Review: Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith

Review by Jess Peacock

Seth Grahame-Smith has quickly become the current “it” boy du jour, and it’s not difficult to see why. After dipping his toe into the literary scene with the overtly self-aware How to Survive a Horror Movie, Grahame-Smith single-handedly established the horror/historical literary mash-up craze with the delightful Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, followed by the excellent Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (my review of which can be read here). Both novels caught the attention of idea deficient Hollywood, and the author quickly found his respective brainchildren in the hands of producers Natalie Portman (yep, that Natalie Portman) and Tim Burton, the former now in development hell, the latter on its way to your closest googleplex this summer. In addition, Burton tapped Grahame-Smith to write the poorly received Dark Shadows remake, as well as to construct a sequel to the director’s sophomore hit Beetlejuice.

One might think that with the amount of attention and success Grahame-Smith is experiencing that he might now be looking to stretch himself as an artist and as a novelist. Unfortunately, his latest historical reimagining, Unholy Night, serves more as a film treatment than a novel of any depth or substance, with the most minimum of character development propelling the story through to its abrupt and hastily developed paint-by-numbers conclusion.

The novel tells the story of Balthazar, a thief who, along with two others of his ilk, cross paths with a certain history shattering baby in a manger, and must ultimately pool their talents and skills to evade their murderous common enemy, King Herod. While undoubtedly an interesting alternative historical (or fictional, depending on your religious beliefs) premise with regard to the tale of the three wise men in Christian scripture, the story ultimately falls flat, and one gets the distinct impression that Grahame-Smith hoped that the fusing of story elements from the Pirates of the Caribbean and The Prince of Persia might elevate the novel to something greater than the sum of its parts. Hell, even a key plot point from The Princess Bride serves as the primary motivator for the protagonist of the novel (“You killed my father brother, prepare to die.”)

In addition, Grahame-Smith seems to fumble the more interesting aspects of his novel, particularly the last Magus and the dark powers at his disposal. A potentially epic, Sith-like villain that could have brought so much more to the overall narrative, the occult abilities of the sinister wizard fail to serve as anything more than a convenient apparatus to keep a shoehorned-into-the-story Pontius Pilate on track in his promotion motivated pursuit of the fleeing thieves and the defenseless offspring of God. In other words, there were countless opportunities for unique and fascinating explorations in this world that were left untouched, overlooked, or simply not utilized toward what could have been the realization of the full potential of the story.

This is not to say that Unholy Night falls entirely flat, quite the contrary. As a summer read, it quite adequately serves its purpose as a kinetic yarn, and readers on the lookout for a mindless adventure will find much to be happy about. Unfortunately Grahame-Smith could have given us a lot more meat on this predictable, safe, and entirely conventional bone.