Aug 16 2010 6:36pm

Tom Sawyer and the Undead and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

I vividly remember trying to teach Pride and Prejudice to a class of high school juniors. Alas! These were not my best days as an educator. Most of my students found the novel boring. And that was just the girls. The boys on the football team didn’t like the book much either. Indeed, in this survey of American Literature, I was eager to get back to Edgar Allan Poe and then quickly work my way up to Twain, Hemingway and Steinbeck (even the offensive linemen loved Cannery Row).

Where was Seth Grahame-Smith when I needed him? I am pretty sure I could have drummed up a little more interest in Jane Austen’s classic if zombies had been involved.

All of this leads up to a short discussion of two of the latest entries into the fairly recent sub-sub-genre of horror that adapts classic works of literature and famous historical biographies to tell the stories as they “really” were, replete with zombies, vampires, werewolves, mummies and magic.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Undead was a bit disappointing to me. California librarian Don Borchert, who shares authorship with Mark Twain, has obviously done his homework. Borchert accurately recreates the 19th century Missouri village on the west bank of the Mississippi and its inhabitants.

Tom Sawyer is still a bright scalawag of a boy, always up to mischief, but with a good heart, a creative sense of adventure, and ripe for romance. Huck Finn is the likeable reprobate who acts as a catalyst in Tom’s maturation. And poor Aunt Polly is constantly frustrated in her efforts to control her charge. The big difference here is that the country has recently come under the threat of a plague of zombies, here called the “Zum.”

Instead of whitewashing the fence, Tom cozens his pals into helping him sharpen the pickets, the better to impale the Zum who might stumble into the yard bent on eating the family. After Doc Robinson is killed, he refuses to stay down and has to be thoroughly bound before being buried. Injun Joe is not just an amoral murderer, he is the first of a new evolution of Zum who do not just shamble about, but are capable of rational thought and planning.

The problem with this adaptation is that, although there is a lot of talk about the curse of the Zum, there just aren’t that many Zum in it. It takes nearly half the book before one actually shows up on its pages, and there are only a couple of incidents where Tom comes into contact with one. If the undead are going to share the title with Tom Sawyer, readers should expect a lot more undead.

The plot, tone and dialogue are very close to the original, but a few token zombies didn’t seem to me to add much.

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is another matter. I thought the book was terrific.

In Grahame-Smith’s follow-up to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the author uses the familiar conceit of a secret journal, written by the 16th President, himself. How the author came by the journal is explained in the “Introduction.”

From the start Lincoln lives a cursed life. This begins when his mother wastes away as a result of the “Milk Sickness.” When Abe learns that his mother’s death was actually the work of a vampire, he sets out on a course of revenge and destruction.

As the backwoods lawyer rises in politics and notoriety, he secretly wields an axe, dispatching many of the clandestine vampires in Illinois and Kentucky.

But, when he arrives in Washington, Lincoln learns how deeply entrenched vampires are in the government and aristocracy of the fledgling democracy.

He also learns the true purpose of slavery: the breeding of blood donors for powerful plantation owners and wealthy politicos.

And you can guess that many of Lincoln’s opponents, as well as his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, come from the ranks of the undead.

Illustrated with many contemporary photographs (photoshopped to show the “truth” about the vampire menace), Grahame-Smith makes Lincoln’s journal read like a real memoir. It is fun, exiting and compelling reading—highly recommended.

And here is a short list of other titles available if this kind of thing rings your chimes: Little Vampire Women, Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Android Karenina, Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers, The Undead World of Oz, Mansfield Park and Mummies, Jane Slayre, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim, Alice in Zombieland, Emma and the Werewolves; and this is just the beginning.

The field is wide open—who knows where it will go from here? Has anyone written The Old Man and the Sea Monster or The Grapes of the Witch’s Wrath yet? For English and history teachers who want to make their classes more fun, the opportunity has arisen—from the grave.

Mark Graham reviewed books for the Rocky MountainNewsfrom 1977 until the paper closed its doors in February 2009. His “Unreal Worlds” column on science fiction and fantasy appeared regularly for over two decades. He has reviewed well over 1,000 genre books. If you see a Rocky Mountain News blurb on a book, it is likely from a review or interview he wrote. Graham also created and taught Unreal Literature, a high school science fiction class, for nearly 30 years in the Jefferson County Colorado public schools.

Pamela Adams
1. PamAdams
I enjoyed P&P&V, the first of these books. After that, it seemed like the joke just wasn't funny any more- kind of like when your four-year old learns to tell knock-knock jokes, but hasn't figured out that whole 'punchline' thing.
2. omega_n
"The field is wide open—who knows where it will go from here?"

Away, I hope.

I agree with Pam Adams. It was only funny the first time. Now it's just people sticking zombies into classics to cash in on this (hopefully short-lived) trend. It's fanfiction you can sell, and as anyone who reads fanfiction knows, quality varies widely.
jon meltzer
3. jmeltzer
Since this is Heinlein week, I shall quote Mike Holmes:

"Example of 'funny-only-once' class of joke. Funny through element of surprise. Second time, no surprise; therefore not funny. "
Madeline Ferwerda
4. MadelineF
I was disenchanted by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which missed the points of both Pride and Prejudice and of zombies. Ridiculous zombies? Come on, zombies are about dealing with death. Ridiculous society? Come on, society in the regency was all about doing as much as you could while constrained by rules. P&P&Z was a cheap book.

But the idea has so much potential! I would love to see a book that threw new light on an interesting book or period of the past by viewing it from a parallel spec-fic universe!

I just can't trust any reviews I've run across so far. It's a sad state of affairs.
Ryan Buller
5. tidfisk
I'm going to write a Moby Dick / Call of Cthulhu book. I won't mention the title in a family friendly comment box but I can tell you it's gonna be HUGE. :)
Katherine Olson
7. kayjayoh
So, why were you trying to teach Pride and Prejudice in a survey of American Literature?
8. Paul A. Freeman
I'm the author of 'Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers - A Canterbury Tale by Paul A. Freeman'.

Just to straighten out a point or two, my narrative poem / novella is actually part of a wider 'Canterbury Tales' project I've been working on. For more information on this, you may wish to have a glance at my website:

Secondly, there is no definitive 'Robin Hood' text, so I took a number of myth fragments concerning the outlaw and wove them into a totally original tale - though I retained the familiar characters of the Robin Hood myths.

The main purpose of my Canterbury Tales project is to make the Chaucerian style of poetry more accessible to younger readers and give them the confidence to tackle the original, Middle English, Canterbury Tales.


9. Don Borchert
Here's the thing -

All these monster genres are metaphors for things. Vampires? Burgeoning female sexuality. Werewolves? Dopey fourteen-year old male sexuality. Frankenstein? A fear of technological advancements.

Zombies? Zombies are never going to bring down the government, but they will ruin Thanksgiving. "Get the kids off the water slide and into the house - there's a few zombies out there!" To me, they are a metaphor for the gradual, continual, almost imperceptible destruction of the status quo.
A way of life that is going away and probably not coming back. I thought that would resonate with readers. So the book is not a continual onslaught of zombies - it is a drip drip drip of the threat of zombies, and how it changes everyone.

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