Pat Abdalla, the entertainment editor at the York Daily Record, invited YDR editor Jim McClure and me to come along with him to a showing of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
McClure is a genuine historian, having published several books on local history, and I’m an aficionado of Lincoln and all things Civil War. So I replied it was important at least one of us attend — in the unlikely event the film should stray into the realm of historical fact.
Turns out, the joke was on me. I haven’t seem “Vampire Hunter” yet, but in one regard, at least, it might come closer to historical fact than some more reputable histories.
According to all the unavoidable hype on TV, I’ve learned the movie depicts Lincoln with a black sidekick named Will Johnson. That much is true.
No, the real-life Johnson didn’t help Father Abraham fight vampires, as far as we know. But the little-known Johnson may well have played a significant role in American history, possibly being the first man to hear the president deliver his famous Gettysburg Address.
The night before dedication of the National Cemetery, Lincoln returned to his room at the Wills house to finish his speech. With him, according to historian Gabor Boritt, was Johnson, who was Lincoln’s barber, valet and possibly his bodyguard.
As he finished each sentence, Lincoln paused and asked, “William, how does that sound?“
Johnson nodded approvingly – in one version of the story with tears in his eyes – for he understood right away the speech was the Great Emancipator’s greatest testament to equality. It was a speech delivered as much to black Americans as to whites, for it promised them “a new birth of freedom.”
You probably never heard of Johnson because in the fictitious, slavery-free version of the Civil War once taught as history in school, a black bodyguard who Lincoln came to regard as an equal had no place. But his story fits the more modern view that blacks actually participated in their own emancipation.
So metaphorically, at least, “Vampire Hunter” may be closer to history than we might suspect.
One YouTube promo, for example, opens with the president at his desk, writing late into the night.
“There is a war coming,” he writes as the camera peers over his noble shoulder. “It is not a war of man, but it is man that shall spill his blood fighting it, for it concerns his very right to be free. And of all men, I must win it.”
Just about then, a vampire — who bears a faint, fanged resemblance to an undead John Wilkes Booth — shows up and takes a shot at the president. But this time, Lincoln dodges the bullet with one of those slow-motion “Matrix” effects before beheading the pesky fiend with his trusty axe.
Then the tagline: “I’ve been a slave to vampires for 30 years.”
When Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel “Vampire Hunter” came out a couple of years ago, I wrote a column from which I am plagiarizing freely for this piece. As I admitted back then, I didn’t read more than a few dozen pages, but it seemed a shame to let a bad book get in the way of a good review.
In the novel, the narrator has discovered Honest Abe’s hidden diary, in which he details his battle with the undead. Turns out Lincoln’s beloved mother, Nancy Hanks, was a victim of vampires. And Abe’s real-life first flame, the ethereal Ann Rutledge who wasted away and died at 22? Vampires, of course.
That would explain Lincoln’s famous careworn look. Up all night doing battle with the forces of darkness. And I always thought it had to do with the Civil War.
The vampires in “Vampire Hunter,” appropriately enough, own slaves themselves. Drinking the blood of others seems an apt metaphor for the evils of human bondage, so maybe “The Great Decapitator” really is as fitting as “The Great Emancipator.”
The real Lincoln, after all, saw the righteousness of the war for freedom, even if it had to go on “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”
Hard core. That’s the kind of guy I want on my side in a fight to the death with the wicked forces of Nosferatu.
Vampires have been an undying part of popular lore since the 1300s, but they’re as powerful here in the early 21st century as they’ve ever been. Maybe it’s the lingering popularity of Goth culture, the resurgent fascination with ghosts and ghouls or the everlasting erotic attraction of the moody, brooding anti-hero.
Or maybe it’s the modern obsession with powerful secrets and sinister conspiracies. Whatever the reasons, vampires make sense in a culture that believes nothing is really as it seems and that our lives are beset by shadowy malevolence.
In the parts of “Vampire Hunter” I did read, I certainly found a Lincoln I could relate to in real life: A champion of the common people who wouldn’t compromise with the denizens of evil.
That’s always been the secret of the 16th president’s enduring appeal — that he can be all things to all people. The self-made American, the intrepid frontiersman, even that rarest of mythical individuals, the honest politician.
“His personal mythology became our national mythology,” Mario Cuomo once said. Because of Lincoln, Cuomo said, Americans “are still reaching up, for a better job, a better education, a better society.”
Perhaps even a better government, without so many blood-suckers lurking in the shadows.
Then again, “Vampire Hunter” is just a fantasy, right?