Forgotten History of Vampires

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Photo credit: KellBailey)

I’m currently nearing the end of the novel “Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter” by Seth Grahame-Smith. It will be released as a major motion picture this summer. I was expecting to find a fun, creepy, and honestly, pretty corny story about things that could not possibly be true. I found something quite different than my expectation.

I found history.

That’s right, this is one thoroughly researched novel. Of course there is the one glaring mistruth – vampires. But aside from that, there is a portrait of the early to mid 1800s, a recounting of Lincoln’s life, his various moves in his younger years, his political rise, and his personal struggles (of course vampires weren’t actually the cause…). You learn and read things that rarely – if ever – grace the pages of school text books – snippets from the Lincoln Douglas debates, the date of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. You meet historical characters that most couldn’t identify today – George McClellan, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Mary Surratt, and of course, John Wilkes Booth. (If you could identify 3 out of 5, you are doing quite well in modern America.) And you even catch a brief glimpse of a notable writer of the time – in an entirely fictional role – Edgar Allen Poe.

Seth Grahame-Smith has done something that millions of dollars in education spending and countless hours of class instruction have not been able to do. He has made history interesting to this generation. Put aside the vampire attacks, the fictional overlords of Southern society, and ignore the superhero-esque evolution of our 16th president. There are also real, hard facts about American History here. If you have to coat your broccoli with a dusting of sugar to get your kids to eat it, then I see nothing wrong with a vampire or two to get young people to read our country’s history. The important thing is for them to learn their history (or eat their broccoli, whatever the case).

Maybe we should change all of our text books to include a vampire or two. After everyone was thoroughly educated in American History, Western Civilization, Ancient History (add any subject you choose here) we could end with a graduation ceremony where we hear one final, key sentence over the PA system: “Remember everything you’ve learned, but forget the part about the vampires.”

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Saying “Yes” Part II

Ballet Dancer - Edgar Degas

Ballet Dancer – Edgar Degas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve had some people ask me after reading my last post on ‘Saying “yes”‘, “Doesn’t saying “yes” all the time just get you in over your head? You have to say “no” sometimes, otherwise people might take advantage of you.”

Good point, but that’s not what I meant. I didn’t mean to say that we should always say “yes” to everything everyone asks us to do. That would be impossible, and take us so far away from the place I was hinting at, that it would be a disaster. But, as you and I know, that is a disaster that many (most) of us are living in right now.

I also didn’t mean to say that we should say “yes” to our every inclination. If you feel inclined to say “yes” to leaving your family and your children, might I suggest you say “no.” You could also throw in paying your bills, finishing you education, doing your dishes… you get my point.

The “yes” I was alluding to is something much deeper. It’s not even something I’ve been able to define for myself so that I can describe it for you. But I know it has to do with your soul, and what you were put on this earth to do.

Think of three little girls in a ballet class. One is very good, but her parents don’t think ballet is a proper occupation for a grown woman. They splurge when the girl is young, sending her to classes, buying her slippers and putting her hair up tight behind her head. When she really starts to blossom into a dancer, they tell her that she needs to focus on other things, other classes that will assure her a spot in the best business school. She obeys their choice for her, and years later is moderately successful. But whenever she goes to see the ballet, she cries in the dark, not for the beauty of the dance, but because she is the missing one on that stage.

The second girl isn’t naturally gifted. But her parents urge her to keep trying, to not give up. She tries and tries, and years go by, but she doesn’t improve. Her mother, who always dreamed of her little girl on the stage, keeps insisting that she try harder, and that quitting is for losers. The girl is good in school and begins to develop a love for biology, and zoology, and wants to become a marine biologist. But that isn’t what a girl should be doing, her parents say. She stays in dance class until she fractures her ankle, and she is relieved that she doesn’t have to dance for someone else anymore.

The third girl is a good dancer, and she loves to dance. Her parents encourage her. She has good grades, and her parents tell her that she doesn’t have to keep dancing if she’d rather do something else. But she really wants to improve. They support her, taking her to lessons, encouraging her, watching her perform. The girl is driven, because she gets so much pleasure from dancing. It sweeps her away, it makes her feel right. It’s what she wants to do forever. When the time comes to choose a college, her parents tell her to “make the choice that you will never, not once, regret for the rest of your life.” They know she is too young to know something like that, but their experience tells them that the world is limitless, that their daughter will go as far as her drive, and that nothing gets done without hard work. There is only one way for her to know if she is good enough, she has to do it.

On the night of her first performance with a major ballet company, her parents are the ones crying in the crowd, maybe next to girl number one, because they are seeing how dreams come true. They come true because first you want them, then you prepare for them, then you prepare some more, and finally you choose them. You say “yes.”

Saying “yes”

I’ve crammed a lot into my 38 years. Over a decade in the military, two wars, travel to five continents, a crippling disease, surgeries, recovery. All of those things happened to me without even really thinking about them, and in the case of my illness, without my permission. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. So much of my life, and yours I suspect, just ‘happens.’ We don’t make it happen. And sometimes we find ourselves at life’s midway point without really having done the things we truly love, and very rarely saying ‘yes’ to real happiness.

It’s very hard to say ‘yes’ to things in life. There is a chance that we might hear a ‘no.’ Maybe we will be rejected, hurt. Maybe we will fail.

But life can’t start until you say ‘yes.’ It is saying ‘yes’ that makes us grow, makes us learn, and makes life matter.

Hearing a ‘no’ isn’t a bad thing. I finished my first novel over a decade ago. I thought I was ready. I wasn’t. I received many ‘no’s’ – from agents, from publishers, from friends. But I persisted. I wrote another book. I thought I was ready then. I wrote another novel. And another. Looking back on them, I am so glad that they weren’t published in the condition they were in. They were all good stories – I think – but they weren’t told in the best way. I was still learning. Those ‘no’s’ were actually blessings.

The only other thing I wanted to do in life was to be a songwriter. I spent my high school years in my room, recording songs on my little 4-track recorder. I though I was ready. Oh boy, I really wasn’t ready. I still had, and have, a lot to learn.

What is the difference between the books you see on the shelf at the store, or the song you hear on the radio, and the ones that might be sitting somewhere in a dusty closet in your house? The difference is someone took a chance. Someone decided that, although they might be rejected, they might be criticized, they might be laughed at, the prize was worth it. That prize isn’t money, it isn’t fame, it isn’t notoriety. It is being able to wake up every morning and work from the moment you get up, until you go to bed, on something that you completely and truly love. I did that yesterday as I recorded a song for the first time in 15 years. It’s not perfect, it’s not professional quality, but it’s not bad for some guy sitting at his messy desk in a dark room. I want to feel like that every day.

That feeling, for me, is not in an office, it’s not in a repair shop, it’s not in a classroom. For me, it is writing – stories, songs, bringing an idea that never existed before to life. It’s not what everyone loves, it’s not what everyone wants to do. But everyone has something that they really love to do, something that they are passionate about. Maybe you always wanted to go to medical school. Maybe you want to be a teacher. Maybe you want to build a rocket that will take people into space. Many of us are not doing what we really wanted to be doing in life. And I think the reason is that, somewhere along the line, we didn’t say yes.

How much different would life be if we had said ‘yes?’ Maybe it’s not too late.

I believe it is never too late to say yes. But it never gets any easier. Faced with never knowing what could be, and the chance that it might be, I’m going to try taking ‘yes’ from now on. I won’t have sport cars, big houses, private planes, but I think I’ll be happier. You can’t buy that.

What do you wish you’d said yes to? I’d like to know.

What’s wrong with scary?

I’ve always wanted to write something that would “move” people. Not move them out of my circle of friends, but move them to feel something. It’s a puzzle I’m still putting together.

I like literature, drama, and really sad stories. I’ve read Amy Tan, Alice Hoffman, Kate Chopin, and my favorite author is Jhumpa Lahiri. These writers deal with the subtleties of human emotion. They can describe brushing one’s teeth, and pull a tear from your eye. So when I finished writing “Wind River” my first though was – “Oh crap. I’ve just written a horror novel.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised, I guess. When I was a kid I felt sorry for the Wicked Witch of the West, Gene Simmons was my favorite member of KISS, I only liked Decepticon Transformers, Darth Vader was the coolest guy imaginable, and during my first book report in AP high school English, I spat blood while telling the truncated story of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

But I never wanted to scare people with my writing, I wanted to move people. I thought there was a difference.

I’m not sure if there is a place on the bookstore shelf (or Amazon recommendations) for a literary horror novel like mine. It starts off like one of those classic tales, with a young bride, her distant husband, a secret lover, a disturbing childhood, and a struggle against the elements. But then some really dark stuff starts to happen, and by the time it is through, it is a battle against unknowable evil, in an isolated town filled with sick, tormented, and murderous people. So much for a light, heartwarming read.

For a long time I thought the book was a failure. I thought I had written it well, but knew that it probably was too over-the-top. And I was disappointed that I had missed my chance to really say something about the world. But then, someone told me I was wrong.

One of my critique partners said that the book had “changed” her. “Haunted” her. That it was a stunning commentary on the claiming of things that don’t belong to you.

Who knew?

I would like to thank her for saying those things. No one had said that to me before. Now, I don’t feel like a failure. Because I have done what I set out to do, even if it was only with one person.

For any writer, that’s usually enough.