03.31.09

Monsters vs. Jane Austen

What would happen if the characters in Pride and Prejudice had to battle an army of brain-eating undead? Dear Reader, get ready for Mr. Darcy to kick some zombie ass.

Days after a few bloggers saw the gory jacket cover of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on a small publisher’s Web site, news of the book had coursed through the channels of Jane Austen acolytes and horror fans.

Both camps felt themselves the injured party in the matter.

Elton John’s film company announced they’ll be making a movie about an alien wreaking havoc in Meryton called Pride and Predator.

Some Jane-ites, whose idea of perfection is the five-hour, dauntingly thorough 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, proclaimed the book—whose cover features a bloody and skeletal interpretation of a woman who looks like Austen—a sacrilege. A few zombie fans, meanwhile, were horrified that their favorite brain-eating creatures would be inhabiting the dismally boring setting of Regency England.

But most people were just intrigued. Interest in the book exploded, and Hollywood studios are already bidding on the movie rights, with rumors circulating that Natalie Portman may be its star. In response, the publishers, Quirk Books, increased the print-run five-fold to 60,000 copies and moved the publication date several months earlier to April 1, all in the space of a few weeks. A few bookstores that started selling copies early reported being sold out last Friday. “None of the people at the publishing company or myself expected anything like this,” said author Seth Grahame-Smith of the hype. “It was actually kind of a hard sell.”

pride-and-prejudice-and-zombies-book-cover
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! By Seth Grahame-Smith 320 pages. Quirk Books. $12.95 ()

The subversively entertaining book keeps most of Austen’s original text and includes additions and alterations that transform the Bennet girls into zombie-fighting ninjas endeavoring to keep their brains intact. The famous Netherfield ball scene, where the Bennet family publicly humiliates itself, now ends with Mr. Darcy vanquishing a group of zombies in the kitchen as Elizabeth looks on: “She watched as Mr. Darcy drew his blade and cut down the two zombies with savage yet dignified movements. He then made quick work of beheading the slaughtered staff, upon which Mr. Bingley politely vomited into his hands. There was no denying Darcy’s talents as a warrior.”

What is it about infusing Jane Austen’s best-loved novel with brain-eating monsters that managed to create the kind of buzz publishers usually only dream about? According to one Austen scholar, Professor Jenny Davidson of Columbia, the book taps into two areas of the cultural imagination that resonate deeply with many readers. “There’s definitely a school of thought that says anything is better with zombies,” she told The Daily Beast. Davidson says 19th-century horror narratives like Dracula and Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have ingrained themselves into the cultural imagination as firmly as Austen’s stories have—so combining elements of both makes perfect sense. “Austen’s novels seem to provide entry into a desirable lost world,” she said.

Matthew Kaiser, an assistant professor of 19th-century literature at Harvard University, said that Austen’s novels are all about women battling internal monsters like their own sexuality, selfishness, and vulgarity. Modern readers can’t quite grasp the horror those women felt for the earthier side of their natures, so including literal monsters in the text might be an effective way to communicate that terror across the time-gap. “Instead of taking herself in hand, the heroine now battles an actual monster,” Kaiser said in an email. “In literature, monsters are always projections of our own hidden impulses.”

Grahame-Smith, the book’s author and a comedy television writer, says the novel was practically begging for an infusion of horror. “You have this fiercely independent heroine, you have this dashing heroic gentleman, you have a militia camped out for seemingly no reason whatsoever nearby, and people are always walking here and there and taking carriage rides here and there,” he said. “It was just ripe for gore and senseless violence. From my perspective anyway.”

In a literary landscape cluttered with every imaginable sequel and riff on Austen’s six beloved books, monsters might stand at the final frontier of re-imagining Austen. “The appetite for Austen seems to be bottomless,” said Deb Werksman, the editorial manager of Sourcebooks—a giant in the Jane Austen fan-fiction industry, with 40 such books so far. Werksman said she has acquired an Austen book that features paranormal creatures and horror, but would not disclose more details. Grahame-Smith’s editor at Quirk, Jason Rekulak, said that they are planning another classic novel and horror mash-up. Elton John’s film company announced they’ll be making a movie about an alien wreaking havoc in Meryton called Pride and Predator. And the first of a three-book series featuring a modern-day Jane Austen as a vampire is hitting shelves in the spring of 2010.

“It’s a way to leverage Jane Austen in a way that hasn’t happened before,” said Myretta Robens, romance writer and the manager of the Jane Austen fan site The Republic of Pemberley. “People like to take Jane Austen characters and put them in new situations. Though I’m not sure eating brains is one of those situations I’d like to see them in.”

In a hurting industry, Jane Austen and paranormal creatures (with the success of the Twilight series and The Zombie Survival Guide, a tongue-in-cheek guide to battling the walking dead) might be one of the last safe bets. “I wasn’t a rabid Austen fan,” said Michael Thomas Ford, the author of the upcoming vampire series. “One day I was talking to my agent about the publishing industry and one of us said, ‘You know, the only thing selling right now is Jane Austen and vampires. We could do this book and call it Jane Austen Sucks.’”

They wisely rethought the title, and Ford, who has written several gay romance novels, signed a three-book deal with Ballantine Books for Jane Bites Back. Ironically, Ford’s Austen works in a bookstore and, in between feedings, obsesses over the way her work has been financially exploited since coming into the public domain.

In a similarly off-beat brainstorming process, Rekulak, the editor of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, sat down with a list of popular novels in the public domain and another list of popular fanboy characters like ninjas, pirates, zombies and monkeys, and just drew lines between the two. “Once I saw Pride and Prejudice and zombies I knew we had a hit,” he said. Austen re-imaginings and horror have become exhausted as genres, Rekulak added, and combining them has breathed new life—and marketability—into both. “You hear a lot about all the Pride and Prejudice sequels that get published every year and I think people feel that it’s sort of tapped out,” he said. “This is the only thing left you can do.”

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles, authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Liz Goodwin is an intern at the Daily Beast. Before arriving in New York, she wrote for The Tico Times and Fodor’s Travel Guides in Costa Rica.