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.”