“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. Never was this truth more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen was slaughtered and consumed by a horde of the living dead.”
So begins Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, an intriguing literary mashup of Regency romance, B-movie horror and martial arts that attempts to turn a classic novel into a post-modern geek fest.
Author Seth Grahame-Smith, who is credited as a co-writer alongside Jane Austen, has generated a lot of excitement with this, his first novel. It’s certainly an inspired experiment to place the sense and sensibilities of Austen’s satirical comedy of manners alongside a dark, apocalyptic tale of rotting corpses hungry for “British brains”.
“The idea came from my editor, Jason Rekulak,” explains Seth, who has also penned genre guides How To Survive A Horror Movie and The Big Book Of Porn. “He’d been dying to ‘remix’ a classic book for some time, and had made all sorts of lists of possibilities.
“When he called me up and said ‘what about zombies in Pride And Prejudice?’, I was so excited I ran out that very afternoon, bought the original book, and began to plot out exactly how this might work. Zombies were familiar territory for me, as I’d been a fan of George Romero’s movies (Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead) since I was a wee lad. You have certain elements in the original book that make for a good action/horror tale: a regiment of soldiers camped out near Elizabeth’s house for half the book, with no explanation given for their being there.
“What excited me was the challenge of writing these ridiculous, gratuitous scenes of violence and gore in the (attempted) style of Austen. I was worried that I’d be burned at the stake by some of the Austen elite, and to some small extent, that’s happened.
“But I’ve been thrilled by the fact that so many of P&P&Z’s biggest fans are also some of Jane’s biggest fans. I’ve also been thrilled to hear from readers who pride (sorry) themselves on getting through the zombie-fied version, and decide to tackle the original – or even read another of Austen’s masterpieces.”
Traditionally, men tend to avoid Austen, dismissing it as chick-lit. Certainly, the BBC’s acclaimed adaptation in the 1990s did nothing to counter this with its almost gratuitous shots of Colin Firth in his britches, designed to draw in the oestrogen-fuelled female audiences.
That’s a shame, as when reading P&P&Z, which retains around 85% of Austen’s text, you discover the original author has a dry sense of humour as sharp as the swords her characters, the Bennet sisters, have been trained to wield against the ‘unmentionables’. Despite the nature of the extra material, Seth’s contributions never detract from the original and, in some instances, actually underline the ideas Austen was trying to convey.
“The point wasn’t to rewrite or modernize the original,” explains Seth. “Rather, it was to preserve as much of it as I could while surgically weaving in (as seamlessly as possible) new words, lines, paragraphs, and occasionally – pages of new battle sequences.
“Doing that without jarring the reader was the biggest challenge of writing the book. The language and cadence is extremely difficult, and a lot of time was spent reading and re-reading Austen’s words in an attempt to mimic them.
“It’s not a parody, because it wasn’t my intention to make fun of the original. Pride And Prejudice is a brilliantly written book by a brilliant author, and all I wanted to do was give its themes and characters an absurd canvas to play out upon.”
“Many of Austen’s characters are rather like zombies,” he continues. “They carry on single-mindedly in their bubbles of immense wealth and privilege, no matter what’s going on around them. They pride (sorry again) themselves on discipline and politeness and repression and subservience. These people simply carry on with their gossip and romances and manners and balls, despite the fact that people are being gored and eaten alive.
“You get the sense that they would act the same way even if the rest of England was falling apart around them. In this version, it just so happens that England IS falling apart around them.”
Some reviews have attacked Seth’s book for neither being scary enough – difficult in such a genteel environment – nor effective enough as a straightforward romance. While it’s true that P&P&Z won’t be for everybody, it is highly enjoyable if you stop looking to pigeon-hole it and instead read it with the same spirit of grisly fun in which it was written.
Seth believes it’s the ludicrous nature of it all that is to account for his novel soaring into the top five of the New York Times Best Seller list. “I think people get the joke,” he says. “[They] see it for what it is – a silly, entertaining way to revisit a timeless classic. A book that doesn’t take itself seriously. Plus, it has ninjas in it, so it’s automatically awesome.”
With a huge, if somewhat unexpected, interest in the novel on both sides of the Atlantic – American publisher Quirk Books has admitted that it’s struggling to keep up with demand – it’s no wonder that a film version is now in the pipeline. With Elton John’s Rocket Pictures recently announcing it is developing another pop-horror take on Austen with Pride And Predator, it seems 2010 could be the year of the mashups. Even if the films fail to deliver, they should at least be commended for not just being simple remakes.
In the meantime, Seth’s already busy working on his next mashup project – Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. “I guess I’m remixing a life this time instead of a book, but one thing’s for sure – I’m done cashing in on Jane,” he concludes. “One kick of her coffin is enough. I don’t want to become the guy who writes Sense And Sensibility And Senseless Violence (although I’m sure that book can’t be far off). Once I’m through kicking Abe’s coffin, who knows?”
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, published by Quirk Books, is out now in paperback, priced £8.99.