Yeah, I did it. I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Why is this remarkable (as in, worth remarking on)? Firstly, I hate zombies and don’t tolerate much gore. Secondly, this is not writing of the snootiest caliber, which you may have noticed I have tried to embrace to an extent—as long as it’s notable in other ways and, well, not terrible. Good popular fiction has become a part of my reading world. So was this good popular fiction? And was it too gory?
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has been popping up in culture for the past fourteen years, first as a book and then as a movie. (More on the movie, later.) I thought, Huh. That’s kind of a funny idea. Not for me. But it kept popping up over and over, and one day I decided to read a bunch of Pride and Prejudice retellings just to wrap my mind around the genre and find out if I would enjoy reading more retellings/fan fic. (So far the answer to that is no, not especially.) This title floated repeatedly to the top of the lists of P & P retellings, so I reluctantly put it on my shortlist. I ordered it. The wrong book came. I picked up the right book at a used book store and donated the wrong book. I let the scary cover keep staring at me as I consistently reached under it to read Pride and Premeditation (murder mystery), Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors (upscale romance), Eligible (book club), and An Assembly Such as This (alternative perspective). Then one day I just said screw it and I picked it up and started reading. But not too close to bedtime, because nightmares.
So about that book that I ordered that was the wrong book: Zombies has become a series. Written by another author, there are two books that bookend the original: Dawn of the Dreadfuls and Dreadfully Ever After. I ordered the first book in the series thinking that was the original (and it does say “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” on the cover really big). It is not. Like I said, it’s not even by the same author. It appears to be a way to make money and expand on an idea that some people just think is so clever and hilarious. I don’t need to read either of these books, thanks. They take place outside of Jane Austen’s original timeline (like 35 years before and then a little while after) and—did I mention?—I hate zombies.
But about the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I was intrigued. Officially, the authors listed on the cover are Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, but I’ll talk more about why Austen would be there in a paragraph or two. Who I refer to as the author, from this point on, is Grahame-Smith. You see, I had started the book and was grappling with what I was actually reading. In some ways, it doesn’t read like a normal book (which again, I’ll get to in a sec). So I looked Grahame-Smith up. And yeah. His career is not especially literary. It is more… marketable. The best word for Zombies and what I see in Grahame-Smith’s career is novelty. His stuff is novelty items. He might want me to say his stuff is edgy and quirky (published by Quirk Classics), but it is also goofy and, well, something you might buy just to have—you know, a novelty item. He has moved from books into movie-making, though officially he does both and started in TV. You’ll understand when I list his published work. (I did not include his producer credits):
- History’s Mysteries (TV show)
- The Most (TV show)
- Big Book of Porn: A Penetrating Look at the World of Dirty Movies (book)
- The Spider-Man Handbook: The Ultimate Training Manual(book)
- How to Survive a Horror Movie: All the Skills to Dodge the Kills (book)
- Pardon My President: Fold-and-Mail Apologies for Eight Years (book)
- Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (book)
- Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer (book)
- Unholy Night (book)
- The Hard Times of RJ Berger (TV show)
- Dark Shadows (movie)
- Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer (movie)
- 87th Academy Awards (TV awards presentation)
- The Last American Vampire (sequel to Abraham Lincoln, book)
- The LEGO Batman Movie (movie)
- Just Beyond (TV show)
Among other things, Grahame-Smith is here to shock us and he’s here to rewrite history (or, in the case of Zombies, the classics). If I had to guess, I’d say his career speaks to both a smart way to make money and also a desire to have some fun. He tends to be edgy, yes, but also dark and violent in his creations, so I’m not bound to come across him all that often (though I am tempted to get a copy of The Spider-Man Handbook as research for the YA trilogy I’m writing).
His career explains the strangeness I was feeling while reading Zombies. Not only is the book itself on thicker paper than usual and dotted with (not very impressive) illustrations, but it doesn’t really read like a typical novel. In fact, I kept thinking maybe I would put it down because I have already read Pride and Prejudice and I get the point, you know? See, the reason Austen is credited on the cover as a writer is that Grahame-Smith uses a significant amount of her actual writing in the book. Not like in quotes, but he just weaves back and forth between her writing and his new stuff. Which is an interesting artistic choice, considering there was no way their writing was going to completely match up because of the genre and many readers’ familiarity with Austen’s work and style. I can just see him saying, though, “Why mess with genius?” (I might be giving him too much credit. I don’t know.) Instead, Grahame-Smith hacked up her work into pieces retaining many of the classic moments and much of the funny stuff, rewriting longer passages and scenes, and then adding just enough to convey both a more rebellious, edgy spirit (like lots of sideways jokes about “balls”) and the change in story from historic, regency England to zombie plague, Victorian England. (Both the illustrations in the book and the previews for the movie put the story slightly later than the original, based on their attire. I don’t know if this was intentional.) If you know the original story, I don’t have to tell you what it’s about; just add a plague that turns people into zombies and Elizabeth and her sisters and Darcy all zombie warriors, trained in “the Orient.” There is gore, for sure. There are purposefully over-the-top moments (like doing a handstand on one finger or biting into a still-warm heart). Because it’s not just horror that Grahame-Smith added to the story, it’s also rom-com humor and satirical action that plays in the head more like a movie than a book.
Which leads me to the actual writing. It’s, um, pretty bad. I don’t recommend that you read this book for a literary experience that revolves around words. I mean, I suppose the writing is good enough to tell the story so that I understand it, but it doesn’t really flow or lift the reader from the page into their own mind. Nor does it sound pretty or give much description. And if you have read the original, it can get a trifle boring. Only at over a third of the way through does something important change—and it’s kind of a side thing—so that I was like, finally, a question for me to wonder about. Although I suppose there’s always the possibility that, for once, this isn’t going to end well. But all the beats of the story stay just as Austen wrote them.
There is nothing sacred, here. Not Jane Austen. Not classic literature. Not history. Not writing as an artform. I have a literary friend who read it—probably mostly by mistake—and was appalled that 1) one would do that to Pride and Prejudice and 2) that one could do that to Pride and Prejudice. It’s a public domain thing, which means that you are allowed to do whatever you want, really, with old art—you know, like that new Winnie-the-Pooh horror movie. (Sorry I mentioned it. I love Winnie-the-Pooh. Don’t look it up.) But should one do things like turning Elizabeth Bennett into a blood-thirsty warrior or Abraham Lincoln into a vampire slayer? It’s comedy, right? It’s satire. Surely Jane Austen would be appalled, and she had no intention of her characters in this setting or these circumstances. Also, despite using Austen’s words, there is a lot of her cheek, her wit, and her charm that is lost in his quoting it. So, is it ethically right to do it? (Grahame-Smith doesn’t care, I’m sure; he has made a career being sacrilegious (Unholy Night is a dark retelling of the three wise men) and leaping over boundaries (uh, Big Book of Porn).) But do we care? Obviously, lots of people don’t. They eat stuff like this up, making it—and the movie—best-sellers.
So, can I recommend it? Sure, if you are going to get a kick out of Lizzy and Darcy surrounded by the undead and splattered with blood and rotten corpse debris. But if you think this is going to be a book that is amazing on its own—like standing on its own literary merit—then think again. It’s a novelty item, occasionally clever or interesting, and you might laugh or you might be the type just to raise their eyebrows and say, “huh.” You might throw it on the coffee table when you’re done, for all your friends to pick up and snicker along, or you might not get all the way through, a little bored with the kitsch and the familiarity of the story. It’s something to talk about, anyhow, no matter who you are, and that seems to be the point—especially as it leads to sales—of everything Grahame-Smith puts his hand to. I thought it got better as it went along, embracing the ludicrousness of the whole project and ending just how Darcy and Lizzy would end in zombie England–for better or worse.
“’…but without scheming to do wrong, or to make others unhappy, there may be error, and there may be misery’” (p104).
“‘A house of God so defiled!’ said Maria, as their journey continued. ‘Have these unmentionables no sense of decency?’ / ‘They know nothing of the sort,’ said Elizabeth, staring mindlessly out of the coach’s window, ‘and neither must we'” (p173).
“Of all the weapons she had commanded, Elizabeth knew the least of love; and of all of the weapons in the world, love was the most dangerous” (p213).
So, the movie is a popular one, actually. But it is too gory for me. I watched some previews and the writers and director went a different direction with it. It doesn’t look funny or satirical at all, and the characters are all young and drop-dead gorgeous and sexy. So without the quirk, I’m not even going to bother; it’s just another period, zombie movie even though it might be a decent one.