The most reading fun I’ve had in a long time was with PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, a mashup of Jane Austen Regency decorum and “ultraviolent zombie mayhem.” In Seth Grahame-Smith’s devilish telling, not all winsome amatory prospects are blushing coquettes. Some, like the Bennet sisters, have studied the “deadly arts” in the Orient, and when the first glittering ball of the season is interrupted by a horde of “unmentionables,” Austen’s girls form the Pentagram of Death and behead zombie after zombie as they work their way outward.
It sounds like a one-joke affair, but this is the gag that keeps on giving. Austen’s prim letters, breathless invitations, mannered affairs and smothered eroticism — most of it delivered deadpan and verbatim — nudge against the gruesome landscape brought forth by an unexplained plague that has bedeviled England for five-and-fifty years. Each zombie intrusion hilariously rocks the carefully wrought Regency setting. Blood spurts and persons of distinction wreak havoc, then they smooth their hair and resume proposing satisfaction and removing after dinner.
Familiar Austen characters are set on their ears. Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the most experienced warrior of all, trained in Japan and looks down on the Bennet girls, who studied the “deadly arts” in China. The portly cleric Mr. Collins marries Charlotte Bennet, who promptly takes sick — because she has been bitten by a zombie and is slowly becoming one herself (and, a la SHAUN OF THE DEAD, nobody even notices). Lizzy Bennet, fiercest of the five sisters, slays three of Lady Catherine’s favorite ninjas in a sparring demonstration, blindfolded…and so on.
The effect requires a pitch-perfect ear for Regency style and dialogue, and Grahame-Smith has one: he’s not sneering at all. I don’t know who had the brilliant idea, but enough readers have played along to earn this book a spot on the New York Times bestseller list, and now I hear another writer is working on SENSE AND SENSIBILITY AND SEA MONSTERS. If you’ve ever wished a Jane Austen character would show a little backbone and just smack her suitor upside the head, this one’s for you.
EDIT: If you only want a taste, pick the book up in a bookstore, turn to the end, and sample the “reading group discussion questions,” also written with perfect flair. If they make you laugh, the rest of the book will too. There are some spoilers among the questions, but do they really affect something like this?
A LITTLE LATER: In response to this review, my good friend Henry Kline highly recommended BREATHERS: A ZOMBIE’S LAMENT, and after reading it, I must concur. S.G. Browne’s novel is a dark, dark comedy that will tickle the same funnybone as the faux Austen above, but it also has real pathos and sly social satire in its bag of tricks as well. Don’t miss it.
AND FINALLY: If you have a loved one who might enjoy the above-mentioned Austen mashup at gift-giving time, you need only pick up the Deluxe edition. Gift wrap available.
7/7/16: The movie is a missed opportunity, I’m afraid. Everything is gorgeous, including the setups, costumes and people, enough to be credible as deadpan Austen. But it’s only amusing, not really funny, and the Austen subplot about the sister who marries the parson and becomes ill (in the Grahame-Smith book her “illness” is that she’s turning into a zombie, though the joke is that many people don’t notice) isn’t in the flick at all! Still, the notion of the Bennet sisters having mastered the “deadly arts” in China cracks me up every time. There they are in perfect prim but bodicey Regency dress, expertly hacking away at zombies. This mashup is priceless. But it doesn’t anchor a whole movie: like an overlong SNL sketch, it wears out its welcome in no time.