Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith – Book Review

unholy-nightFeatured image is Diamond Star by Brian Yi (please click the link to see the full image — it’s nice.)

Seth Grahame-Smith is the author who brought zombies to Pride and Prejudice, and turned America’s “great emancipator”, Abraham Lincoln, into a vampire hunter. He’s been tipping some of the sacred cows of literature and history for a while, so you can bet I was intrigued by his take on “the greatest story ever told”. In Unholy Night, Grahame-Smith takes the biblical Nativity story (sacred to billions) and adds his tongue-in-cheek, pulp-horror twist to it. Seeing as the original is such a revered and well-known story, the retelling of Jesus’s birth  by Grahame-Smith is not nearly as dark or far-fetched as I’d expected. Granted, there is some sorcery and some zombies, not to mention some run-of-the-mill depravity and violence. Plus, making Judea’s King Herod into a self-serving, evil psycho is probably more accurate than we realize (he did order the killing of all newborn sons in the nation, after all). However, Grahame-Smith probably takes a slightly safer, off-target approach by not really assaulting the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus head on, but instead reinventing the tale of one of the Three Wise Men (in particular, the one called Balthazar). In this case, Balthazar is actually a thief (though a very skilled and famous thief) nicknamed “The Antioch Ghost” who was a huge thorn in King Herod’s side. When he (and his two other cellmates, Gaspar and Melchyor) escape execution, they become Herod’s most wanted, so it doesn’t help them to end up in the company of Herod’s other target, the newborn Messiah (and his parents).

When writing this kind of a reinvented story, it’s probably a very fine line to walk between straining to make things line up with the original narrative and straying so far that it’s really no retelling at all. In this case, I think Grahame-Smith succeeds in striking that balance most of the time. He does a nice job of setting the socio-political context for the story and fills in a pretty detailed backdrop for this very familiar story. It not only helps some of the more-inventive story elements seem plausible, it also sheds some new light on the original Bible story (which in itself doesn’t really provide much detail of what it was really like). The part that does seem too neatly-tied is how characters come together a bit coincidentally (which is pawned off as divine intervention). It’s too cinematic how characters from Balthazar’s past resurface in order for him to fulfill his own destiny (and the involvement of a young Pontius Pilate just seems too much).

What was originally no kind of action-adventure story seems surprisingly not difficult to turn into one. I’d never given much thought to the idea that Joseph, Mary and Jesus were hunted fugitives who probably had a harrowing time fleeing to Egypt. In the Bible it just kind of happens. However, I did find Grahame-Smith’s writing style a bit much in the way it described the gore and violence involved. I think there’s more vivid imagery around how people died, were injured, or other things unsavoury than any of the nice, emotional, or meaningful stuff. I realize that it’s a kind of pop-cultural edginess to revel in the gross, but it doesn’t make me enjoy the writing any more. Also, there were only touches on the well-known miracles from the Bible (e.g. the Star in the sky is mentioned as being inexplicable and really bright, but not much else) and how their meaning could be reinterpreted from this new, fictional perspective. In the end, I feel that Grahame-Smith’s choosing of this particular story to remake was a gimmick more than inspiration. I can’t say that he really added to, or even explored, the old tale. Maybe he should have taken off the kid-gloves and really pushed the limits. For the most part it was a light, matinee-friendly adventure that only loosely followed the story of the first Christmas and came nowhere close to subverting it. 3.5 out of 5

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone!

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