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: Dawn of the Dreadfuls

March 3, 2010

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls

By Steve Hockensmith

Published March 20, 2010

Quirk Books

320 pp.

ISBN 1-594-74454-8

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.

Extra Credit:

  • Quirk Classics is having a contest to coincide with the book’s release – follow the bouncing link and mention TLOTE to win ghoulish prizes!
  • Quirk is also continuing their trend of hilarious book trailers with this latest entry for “Dawn of the Dreadfuls.”

Book Review: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

October 5, 2009

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

By Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters

Published September 15, 2009

Quirk Books

344 pp.

ISBN 1-594-74442-4

Date reviewed: October 5, 2009

After positive buzz and glowing critical reception shot “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” to the top of the New York Times bestseller list earlier this year, it came as no surprise that Quirk Books announced that it would only be the first of their new line of altered classics. What did come as a surprise was the revelation that they would not be trying the technique out on a new author but would be sticking with Jane Austen, converting her 1811 novel “Sense and Sensibility” with a nautical twist.

I admitted some doubts in my original post on the news, but chose to yield to cautious optimism for its release – and my optimism has been rewarded. Under the careful eye of Ben H. Winters, Austen’s debut work has been transmogrified into the comic horror “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters,” submerging her mannered work into the realms of H.P. Lovecraft and Jules Verne. The end result is a bit more extreme but still as hilarious as its predecessor.

The original “Sense and Sensibility” focused on sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, two young women whose family falls on hard times following the death of their father. Relocating with their mother and sister to an isolated cottage, the two find themselves trying to make new lives while also courting the attentions of dashing young men and noble bachelors. Possessed of a clever humor towards existing social conditions, the novel deals with the clashes between the sensible attitudes of Elinor and the more emotional instincts of Marianne.

As with “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” the book does not deviate heavily from the original text but transplants their settings into a wholly alien atmosphere. Following the mysterious event known as “the Alteration,” every inhabitant of the sea has become homicidal towards land-dwellers, and humans live in fear of beasts ranging from oversized octopi to razor-fanged serpents. The Dashwoods now live in a small colony of islands after their father’s run-in with a hammerhead shark, and their supporting cast includes treasure hunters, former pirates and captured tribal princesses.

As I wrote in my “PPZ” review, I thought the book’s greatest strength was in the sheer incongruity of the setting, where the horrifying reality of the “unmentionables” did nothing to alter the social niceties and composed speech of Austen’s main characters. “Sea Monsters” continues this trend, and in many ways makes the difference even more absurdly pronounced. When Marianne’s lover vanishes her mother speculates that either his aunt has ordered him away or a pirate curse has struck him “to wander the seven seas until fate should claim him,” and in neither case seems terribly concerned. Later, Lucy Steele discusses the sad situation of her engagement to Elinor, completely unaware the latter is using an oar to fend off the two-headed Devonshire Fang-Beast trying to capsize their boat – and continuing without a beat after they return to safety.

Winters has also continued the trend of reshaping the characters with these new elements, and once again the effect accentuates their existing traits. Colonel Brandon, looked down upon for being a 35-year-old bachelor in the original version, now has an additional indignity as a sea witch’s curse has transformed his face into a mass of tentacles resembling Davy Jones from “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Mrs. Jennings, once only a meddling older woman, is the former queen of a primitive island and is brashly vulgar in her manners, creating some hilarious clashes with the more proper players.

Even more than “Zombies” however, the changes made to Austen’s original text make “Sea Monsters” feel like a completely different book. Winters said in an interview that reader feedback led Quirk to request more new content, and as such the imagination runs wild with pirate attacks and undersea battles. A long-term visit to London in the original book is now set in Sub-Marine Station Beta, a vast domed city underwater where marine research takes place and giant lobsters are trained to put on shows – at least until they break their conditioning and run amok to dismember the viewing crowd. It not only embellishes, it creates a unique and rather complex setting.

This blend of Victorian manners, pirates, steampunk and aquatic monstrosities does get a little tiring after a while – possibly too ambitious with how much it can do – but the book actually manages to keep the reader riveted to the story on the strength of its horror aspect. Between mysterious chants on the island and the escalating efforts of swordfish to break Beta’s glass dome, “Sea Monsters” builds tension surprisingly well and ends many chapters with a lingering feeling of doom. It works even better as the main characters ignore all of these signs in favor of discussing engagements, building to a sense of panic at the dumb realization “what it meant that they had made their home four miles below the surface of the ocean.”

“Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” is a second success for the reinvention of old standards, proving that Quirk’s idea has not only avoided jumping the shark but managed to collar the shark and use it to rend apart half a dozen aristocrats. It’s less subtle but a positive step for the nascent genre, encouraging further experimentation and expansion into what the field can be done. Quirk’s likely to continue with these books and one hopes it adds new authors, though I wouldn’t be adverse to a third Austen to make it a trilogy. Can you say “Northanger Abbey vs. The Demonic Hordes or “Emma: Warrior Princess?”

News Update: Quirk Books announces next classic mash-up

July 15, 2009

After keeping fans in suspense for the last few months, the wait is finally over: Quirk Books has announced the next title in their “Quirk Classics” series of literary re-imaginings, following on the excellent “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”

The winner? Might actually be a bit of a surprise:


The new title, “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters,” is a remake of another Jane Austen novel, this one weaving Victorian manners and social breeding with the nautical images of kraken, pirates, sharks and other denizens of the deep. The book is scheduled to be released on September 15 of this year.

My take on this? Well, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” is one of my favorite books of all time, and I thought the imagery of the Flying Dutchman crew was one of the only factors keeping the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels from sliding into “Matrix” sequel-level mediocrity. Still don’t understand why so many people are fascinated with the Cthulu mythos, but I do give the imagery credit for inspiring so many T-shirts and RPGs.

Anyway, I think the expansion to sea monsters is a great stylistic choice on their part,with room for expansion into fields ranging from a great battle with a kraken to giant lobster claws ripping waistcoats asunder. The imagery concocted is inspired, and there is a fountain of information to draw off of. Additionally, it’s more creative than I was expecting, and keeps the series alive rather than sliding into too much meme territory – yes there will be pirates, but it promises to be more creative than that.

I am a little disappointed that they’re sticking with Jane Austen again rather than trying out a new author, but for a new franchise like this it’s probably best not to stray too far out of the comfort zone for risk of using up all your ideas. Plus it does keep my “Tale of Two Cities” steampunk project open.

Speaking of authors, one change is that this project will be handled not by Seth Grahame-Smith of PPZ, but by Ben H. Winters, best known for his work on the “Worst-Case Scenario” series of books. I remain slightly concerned that switching horses will make for a marked difference, but as long as they keep to formula of the first one – not dramatically altering the original work, making the changes fit in with the themes and characters – it shouldn’t be too hard to mess up. Winters does say that the “monster-to-Austen ratio” will be higher in this book, but being only a 10 percent shift there’s not real room for alarm.

Plus, Grahame-Smith’s absence means he will be free to work on his upcoming release “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” a title I’m possibly looking forward to even more than the new Quirk Classic.

Well, for right now I’m going to regard this project as one of the most anticipated releases for the fall, and will look forward to getting my hands on it. In the meantime, I wholeheartedly recommend that you watch their announcement trailer as many times as you possibly can.

Les Chappell is open to discussing any ideas for his Dickensian steampunk project. Currently brainstorming guillotine advancements.

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

May 4, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


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.