Austen, Jane and Seth Grahame-Smith. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-59474-334-4.
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is the quintessential British Regency era novel of manners. Originally published in 1813, it has been endlessly adapted to the stage, film, and television, and has been a staple of English literature classes from the Victorian era through post-post-modern de-deconstructionist decadence. What generations of litterateurs missed, however, is its fundamental shortcoming: there aren't any zombies in it! That's where the present volume comes in.

This work preserves 85% of Jane Austen's original text and names her as the primary author (hey, if you can't have a dead author in a zombie novel, where can you?), but enhances the original story with “ultraviolent zombie mayhem” seamlessly woven into the narrative. Now, some may consider this a travesty and desecration of a literary masterwork, but look at this way: if F-14s are cool and tyrannosaurs are cool, imagine how cool tyrannosaurs in F-14s would be? Adopting this Calvinist approach allows one to properly appreciate what has been done here.

The novel is set in an early 19th century England afflicted for five and fifty years with the “strange plague” that causes the dead to rise and stagger across the countryside alone or in packs, seeking to kill and devour the succulent brains of the living. Any scratch inflicted by one of these creatures (variously referred to as “unmentionables”, “sorry stricken”, “manky dreadfuls”, “Satan's armies”, “undead”, or simply “zombies”) can infect the living with the grievous affliction and transform them into another compulsive cranium cruncher. The five Bennet sisters have been sent by their father to be trained in the deadly arts by masters in China and have returned a formidable fighting force, sworn by blood oath to the Crown to defend Hertfordshire against the zombie peril until the time of their marriage. There is nothing their loquacious and rather ditzy mother wants more than to see her five daughters find suitable matches, and she fears their celebrated combat credentials and lack of fortune will deter the wealthy and refined suitors she imagines for them. The central story is the contentious relations and blossoming romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a high-born zombie killer extraordinaire whose stand-offish manner is initially interpreted as arrogance and disdain for the humble Bennets. Can such fierce and proud killers find love and embark upon a life fighting alongside one another in monster murdering matrimony?

The following brief extracts give a sense of what you're getting into when you pick up this book. None are really plot spoilers, but I've put them into a spoiler block nonetheless because some folks might want to encounter these passages in context to fully enjoy the roller coaster ride between the refined and the riotous.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • From a corner of the room, Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went. He knew of only one other woman in Great Britain who wielded a dagger with such skill, such grace, and deadly accuracy.

    By the time the girls reached the walls of the assembly hall, the last of the unmentionables lay still.

    Apart from the attack, the evening altogether passed off pleasantly for the whole family. Mrs. Bennet had seen her eldest daughter much admired by the Netherfield party. … (Chapter 3)

  • Elizabeth, to whom Jane very soon communicated the chief of all this, heard it in silent indignation. Her heart was divided between concern for her sister, and thoughts of going immediately to town and dispensing the lot of them.

    “My dear Jane!” exclaimed Elizabeth, “you are too good. Your sweetness and disinterestedness are really angelic; you wish to think all the world respectable, and are hurt if I speak of killing anybody for any reason! …” (Chapter 24)

  • But why Mr. Darcy came so often to the Parsonage, it was more difficult to understand. It could not be for society, as he frequently sat there ten minutes together without opening his lips; and when he did speak, it seemed the effect of necessity rather than choice. He seldom appeared really animated, even at the sight of Mrs. Collins gnawing upon her own hand. What remained of Charlotte would liked to have believed this change the effect of love, and the object of that love her friend Eliza. She watched him whenever they were at Rosings, and whenever he came to Hunsford; but without much success, for her thoughts often wandered to other subjects, such as the warm, succulent sensation of biting into a fresh brain. …

    In her kind schemes for Elizabeth, she sometimes planned her marrying Colonel Fitzwilliam. He was beyond comparison the most pleasant man; he certainly admired her, and his situation in life was most eligible; but to counterbalance these advantages, Mr. Darcy had a considerably larger head, and thus, more brains to feast upon. (Chapter 32)

  • “When they all removed to Brighton, therefore, you had no reason, I suppose, to believe them fond of each other?”

    “Not the slightest. I can remember no symptom of affection on either side, other than her carving his name into her midriff with a dagger; but this was customary with Lydia. …” (Chapter 47)

  • He scarcely needed an invitation to stay for supper; and before he went away, an engagement was formed, chiefly through his own and Mrs. Bennet's means, for his coming next morning to shoot the first autumn zombies with her husband. (Chapter 55)
  • You may as well call it impertinence. It was very little else. The fact is, you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking, and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused, and interested you because I was so unlike them. I knew the joy of standing over a vanquished foe; of painting my face and arms with their blood, yet warm, and screaming to the heavens—begging, nay daring, God to send me more enemies to kill. The gentle ladies who so assiduously courted you knew nothing of this joy, and therefore, could never offer you true happiness. … (Chapter 60)
Spoilers end here.  

The novel concludes with zombies still stalking England; all attempts to find a serum, including Lady Catherine's, having failed, and without hope for a negotiated end to hostilities. Successful diplomacy requires not only good will but brains. Zombies do not have brains; they eat them. So life goes on, and those who find married bliss must undertake to instruct their progeny in the deadly arts which defend the best parts of life from the darkness.

The book includes a “Reader's Discussion Guide” ideal for classroom and book club exploration of themes raised in the novel. For example:

10. Some scholars believe that the zombies were a last-minute addition to the novel, requested by the publisher in a shameless attempt to boost sales. Others argue that the hordes of living dead are integral to Jane Austen's plot and social commentary. What do you think? Can you imagine what this novel might be without the violent zombie mayhem?
Beats me.

Of course this is going to be made into a movie—patience! A comic book edition, set of postcards, and a 2011 wall calendar ideal for holiday giving are already available—go merchandising! Here is a chart which will help you sort out the relationships among the many characters in both Jane Austen's original novel and this one.

While this is a parody, whilst reading it I couldn't help but recall Herman Kahn's parable of the lions in New York City. Humans are almost infinitely adaptable and can come to consider almost any situation normal once they've gotten used to it. In this novel zombies are something one lives with as one of the afflictions of mortal life like tuberculosis and crabgrass, and it is perfectly normal for young ladies to become warriors because that's what circumstances require. It gives one pause to think how many things we've all come to consider unremarkable in our own lives might be deemed bizarre and/or repellent from the perspective of those of another epoch or observing from a different cultural perspective.

May 2010 Permalink

Osborn, Stephanie. The Case of the Displaced Detective Omnibus. Kingsport, TN: Twilight Times Books, 2013. ASIN B00FOR5LJ4.
This book, available only for the Kindle, collects the first four novels of the author's Displaced Detective series. The individual books included here are The Arrival, At Speed, The Rendlesham Incident, and Endings and Beginnings. Each pair of books, in turn, comprises a single story, the first two The Case of the Displaced Detective and the latter two The Case of the Cosmological Killer. If you read only the first of either pair, it will be obvious that the story has been left in the middle with little resolved. In the trade paperback edition, the four books total more than 1100 pages, so this omnibus edition will keep you busy for a while.

Dr. Skye Chadwick is a hyperspatial physicist and chief scientist of Project Tesseract. Research into the multiverse and brane world solutions of string theory has revealed that our continuum—all of the spacetime we inhabit—is just one of an unknown number adjacent to one another in a higher dimensional membrane (“brane”), and that while every continuum is different, those close to one another in the hyperdimensional space tend to be similar. Project Tesseract, a highly classified military project operating from an underground laboratory in Colorado, is developing hardware based on advanced particle physics which allows passively observing or even interacting with these other continua (or parallel universes).

The researchers are amazed to discover that in some continua characters which are fictional in our world actually exist, much as they were described in literature. Perhaps Heinlein and Borges were right in speculating that fiction exists in parallel universes, and maybe that's where some of authors' ideas come from. In any case, exploration of Continuum 114 has revealed it to be one of those in which Sherlock Holmes is a living, breathing man. Chadwick and her team decide to investigate one of the pivotal and enigmatic episodes in the Holmes literature, the fight at Reichenbach Falls. As Holmes and Moriarty battle, it is apparent that both will fall to their death. Chadwick acts impulsively and pulls Holmes from the brink of the cliff, back through the Tesseract, into our continuum. In an instant, Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective of 1891 London, finds himself in twenty-first century Colorado, where he previously existed only in the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Holmes finds much to adapt to in this often bewildering world, but then he was always a shrewd observer and master of disguise, so few people would be as well equipped. At the same time, the Tesseract project faces a crisis, as a disaster and subsequent investigation reveals the possibility of sabotage and an espionage ring operating within the project. A trusted, outside investigator with no ties to the project is needed, and who better than Holmes, who owes his life to it? With Chadwick at his side, they dig into the mystery surrounding the project.

As they work together, they find themselves increasingly attracted to one another, and Holmes must confront his fear that emotional involvement will impair the logical functioning of his mind upon which his career is founded. Chadwick, learning to become a talented investigator in her own right, fears that a deeper than professional involvement with Holmes will harm her own emerging talents.

I found that this long story started out just fine, and indeed I recommended it to several people after finishing the first of the four novels collected here. To me, it began to run off the rails in the second book and didn't get any better in the remaining two (which begin with Holmes and Chadwick an established detective team, summoned to help with a perplexing mystery in Britain which may have consequences for all of the myriad contunua in the multiverse). The fundamental problem is that these books are trying to do too much all at the same time. They can't decide whether they're science fiction, mystery, detective procedural, or romance, and as they jump back and forth among the genres, so little happens in the ones being neglected at the moment that the parallel story lines develop at a glacial pace. My estimation is that an editor with a sharp red pencil could cut this material by 50–60% and end up with a better book, omitting nothing central to the story and transforming what often seemed a tedious slog into a page-turner.

Sherlock Holmes is truly one of the great timeless characters in literature. He can be dropped into any epoch, any location, and, in this case, anywhere in the multiverse, and rapidly start to get to the bottom of the situation while entertaining the reader looking over his shoulder. There is nothing wrong with the premise of these books and there are interesting ideas and characters in them, but the execution just isn't up to the potential of the concept. The science fiction part sometimes sinks to the techno-babble level of Star Trek (“Higgs boson injection beginning…”). I am no prude, but I found the repeated and explicit sex scenes a bit much (tedious, actually), and they make the books unsuitable for younger readers for whom the original Sherlock Holmes stories are a pure delight. If you're interested in the idea, I'd suggest buying just the first book separately and see how you like it before deciding to proceed, bearing in mind that I found it the best of the four.

January 2015 Permalink