Saturday, December 12, 2009

Zombies and Sea Monsters and Werewolfs - Oh My!

A while back I called for a boycott on these monster-infused Austen books. It went unheeded, even by myself. I never returned Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, as I claimed I would. It still remains in its pile of things to read and I still cannot bring myself to crack the spine. But I will, eventually. It's clear these books are not going away. Last month, Mansfield Park and Mummies and Emma and the Werewolves were released and this spring adds another essential volume to this growing genre, the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies prequel, The Dawn of the Dreadfuls. Interestingly, this new work is billed as a collaboration between Austen and Steve Hockensmith, not Seth Graham-Smith, the author of the first volume (I wish the marketers would be honest and give credit where it is due - to the two "dreadfuls" who wrote these horrid stories - and leave our dear lady out of it but they need her name to make their drivel sell, sigh). Furthermore, there is a Pride and Prejudice and Zombies film in production, slated for release in 2011. Darn you Natalie Portman! It would be terribly ironic if this movie led to the revival of the Bonnet Drama we have all been hoping for. And for all those who dutifully attend to the proper fitting out of their libraries, you can now buy the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Deluxe Edition, hard bound with new and glossy pictures (the pictures were the best thing about the book, even if they added insult to injury by not even getting the clothing of the period correct). I give up. Monster-fied Austen seems here to stay.

One of the things that most angered me about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the "Reader's Discussion Guide" included at the end (Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is likewise equipped, not sure about the others). The implications is that there is something worth discussing in these books: a trifle presumptuous, if you ask me. Presumably, the questions are supposed to be tongue-and-check, I get it, but they just make me livid. Beauties include:

#1 - Many critics have addressed the dual nature of Elizabeth's personality. On one hand, she can be a savage, remorseless killer, as we see in her vanquishing of Lady Catherine's ninjas. On the other hand, she can be tender and merciful, as in her relationship with Jane, Charlotte, and the young bucks that roam her family's estate. In your opinion, which of these "halves" best represents the real Elizabeth at the beginning-and end of the novel?


#5 - Due to her fierce independence, devotion to exercise, and penchant for boots, some critics have called Elizabeth Bennet "the first literary lesbian." Do you think the authors intend her to be gay? And if so, how would this Sapphic twist serve to explain her relationship with Darcy, Jane, Charlotte, Lady Catherine, and Wickham?

Anyway, I was inspired by these provoking questions to write the following piece of flash fiction (less than 1000 words). The Reader's Discussion Guide is a satirical, distopian tale that portrays a world I would hate to inhabit. Hopefully it make you laugh rather than causing any nightmares.

The Reader's Discussion Guide

“O.K. class. Take your seats.”

Already being in my seat, there is no reason for me to heed Carbuncle, but I put my pen down and look up attentively anyway. Around me, my classmates settle into their desks. It is a dreary, winter morning, still quite dark out. The smell of coffee penetrates the room as students endeavor to rouse their senses into attentiveness. Many hold their mugs for additional warmth but I am amongst those who choose to employ the cup holder built into the top corner of the desk. I want my hands free to take notes.

“Today we are reviewing Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. As you only had the last fragment to read last night, you should have had ample time to consider the Reader's Discussion Guide.”

I suppress a self-satisfied grin and pick up my pen, unable to resist the urge to pull up the texts I had found. A few of my classmates omit sounds of displeasure.

“In the course of this study we have addressed the factor of duel authorship in some detail. The translation of the text you read was written sometime after Austen died. From what we understand of the era, this was a time of great collaboration between artists, regardless of their biological states. Grahame-Smith obviously had some kind of access to her notes – there are suggestions that she left behind a correspondence.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is one of the most complete texts to have survived from this era. The Reader's Discussion Guide is a subject of great debate – some scholars argue that it was a later addition to the novel, rendering its authorship questionable. They premise this assertion on the first question, now displayed in its rather mangled form before you. The first line is the point of contention: 'Many critics have addressed the dual nature of Elizabeth's personality.' If the Guide was published at the same time as the novel – if, in essence, it was written by Grahame-Smith – who are the critics he refers to? Most scholars, myself amongst them, believe that this was indeed written by Grahame-Smith and the critics are those of Austen, whose work is believed to have been widely circulated.”

Borax's pen has rolled off his desk and he doesn't bother to pick it up. I stare at him as Carbuncle begins to dissect the remainder of the question. How can he be so lazy! In disgust, I finally bend down and retrieve the pen for him. He ignores me and I have to tap him on the shoulder with the errant pen before he will take it.

“Who would like to share their thoughts?”

My hand shoots up.

“Yes, Quilted.”

I try but fail to lower my hand good naturedly. Quilted stands up and taps her pad several times with her pen before proceeding.

“My reading of question five suggests that bisexual politics motivate the plot. The two 'halves' of Elizabeth, referred to in question one, seem to illuminate not only her sexual ambiguity but also that of the authors – could Seth Grahame-Smith actually be Jane Austen after the cosmetic surgery so popular at the time? If so, it seems clear that the Zombies represent the author's internal battle for sexual identity.”

“Very good Quilted. indeed, many scholars have argued as you do. Are there any responses to Quilted's thesis?”

My hand shoots back up as Quilted retakes her seat, looking rather smug all the while.

“Yes, Lysol.”

I stand up, pad in hand and take a steadying breath.

“I disagree with Quilted's reasoning. If the critics are those of Austen, might he not be asking which is the real Elizabeth, his or hers? It feels to me like Austen's story must have functioned quite independently of Graham-Smith's. Evidence suggests that they lived hundreds of years apart, negating the transgender concept. A search of the Internet Archives revealed a lot of animosity between those who considered themselves defenders of Austen and the Grahame-Smith contingency, who seems to have been ...”

“I must interrupt you there Lysol. You know very well the Internet Archive is inadmissible evidence. A more unreliable record of information never existed. Many scholars have attempted to harness that jumble to no avail – it is forever unverifiable. We have no way of knowing which author is primarily responsible for the text. It is all conjecture. Let us move on to question two: 'Is Mr. Collins merely too fat and stupid to notice his wife's gradual transformation into a zombie?' Many have argued that this points to the physical linkage between obesity and stupidity largely subscribed to at the time, others have suggested it is merely the character's defining ...”

I tune Carbuncle out, my enthusiasm crushed. Borax is grinning at me like I am the biggest idiot on Mars. I really thought I had something – it seemed so likely that Austen was the primary author and that this classic text was more of Graham-Smith's corruption of an Austen original than the result of a collaborative effort. But we have moved on to question three: no time to mope. I hope to redeem myself in Carbuncle's eyes with my reading of the zombies as manifestations of cancer.

Still not thoroughly sick of zombies? Take the Which Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Character are You? quiz! I'm Lady Catherine de Bourgh, which would normally offend me but her characterization in this book was its best aspect (if you must live in a Zombie infested land, it's best to have a hoard of ninjas around). Still, I wasn't so happy with my description: "Your wealth, noble breeding, and zombie-slaying abilities are impressive—not to mention your fleet of ninjas. But you are exceedingly mean and wrinkly." I can take the mean part but wrinkly!?! I most certainly am not!

Note to the reader: I am aware that there have been some contributions to the monster-fied Austen genre that are far better than the commercially driven books discussed in this post. I really liked Regina Jeffers' Vampire Darcy's Desire (I've mentioned it in two posts, here and here) and Mary Simonsen, author of Searching for Pemberley, has been writing a very cute piece called Mr. Darcy on the Eve of All Saints Day (I don't think it's finished yet, but its close) which tackles this werewolf notion and is available on her blog. There is another werewolf take on Pride & Prejudice called Moonlighting by Ola Wegner, released last summer. I have a copy but have yet to read it.


  1. Very clever piece, and I loved the names: Carbuncle, Quilted, and Lysol. I bought S&S and Sea Monsters. Fortunately, there was a big ink stain on it, so I was able to return it with a clear conscience. It wasn't the story line that put me off; it was the stilted writing. I read 50 pages before throwing in the towel. Thanks for your comment on my story.

  2. My pleasure Mary. I did read the first few pages of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters when I first got it and had to put it down. One day when I am in thoroughly good humor and all feels right with the world I'll try again.

  3. What would Jane Austen say if she saw her novels turned into gothic fiction? Especially with her mocking view of it in Northanger Abbey!

    I can't believe this current trend nor how they are going to make a movie of it! I hope that on the good side, as you said, it will lead regency period drama's being in demand.

  4. Hi Katherine! You've touched on the fly in the ointment - am I happy people are, perhaps, reading more Jane Austen because of this trend? Yes, I just wish there were better means of achieving this end. I will admit that I look forward to seeing the movie, for zombies will certainly be more palatable with aide of good costuming (if that is indeed what's in store) and, perhaps, more zombie fans will tune into Masterpiece Theater as a result. For some reason, the entire premise seems far less offensive when film is the medium of choice - Natalie Portman will probably make a delightful Lizzy, if only we could eliminate all the vomit and ultra-violent mayhem ...

  5. I like your flashfic - reminds me of "Motel of the Mysteries," skewering both silly scholarship and contemporary idiocy simultaneously.

  6. Motel of the Mysteries - never heard about it until today, though I know of Macauley. I just looked it up and it sounds like my kind of thing as I love archeology. I've added it to my wish list.

  7. Excellent post, Alexa. I really enjoyed your piece. I am loving Mary's "Mr. Darcy on the Eve of All Saints Day" story and I have heard only good things about "Moonlighting." I feel like these stories are still exploring Jane Austen in the paranormal realm but not using or rewriting her works like P&P&Z, and I feel that is more respectful of her works.

    Have you heard of James Fairfax? I feel the same about that book, as the author is using the text of Emma.

  8. There is definitely a distinction to be made between those who artlessly impose random elements onto a story as a ploy to make money and those who respect the original text, adapting said random elements with style and grace. I just read a lovely interview with Regina Jeffers about Vampire Darcy's Desire on Austenprose that illustrates very well how an Austenite handles such proceedings. While I have heard about James Fairfax, in all honesty I haven't really paid it any attention. I'm sorry to have to admit so, but I think I've grown rather desensitized to all this folderol.

  9. This comment and my response was submitted to the Donwell Abbey post but I think it was intended for this one (silly blogs, so easy to scroll down too far, too fast!). I'm copying it here because it adds to this discussion:

    Francy C. said...

    I've read Moonlighting in which Darcy is a werewolf. It was my first time reading a paranormal story. It is a very dark tale, but even though I didn't like how Elizabeth was treated by Darcy, it made for compelling reading.

    Alexa Adams said...

    Hi Francy! I'm curious to read it and will definitely have something to say about the book once I do but I must admit that your comment increases my wariness. I adore Mr. Darcy and it pains me when he is portrayed as a brute.

  10. Excellent post, Alexa! I'm quite suspicious when it comes to Austen based fiction. I've tried one last summer- it was fun, nothing more - but no vampires, monsters or zombies. No, thank you. I've always loved and respected Jane as an excellent writer and very intelligent woman. I don't think she would like most of that stuff. As Kathrine says in her comment, think of what she makes of gothic novels in her Northanger Abbey!

  11. Northanger Abbey was exactly my first responses to this entire phenomenon. I believe I quoted Hemry Tilney's "remember we are English" speech to mark the occasion. But I think it is important to remember that Austen enjoyed Gothic novels, even as she mocked them. It helps me keep my goof humor when confronted with some of this stuff. I devour Austen based fiction but the monsters are a bit hard to take. Fan fiction is so much better when done with respect; it is a tone I tried very hard to maintain in my own book.