Published March 20, 2010
Reviewed: March 3, 2010
Since “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” first reared its well-groomed, brain-scooped head in the world of literature, I’ve paid particular attention to it on this blog chiefly because I find the idea fascinating and full of potential. Pastiches and reinventions of classic literature are certainly not a new invention, but Quirk Books’ mash-ups have been the first to really attract mainstream attention, with the trick of introducing a monstrous extreme but keeping the core plot and language intact. It also helps that the first two installments in the series have been strong starters, blending the Victorian conventions of its source material with gore and horror for perfectly phrased comic effect.
Now, while the Quirk Classics series is exploring new authorial territory with the upcoming “Android Karenina,” it seems they can’t stay away from Jane Austen and have offered up a surprising new entry that eschews the mash-up aspect all together. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls” is the first work to not be based on original text, written as a prequel to the original “PPZ” mapping how its characters acquired the skills they showed in the original. Doing so evinces a major confidence in the idea, and indeed such a work will be the nascent genre’s test: can it stand on its own legs, or will it crawl around like a zombie torso who has parted ways with them?
Set four years before “PPZ,” “Dawn of the Dreadfuls” sees the rise of the undead menace in Meryton when the recently deceased Mr. Ford has the bad manners to rise from his own casket. Mr. Bennett, a veteran of the last undead incursion through England, understands all too well what is to follow and vows his spirited daughters will be ready to meet it. Sweet Jane, headstrong Elizabeth, bookish Mary, flighty Kitty and childish Lydia – all five must to learn the mental and physical discipline to confront the “dreadfuls,” just as soon as they get over how this affects their prospects for a desirable marriage.
The Bennets are the only characters transplanted from the original Austen book, but the loss of Mr. Darcy and the other supporting cast isn’t the most glaring omission. “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” by virtue of not having any of Austen’s original text, betrays just how essential the talents of the original author were to its predecessors. Austen’s books were masterpieces for their intricately precise language and intricate romantic connections, and the first Quirk Classics worked because they kept that structure even while demonic chaos surrounded its events. It made for hilarious incongruity, where a woman could primly speak of a man’s intentions and bite into a ninja’s heart ten pages later.
But even in the capable hands of Steven Hockensmith (of the “Holmes on the Range” series) the loss of Austen leaves some noticeable cracks. Many of the jokes are more overt than they were in the first installment, with more visible reactions and more noticeable references to sex and violence. Characters old and new seem to feel in places like caricatures, relying more on readers’ established distaste for the original archetypes than development. The modernization shows, and one character even seems to break the fourth wall when commenting on the reluctance to use “the Zed word” in polite conversation:
“Oh, we can’t have that, can we? We can’t go around being impolite when we’re about to be overrun by reanimated cadavers! Egad—the English!”
In all honesty though, the fact that the book is moving away from its source material might be the best thing for it. Ever since “PPZ” came out, imitators have been glutting the market with derivative titles like “Mansfield Park and Mummies,” “Vampire Darcy’s Desire” and “Emma and the Werewolves,” making the genre feel more and more nauseating with each installment. By departing from the text, “Dawn of the Dreadfuls” is trying something new with the concept, telling a conventional zombie story in an unexpected setting, in the same vein as the “recorded attacks” section of Max Brooks’ “The Zombie Survival Guide.”
And when viewed in the light of an unconventional zombie incursion, “Dawn of the Dreadfuls” makes for a very engaging read. All the critical elements of a zombie scenario are there, almost more than they were in the original: the ignorance of the populace, deception of the government, science attempting to decipher the zombie menace, precautionary efforts that come to naught and a madness-inducing siege by the undead on a last stand location. When a zombie or zombies emerge, the panic of those who aren’t prepared and the discipline of those who are shows, and each encounter has the expected tension. The hilarious incongruity of the first book is preserved as well, in scenes such as the one where Elizabeth has her first dance with a chained zombie 20 feet away.
Austen’s original structure is missed, but her core surviving characters are not, as Hocksmith treats them with as much attention as their trainer teaching them balanced stances and sword techniques. All five of the Bennet girls go through a defined evolution, noticed by the characters in their growing physical abilities and by the reader as their spirits gain steel. We see society girls dealing with death, carving up what used to be their friends and neighbors at the same time they’re dealing with conflicting emotions toward rigid soldiers and eager scientists. Each comes to terms in their own way, and in the case of Jane and Elizabeth particularly they became the warriors of “PPZ:” still focused on the social norms of the time, but keenly aware of what the wrong choice in love leads to.
“Dawn of the Dreadfuls” may not be up on the same pillar as its mash-up sequel, but it still manages to come across as an inventive and engaging addition to the horde of nouveau zombie literature. In less capable hands such an effort might seem too close to fan fiction for comfort, but Hocksmith keeps his characters interesting and his interactions bloody, and from a zombie novel that’s the most essential element. I ended my “SSSM” review stating that I thought it was time for Quirk to move away from Austen, but I’d honestly like to see more entries in this spin-off Victorian/Romero world they’ve created – and for that reason alone, “Dawn of the Dreadfuls” does what it’s supposed to.