America’s favorite president and America’s favorite monster came together at last on the big screen in 2012, with the adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s historical horror mash-up Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. This CultureMap outlines the inspirations and the big names behind the novel and the film, while marking the relationships between Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and other heavy hitters in the contemporary vampire craze.
Edgar Allan Poe, the master of horror fiction in 19th-century America, never wrote a traditional vampire tale, yet he plays a key role in Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In Grahame-Smith’s imagining, vampires are responsible for the death of Lincoln’s mother and grandfather, resulting in the future president’s lifelong animosity toward the creatures.
In the novel, a young Lincoln travels from Illinois to New Orleans as a merchant. During his trip he encounters a “pale little fellow” whom he believes is “unmistakably a vampire” but who turns out to be Poe, the great Gothic writer. The two become friends.
Also in New Orleans, Lincoln watches a slave auction. On further investigation, he is shocked to learn the human chattel is meant not as labor but as food—for vampires. Thus the two enemies of Lincoln’s life are linked, shedding new light on the Great Emancipator’s motivation for abolishing slavery. After Lincoln is elected to Congress, Poe assists him in this great battle, traveling to Washington, D.C., to share key information in fending off the looming menace of the slave owner–vampire alliance.
For his first monster mash-up novel, the best-selling Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), Seth Grahame-Smith inserted his prose directly into the text of Jane Austen’s 1813 classic. Though no book served as the foundation for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, its author was not entirely without inspiration. In an interview with the website Flavorwire, he explained, “I wanted as much real history in the book—as much of Lincoln’s real life—as possible.” His sources? “I reread Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin and marked it up with notes. I obsessively combed the Lincoln Log—a site devoted to tracing Abe’s real life day by day, hour by hour.”
The best-selling 2005 biography of Lincoln and his cabinet by Goodwin—the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (1995) and Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1977)—turned into the Oscar-winning 2012 film starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln and Sally Field as his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Steven Spielberg directed the screenplay by Tony Kushner, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1993).
According to his law partner, John Todd Stuart, Lincoln “carried Poe around on the Circuit—read and loved ‘The Raven’—repeated it over and over.” Already an up-and-coming American writer, Edgar Allan Poe became a household name upon publication of “The Raven” (1845), when Lincoln was 35 and a country lawyer. Describing Lincoln’s particular taste in literature, Albert Beveridge writes in Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1858, “The poems he repeated oftenest were those that expressed hopelessness, woe and foreboding.… Whatever the cause, the bleak fact remains that the dominant quality in Lincoln’s life, from 1849 to the end, was a sadness so profound that the depths of it cannot be sounded or estimated by normal minds.”
Though she does not mention Poe in Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin also vouches for Lincoln’s great love of literature. She stresses that his voracious reading, rereading and memorization of the works of William Shakespeare, among others, “implanted rhythms and poetry” into his famous speeches and made Lincoln “our only poet-president.”
Starting in the 1960s, cult director of B movies Roger Corman adapted many of Edgar Allan Poe’s works—including House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Raven—and nearly all of these films star Vincent Price. The Poe-Price films are particularly memorable for their dream sequences—bizarre, camera-distorted scenes that authentically capture the nightmare quality so prevalent in Poe’s tales.
Filmmaker Tim Burton admits these movies played a pivotal role in his childhood. He notes in the book Burton on Burton (1995), “It was the films of Vincent Price that spoke to me specifically for some reason. Growing up in suburbia, in an atmosphere that was perceived as nice and normal (but which I had other feelings about), those movies were a way to certain feelings, and I related them to the place I was growing up in. I think that’s why I responded so much to Edgar Allan Poe.… It’s a mysterious place, Burbank.”
In a 2009 interview, The Wall Street Journal asked Charlaine Harris, author of the best-selling Sookie Stackhouse novels on which the vampire television series True Blood is based, “What accounts for the fascination with vampires in this country?” She replied, “America is obsessed with youth. We all want to look young forever, and vampires do. They are caught in their prime, if that’s when they’ve been turned. And they’ll be that way forever.”
Though he did not write about vampires, Edgar Allan Poe was obsessed with the idea of eternal youth. His tale “Morella” (1835) features a narrator who wishes for the death of his young wife in order to prevent her physical decay. A similar theme runs through “Ligeia” (1838). In both stories, the title character’s death is followed by her vampire-like resurrection. Morella dies during childbirth, yet her progeny bears an uncanny and terrifying resemblance to her. When the child is given the name Morella at her baptism, she dies, and her mother’s tomb is found to be empty. The raven-haired Ligeia dies of illness, whereupon her husband marries a blond woman named Rowena, who also eventually dies—yet after her death, she transforms into Ligeia.
Before composing her Sookie Stackhouse novels, which inspired the True Blood television show, Charlaine Harris wrote the Lily Bard series of mystery novels. The heroine is a tough Southerner, a karate expert, who moves to the fictional town of Shakespeare, Arkansas, for a fresh start. When asked why she chose the town in the series’s first book, Shakespeare’s Landlord (1996), Bard replies, “My name is Bard, as in the Bard of Avon. This is Shakespeare.”
Like Bard, Lincoln was an immense fan of Shakespeare the writer. As Lincoln biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin describes in Team of Rivals, Lincoln said in a letter to the actor James Hackett that he had studied William Shakespeare’s work “perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader.” Lincoln’s favorites, he wrote, were the tragedies and histories, “Lear, Richard Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth.” Goodwin elaborates, “The histories and tragedies of Shakespeare that Lincoln loved most dealt with themes that would resonate to a president in the midst of civil war: political intrigue, the burdens of power, the nature of ambition, the relationship of leaders to those they governed.”
Besides producing the film adaptation of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), Tim Burton recently directed the vampire film Dark Shadows (2012), based on the wildly popular Gothic soap opera of the same name. Originally airing from 1966 to 1971 (with a short-lived 1991 retread starring Ben Cross), Dark Shadows is a forebear of vampire-themed television series such as True Blood. Though Dark Shadows is not as graphic either in sex or gore as True Blood is, it does trade on the sexuality of vampires: Its protagonist, Barnabas Collins (played by Canadian actor Jonathan Frid), became a somewhat unlikely 1960s television heartthrob. In the Burton film, Collins is played by Johnny Depp, continuing the trend of dreamy male bloodsuckers.
Despite his long-standing work in the horror genre, Burton has avoided the contemporary craze for vampires of which True Blood and films like Twilight are a part. When asked about the two in a New York magazine interview, the director admitted, “I haven’t seen them.”
The city of New Orleans plays a part in both Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels, on which the True Blood television series is based. Filming for the big-screen adaptation of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter took place in the Big Easy, and Stackhouse travels there in Definitely Dead, the sixth novel of the series (most of the saga is set in northern Louisiana). Known as one of the most haunted cities in America, New Orleans seems historically predisposed to an undead character. Deported criminals and other unsavory characters composed much of the original population, epidemics of smallpox and malaria regularly decimated the citizenry, and Haitian immigrants brought a strong tradition of voodoo. Today the aboveground cemetery burials, ornate architecture and strong European cultural influences make New Orleans the perfect setting for tales such as Anne Rice’s influential 1976 Interview With the Vampire (adapted into a 1994 movie of the same name, starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt), perhaps the most prominent example of the city’s place in vampire fiction.