Book Review: Dreadfully Ever After

June 15, 2011

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After

By Steve Hockensmith

Published March 22, 2011

Quirk Books

320 pp.

ISBN 1-594-74502-1

Reviewed June 14, 2011

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a franchise in possession of good fortune must be in want of more success. Certainly you can say this is true of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” – taking what could have been a throwaway idea of meshing classic literature with today’s popular culture, Quirk Books managed to transform it into to a startlingly good novel that played its source material for just the right level of comic effect. They capitalized on this success with involvement in other classic authors (though the narrative success hasn’t been as strong there) and a potential movie installment that still holds a lot of potential but is sadly bogged down in development hell at the moment.

As a storyline, the original idea still stands up on its own merits – by my estimation at least – and so I was heartened to see that it hasn’t succumbed to the plague of success and sequel dilution. Quirk followed the innovation of “PPZ” with a surprisingly competent prequel novel in “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” and has now bookended it with a direct sequel in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After.” And much like its predecessors, “Dreadfully Ever After” continues to strike the right balance and turn out an end product that works both as an adaptation and as a stand-alone zombie narrative.

Timing-wise, it evenly spaces the three books apart, being set four years after the events of the original “PPZ.” In the time since that installment, the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy has become strained under the forced retirement of Elizabeth’s blades – “quieted by that force more powerful than any warrior” as it said in the first book’s close – and her ambivalence towards having children. Before she and Darcy can come to any sort of resolution, a stray zombie child gets its fangs into Darcy’s neck and appears to seal their marriage to end with his decapitation. However, Darcy’s aunt – the vengeful Catherine de Bough – claims to have access to a remedy, and all it will require is Elizabeth to not only surrender care of Darcy but risk her honor and her very life to cure him.

“Dreadfully Ever After” comes from Steve Hockensmith, author of the “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” and as such the book maintains the narrative coherence of the last installment. The action moves to London – now a segmented city to defend its nobility from dreadful attack, with parks and manors on the other side of a wall from slums and plague – and continues the intersection of Victorian nobility with the deadpan unmentionable dispatch. The series’ trend of introducing outlandish humor also continues, with some occasionally gratingly silly bits like casting the “dandies” and the “fops” of London’s aristocracy as rival gangs and dreadfuls chasing an Irishman to replace greyhounds chasing a rabbit. And again, much like “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” it remains a step behind the original “PPZ” without the benefit of Austen’s original text to modify – the language is still designed to emphasize the incongruous manners with shambling hordes, but feels like it’s straining a bit to reach the original’s heights.

Yet in many ways, “Dreadfully Ever After” feels better than “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” as if Hockensmith has learned from experience and avoided that book’s failings. The overly obnoxious version of Mrs. Bennet is almost completely absent save for the last chapter, and out of the new characters none of them match the cartoonish quality of the first installment’s Lord Lumpley. In addition to Darcy and Lady Catherine several characters from Austen’s original text return, and are used in a way that strengthens the story – particularly the addition of Lady Catherine’s daughter Anne, Darcy’s intended bride who’s even more unsettling than the dreadfuls.

And while it’s not adapted Austen level anymore, there’s still passages that describe the zombie horde in proper, almost poetic detail. A scattered zombie horde is “fresh next to rancid, rag-shrouded beside fashionably clothed, all united in the democracy of death,” and a particularly accurate swing of a ninja’s sword splits “the skull and neck open… like the blooming of some viscous red blossom.”

Hockensmith’s real achievement beyond this is that even after two books in the series, he’s found some new ground to cover. Rather than try to force Elizabeth through a personal grinder yet again, the book mostly uses her story to drive the plot and focuses its narrative energy on her sisters Kitty and Mary. Free of Lydia’s flighty influence, Kitty is trying to find out what sort of person she is, and it comes to a surprise that she doesn’t like being seen as silly as much as she once did. And Mary, having erected further walls as her sisters are married off, manages to have a few chinks in her armor thanks to an unusual ally. These two were mostly supplemental to the tribulations of Elizabeth, Jane and Lydia in previous installments (and in the original Austen novel, if I’m not mistaken), but here they feel like real characters with legitimately interesting romantic arcs – especially considering the two talk their feelings over in between splitting the skills of dreadfuls.

But that’s not the only way “Dreadfully Ever After” gets into the minds of the dreadfuls. In spending time with Darcy as he fights off the undead taint sweeping through his body, the book actually broaches relatively untouched ground in zombie literature by showing how the undead see the world and depicting how painful warring with its compulsions can be – dreams filled with steaks garnished with fingers, every life form all the way down to spiders emitting a radiance you just want to reach out and touch. And a late chapter focused on average zombie Mr. Crickett in his pursuit of a meal fit for a king is a bit of a stylistic departure, but one that’s the funniest part of the book (and evokes fond memories on my part of the game Stubbs The Zombie).

It’s not a novel that will win over any new fans – and if you were turned off by the concept at the start this won’t be what lures you back – but as a third installment to the saga of the zombie-slaying Bennets “Dreadfully Ever After” makes a very respectable close. As someone who was a curious observer and turned into an involved reader, I’m satisfied to see that Hockensmith was able to turn it into a trilogy, and flaws aside it’s a set I’m pleased to have sitting on my shelf.


Book Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

May 4, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

ppz-cover

By Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Published April 1, 2009

Quirk Books

320 pp.

ISBN 1-594-74334-7

Date reviewed: May 4, 2009

It’s hard to imagine a 2009 title more anticipated than “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” The concept is nothing short of brilliant, combining Jane Austen’s classic novel of society and romance with “ultraviolent zombie mayhem.” The possibilities seemed endless, ranging from half the main characters having their heads cracked open to windows of a manor house cracked open with decaying fists. Indeed, it seemed like something that could go so over the top it would make Austen herself rise from the grave in complaint.

So does it measure up to that promise of madcap zombie fun, or does the gimmick burn out less than half-way through? The answer is neither – but that turns out to be to the book’s benefit. Rather than sacrifice a work of literature to Internet memes, “Zombies” actually spends more time with the original story than expected, reshaping the characters but never excising the plotlines. It’s not what most readers would expect going in, but in many ways it makes for a much better book, regardless of whether you favor Jane Austen or George Romero.

For the uninitiated, the original “Pride and Prejudice” is the story of Elizabeth Bennett, the most willful of a country gentleman’s five daughters. Continually badgered by her mother’s desire to marry her off and the flighty attitudes of her younger sisters, she finds a new target for her ire after the haughty Mr. Darcy dismisses her at a ball. As the two continue to interact, they find their terse reactions might be only a cover, masking an attraction that must overcome pride and social circumstances.

The new version keeps the original narrative, but adds a twist in that the countryside is crawling with the living dead. For the past five decades England has been besieged by hordes of the “unmentionables,” which rise from their graves in tattered suits and gowns to swarm manor houses and crack open the skulls of those within. Elizabeth and Darcy, along with several other characters, are now highly trained warriors who are capable of decapitating their enemies and feel no qualms about setting the bodies ablaze.

What is interesting about this undead invasion is that while they retain many of the more fearful aspects – passing zombie infection through bites, pitiful moaning and feasting on brains – it never becomes the overarching concern of the story. Most of the recent efforts in the genre have focused on the apocalyptic aspect, but the world of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” still considers social norms and inheritance the greatest of concerns, and Austen’s verbal sparring is supplemented by actual combat rather than replaced.

Keeping the language turns out to be the smartest decision the book could make, as mixing the free indirect speech of the original book with nightmarish threats makes it funnier than any gore-splattered zombie film. The precise verbal patterns see characters encountering the “sorry stricken,” weapons are drawn and they are “promptly dispatched to Hell,” and given “a proper Christian beheading.” A variety of incongruously humorous scenarios ensue, such as when two zombies slaughter an entire staff of servants in the kitchen and the party’s host can only observe “a delightful array of tarts, exotic fruits, and pies, sadly soiled by blood and brains, and thus unusable.

The subtleness of the zombie humor keeps the altered narrative going, but the book’s real strength is in the indirect changes the threat provides. Elizabeth and her sisters have been trained in the deadly arts by Master Liu of China, and are capable of walking on their hands, administering cuts of shame in times of failure and fight with “a razor-sharp dagger with one hand, the other tucked modestly into the small of her back.” They and other characters have grown up with the zombie threat, and as a consequence match breeding with battle skills.

With the characters tooled in this fashion, it enlivens the original’s conflicts considerably. Elizabeth sees Darcy’s slights not merely social but an insult to her warrior honor, and vows to take his head after their first meeting, and when he confesses his lover her first reaction is to kick his head into a fireplace mantel. Lady Catherine, the preeminent noble in the book, is respected as much for her elite guard of ninjas as her extreme wealth, and Darcy’s dispute with Mr. Wickham is less about money and more about severe beatings. The moves seem to make the characters more interesting, as they can act on their feelings rather than just talking.

In the end, the real victor of this parody appears to be Jane Austen herself, as her book has been reanimated in a way not even Keira Knightly could pull off. Fans of the original will be both taken aback and charmed by their beloved characters talking casually about ripping out an enemy’s heart, and those who haven’t read it before will be intrigued as to how the story could work without. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” has not only had a brilliant idea, but handled it in the most competent fashion.