Seth Grahame-Smith has had quite the journey to success. We heard about him when he coauthored the first (or at least the first famous) literary mash-up, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. His novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter has been adapted into a movie that, unless you live under a rock somewhere, you’ve heard quite a bit about. And what’s more, he wrote the script for the movie Dark Shadows starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Eva Green and is writing the sequel to Beetlejuice. So it didn’t take much prompting for us to decide that his latest novel Unholy Night was worth reading.
Unholy Night isn’t a mash-up; instead, it’s the retelling of a story most of us know by heart, of one we hear over and over again on December 25. It’s the story of the three wise men that journeyed to Bethlehem on the eve of Jesus’ birth and bestowed gifts on him—at least, that’s the story in the Bible. As you can imagine, Grahame-Smith has an entirely different take on the story.
It starts with a man named Balthazar. When the novel begins, he’s desperately fleeing a band of Judean soldiers. You may think Balthazar is running because of some righteous cause, but no. He robbed the home of a Roman official and is doing everything he can to escape with his unearned booty. That’s right: wise man number one is a thief. And not just any common thief; Balthazar is known as the Antioch Ghost, and he’s notorious enough such that even King Herod knows his name.
King Herod has his own host of problems. He’s kind of disgusting physically, judging from the descriptions, and can’t appear in front of his people lest they think he’s… well… disgusting. Rome thinks he’s a bit of a joke, and this Antioch Ghost guy keeps ruining his day. Also, his advisors keep bugging him about some sort of Messiah. All in all, it’s been a frustrating few days.
There’s an irreverent sense of humor surrounding Unholy Night, what you’d expect from an author such as Grahame-Smith. What’s surprising, then, is how well-developed his characters are. Balthazar steals from the rich Romans, so it’s hard to dislike him, but he comes across as a hard, cold man. There are secrets in his past that made him what he is today, and it’s fascinating to watch Grahame-Smith peel back the layers and expose him.
The author also takes care to be respectful of the religious beliefs behind the nativity story. Believe it or not, he doesn’t make fun of it. He simply fills in the holes of the history behind the story. It’s left up to the reader to judge whether the baby Jesus is human or divine, yet even Balthazar can’t deny there’s something different about the child.
All in all, Unholy Night is a fun, exciting read that takes readers back thousands of years. There’s definitely some violence, but not enough to be a turn-off for those who don’t enjoy gore. It’s surprisingly smart, delving into the mythology and folklore of the time period, and as such it challenges the reader’s preconceptions while also delivering a riotous story. Whether you’re a fan of Seth Grahame-Smith or are new to his work, if you’re looking for a bit of a romp with your next novel, Unholy Night might be just the book to check out.
Would you read Unholy Night?