Monday, November 21, 2016

Vampires and Corpuscles

I finished reading Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith (2010) last night (Nov. 19, 2016). If I were to start writing book reviews here there would be no end to it, but I would like to make some observations and then move on.

Mr. Grahame-Smith's novel is a weird tale and so descended from Weird Tales and from the gothic and romantic stories of the 18th and 19th centuries. It's called a "mashup," a word that contemporary readers find cute but is really just revolting. (Whatever else it might be, "mashup" is way overused.) In addition to being a "mashup" between real historical figures (including Edgar Allan Poe) and those that exist only in fantasy, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is a combination of realism and romanticism or gothicism. There is even a navel-gazing writer at the beginning of the book, and, as we know, contemporary fiction in America is mostly fiction by, about, and for navel-gazing writers, preferably writers living and working and agonizing and suffering through their existential crises somewhere on the East Coast. I was waiting for that writer to reappear in the book, as his appearance at the beginning seemed to be the first part of a framing device, but there is no finished frame.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter received good reviews, and I can say that it's not a bad book. I have to admit, though, that it's a pretty dreary chronicle of violence and gore. Although the book deals with the problem of evil in the world, it doesn't carry any great moral force or reach any great depth. In fact it trivializes the anguish and suffering of millions of people in general--slaves, Civil War soldiers, and their loved ones--and of Abraham Lincoln and his family in particular. It also offers a hatch through which we can escape from our culpability for the evil that exists in this world by laying blame on vampires. Perhaps its worst offenses are that it makes American history less interesting by introducing vampires into the story, and ultimately remakes Abraham Lincoln into a force for evil rather than for good.

Some miscellaneous thoughts: First, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, ostensibly a story of good and evil, is reduced to a mere adventure story--and pretty colorless at that--by what I sense to be a prevailing twenty-first century style of writing. A story of this kind demands treatment by a stylist like William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy. Instead we get what is essentially a screenplay in book form. Second, in terms of classification, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter might fall into the category of alternate history, more specifically, of secret history, in other words, a kind of conspiracy theory, alternatively, a cult history, like Theosophy or Scientology. Third, in the book, Abraham Lincoln is used and manipulated by a vampire. Rather than being a self-actuated agent of radical change, he is more nearly a pawn of a greater personality, that of his vampire handler. Fourth, in that way, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter isn't very much different from Mission: Impossible or Charlie's Angels. It's Abraham Lincoln as Sabrina, Jill, or Kelly.

* * *

We went to see Arrival last night (Nov. 19, 2016), and we saw it in a movie theater full of deplorables. Yes, they can read and write and do simple math problems like this: (538 x 0.5) + 1 = the presidency. It's a beautifully made movie--intelligent, sensitive, well written, adult. At first I wondered about the cruelty of moviemakers: this is the second science fiction movie I have seen in recent years in which a child is killed off. (The other was Gravity [2013], ultimately a spiritually empty film.) Here, though, the death of the child proves to be a different matter. The arrival in Arrival is, at first glance, the arrival on Earth of aliens from space. They come here in great asphalt-black ships shaped like giant red corpuscles. (When they turn on their sides, they look like flying saucers.) There are minor offenses in the movie against two of Hollywood's favorite villains, but those are beside the point. This is more the point: Last year, I wrote about circles and spirals on the cover of Weird Tales. Circles and cycles are a theme and a motif in this movie. The alien ships are circular. The aliens themselves have radial symmetry. Their writing, which looks like a cross between a Rorschach blot and a coffee cup stain, is circular. Their closest connection is to a woman, a representative of that half of our species which lives more by cycles than by linearity. (Enforcing that theme is an image of birth and of an after-death experience--or rebirth--in the walk through a long, dark tunnel into a place full of light.) I won't give too much away here, but an escape from the linear into the cyclic is how the death of the child is ameliorated and how Arrival attains a spiritual dimension, something so lacking in the art and popular culture of today.

Copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Terence,
    I haven't read Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, nor have I seen the movie. I did try to watch the film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies -- another "mashup" -- and found it intolerable in its shallow smugness (a problem that I have with most films and virtually all television these days.) I guess I just assumed that this tale of our sixteenth president fighting vampires would prove to be more of the same. But now I'm a bit intrigued.
    Years ago I was fascinated by Lincoln and the superheroic stature given to him in most history books. But the more that I dug, the more I read, the further from this perspective I found myself...until I developed an opinion of him diametrically opposed to the prevailing one. In my opinion, the concept of Lincoln as a force of evil is not far removed from reality.
    Unfortunately, people aren't allowed to question, to disagree with Lincoln's tactics without being labeled and summarily dismissed as a racist. But my feelings are that, as horrible a blot on our history as slavery was, the so-called Civil War was our country's worst atrocity; and that war is Lincoln's true legacy.
    Millions of Americans died at the hands of other Americans in horrifically bloody conflicts in the military conquest of a sovereign nation --the Confederate States of America. The much lauded Emancipation Proclamation was largely a symbolic gesture -- made without congressional approval -- that in reality did nothing to improve the lives of African Americans living in the deep south. Though the term "slavery" was no longer used, the practice of owning blacks continued well into the 20th century. (I would recommend the book "Slavery by Another Name" by Douglas A. Blackmon for detailed documentation of this post-Civil War practice.)
    Lincoln went so far as to make it a Federal crime to criticize his policy. Tens of thousands of Americans were arrested and imprisoned without due process for daring to openly question his actions. (And he was not the only US president to do so; John Adams and Woodrow Wilson each had their own Sedition Acts that made disagreement with them a punishable crime.)
    So anyway; in my eyes, the premise of Lincoln as something less than an ideal is not much of a reach at all.

    1. Mike,

      Was the Civil War a worse atrocity than the enslavement of millions of people? Or was it a baptism in blood to wash away our nation's original sin? Abraham Lincoln was not perfect. He was after all a human being. He believed and did things that we might find objectionable. There can be no question of that. But through his actions, the Union was preserved and slavery in America was destroyed. If you put those things on a balance, the overwhelming weight is on one side. Yes, the Emancipation Proclamation was largely a symbolic gesture, but it seems to have been an effective symbol. Yes, he did made the proclamation without congressional approval. (Today that's called an executive order and meets with absolutely no resistance from people who call themselves liberal.) And yes, he suspended habeas corpus (I believe that's what your referring to), but remember that suspension of habeas corpus in times of rebellion is permitted under the Constitution. Also, the CSA were not a sovereign nation. They were states in rebellion. The argument is essentially that the individual states voted together to form a union and only the states together could vote to dissolve it. There isn't any means under the Constitution for a state or states to secede or to nullify Federal law. Even Andrew Jackson, a Southerner and a slaveholder, understood that. Finally, however black people or anyone else may have been treated after Lincoln's death, that can't possibly be laid at his feet. I think it's fitting that we celebrate the life and accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln, that we remember the sacrifices and suffering of the men who fought the war, and that we remember the anguish of the people who were held in bondage for so long and vow never to let such things happen ever again, to anyone on earth.


  2. Terence,
    That does seem to be the argument, the difference in perspective: Was the Confederacy comprised of "states in rebellion", as you stated, or was it a new independent nation, as I believe. Originally, every state that comprised the United States of America joined the union willingly. It is therefor easy to extrapolate that they also should have the right to leave that union if they so desire. It comes down to the concept of "freedom", a quality that we as a people propose to hold dearly. But time and again, individual freedoms, states rights, and the independent sovereignty of nations is only respected when it is coincides with our own wants and needs. "The Union was preserved" by force. In my mind, this isn't preservation; it is military annexation. There may be no specific Constitutional allowance for state secession, but there is Constitutional Guarantee of States' Rights.
    I'm certainly not in favor of slavery. But I am opposed to using violence and wholesale murder to impose even the most righteous of standards upon others. So yes, I do think that the War Between the States was a worse atrocity than slavery.
    No, I'm not trying to blame Lincoln for the treatment of blacks in this country after his death; I was simply trying to point out the fact that the Civil War did not really free the slaves; it only changed the language. Meaningful changes didn't come until a century after Lincoln, with LBJ's Civil Rights Act of 1964; a piece legislation that only passed because of liberal control of the House and Senate.
    Regarding executive orders: Liberals are only in favor of such actions when the president is a Democrat. They made all kinds of noise about the unconstitutionality of such orders when George W. Bush was the one enacting them, just as Republicans have been decrying such orders that have been handed down by Barack Obama. All factions love practices when they benefit their particular cause, then oppose those same practices when they are used against them.
    I share your belief that we should remember the sacrifices and suffering of the people who fought in the Civil War (and all wars.) That is why I'm am so repelled by the concept of unnecessary warfare. Our military should only be used defensively, not to impose our will upon others. We owe this to our soldiers, their families, and our fellow man.