“Wishful thinking is a sin all England stands guilty of today, your fool of a father included. We told ourselves our long nightmare was over, that a new day had dawned. Alas, that was the real dream.” ~Mr. Bennett.
And thus begins, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls (Steve Hockensmith: copyright © 2010 Quirk Books), a story of Regency England facing a threat it had thought long since past. In polite society, one does not talk of the scourge, and if necessary, refers to them as “the Unmentionables“. Less polite society calls them “the Dreadfuls” and if one loses one’s propriety altogether, “Zombies!”
And propriety is under siege in this novel, as respectable society tries (and fails) to go about business as usual, ignoring the threat that has literally come upon their doorsteps.
Dawn of the Dreadfuls was written as a prequel to Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, itself a mash-up of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, chronicling the events that led to the Bennett sisters becoming the undead killing machines of Smith’s novel. It begins with a funeral (quite apt) and ends with a ballroom dance being crashed by some uninvited (and undead) guests. Along the way we are introduced to the Bennett family, a family of more status than means. While Mrs. Bennett seeks an amicable union for her daughters so as to assure a future of comfort and sensibility, Mr. Bennett curses himself for both not having sons and neglecting his daughters martial education.
The daughters themselves are a curious bunch.
Jane, the eldest, is a demure portrait in modesty (so much so that you need use both words to describe her), yet equipped with a quick wit and an even quicker katana. She’s the model of civility in such an age, yet not above doing whatever needs to be done in pursuit of the greater good, whether allowing herself to be courted by an awful English dandy to satisfy her mother, or lopping the head of any dreadful to satisfy her father. Elizabeth, our protagonist, is much less demure, possibly a quicker wit, and has a much more realistic view of the world and people around her. She’s also less mindful of modesty and more willing to ascribe to the axiom that life is, “nasty, brutish and short.” Unless you strike first. Mary, the self-absorbed bookworm, lost in her desire to show everyone up, whatever the issue, and finally Lydia and Kitty, too girls with nothing but air between their ears, yet natural skill with implements of death.
You can’t have a family of women in such a novel without a bevy of possible suitors, and Dawn of the Dreadfuls is chock full of them. Remember, this is pre-Darcy, and Netherfield Park was not yet to be occupied by the Bingsley’s. No, in this prequel Netherfield is the domain of Lord Lumpley, a libertine of the worst sort, whose desperate pursuit of wine and women rules all his actions, and in this case, the object of his pursuit is Jane. Such a beauty cannot only be the desire of one chunky lord, and his nemesis arrives in the form of Lt. Tindall, charged with protecting the small hamlet of Meryton from the recently unearthed. He’s the model of a soldier, brave and talented, yet hidebound by the social convention that women are delicate flowers and hobbled by a regiment of recent inductees who barely know one end of a musket from the other. Nevertheless he knows how to put down a dreadful and learns to recognize that convention is all fine and good, ’til it stands between you and continuing life.
Of course, this novel is primarily about Elizabeth Bennett, and while she is cynical of men as a gender, her views are only enhanced by the vices exhibited by the two men in her life. The first is the seemingly flawless master Hawksworth, an expert of the martial arts and belonging to an order that once put the dreadfuls in their place. While demonstrating all the physical ability and military talent to deal with the threat, over time Hawksworth’s fatal flaw becomes apparent, both to the reader and Ms. Bennett. His counterpart is the intellectually superior yet emotionally stunted Dr. Kekilpenny, a man who would rather play around in his makeshift laboratory trying to rehabilitate the dreadfuls into proper English gentlemen than stand up and fight. His bravery is obvious, but it’s born of obliviousness.
So, the scene is set, the characters have their places, and the reader is more than likely to be amused and enthralled by this surprisingly entertaining period piece. Hockensmith manages to capture much of the subtle humour and most of the style of Austen’s writing. When talking of Mrs. Bennett’s personality, he inserts such thoughts as, “As always, she found facts antithetical to good conversation.” (pp. 142) When writing of lord Lumpley’s excesses, such lines as:
“You and I must return to Netherfield at once Ms. Bennett. Balls don’t throw themselves, you know, and I’m certain you will prove yourself ever so helpful with mine.” (pp. 180)
leap out at the reader and elicit a good chuckle.
But it’s not all chuckles and wit. If you’re looking for horror and mayhem, or simply relief from the boredom that comes from sense and sensibility in a time of polite society and debutante’s balls, then Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls is a must read. Especially since Hockensmith has been commissioned to bookend Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with both this prequel and the forthcoming sequel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After, leaping off shelves to feast on the brains of horror readers March 22 of this year.