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Seth Grahame-Smith Repurposes Jane Austen in 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies'

The cover of
The cover of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," a critically well-received entry in the genre of Jane Austen spinoffs that incorporate surprising supernatural elements such as vampires and aliens. (By Doogie Horner -- Bridgeman Art Library/quirk Books)
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Austen herself becomes the monster in "Jane Bites Back," a novel by Michael Thomas Ford that will be published in 2010 by Random House. In it, Austen is a frustrated vampire and bookstore owner. "She's been middle-aged for 200 years, which is not making her happy," Ford says. "We've been calling it 'Bridget Jones' meets 'Dracula.' "

Sure, Charlotte Brontë has also received some of this dubious adulation -- check out Sharon Shinn's "Jenna Starborn," a.k.a. "Jane Eyre" on a remote, futuristic planet -- but Brontë's works, and those of other beloved authors, haven't been morphed and mutated to half the extent that Austen's have.

(By the way, we're not even getting into the spinoffs that exist in the fan world: "Pride and Prejudice and Dragons" is the name of one multi-chapter work on; in "The Musician and the Millionaire," Elizabeth Bennet becomes a contestant on a dating show only to learn that the prized Darcy is, alas, a bloodsucker.)

Part of the reason for that is the bottom line. "I was talking to my agent one day," says Ford, describing the origin of "Jane Bites Back," "and one of us made the comment that the only things that seem to be selling are Jane Austen and vampires." Ta-da!

Part of it is the bordering-on-fanatical relationship some people have with "Pride." (See: "Lost in Austen," a new movie in which a modern woman wakes up and realizes she has become Elizabeth Bennet.)

But you gotta believe that Jane Austen-based stories wouldn't sell so well if they didn't work, on some intrinsic literary level.

And "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," impossibly, works -- in part because of story lines like the one developed for Charlotte Lucas. In Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," Lucas is a pragmatic soul who marries the boob Mr. Collins for financial security. In Grahame-Smith's book, Lucas gradually transforms into a zombie, though no one, including her husband, notices.

The beauty of this side plot is that it's exactly true to Charlotte's resigned character. Austen drew her so completely that we know she would bear her zombitude with quiet grace. We are similarly sure that the idiot Mr. Collins would miss it entirely.

The completeness of Austen's characters is what allows them to be transported successfully to a variety of settings, from Middle Earth to outer space, says Susan Allen Ford (no relation to Michael Thomas Ford), editor of the Austen journal Persuasions. Anyone who's read Lizzie Bennet's smack-down of Mr. Collins's marriage proposal knows that the girl is not going to be flailing about helplessly when the aliens come to town.

Austen's use of language helps, too. "People in this period never really said what they meant," says Grahame-Smith. Austen's characters are simply too mannered to gush about their feelings. (Thus, in "Zombies," the undead are referred to as "unmentionables," because Grahame-Smith postulates, people from that time would have been too polite to directly refer to them at all.)

As a result, "there's a level of complexity and subtext that's at work through her novels," says Susan Ford. Readers must fill in the gaps for themselves.

Fill in the gaps . . . with zombies!

But for a Jane Austen fan, the gratifying aspect of reading "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" is not the comic bloodthirsty additions, but rather how they highlight the humor that already exists in the original "Pride and Prejudice." Austen was funny -- something that's easy to miss if you get too caught up in the romance and cravats. Reading "Zombies" means discovering that half of the things you're laughing about were written 200 years ago by Austen herself.

As for Grahame-Smith, he reportedly has signed a princely deal for two more "historical" books. The first has no announced release date, though it does have a title:

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

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