Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Elizabeth and Darcy and the Undead, Oh My!

Outside, the first storm of the season. Downed trees and power lines, an early dark. Inside, sore throats and Theraflu. All the while, Halloween approaching on black cat feet.

Perfect time for a little zombie talk.

“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.”

Thus begins Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Not to fear, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, beloved by generations (and me), is still here; in fact, most of the book is word-for-word identical to the original.* But, as the back cover copy of P&P&Z so eloquently puts it, this “expanded edition” features “all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem.” Yowza!

England, it seems, has been struck by a terrible plague. For fifty-five years, a horrific pestilence has infected the dead, animating them into flesh-seeking zombies. If a living person is bitten by a zombie and survives, that person will suffer a slow, slavering descent into zombie-hood.

One of the cleverest things author (or more properly, co-author) Seth Grahame-Smith did was start the zombie plague a couple of generations before the book begins. What this does is drop us into a Regency England torn between timeless British tradition (tea in the afternoon, charming country dances, warring with France) and a harsh new reality of fighting for survival—both one’s own and the country as a whole.

This contrast is highlighted beautifully between the five Bennett girls and their nemeses, the sisters Bingley. Mr. Bennett, acutely aware of the threat a zombie plague poses to England, sent his daughters to China to be tutored in the so-called “deadly arts.” Upon their return, the five sisters took a solemn oath to defend England by killing the undead wherever they may be.

Caroline Bingley and her sister, Mrs. Hurst, on the other hand…well, they hold the attitude you’d pretty much expect, namely, that all this running around slicing off zombies’ heads with one’s favorite katana is a most ungenteel activity for ladies. And sweaty, besides. After all, they've never had to engage in mortal combat with the undead; London, where they live most of the time, is fortified by an enormous, zombie-defying wall. It’s not until the Bingleys move to Netherfield that they find out first-hand what Night of the Living Dead really means.

But Darcy…ah, Darcy. It should come as no surprise that the smoldering, brooding Fitzwilliam is a martial arts master and zombie destroyer extraordinaire. In fact, his only match may be…Elizabeth herself.

Don’t sit there and claim you saw that coming. You’re shocked, admit it.

Events unfold more or less the way they do in the original (they have to, after all, given that most of the text is Austen’s) but there are some delightful surprises along the way. Darcy’s skill is not unique in his family; in fact, it’s rather expected, given that his aunt—yes, the redoubtable Lady Catherine de Bourgh herself—is renowned throughout Britain, yea, even Europe, for her unparalleled deadliness against the manky dreadfuls. Her estate, Rosings Park, gains a few enhancements in P&P&Z that are quite funny—and which add unexpected twists to the conflicts between that formidable lady and the headstrong Elizabeth.

(By the way, new favorite phrase in the house? “Manky dreadfuls.” Calling the dogs: “Get in here, you manky dreadfuls!” Neighbors fighting: “The manky dreadfuls are at it again.” Really, we’ve found very few situations where the term “manky dreadful” isn’t appropriate.)

So is it all horror and hilarity? Well, not quite. By about halfway through the book, the zombie gimmick becomes a one-trick pony. There are only so many ways they can be dismembered, after all. Worse, Grahame-Smith—after doing a decent job of setting the parameters of this altered world—has characters break the rules of that world willy-nilly in an attempt to get more laughs. The chuckles aren’t worth the annoyance that comes with flipping back and forth, saying, “Hey wait a minute…why is she…that makes no sense at all!”

Which raises the question: should you really expect a book that inserts undead monsters into classic literature to make sense?

Why, yes. Yes, you should. Or why go to the trouble of all that world-building to begin with?

I ask you.

Most telling, though, is that when my sweetie read the book, he kept saying, “Listen to this—this is hilarious,” and invariably he’d read me a quote that was pure Austen. Not a zombie in sight.

In sum: Yeah, the zombies are amusing enough. But even after two hundred years, ain’t nobody can match the master. If you’ve never read Austen and are pretty sure you never would without kickass manky dreadful action, then definitely pick it up. On the other hand, if you’re such an Austen purist that the expansion of Margaret’s character in the 1995 film version of Sense and Sensibility offended you mortally, then, for your own sanity, stay far away.

But if you’re an Austen fan who can take some tongue-in-cheek fun with a beloved masterpiece, I say give it a whirl. Be sure you read the author’s notes at the end—for me, they were the funniest part of the whole shebang, and made me (almost) forget all my earlier gripes.

*Having originally been published in 1813, Pride and Prejudice—like all of Austen’s works, not to mention Shakespeare’s, the Brontes, et al—is considered public domain, and thus isn’t protected by copyright law. In other words—have at it.