Reader, I Disemboweled Him
By Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen
Quirk Books, 2009
|Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has been one of the most talked about books of 2009. It takes the Jane Austen classic and transposes it into the midst of a zombie-infested English countryside. Much of the discussion about the book has centered on the ways that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies closely follows the Austen original while still integrating brain-eating nuisances, as well as the interesting ways that certain details of the original have been changed to accommodate the plague. Well, you will not find any such comparisons here, because I have never read Pride and Prejudice, nor do I intend to.
And while I’m making literary confessions: I have never read a single Austen book. I’ve also never read anything by Dickens, Tolstoy or any of the Brontes. In terms of classic literature I am by no means well read. It’s not that I don’t like reading, in fact I love it, but I need to be compelled to read a book. I need to relate to the characters, or to have enough interest in the plot, to turn the page. Not many “classic” books offer me many reasons to pick them up, unconcerned as I am with grange halls or governessing. So why am I interested in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Well, I may not know classic English Lit, but I do know zombies, and Seth Grahame-Smith has done a fantastic job of satisfying my bloodlust.
The zombie plague in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies started many years before Elizabeth Bennet was born. Her father sometimes speaks of the appearance of “Satan’s army,” but no date is ever assigned to the outbreak. We’re not given any account of the origins of this zombie plague, but Mr. Bennet isn’t the only person to invoke Satan, so I can only assume that the English believe them to be the devil’s work. The zombies in this book are intensely satisfying (from a zombie-fan perspective, that is). They are similar to the zombies that take over a cemetery dance party in Return of the Living Dead, in that they both rise from the grave and can transmit their infestation to the living through biting their flesh. When they do bite flesh, it is only to slow the living down so that the zombie can get to their victims’ sweet sweet brains. This zombie plague is just what you’d expect from an all-out zombie pestilence.
Amongst this delightful crowd of “unmentionables” clawing their way across the English countryside, we find Lizzy Bennet and her four sisters, all of whom have been trained to be zombie-killing machines.
The girls have Mr. Bennet to thank for their training. The entire Bennet clan twice travelled to China to train under Mr. Lui in the ways of Shaolin. I’m not sure if the same journey was made in the original Pride and Prejudice, but it sure comes in handy here. Lizzy has become the best zombie-crusher in her family, and her fighting skills are known throughout England. Often her agility is put on display to entertain guests between tea and dinner. She can balance herself on the tips of her fingers for hours (with her gown modestly tied to her ankles, of course) or fight off ninjas in the parlor to showcase her talents. If all 19th century Regency novels were like this, I’d read them.
(And yes, you read that correctly – ninjas. If you have to ask, you shouldn’t bother).
|Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has lots of the key element you need for a good zombie novel: zombies. Zombies attack the Bennet girls as they walk into town. Zombies quickly end balls by devouring the dancing guests. Zombies rise from their graves as soon as the ground turns soft in the spring. And zombies tear down the protective walls around London, driving the city dwellers back into the country. No matter where you are in this delightful book, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a dead body.
Not only does Grahame-Smith do a great job of loading zombies into Austen’s novel (which I’m assuming was relatively zombie-free in the original) , he also does it in such a way that makes sense for the plot. The Bennets live in a nauseatingly polite English society. It’s a big reason I’ve avoided Austen’s novels so far: who wants to read entire books about manners? Who wants to visit a fictional world in which people’s worths are judged by superficial trivialities, especially since we all have to live in such a world anyway? Yet somehow Grahame-Smith includes all of this ultra-British rigmarole in his tale of the undead and still makes it work. Reading this book, you can completely understand how Lizzy can be turned off by Mr. Darcy’s poor manners on one page, and then behead a recently-risen neighbor on the next. This society values both polite behavior and killer martial arts. Something for everybody.
It’s not Lizzy’s manners or her musketry that make her easy to relate to; rather it’s her quick temper and vulnerable nature (Grahame-Smith really captures these traits – I hope Austen was taking notes). Throughout the saga between her and Mr. Darcy, she regularly embarrasses herself by saying the wrong thing or making undue assumptions about his character. It is both her pride and prejudice that make her human. Well, that and the fact that she has detailed fantasies about attacking people when they insult or bore her. Her aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, speaks to Lizzy’s temper:
It had better have happened to you, Lizzy; you would have opened this Bingley’s stomach and strangled him with his own bowels I suspect. Do you think she would be prevailed upon to go back to town with us?
It’s like that for the whole book: the details of her slaying are so casually interwoven into the conversation that the characters might as well be talking about her hair color. She fantasizes several times about maiming Mr. Darcy, and even her sister Lydia at one point. Politeness and gowns are completely foreign to me, but I can relate to a character with anger issues.
And it was through this portrayal of Lizzy that Grahame-Smith dragged me into the romantic aspects of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. By the end of the book I was actually swept up in Lizzy’s potential engagements; I actually wanted to know if she’d be humble enough to admit her false judgments to Mr. Darcy. And while it was fun to read about slaying an entire field of unmentionables, I had a tear in my eye because Mr. Darcy and Lizzy were together fighting zombies, rather than fighting one another. If Grahame-Smith was able to melt even a small bit of my cold, zombie-enthusiast heart, he’s written one hell of a Regency-zombie pastiche novel.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies also features one of Lizzy’s dearest friends succumbing to the zombie infection. Just as Karen had fallen in Night of the Living Dead and Luda in Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, Charlotte is bitten and begins to slowly decompose and rot through the book, but in a polite British way:
As dinner continued in this manner, Elizabeth’s eye was continuously drawn to Charlotte, who hovered over her plate, using a spoon to shovel goose meat and gravy in the general direction of her mouth, with limited success. As she did, one of the sores beneath her eye burst, sending a trickle of bloody pus down her cheek and into her mouth. Apparently, she found the added flavor agreeable, for it only increased the frequency of her spoonfuls.
It’s very sad to see Charlotte’s gradual demise, but Grahame-Smith balances the fun disgusting bits with a good dose of humor and affection from Lizzy. She doesn’t want to embarrass her decomposing friend, so she doesn’t say anything that might let others know that Charlotte is turning into a Soldier of Satan.
Enjoying Pride and Prejudice and Zombies so much briefly made me wonder if I should go back and pick up some of those old classics I tossed aside years ago. I wondered: would I now be able to tackle more of Jane Austen’s (you’ll pardon the expression) lifeless classics without being bored to (um) death?
I don’t think I could, and what’s more, I don’t think I need to anymore. Thanks to Grahame-Smith, I’ve now got a pretty good handle on Pride and Prejudice, only this way, I also get a disemboweling heroine to relate to, something dreary old Jane Austen never thought to provide. Far from sending me back to the moldering classics, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has made me hope for a whole shelf full of literary unmentionables, all brought to life through the addition of lots and lots of death. Surely Sense and Sensibility and Zombies will be next? And what about Fathers and Sons and Zombies, or Of Mice and Men and Zombies, or (for the ambitious) War and Peace and Zombies? Who knows – if this zombie-fusion catches on, I just might end up being well-read after all.
Deirdre Crimmins lives in Boston, wrote her Master’s thesis on George Romero, and works too much.