Book Review: The Last American Vampire, Seth Grahame-Smith (2015)

January 14th, 2015 12:05 pm by Kelly Garbato

American History V

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an ARC through Goodreads’s First Reads program.)

It’s one of the few true blessings to the curse of being a vampire. For in those ephemeral moments we cease to be monsters and get to be superheroes.

I have a confession to make: I’ve never read Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Sure, I watched the movie – when it came to DVD last autumn – and liked it. Just not enough to check out the book on which it was based, apparently.

So when I spotted a Goodreads giveaway for The Last American Vampire, I was torn. Usually it’s pure folly to read a series out of order, but the alternate history aspect proved impossible to resist. Also, it looked like the story was far enough removed from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that I might enjoy it anyway; as of this writing, Goodreads doesn’t even list them as part of the same series, though this could very well be a temporary oversight.

While fans of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will undoubtedly get more out of The Last American Vampire, this newcomer loved it just the same. The story follows Henry Sturges – Abe’s immortal friend and mentor – in the years before and since the fatal shooting in Ford’s Theater. Breaking one of the Union’s few rules – “A vampire will make no other vampire.” – Henry stalks Abe’s funeral procession, finally stealing the corpse from its casket in Springfield some three weeks after Abe’s death. Henry lovingly resurrects his friend, nursing him back to health, only to have Abe commit suicide by sunshine upon realizing what he’s become.

Henry is alone in the world, but only temporarily; as time passes the wheel of history churn forward, he befriends an impressive roster of intellectuals, artists, and celebrities, from Bram Stoker and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Nikola Tesla and Mark Twain. Henry serves as an “errand boy” to multiple American presidents (Teddy Roosevelt? What a dick!); unmasks Jack the Ripper, with whom Henry shares a surprisingly intimate acquaintance; gathers intelligence abroad, as a one-man precursor to the CIA; faces Rasputin and lives to tell the tale; tries (and fails) to kill Hitler; fights in the trenches of both world wars; hunts down JFK’s assassin; and, along with Howard Hughes, embarks on a decades-long search for a cure (of sorts) for vampirism. He lives through the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, Prohibition, and the Hindenburg disaster (he’s the cause of that last one, truth be told) – as well as the social progress of women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s. When Henry decides to earn a bachelor’s degree in English lit, he’s the only one in his class who can honestly say that he met their subjects face-to-face.

All the while, Henry pursues a mysterious vampire agitator who goes by the name “A. Grander VIII”; this hunt gives way to flashbacks of Henry’s brief life as a human, as well as his early days as a vamp. With his young wife Edeva in tow, Henry immigrated to America in 1586 aboard The Lyon – like many others, the young couple was in search of a better life. But little did they know that a vampire was in their midst. Before long, the settlement at Roanoke will come to ruin. Only three of the colonists survive, but are lost to history: Henry Sturges; Thomas Crowley; and a red-headed baby girl named Virginia. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Last American Vampire is a fun and unpredictable romp through (alternate) American history – from a vampire’s world-weary and unnaturally long point of view. Emily Dickinson, Jack Ruby, Eliot Ness, Pocahantas, Adolf Hitler: almost as surprising as those historical figures who are “outed” as vampires are those who turn out to be ordinary people (relatively speaking). Henry makes for an engaging and mostly likeable narrator…expect for that one thing he did, back when he was still a baby vampire. Not without its fair share of gore and cynicism, The Last American Vampire is also quite witty and humorous, with a touching ending that’s full of humanity. (I especially love that Henry targets those who enjoy abusing others – nonhuman animals included.)

On the downside, it’s also a surprisingly white view of history: there are very few people of color to be found. Aside from a brief stint he and a friend spent scaring Ku Klux Klan members into abandoning their lynching ways in the 1930s, there isn’t much mention of African-American history. (Henry lives through the Civil Rights era, but it doesn’t merit a mention. Ditto: the three waves of American feminism.)

That said, I do have to give Grahame-Smith points for his astute explanation as to why this job necessarily fell to white vampires:

“Typically, we killed a few of them and let the rest run off to tell their friends. We always let them see our faces – that was key. Otherwise, they might run off thinking it was a group of local blacks that’s attacked them. There might be retributions. You might ask – where were the black vampires in all of this? It’s a fair question. We never intended, as two white vampires, to act like the saviors of an oppressed people. But the truth is, I didn’t know any [black vampires] in those days. Even if I had, it would have been a bad idea for them to join our raids, for the reasons I just mentioned.”

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Not much. During flashbacks, we learn of Henry’s time with a tribe of Native Americans (including a young Pocahontas). He and Abe also take revenge on the KKK; Henry admits that heir privilege gave them the freedom to do so, whereas such actions by black vampires might have created a backlash.

 

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