment for me. It was a chance to take my two favorite tastes and put them together.
For a vampire thriller, your book has an awful lot of actual history in it.
I wrote it with an eye towards pleasing the people who love history and the people who love horror. I wanted it to deliver on both levels. At least that’s what I endeavored to do.
I actually would have paid attention in my high school history class if there’d been a few more stories about hunting vampires. Could this become the teaching tool of the future?
I got the same question about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. People asked me, “Do you think people should teach this instead of Price and Prejudice?” I don’t think so, because you have to appreciate the original before you can enjoy a satire of it. It’s like, let’s say I took a postcard of the Mona Lisa and drew a mustache on it. It looks kinda funny and it’s a twist on a classic, but by no means should it demean or replace the actual classic.
Unless you get a half-million dollar advance for that postcard. In which case, da Vinci can go fuck himself.
My hope is, if people are interested in this book, they’ll be sparked to learn more about the real Lincoln and the real struggles he dealt with in his life.
Yeah, but wouldn’t history in general be so much better with a little horror mixed in? How much cooler would the War of 1812 be if it had been caused by a gypsy curse?
Or if there’d been more vampires in it. Sure, yeah, I understand. I think any period in history can be adapted into interesting fiction, as long as you approach the actual history with respect. I went into this respecting Lincoln enormously, and I came out respecting him even more, because I did so much research on his actual life. I realized that I had to be very careful, because this book is dealing with sensitive issues. It’s dealing with slavery, it’s dealing with the Civil War, and it’s dealing with the life of a man who’s on Mount Rushmore, a towering legend who’s ingrained into our earliest grade school memories.
But who’s really going to get upset over a little Lincoln satire? Civil War reenactors?
(Laughs.) You never know. I hope not. I hope that I’ve been careful to show just how much respect I have for that period in history, and that my intention wasn’t to treat it flippantly.
You picked a good time to write about vampires, what with Twilight making zillions from tween readers. But your book doesn’t really have a lot of sexual frustration and hot vampire boys who just need to be tamed by the right girl from their high school math class. Was that a mistake?
Not at all. I think it’s time in literature to stop kissing vampires and start killing them again. I have plenty of respect for what Stephenie Meyer accomplished, but we’ve gotten to a point where we think vampires should be sexy. And I’m trying to push us back towards thinking of vampires as dangerous. They are things that should be feared and beheaded at the earliest possible convenience.
When they make the inevitable movie of your book, who do you envision in the lead?
Oh man, I don’t know. I’ve actually started working on the screenplay, because some yet-to-be-named Hollywood producer types have optioned it and they hired me to write the adaptation. You have your dream people, those actors who are exceptionally tall, dark and handsome.
You’ll probably end up with Zac Efron as the flirty-eyed, well coiffed Lincoln.
Well, I… (Long pause.) I think Zac might be a little young.
(Laughs.) Nicely done. Way to be diplomatic.
These are what we call quality problems.
What do you think about the theory that we get more zombie stories when there’s a Republican president and more vampire stories when a Democrat’s in office? Does that mean anything?
It might be a coincidence. I think zombies have always been an easy metaphor for hard times. Because they’re this big, faceless, brainless group of evil things that will work tirelessly to destroy you and think of nothing else.
So… pretty much the Republican party?
(Laughs.) Okay, sure. But (George A.) Romero used zombies to skewer everything from communism to consumerism to Cold War anxiety. They’re just this thing that we can put our fears onto. With vampires, it’s about dealing with our fears of death and concocting ways of achieving immortality. When times are bad, which they’ve certainly been in this country, we look for creatures to put a face on our problems. I think the worse things get in the world, the more interested we get in horror.
I read somewhere that the only historical figure who’s been written about more than Lincoln is Jesus. I think I have the perfect idea for your next book: Jesus vs. the Werewolf.
(Long pause.) Yeah, I don’t know. I… hesitate to go biblical. There’s enough potential for backlash when you’re dealing with Jane Austen or Abe Lincoln, but boy, if you really want to rile people up, put an M-16 in Jesus’s hands.
You can’t tell me that Jesus mowing down bad guys with a machine gun wouldn’t be freakin’ amazing. “The meek shall inherit the earth! The rest of you motherfuckers eat lead!”
Yeah, that would be pretty cool. If you found the right Jesus story. (Laughs.) Other than the Bible, of course. The one that people are familiar with. I don’t know, it gives me anxiety just thinking about it.
Let me read a paragraph from your book. This is Lincoln trying to explain the full scope of the vampire menace to a friend: “I (was) determined to tell him all: the marriage of slavery and Southern vampires. Their plan to enslave all but the fortunate few of our kind; to keep us in cages and chains as we had kept the Negro. I told him of their plan to create a new America; a nation of vampires—free from oppression, free from darkness, and blessed with an abundance of living men to feast upon.” Have you ever considered writing for Fox News?
(Laughs.) Now that Sarah Palin is a correspondent, absolutely! I would love to put words in her mouth.
This is the perfect Conservative fantasy book. It’s basically about paranoid political delusions that turn out to be entirely correct.
Yeah, I guess this is kinda a paranoid book, if you think about it. It alleges that there’s an ongoing, long-held vampire conspiracy to enslave all mankind.
And that conspiracy turns out to be true. It’s like, what if gay marriage really does lead to bestiality? What if Obama really is a secret operative of Al-Qaeda?
I never thought about it that way, but that’s a pretty astute observation. Huh. Maybe I do have a future at Fox. I should call Roger Ailes and see if he’ll make me an offer.
Your version of Lincoln reminds me of Bush. He thinks he’s in an epic struggle between good and evil. He’s not just waging a war; he’s saving humanity.
And on top of that, it’s about our government keeping huge secrets from us. Abe and his cabinet don’t really tell the masses what’s really going on with the Civil War, because they don’t want to create panic. So yeah, in that sense, I guess I’ve sort of unwittingly written a really right-wing novel. You’ve opened my eyes.
Is this what happens with every wartime president? Do they need to have a moral certainty that they’re fighting demons?
The difference with Lincoln, or at least the Lincoln in my book, is that he actually is fighting demons. Lincoln has those fears and they’re justified.
But in terms of how his brain works—the holy war he earnestly believes he’s been chosen by God to lead—there really is no difference between Bush and Lincoln.
Yeah, but I don’t think Abe would have put on a flight suit and landed on an aircraft carrier. Fundamentally, though, I guess there isn’t much of a difference. For instance, when Lincoln did his speech at Gettysburg, months after the battle was actually waged that turned the tide of war for the North, Abe perfectly encapsulated in that two-minute speech a sort of propaganda. It was eloquent and beautiful and it’ll live on forever in our culture, but it was all about rallying people to his cause. In the book, he doesn’t really tell them exactly how much is at stake, because he doesn’t want to instill even more fear in the masses. “Oh, by the way, not only is our country tearing itself apart, but if we lose this war, you’re all going to be food for demons.”
So he lies to us for our own protection. Hmm, why does that sound so familiar?
(Laughs.) It really does, doesn’t it?
Obama has obviously been very influenced and inspired by Lincoln’s legacy. Could he hold his own against a vampire attack?
I don’t know. He’s tall and lanky and sort of muscular. And he definitely grew up poor like Lincoln. But Abe spent the better part of his childhood training to be one of the greatest killers of the undead.
You’re suggesting that Obama is unqualified?
It’s too soon to say. There are things that Obama is remarkably good at, but I’m not sure that vampire hunting is one of them yet.
After 9/11, our country has grappled with how much we’re willing to sacrifice for national security. Which really isn’t that different from the vampire question. Is it worth giving up our civil liberties to protect ourselves from vampires?
Absolutely not. I don’t think it’s ever worth giving up our civil liberties. What would they have us do? Would they have us lock ourselves away behind walls covered in cloves of garlic? What kind of life is that, I ask you?
So total freedom means accepting a certain vulnerability to vampire fangs?
I think so. As with the terrorists, we have to take the fight to the vampires. There will be setbacks, there will be causalities, there will be disappointments, but in the end, we will triumph over the bloodsuckers and restore this great nation to its rightful day-walkers.
I would totally vote for you. Any chance you’d consider running for Congress?
(Laughs.) Just buy the book. That’s enough.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com)