Pride And Prejudice And Zombies kicked off the most recent cycle of literary mash-ups, and author Seth Grahame-Smith described the process of inserting zombie elements into Jane Austen’s novel, creating an adaptation unsettlingly close to the original, as akin to microsurgery. His next book, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, broke away from the Quirk Books trend of updating classic novels with popular modern twists; instead, it generously embellished historical record to craft a story of Lincoln’s role in a hidden war against the undead. Unholy Night, Grahame-Smith’s third novel, relies even less on existing source material: It expands the backstory of the Three Wise Men present at the birth of Jesus, telling how they helped save the infant and smuggle his family into Egypt.
Only one of the four gospels mentions the Magi, who are historically pictured as Arabic, Indian, and Persian scholars, respectively named Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchior. Grahame-Smith re-imagines Balthazar as The Antioch Ghost, an infamous Syrian thief and a giant thorn in the side of Judean king Herod the Great. Once Herod captures him, Balthazar is thrown in prison with two other thieves, master swordsman Melchyor and Gaspar, completing the inversion of scholars to criminals. The three elude execution and flee to Bethlehem, where they meet the devoutly religious Mary and Joseph, and their son. When Herod orders the children of Bethlehem slaughtered, the group sets out for Egypt, and the chase is on. Pontius Pilate, Augustus Caesar, and other biblical figures float through the narrative, but only when needed to pad out the story with requisite cameos.
Mel Gibson used the egregiously gratuitous violence in Passion Of The Christ as a cathartic expression of religious themes, but in Unholy Night, those elements feel cribbed from Assassin’s Creed, or worse, Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy, as a means of hitting predetermined action beats whenever the story drags. Balthazar’s religious skepticism stems from childhood trauma, and his conversations with Mary and Joseph merely bring up the standard criticisms of the story’s authenticity. The goal in Unholy Night is not to have religious discussions or to approach the Biblical tale from an unusual angle, but to shoehorn in action-movie staples to pump some new life into the familiar story. In that respect, the book is a success—the pace is gripping, the setpieces are B-horror gold, and none of the re-imagined elements are offensive or disrespectful to religious text.
Grahame-Smith’s ambition is admirable, and he certainly has no aversions against freshening up well-respected or age-old stories with a modern twist de rigueur. But the trajectory of his literary career over the course of his first three novels finds him drifting further away from updating touchstone classics and closer to a fully original novel, which would actually be refreshing. If he ever does bite the bullet and come up with something wholly original, his reputation will be at stake. He’s either a talented and entertaining writer with an affinity for adaptation, or confined to a genre where success depends on the subject matter, not the writer.