Book Review: Jane Austen's Zombie Mashups

Textually speaking, it's tolerable menfolk Lizzy finds in short supply—not loyal girlfriends. Elizabeth Bennet, the pride of Pride and Prejudice, is steeped in enough estrogen to last a lifetime of Yoplait ads. Besides her meddling mother, gaggle of sisters, and loyal best friend, there's her 200-year-old fan club of female readers, rivals to Potter nuts and Trek fiends in fervor. So where is the sisterhood in her hour of need?

For too long, even orthodox "Janeites" have blithely accepted the appropriation of Jane Austen's books, so long as it meant more to greedily gobble—a far cry from strict constructionists of Shakespeare or, say, the Bible. Modern Austen pastiche is practically an industry, and business is booming. Quirk Classics saw a surprise sales coup (1 million copies in print) with last spring's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which naturally has given birth to a sequel—actually a prequel: Dawn of the Dreadfuls, out March 23. For less gore and more porn, look to January's Pride/Prejudice, a bisexual, tryst-filled retelling of Lizzy and Mr. Darcy's love story, or Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, last summer's retooling in the throbbing tradition of Twilight. In theaters next year, Zombies will star Natalie Portman as a nunchuk-wielding, undead-slaying Lizzy.

In the beginning, which is to say way back in 1996, there was a crumb more restraint. Fizzy adaptations such as Bridget Jones's Diary contended that a version of Lizzy could chain-smoke and eat too much Christmas Stilton without negating Austen's sardonic comedy of manners. In the economic doldrums, it is the eminently bankable Austen's blessing and curse to be constantly applied and misapplied. Jane-anything sells out; the BBC miniseries version of Pride and Prejudice was still in Amazon's top 100 DVD sellers as of last week, 15 years after its release, and a ponderous cookbook of Austen-era food fetches $55 for recipes like Fried Cowheel and Onion. The publishing momentum is too great to stop—not that critics are trying. They chortled with Zombies, not at it, and the book sold out on the strength of flattering coverage in Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, and beyond. To be fair, Quirk's covers do promise some zippy intellectual gamesmanship. The front of Zombies—a serene Regency woman with a bloody, half-eaten jaw—is a very credible ad for Duchampian wit. Unfortunately, the 320 pages murder the joke. But a funny cover is to books what a good trailer is to movies—more than enough. As the cash poured in, Quirk broke out its finest vintage of grand pretense, claiming it was doing no less than reviving young-adult reading.

But there's saving literature, and there's saving it by scrapping the stuff that makes it literature. Author Ann Herendeen's self-described "queering" of Pride/Prejudice doesn't stink because it's got heaps of explicit gay and straight sex. Dawn of the Dreadfuls isn't substandard because it's gory and has monsters, which Zombies author Seth Grahame-Smith first defended as the personification of late-Georgian horrors (the ever-present English militia, the ghastly social mores, etc.). These books are objectionable because they strike out Austen's greatest contributions—seething satire, brilliant language, critique of classism—while helping themselves to the benefits of her name brand.

For now, it's still a powerful brand. Toting a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies still grants you hip-Anglophile status, even if your actual interest is sweet nunchuk skills. Yet, in a mashup marketplace, familiarity with authentic Austen seems on the verge of fading—unless someone speaks up. So where are you, harrumphing English teachers with Austen-filled syllabi? Old boots with poodles named Darcy? Crazy person who paid $11,000 at auction for a lock of Jane's hair? Consider this your conscription notice.