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Friday, May 14, 2010

Reading List: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Austen, Jane and Seth Grahame-Smith. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-59474-334-4.
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is the quintessential British Regency era novel of manners. Originally published in 1813, it has been endlessly adapted to the stage, film, and television, and has been a staple of English literature classes from the Victorian era through post-post-modern de-deconstructionist decadence. What generations of litterateurs missed, however, is its fundamental shortcoming: there aren't any zombies in it! That's where the present volume comes in.

This work preserves 85% of Jane Austen's original text and names her as the primary author (hey, if you can't have a dead author in a zombie novel, where can you?), but enhances the original story with “ultraviolent zombie mayhem” seamlessly woven into the narrative. Now, some may consider this a travesty and desecration of a literary masterwork, but look at this way: if F-14s are cool and tyrannosaurs are cool, imagine how cool tyrannosaurs in F-14s would be? Adopting this Calvinist approach allows one to properly appreciate what has been done here.

The novel is set in an early 19th century England afflicted for five and fifty years with the “strange plague” that causes the dead to rise and stagger across the countryside alone or in packs, seeking to kill and devour the succulent brains of the living. Any scratch inflicted by one of these creatures (variously referred to as “unmentionables”, “sorry stricken”, “manky dreadfuls”, “Satan's armies”, “undead”, or simply “zombies”) can infect the living with the grievous affliction and transform them into another compulsive cranium cruncher. The five Bennet sisters have been sent by their father to be trained in the deadly arts by masters in China and have returned a formidable fighting force, sworn by blood oath to the Crown to defend Hertfordshire against the zombie peril until the time of their marriage. There is nothing their loquacious and rather ditzy mother wants more than to see her five daughters find suitable matches, and she fears their celebrated combat credentials and lack of fortune will deter the wealthy and refined suitors she imagines for them. The central story is the contentious relations and blossoming romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a high-born zombie killer extraordinaire whose stand-offish manner is initially interpreted as arrogance and disdain for the humble Bennets. Can such fierce and proud killers find love and embark upon a life fighting alongside one another in monster murdering matrimony?

The following brief extracts give a sense of what you're getting into when you pick up this book. None are really plot spoilers, but I've put them into a spoiler block nonetheless because some folks might want to encounter these passages in context to fully enjoy the roller coaster ride between the refined and the riotous.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • From a corner of the room, Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went. He knew of only one other woman in Great Britain who wielded a dagger with such skill, such grace, and deadly accuracy.

    By the time the girls reached the walls of the assembly hall, the last of the unmentionables lay still.

    Apart from the attack, the evening altogether passed off pleasantly for the whole family. Mrs. Bennet had seen her eldest daughter much admired by the Netherfield party. … (Chapter 3)

  • Elizabeth, to whom Jane very soon communicated the chief of all this, heard it in silent indignation. Her heart was divided between concern for her sister, and thoughts of going immediately to town and dispensing the lot of them.

    “My dear Jane!” exclaimed Elizabeth, “you are too good. Your sweetness and disinterestedness are really angelic; you wish to think all the world respectable, and are hurt if I speak of killing anybody for any reason! …” (Chapter 24)

  • But why Mr. Darcy came so often to the Parsonage, it was more difficult to understand. It could not be for society, as he frequently sat there ten minutes together without opening his lips; and when he did speak, it seemed the effect of necessity rather than choice. He seldom appeared really animated, even at the sight of Mrs. Collins gnawing upon her own hand. What remained of Charlotte would liked to have believed this change the effect of love, and the object of that love her friend Eliza. She watched him whenever they were at Rosings, and whenever he came to Hunsford; but without much success, for her thoughts often wandered to other subjects, such as the warm, succulent sensation of biting into a fresh brain. …

    In her kind schemes for Elizabeth, she sometimes planned her marrying Colonel Fitzwilliam. He was beyond comparison the most pleasant man; he certainly admired her, and his situation in life was most eligible; but to counterbalance these advantages, Mr. Darcy had a considerably larger head, and thus, more brains to feast upon. (Chapter 32)

  • “When they all removed to Brighton, therefore, you had no reason, I suppose, to believe them fond of each other?”

    “Not the slightest. I can remember no symptom of affection on either side, other than her carving his name into her midriff with a dagger; but this was customary with Lydia. …” (Chapter 47)

  • He scarcely needed an invitation to stay for supper; and before he went away, an engagement was formed, chiefly through his own and Mrs. Bennet's means, for his coming next morning to shoot the first autumn zombies with her husband. (Chapter 55)
  • You may as well call it impertinence. It was very little else. The fact is, you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking, and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused, and interested you because I was so unlike them. I knew the joy of standing over a vanquished foe; of painting my face and arms with their blood, yet warm, and screaming to the heavens—begging, nay daring, God to send me more enemies to kill. The gentle ladies who so assiduously courted you knew nothing of this joy, and therefore, could never offer you true happiness. … (Chapter 60)
Spoilers end here.  

The novel concludes with zombies still stalking England; all attempts to find a serum, including Lady Catherine's, having failed, and without hope for a negotiated end to hostilities. Successful diplomacy requires not only good will but brains. Zombies do not have brains; they eat them. So life goes on, and those who find married bliss must undertake to instruct their progeny in the deadly arts which defend the best parts of life from the darkness.

The book includes a “Reader's Discussion Guide” ideal for classroom and book club exploration of themes raised in the novel. For example:

10. Some scholars believe that the zombies were a last-minute addition to the novel, requested by the publisher in a shameless attempt to boost sales. Others argue that the hordes of living dead are integral to Jane Austen's plot and social commentary. What do you think? Can you imagine what this novel might be without the violent zombie mayhem?
Beats me.

Of course this is going to be made into a movie—patience! A comic book edition, set of postcards, and a 2011 wall calendar ideal for holiday giving are already available—go merchandising! Here is a chart which will help you sort out the relationships among the many characters in both Jane Austen's original novel and this one.

While this is a parody, whilst reading it I couldn't help but recall Herman Kahn's parable of the lions in New York City. Humans are almost infinitely adaptable and can come to consider almost any situation normal once they've gotten used to it. In this novel zombies are something one lives with as one of the afflictions of mortal life like tuberculosis and crabgrass, and it is perfectly normal for young ladies to become warriors because that's what circumstances require. It gives one pause to think how many things we've all come to consider unremarkable in our own lives might be deemed bizarre and/or repellent from the perspective of those of another epoch or observing from a different cultural perspective.

Posted at May 14, 2010 14:05