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Books: Zombies get their due

Alex Millersummit daily news
Quirk Classics
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When writer Seth Grahame-Smith got the idea to take Jane Austen’s beloved classic “Pride and Prejudice” and add zombies to the tale, he may have thought he’d sell a couple hundred copies of the admittedly bizarre “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” published in 2009. But then a funny thing happened: The book, put out by relatively obscure Philadelphia publisher Quirk, became a crossover hit. The title alone was enough to make people laugh and wonder how, exactly, the romantic travails of the Bennet sisters could be mashed-up with tales of the living dead.What Grahame-Smith did was simple, as he explains in the intro to the new “Heirloom Edition” of the book (“Now with 30 percent more zombies!”): He downloaded a copy of “Pride and Prejudice” and added zombies. The original book is more or less intact so far as the plot and characters, but in addition to worrying about whether Mr. Darcy loves her, Elizabeth Bennet must also confront squadrons of “dreadfuls” roaming about the countryside, intent on consuming human flesh. Elizabeth and Jane have, it turns out, been to China, where they studied under a martial arts master to become skilled practitioners of “the deadly arts,” and they can decapitate a reanimated corpse with the best of them – their preferred weapon being their ultra-sharp Katana swords (but a good kick to the head works as well).”PP&Z” is a fun read, but Grahame-Smith is somewhat constrained by having to use the source material as the core of the plot – and some inevitable shoehorning takes place. Happily, that’s not the case with the prequel from Quirk published this year. Cleverly written by Steve Hockensmith, “Dawn of the Dreadfuls” takes place four years before the action in “PP&Z,” and it’s unencumbered by any preexisting plot lines – other than using Austen’s Regency England milieu and characters and teeing them up for later action. Here, the terrible plague that caused dead folks to crawl out of their graves some years previously has been in remission, and Oliver Bennet – himself a former all-star corpse-whacker – has reneged on his earlier pledge to train his daughters in the deadly arts in the event “The Troubles” return.Which, of course, is exactly what happens at the beginning of the book as the Bennets are attending the funeral of poor Mr. Ford. Before long, walking corpses are rambling hither and yon, and Mr. Bennet puts out the call to his “order” for a master to help train his daughters. Hockensmith has a rollicking good time with the story, splitting Elizabeth’s affections between the stoic Master Hawksworth and a silly young doctor traveling with the army who’s bent on trying to rehabilitate zombies back into “proper Englishmen.” Like any good zombie flick, the novel ends with the living holed up in a fortified building as hordes of “unmentionables” mass at the gates. What’s particularly endearing about “Dawn of the Dreadfuls” is how Hockensmith slips zombie horror stuff in between the proper English comportments. As the girls’ mother frets over how the zombie intrusion might damage wedding prospects and whether the big ball will be held or not, the characters find their bearings in the new world order rather quickly:”The nearest of the zombies sprang toward her, its mouth still oozing half-chewed goo. It had been a woman not so long ago. Now it fought to fully free its desiccated, purple-mottled arms from the tangles of its shroud, the better to get its clawlike finger bones into Elizabeth’s eyes.Elizabeth took its arms off at the elbows with her first swing of the sword. The second took off its head.And it felt good.”Unlike Grahame-Smith, who had to attempt to write like Jane Austen as he added zombie action, Hockensmith’s prose is modern and straightforward, with just a touch of Regency flair. Both books benefit from the hilarious addition of old-style illustrations of action accompanied by short descriptions drawn from the text. In addition to time-honored cinematic zombie “rules” (you’ve got to get them in the head or decapitate them), there are some great new tropes, such as the odd fact that, upon encountering a cauliflower patch, zombies will be transfixed by the vegetable, which so closely resemble human brains.Flush with the success of “PP&Z” and “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” Quirk now has a division titled “Quirk Classics,” which, in addition to these two titles, has added the very silly-sounding “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” and “Android Karenina.” (Yep, that’s Tolstoy with space travel and robots.) Touting themselves as “Masters of the Public Domain,” perhaps it’s only a matter of time before “Moby Dick” is conflated with vampires or Gatsby is battling aliens. For now, though, stick with the zombies – provided, of course, your reverence for Jane Austen can stand it. And keep an eye out next year for a film adaptation of “PP&Z” starring Natalie Portman. Good grief. Summit Daily editor Alex Miller is currently working on his own zombie novel, titled “Fiend.” He can be reached at amiller@summitdaily.com.


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