Saturday, April 3, 2010

Historical Figues Doing Strange, Strange Things


Famous people are meant to be remembered. The achievements of presidents, rulers, writers, and scientists go down in history, as they should. But sometimes famous people have secrets. And not the secrets you’re thinking of—there’s much more going on than skeletons in the closet and lovers on the sly. Instead, the best-known historical figures cavorted with unsavory members of the underground or snuck out at night to keep our ancestors safe and sound in their beds. Want to know what history class didn’t—or couldn’t—teach you? Read about these famous fellows and their strange secrets and hidden talents.

Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford, 2009, Ballantine Books (Fantasy/ Humor/ Historical Fiction)


We love Jane Austen. We love her so much, in fact, that even though she only wrote six books, there are dozens upon dozens of sequels, prequels, knockoffs, spin-offs, and mash-ups to be found on bookshelves everywhere. And here’s another one: Jane Bites Back. Jane Austen is still alive and well. How? She’s a vampire, of course. She’s also a bookstore owner and an aspiring author. Her last book has been rejected for nigh on two hundred years. But now she’s finally found a publisher—and a handsome one at that. She's beginning to feel truly comfortable with her daffy assistant (who reminds her of sister Cassandra) and her admiring neighbor Walter (who is not at all a Mr. Darcy, even though he’s very sweet and caring). And her books are selling better than ever (even if they have to compete with knockoffs like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). But when Jane’s renewed fame as author “Elizabeth Jane Fairfax” of the new bestselling Constance shoves her into the spotlight, our heroine finds herself involved in a couple familiar entanglements: one a wicked battle-of-the-sexes with ex-boyfriend and fellow vampire Lord Byron, and the other a fierce catfight with Charlotte Brönte-fanatic Violet Grey. Now Jane's treasured privacy as a human and her dark vampire secret are threatened--and just when things finally seemed to be going her way. Author Michael Thomas Ford joyously plays with popular culture's current mania for all things Austen and still gifts readers with a realistically warm, witty, and sometimes sarcastic Jane who fans will recognize and relate to. The first of a planned trilogy, readers can rest assured that Jane will be back to bite again and again.

Queen Victoria, Demon Hunter by A.E. Moorat, 2010, Eos Books (Horror/ Humor/ Historical Fiction)


Ah, Queen Victoria, the stiff-upper-lipped little woman whose long rule oversaw the British Empire’s growing power in all things industrial, political, military, cultural, and scientific. She was a controversial monarch whose assassination was attempted some dozen times in her life. The first attempt, though few know it today, came on the eve of her ascension to the throne when a foul demon (yes, demon) infiltrated her bedroom and attempted to slice her into little pieces. Young Victoria, as told in author A.E. Moorat’s new biography Queen Victoria, Demon Hunter, is not too surprised that there are demons—she has received an excellent education, after all—but it does come as something of a shock that she, as queen, is to be the lead demon hunter of the land. Still, Victoria is determined to be a successful ruler in all areas, and willingly begins training under the Protektorate, a motley crew of warriors in possession of all manner of demon-slaying skills—and in Victorian England, demons come in all sizes and shapes. As Victoria learns the proper way to behead a zombie, defeat a werewolf, and tackle other evil spirits, her mind occasionally wanders to daydreams of handsome Prince Albert. Trying to balance the desires of the heart with the demands of a demon-ravaged kingdom is certainly a trial, but no one is better suited to meet the challenge than the new Queen Victoria. There’s enough gore here to thrill raving horror fans, enough historical detail to satisfy devoted Anglophiles, and plenty of dashes of humor, romance, and satire to tie it all together in a neat little bow—and then, of course, good old Vicky will come along and lop its head off.

Drood by Dan Simmons, 2009, Little, Brown and Co. (Historical Fiction/ Horror)

Charles Dickens may be a classic writer of fine literature today, but way back when, he was a major celebrity. Readers waited on edge for the newest installments of his novels to come out in weekly newspapers and magazines; his book readings were carefully crafted performances and boy, were they packed. And according to author Dan Simmons, Dickens was a strange and secretive man. In Drood, Dickens is the main character, though his real-life friend (“frenemy” is perhaps more accurate) Wilkie Collins narrates the story. The starting point is a horrifying and near-fatal train derailing in 1865 that Dickens survived but never entirely recovered from. Simmons uses this factual event to introduce a mysterious character who Dickens encounters amid the gore and wreckage of the train—a gaunt specter, calling himself Drood, who emits a decidedly creepy aura and has a sinister agenda of his own. Dickens becomes obsessed with tracking Drood and enlists Collins to assist him in nighttime voyages though London’s grotesque underground caverns and crypts. Collins, as portrayed in Drood, is bitterly jealous and opium-addicted; Dickens is an egomaniac of the highest order who’s keeping heavy secrets from friends and family, including the motive behind what will be his final, uncompleted book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Things get weirder, spookier, and more bizarre as the final years of Dickens’ life draw to a close for a wholly atmospheric blend of history, historical fiction, and supernatural horror that’s as dramatic (and melodramatic) as the novels by Dickens and Collins that inspired it. Be sure to check out Dickens’ novels (especially The Mystery of Edwin Drood), and don’t let Wilkie Collins, who remains largely in the shadow of his better-known contemporary, be forgotten again—his novels The Moonstone and The Woman in White are masterpieces in their own right.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith, 2010, Grand Central Publishing (Horror/ Humor/ Historical Fiction)


Best known for living in a log cabin as a boy and ending slavery as our illustrious sixteenth president, a diary by the man himself (fortuitously discovered by Seth Grahame-Smith, author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) reveals that Abraham Lincoln was also a skilled slayer of vampires. Following his mother’s death at the hand (or bite) of a blood-sucking creature of the undead, young Abraham vows to spend the rest of his life ridding this great nation of the foul demon presence. And since slavery is a projection of the vampires’ natural desire for control over their victims, Abe vows to defeat that vile institution as well. His legendary strength and height are a definite advantage; his practiced skill with his sharp ax serves him well as he fights to crush the vampires’ political power—and just plain chop their heads off. The road to victory (and the White House) is not easy, and Abraham faces an uphill battle fraught with failed love affairs, sickly sons, dying soldiers, disguised vampires, and bloody fangs. Complete with documentary photographs, diary entries, quotes from letters, and explanatory footnotes, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter has the look and feel of a grand historical biography—but with tongue firmly in cheek. Continuing his tradition of adding scenes of gory mayhem to solid classics, Grahame-Smith might cause history buffs to grumble, but horror and humor fans will be tickled pink by the image of Honest Abe swinging his trusty ax at hoards of blood-thirsty sharp-toothed fangs.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists by Gideon Defoe, 2004, Pantheon Books (Humor/ Adventure/ Historical Fiction)


Charles Darwin changed the world with his theory of evolution. But first, he frolicked with pirates. When the very silly Pirate Captain and his crew of jolly buccaneers mistake Darwin’s ship The Beagle for a treasure ship from the Bank of England, Darwin charms the pirates with his fancy trained chimp, Mr. Bobo, who is a perfect little English gentleman and destined to be a start of the British stage. Chumming it up, Darwin and his new BFF the Pirate Captain head back to England to save the day. Darwin's brother, Erasmus, has been kidnapped by the vile Bishop of Oxford, who has invested heavily in P.T. Barnum’s traveling freak show and doesn't want any competition standing in his way—especially not from the likes of Charles Darwin and his upstart monkey. But with the pirates on the case, Darwin is certain to come out on top--if he can only convince the unruly crew to pose as scientists, dress in drag, and stop obsessing with ham. Author Gideon Defoe spins a yarn that is deliriously goofy (the 19th century characters indulge in such modern anachronisms as dental floss and post-it notes) but always endearing and charming. The Pirate Captain and his merry crew have several more adventure with noted celebrities of the age, including Karl Marx (The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists) and Napoleon (The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon), and even a run-in with the fictional Captain Ahab (The Pirates! In an Adventure with Ahab). But with Charles Darwin the Pirate Captain strikes up a true friendship (if only because Darwin has no comparable sword, beard, or ship to envy) and their adventure together is a droll, nonsensical romp with a light-hearted flair for the enjoyably ridiculous.

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