Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

“Of all the weapons she had commanded, Elizabeth knew the least of love; and of all the weapons in the world, love was the most dangerous.”

 It’s always a crapshoot to re-envision a classic.  For every Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightly, there’s a Starship Troopers starring Casper van Diem.  It’s even more of a crapshoot to take the original author’s vision and totally turn it on its head.  So, it was with much curiosity that I picked up a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Jane Austen and Seth Grahame Smith: copyright 2009, Quirk Books) Seth Grahame-Smith’s take on the seminal tale of the five Bennett sisters and their search for love and security in 18th century England.  It certainly takes a large amount of pride to assume oneself capable of taking a classic romance, mashing in a few zombies and some kick ass eastern fighting styles, and bringing forth what could only be described as a horrifying romance that captures the original author’s intent…but Seth Grahame-Smith was apparently the man for the job.

I imagine that anyone with a passing interest in literature has at least heard of the tale of the Bennett sisters, specifically Elizabeth, and her interactions with the mercurial Mr. Darcy.  One has an overabundance of pride, and the other finds the man’s pride so odious that she develops such a prejudice (yes, I know, hence the title) against him that the reader is left wondering how these two so obviously unsuited lovers can possibly get together. (Full disclosure–Pride and Prejudice  has been on my “to read” list for pretty much ever)  From what I gather on the subject, the original novel is a damning expose of 18th century convention and the wall between social classes, and even within them.  This version has a little fun with it.

So, let’s start with a short synopsis and go from there:

It’s been a few years since the events of Dawn of the Dreadfuls and the Bennett sisters have followed in their father’s footsteps, each of them travelling to the Orient to learn the ways of the Shaolin monks, a decidedly unladylike  action made necessary by the resurrection of the Dreadful menace, which has only gotten worse since the events of the prequel.  England is in a state of perpetual siege at the hands of the undead. London has become a walled fortress and travel around the countryside (unless it’s the dead of Winter–note to reader–the undead freeze) is a perilous affair.  However, life must go on, and the matriarch of the Bennett family is always on the lookout for possible suitors for her daughters.  With the re-habitation of Netherfield Park by the handsome (and very rich) Mr. Bingley, Mrs. Bennett sees a chance to both assure a future of comfort for her eldest daughter Jane, and by extension, the Bennetts.  When Jane endeavours to visit the Bingley’s and falls ill, Elizabeth is sent to watch over her recovery and during the course of the vigil, interacts with Fitzwilliam Darcy, whom she already has developed a grudge against, based on her initial observations at a local ball.

It’s hate at first sight, tempered by a certain appreciation of his martial qualities–ie.  he kills Zombies.  Elizabeth has devoted herself to a life of protecting her family and friends from the undead menace, telling herself that her duty allows no time for love, yet finds herself curiously drawn to Darcy.  However, events, as they often do in romance novels, conspire to keep the lovebirds apart.  The lies of Darcy’s childhood friend George Wickham influence Elizabeth greatly, as does Darcy’s treacherous (or so it seems) behaviour in coming between Jane and Charles Bingley.

All right, I’m already bored.  Suffice it to say that the reimagination of Austen’s work stays true to the original storyline, within limits.  However, Smith manages to seamlessly blend the horrific elements into the storyline, and adds a certain amount of bawdy humour that I doubt was in the original (not that Austen wasn’t a wit, it’s just that his additions are crude enough that I cannot believe Austen would have thought of them).

Examples abound of Smith’s somewhat bawdy additions to the original storyline.  When Elizabeth asks Mr. Darcy his opinion on the subject of balls (the formal dances), he responds with:

“…I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones.”

Elizabeth’s reply:

“On the contrary, I find that balls are much more enjoyable when they cease to remain private.”

Zoinks!  Double entendre anyone?

Later, when Elizabeth is entertaining Lady Catherine Debourgh and company with a demonstration of her nimbleness, walking about on her hands and finally supporting her weight on one finger, Lady Catherine observes to Darcy:

“Miss Bennet would make a fine showing of Leopard’s Claw if she practiced more, and could have the advantage of a Japanese master.  She has a very good notion of fingering.”

Darcy’s response:

“That she does.”

Ahem…cough, cough…Jane Austen would blush.

Let’s not forget Elizabeth’s younger sisters, the boy crazy Lydia and her easily influenced sister Kitty.  When the local militia regiment decamps from the area, they are disconsolate, Lydia whining that:

Only think what a miserable summer else we shall have!  With hardly any balls to be had in Meryton!”

To which Elizabeth cannot refrain from thinking:

“Yes…a summer with so few balls would be miserable indeed for a girl who thinks of little else.”

Anyway, I think you see where I’m going.  Smith has managed to channel Austen’s wit and brand it with his own (somewhat less delicate) sense of humour.

He also manages to change the essential character of Elizabeth’s relationship with lady Catherine.  In the original, lady Catherine looks down on the Bennetts as lower class and Elizabeth specifically as not worthy of her nephew’s attentions due to her diminished social status.  In this version, that is coupled with her disdain for Elizabeth’s training, shunning her Chinese training in the Shaolin ways as inferior to that of the Japanese, whose ninjitsu arts she is heavily influenced by.  She eventually goes so far as to sick her house ninjas on Elizabeth in a desperate attempt to foil their eventual union.

All in all this revised imagining of a perennial classic works, spicing up the original tale of romance with a healthy dose of both horror and the absurd, and (I would think) attracts a new audience that would likely never be exposed to the original without the addition of those horrific elements.  It’s definitely worth a read, and with the addition of both a prequel and sequel by the equally talented Steve Hockensmith, there’s plenty more for the reader to enjoy.

 

 

 

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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls-Steve Hockensmith

“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.