It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. Never was this more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen was slaughtered and consumed by a horde of the living dead.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that one joke isn't really enough to sustain a parody mash-up novel over 300 pages. Not even when the joke in question strews lashings of ravening undead ultraviolence in the path of the world's favourite Regency romance. And particularly not when the primary joke gets such half-arsed back-up in the form of some truly groan-worthy running innuendo.
"She remembered the lead ammunition in her pocket and offered it to him.'Your balls, Mr. Darcy?' He reached out and closed her hand around them, and offered, 'They belong to you, Miss Bennet.'"
My eyes, they will not stop rolling.
I was sold on Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) more or less as soon as I heard about it; to judge from the ubiquity of both it and the subsequent army of imitators in bookshops, I wasn't the only one. By the time I opened my copy I'd heard rather mixed reports, but I was still looking forward to it anyway. In the event, I gobbled it up in a weekend afternoon, and was reasonably entertained throughout - but this, overwhelmingly, was thanks to Jane Austen's contribution, rather than Grahame-Smith's.
The bulk of the novel remains Austen's text, with the zombie presence rearing its rotting head in casual asides and slight twists on the familiar prose. Austen's dialogue is slightly altered or extended, for example in the opening conversation between Mr and Mrs Bennet on the subject of Mr Bingley, who is to take over Netherfield Park since (as noted in the header quote) its previous owners were eaten:
"Bingley. A single man of four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!"
"How so? Can he train them in the ways of swordsmanship and musketry?"
"How can you be so tiresome? You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them."
On other occasions, set piece sequences - like the dance at which the Bennets first encounter Bingley and Darcy - are interrupted by attacks of the "unmentionables" (the characters' preferred term for zombies):
A few of the guests, who had the misfortune of being too near the windows, were seized and feasted on at once. When Elizabeth stood, she saw Mrs. Long struggle to free herself as two female dreadfuls bit into her head, cracking her skull like a walnut, and sending a shower of dark blood spouting as high as the chandeliers.
As guests fled in every direction, Mr. Bennett’s voice cut through the commotion. "Girls! Pentagram of Death!"
Elizabeth immediately joined her four sisters, Jane, Mary, Catherine, and Lydia in the center of the dance floor. Each girl produced a dagger from her ankle and stood at the tip of an imaginary five-pointed star. From the center of the room, they began stepping outward in unison—each thrusting a razor-sharp dagger with one hand, the other hand modestly tucked into the small of her back.
From a corner of the room, Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.
Initially, it's really quite fun to see zombie mayhem erupt in familiar settings, and you'd be hard-pressed not to grin when Lizzie's reaction to being insulted by Darcy is to draw a dagger with the intention of "aveng[ing] her honour" by "open[ing] his throat". Lizzie is rather dour and humourless in Graham-Smith's additions, but her reply to Darcy upon being asked, grudgingly, to dance made me smile ("Thank you, sir, but I am perfectly content being the bride of death"), and her way of shutting up Mr Hurst, while staying - on sufferance - at Netherfield, was entirely splendid:
"Do you prefer reading to cards?" said he; "that is rather singular."
"I prefer a great many things to cards, Mr. Hurst," said Elizabeth. "Not the least of which is the sensation of a newly sharpened blade as it punctures the round belly of a man."
Mr. Hurst was silent for the remainder of the evening.
Indeed, the addition of zombies does change the emphasis of the narrative in some interesting ways. Mr Bennet, as the passages already quoted show, does particularly well out of the shift. In the original novel he is a witty, genial but essentially neglectful father; flighty Mrs Bennet may be intensely irritating, but she is the only one who makes any effort to find a secure future (by the standards of the time) for their daughters, rather than vaguely hoping that something will sort itself out. In the zombified version of the story, though, Mr Bennet is the one who thinks practically, having trained his five daughters in combat from a young age, whereas Mrs Bennet only wants to see them achieve a status - married women - that will prevent them from taking part in any further fighting. (There are still some social proprieties.)
Lizzie's clashes with Lady Catherine de Bourgh ("not only one's the King's richest servants, but also one of his deadliest"), meanwhile, are as much about actual combat as they are wars of words. There is still a very strong class element; Lady Catherine expresses astonishment that the family could not afford to retain any trained guards:
"No ninjas? How was that possible? Five daughters brought up at home without any ninjas? I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your safety."
But their final confrontation over Darcy involves a knock-down, drag-out hand-to-hand fight - the sort of scene you never really realised you wanted to read, until you did. It's awesome, and one of the few good twists on Austen's tale in the second half of the book (the other is Wickham's fate); for the most part, by this stage I was still reading only because I was enjoying the excuse to read Pride and Prejudice again. (And all my laughter was prompted by lines from the original.)
The big thematic change that the zombie aspect offers - only half-intentionally, I think - is the parallel drawn between marriage and undeath. I have already noted that, in an obvious metaphor for gender roles within marriage, married women are supposed to give up fighting (Lizzie comments that she and her sisters "'are each commanded by His Majesty to defend Hertfordshire from all enemies until such time as we are dead, rendered lame, or married'"). The only major character to fall foul of the unmentionables, meanwhile, is poor old Charlotte Lucas, who is bitten early on. She confides in Lizzie that she has decided to marry the odious Mr Collins for the last months she has left before turning into a walking corpse, on the grounds that at least he'll give her "a proper Christian beheading and burial" when the time comes.
Brilliantly, Mr Collins is every bit as unobservant about this as he is with everything else; just as in the original, he continues to assume that his wife adores him despite all sense and evidence to the contrary:
It had been three months since she had seen Charlotte, and kind months they had not been, for her friend's skin was now quite grey and marked with sores, and her speech appallingly labored. That none of the others noticed this, Elizabeth attributed to their stupidity - particularly Mr. Collins, who apparently had no idea that his wife was three-quarters dead.
Marriage between incompatible partners as a slow march towards smelly, rotting oblivion; less subtle than Austen, perhaps, but in the spirit, I think...
But I don't want to overstate the effects of these changes. The background detail of how the zombie plague affects Hertfordshire life is included for momentary effect rather than because it has been systematically thought through, and often as not is dropped as soon as some cooler possibility presents itself. Thus we are told early on that young ladies are obliged to fight only with daggers, because anything else is not ladylike, but this dictum is instantly forgotten and no-one ever bats an eyelid when Lizzie, her sisters and others fight with swords or muskets.
Furthermore, things go downhill rapidly on the rare occasions when Grahame-Smith steps outside of Austen's text for more than a few lines. The episodes that are wholly new - for example, the Bennet sisters coming upon an overturned carriage under assault by unmentionables - squat inelegantly beside the familiar material, having none of the tone or observational acuity of Austen's own prose.
I'm not sorry I read it. It has two or three quite interesting ideas, the zombie thing was diverting for 40 pages or so, and - more importantly - I hadn't revisited Pride and Prejudice in some years, and was reminded how much I enjoy Austen. But in the future I'll stick to Original Flavour.