History buffs with a sense of humor and an unslaked thirst for the macabre will find much to savor in “The Last American Vampire,” Seth Grahame-Smith’s latest, delightfully loopy riff on our nation’s past. The novel takes up where its predecessor, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (2010 ), left off, in the aftermath of the defeat of the Confederacy and Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth .
Only now, Honest Abe isn’t dead. He has been brought back to life by Henry Sturges, the same vampire who enlisted Lincoln in the ongoing battle between the forces of good (human and vampire) and those evil bloodsuckers in the South who used slavery as part of their food chain. By making Abe immortal, the 300-year-old Sturges has violated one of the prime directives of the Union of Vampires, whose aim is to protect and respect the dominion of humans.
“The world had quite enough vampires already, thank you very much. Too many, in fact. And when too many vampires settled in one place, bad things happened, as recent American history had proven. . . . Vampires possessed of such cruelty could never be allowed to concentrate such power again.”
Horrified by his old friend’s betrayal of the union’s cause, Abe promptly jumps out the window into broad daylight and self-immolates. Grief-stricken Sturges spends the next two decades maintaining a low profile, until 1888 when he receives a summons to the union’s headquarters in New York City. There, the union’s unofficial leader, Adam Plantagenet (born in 1305), shows him five ornately carved wooden boxes. Each contains the mutilated head of one of the union’s overseas emissaries, along with an identical handwritten note.
“No more Americans, Regards, A. Grander VIII”
Plantagenet dispatches Sturges to Europe to track down and destroy the mysterious Grander. And the fun begins.
“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” was a sloppy, turgid mess, gruesome and unappealing as fresh roadkill. “The Last American Vampire” is far superior and is a surprisingly funny, antic sequel that’s like a delirious mash-up of the Web series “Drunk History” and the gothic 1960s soap opera “Dark Shadows.” The novel’s basic premise is clever and efficient. As we learn in a dramatic flashback, the young and then-mortal Henry Sturges arrived on North American soil in 1587, part of the group of English colonists who settled at Roanoke Island more than 30 years before the Mayflower arrived. Not long after, he’s made into a vampire against his will, though he quickly sees the advantages of his fate:
“Imagine experiencing color for the first time. Crystal clarity and three-dimensional sight and sounds for the first time. Imagine having your senses expanded beyond what you ever considered possible. The curtains pulled back on a world you never could have imagined in the static of your little black-and-white mind. That’s what it is to be a vampire.”
The transformation allows Sturges to function as an undead Zelig for the next few centuries — a witness to, and often a participant in, just about every crucial (and usually catastrophic) event in U.S. and European history, from the fate of Roanoke’s lost colony to the fall of the Twin Towers. Along the way, he encounters John Smith and Pocahontas;Victorian author Henry Irving and his manager, Bram Stoker; Abraham Lincoln, of course; Mark Twain; Nikola Tesla; Rasputin; and Jack the Ripper.
As the 20th century dawns, Sturges meets with President Teddy Roosevelt, who has recently taken office after the assassination of President William McKinley. The blustering Roosevelt calls out Sturges and his kind for shirking their patriotic duty:
“ ‘Either you’re an American and nothing else, from your boots to your hat, or you’re not an American at all!’
“ ‘What you ask is too much for one man.’
“ ‘That’s why I didn’t ask a man to do it.’
“A fair point, thought Henry.”
Sturges becomes an undercover U.S. agent, his work dovetailing handily with his quest to stop the elusive A. Grander, who is still slaughtering vampires. He swiftly earns the respect of his boss, as Grahame-Smith recounts in one of myriad deadpan asides: “When Teddy Roosevelt uttered his immortal line, ‘Speak softly, and carry a big stick,’ he was talking about Henry Sturges.”
The action unfolds at a breakneck pace, and if the novel is more picaresque than tightly plotted thriller, that just adds to the gleeful, “can you top this?” tone and the sense that the author is very much in on the joke. This time, Grahame-Smith wisely withholds most of the gore until the final pages, when it’s doled out generously and in service of truth, justice and the American way. Grahame-Smith’s legion of fans will revel in the proceedings.
And new readers will swiftly find themselves learning things they never learned in civics class, chief among them the basics of vampire hunting: “(1) Don’t get near the head, and (2) when in doubt, run away.”
Originally posted on WashingtonPost.com.