According to WikiPedia (so it must be true) the editor of Quirk Books (publisher of such titles as The Indianna Jones Handbook and How to Survive a Horror Movie), Jason Rekulak, was working his lists one day when he came up with the title. These lists consisted of classic literature whose copyrights had expired and were in the public domain on one hand, and cliched popular trophes such as ninjas, zombies, werewolves and so on on the other.
Armed with the title he called his mate Seth Grahame-Smith to write it up. After a few giggles, presumably, Seth set to work co-authoring Pride and Prejudice and Zombies along with Jane Austin – who must be pinwheeling in her grave at this moment.
The resulting book is a mash-up (a modern word that apparently means taking two incongruent and incompatible ideas and presenting them as if they belong together) of Austin’s orginal text complete with the story and plot of the novel, interspaced with Graeme-Smith’s vision. This vision is of an alternate reality Regency period England where a zombie apocalypse has been underway for at least 55 years. For those whose conception of history is limited to who won last year’s Grand Final the Regency period ran from 1811 to 1820 during the reign of George III when he was considered too ill to rule and his son was installed as Prince Regent.
This universe is only scantily described and this is true to the original book’s intention. It is manners that are important, and station, and love. It’s all about people. But Graeme-Smith’s vision comes through, perhaps all the more tantalisingly as a result. In true zombie tradition the undead just keep coming, and have kept coming for a very long time. Everyone takes for granted the plague that afflicts the land and has turned London into a walled city and has apparently depopulated other cities altogether. There are burning pits where captured zombies are burned ‘alive’ after being turned in by bounty hunters, or Reclaimers. Friends can be stricken with the plague and rot to death before everyone’s eyes and this is all taken as a matter of course until they must be destroyed. By beheading. In a very Christian manner.
But Austin’s work remains at the core of the story, for all its trugid, pompous self-importance. Even though Austin was a shrewd observer of human nature and could incisively cut at her targets she also clearly perceived her world – that world – to be just perfect, thankyou. She critcised hypocracy, but the framework in which the hypocracy lived was pretty much OK. Everything was as it was supposed to be. It was just unfortunate that a few bad apples crop up. Or maybe it was those few bad apples that demonstrated how swell everything else was in comparison. It might be a claustrophobic and backbiting society, but it is better than anything the wogs have.
In any case, Grame-Smith has managed to preserve this smug self-satisfaction. Probably just by leaving alone the majority of the text. Seth Graeme-Smith’s writing is patchy, not always meshing particuarly well with the original Austin. There are some particualry juvenile scenes of Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer like action that stick out due to the pace and modern use of language. However, there are also some particurly pleasing and evocative passages that do mesh and do transport the reader to this alternate reality. These moments come when the pace is closest to Austin’s own. They are the casual observations when no one is running and screaming. The descriptions of distant horror, or intimate though casual revulsion. Given the distance of time and wildly different writing styles of then and now, Seth has done a creditable job on what I suspect both he and Rekulak thought of as merely a ‘consumable’ book.
And how they must both now be rubbing their hands with surprised satisfaction because the book was released to widesread acclaim and has jumped up the best sellers lists. Apparently it has already been picked up for film. So bully for them.
All of this makes me ask myself what the book has. Popularity, apparently, but since when was popularity a measure of value? It certainly is not junk, despite the katana flaying and brain eating, because the images it has evoked live in my imagination. I am forced to ask myself some hard questions about society in light of the creeping doom. Is that it? Western literature typically depicts the Apocalypse as a whiz-bang fast event. P&P&Z has the collapse taking generations. Over that period of time people adapt, even though their world is shrinking around them. They go on with their petty rivalries and love affairs. It reminds me of the boiling frog anecdote where apocryphally a frog placed in cold water which is then gradually heated will not escape and stay until the water boils it to death.
Have Rekulak and Graeme-Smith managed to create the metaphor for a real Apocalypse? Representing, say, AIDs which contunies to churn along infecting and will in time devastate the world’s population? Or perhaps the global environmental crisis? Year by year things will change almost imperceptably. It doesn’t affect me today, says Joe average, so I don’t care. But one day, generations in the future, the survivors may just be living in a boiling poison swamp. Perhaps they have captured this. And perhaps it is pointless to ask whether that is what they had in mind or whether it is serendipity.
It is tempting to give the book credit with this degree of insight, with creating an arguably new genre of literature. But there is an alternative. That alternative is that this represents cultural vandalism. That our modern culture is so bankrupt that the best we can do is rape the art of the past, and then observers, like me, come along and try to imbue it with more gravity than it deserves.
That is the kind of self-doubt that Austin would approve of. That’s art: evoking something in the receiver because we can never truly understand the motivations of the producer. Some, probably most, readers will skim read Austin till they get to the illustrations in the hope that on that page there will be words that have modern currency. Like blow-job or blood. No chance of the former, but plenty of the latter. Personally I think this is a mistake. Not because I like Austin’s writing: I don’t. But to really take anything away from the work, to extract any meaning at all, you really do have to slow down to the pace of Austin and experience the creeping apocalyptic doom that Graeme-Smith has created.
He may have done it by accident, but he has created a disturbing parody of today – ironic as that may sound. Here we are spending millions on making movies that are nothing more than collections of references to other movies, in watching talk shows where people spill their guts about their most intimate experiences as if this fills their observers with anything other than contempt. Here we are giving voice to nay-sayers to climate change when their only qualification to speak is their ability to make noise with their mouths.
We fiddle while Rome burns, in short. For me, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies evokes this spirit perfectly.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Jane Austin and Seth Graeme-Smith, Quirk Books 2009, ISBN: 978-1-89474-334-4