Fresh Blood

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER isn’t a great movie, and it isn’t going to win any Oscars. Maybe by writing that sentence I’ve kicked in the cosmic door of universal contrariness, and it’ll walk away with seven or eight awards of various levels of distinction, but awards are a crapshoot anyway (in the sense that a crapshoot is a bunch of people who know each other, giving each other a chance to win things from one another). Or it could do surprisingly well in DVD and Blu-ray sales. Either result would potentially serve as a healthy shot in the arm to summer blockbuster fare, because AL: VH is the first cinematic version of a mash-up book, a pidgin genre spawned by reworking classic literature or history with elements of horror and science fiction.

Jane Austen may have good reason to turn in her grave. The first of the so-called mashup novels to get on the New York Times Bestseller list was Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, co-authored by Seth Grahame-Smith and Austen (Nick Mamatas’ far more subtle Move Under Ground, described as Kerouac Vs Cthulhu, did not garner nearly the same level of attention outside established sci-fi circles of readership). Co-authored in this instance meant Grahame-Smith took Austen’s text and rewrote portions of it to make the Bennett sisters, historically in want of husbands, now in want of freedom from a nationwide plague of the undead. Husbands became a somewhat less pressing matter.

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies was quickly followed by other macabre or fantastical takes on classics, such as Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters, Android Karenina, and Jane Slayre. A crop of alternate histories sprang up alongside the mash-up texts, with such volumes as Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, in which Grahame-Smith and other authors imposed supernatural challenges on historical figures.

… classic literature can afford a turn around the parlor in more macabre fancy-dress without losing its credibility.

While the film of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies languishes in Hollywood limbo, producers and directors perpetually attaching to and detaching from the project, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter made it to the big screen this summer with comparative ease. Rotten Tomatoes aggregates critical reviews of the 16th US President’s personal quest to rid the nation of bloodsucking menaces at rather less than 50% positive, and audience reactions at a bit more than that. The charm of an alternate history is skillful patchwork. What you learn, the new elements of the story, must sew neatly into the patterns of history as we know it. AL: VH makes a stab at this, weaving the interests of a vampiric population into the events of the American Civil War, but as I said before, the execution leaves something to be desired. An element of tongue-in-cheek doesn’t need to render a film incoherent.

Every year, inadequate writing and plotting is excused in big summer movies on the grounds that a story with explosions or robots or ghosts is just good fun. Good fun needn’t subject itself to critical scrutiny, instead being somehow allowed to limp across the finish line held together by the narrative equivalent of spirit gum. This same argument, however, reverses to keep exploding robot ghost stories in their literary place: well outside canonical acceptance, forever banned to the corner of the unlikely (while people who simply don’t like exploding robot ghosts conveniently overlook fantastic elements in classic fiction). Fantastical stories are outside our realm of experience and therefore don’t need to hold together becomes fantastical stories can’t hold together, which isn’t true.

Hollywood does love high concept, and mash-up novels are nearly the definition of high-concept, already so firmly rooted in cultural consciousness on both sides of the genre divide. The summer genre blockbuster can use the punch-up from classic literature, and classic literature can afford a turn around the parlor in more macabre fancy-dress without losing its credibility. Every few years another cinematic go-round of Austen, the Brontes, or similar hits theaters. Why shouldn’t there also be zombies? Why shouldn’t an iconic historical figure hunt vampires, or the most popular literary heroine of all time serve a little kick-ass with her tea?


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