It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. Never was this truth more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen was slaughtered and consumed by a horde of the living dead.
Although there have been many adaptations and reinterpretations of Pride and Prejudice, it wasn’t until Seth Grahame-Smith came along that anyone considered the possibility that Austen’s most-loved novel might be improved by the addition of roving gangs of flesh-eating zombies.
Amazingly, he was right. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies not only is by far the most successful of the recent crop of literary mash-ups, but has been welcomed even by diehard Austen fans. The novel – in which the Bennet girls are re-imagined as England’s foremost zombie hunters after a mysterious plague unleashes the undead from their tombs – has sold more than a million copies.
The beauty of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that Grahame-Smith manages to weave in a subplot of swordfights and cannibalism while remaining remarkably faithful to the spirit of the original. It is both a satisfying romance and an outstandingly gory splatterfest.
Some characters who are perhaps less than satisfactory to the modern reader also receive a gratifying comeuppance. It is hard not to cheer when Elizabeth daydreams about how best to deal with the tiresome Lydia (“Elizabeth presently drew her Katana and cut off Lydia’s head, which fell into the open hatbox … Elizabeth sheathed her blade, and in a most delicate tone, said ‘I beg you all forgive me, but I could stand her prattling no longer’”).
Los Angeles-based Grahame-Smith, 34, is the son of a bookshop owner and a publishing house editor, and grew up reading sci-fi and horror. It’s no great surprise that he became a writer, but there were many years of unpublished novels, screenplays and short stories before he saw any success.
His first work, The Big Book of Porn: A Penetrating Look at the World of Dirty Movies (2005), was a commission. “I had six months’ total immersion in all things pornographic. It was rather depressing, and ruined porn for me.” Next was The Spider-Man Handbook: The Ultimate Training Manual (2006) – another commission – followed by two of his own projects: How to Survive a Horror Movie: All the Skills to Dodge the Kills (2007) and Pardon My President: Fold-and-Mail Apologies for 8 Years (2008). Born from Grahame-Smith’s political blogging, Pardon My President consisted of dozens of cut-out-and-send letters of apology to those whom George W Bush had offended – New Orleans, gay Republicans, Iraq, the people of France, etc.
Last year, Grahame-Smith’s fortunes changed overnight. The publisher of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies hoped the novel would break even: instead, when it was published on April 1, it immediately went to number three on the New York Times bestseller list. Just a few weeks later, a television series Grahame-Smith had spent a year trying to get off the ground was picked up by a network. “I had been struggling along in books and struggling along in TV, and suddenly all this happened at once,” he says.
More befanged Austen mash-ups would have been the obvious next step, but Grahame-Smith decided to leave sequels to other writers (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith was released in New Zealand last month) and let loose his own offspring of an even more unholy pairing: vampires and Abraham Lincoln. His new novel, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is based on the premise that the Great Emancipator’s war on slavery was covertly inspired by his lifelong battle against vampires plotting to enslave mankind.
Offending Austen fans was one thing; offending keepers of the Lincoln flame was quite another. Grahame-Smith spent two months researching Lincoln’s life – not long, it would seem, but apparently long enough for him to be “bitten by the Lincoln bug”.
“I realised how tragic Lincoln’s life had been. I didn’t want to undermine any of the real emotion of the tragedies, or to cheapen someone’s death. I wanted the book to be emotional and respectful.”
Almost everyone Lincoln loved died young, and Grahame-Smith takes the considerable liberty of attributing some of these deaths to poisoning by vampire. Would Lincoln scholars take offence? Almost certainly, one would have thought, but when Grahame-Smith opened his US book tour with a reading at the Lincoln Presidential Museum in Illinois – “the centre of the Lincoln universe” – he was relieved to see a sizeable proportion of the 500-strong audience had come dressed as either Lincoln or vampires.
In keeping with the times, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is an elaborate conspiracy theory drama centring on an administration that keeps secrets from its citizens. The novel’s opening chapter is set during the 2008 presidential campaign, and the book ends with assorted vampires watching from the Lincoln Memorial as Martin Luther King delivers his “I have a dream” speech in 1963. Grahame-Smith’s political leanings are well-known, but he denies suggestions by many commentators that the vampires in his book represent Republicans.
“I opened with Obama and closed with Martin Luther King to show that there has been progress but there are still fights to be fought,” he says. “The wounds of the Civil War are not healed yet, especially in terms of race – the ‘us versus them’ spirit is still alive.”
It’s this polarisation of political thought that Grahame-Smith finds dispiriting about contemporary America. He grew up in Connecticut, and recalls people being passionate about their beliefs but respecting opposing views. Now, he says, everyone is required to pick a side. “The middle ground has shrunk in this country. What’s missing is civility.”
Many of the skilfully interwoven historical facts in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will be lost on New Zealand readers – for example, few of us will have even heard of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, let alone feel any sort of frisson at the discovery he was in league with a particularly vicious mob of Southern vampires – yet the story works brilliantly as a bloodsucker-themed thriller.
Literary mash-ups have been good to Grahame-Smith, but he thinks the genre has nearly had its day. It’s a fair comment, given that latest efforts – which include Android Karenina and Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter – seem to be pushing the envelope well beyond its natural boundaries.
“I don’t see the mash-up genre being as popular forever as it is now. I was lucky enough to be one of the first guys in the door, and I don’t want to be one of the last guys out,” he says. (Grahame-Smith may be done with literary mash-ups, but perhaps his success will encourage New Zealand writers to experiment with the form. Once Were Werewolves, anyone? A Troll in My Father’s Den?)
In addition to working on a screenplay of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Grahame-Smith is planning a non-mash-up novel, preparing for the premiere of his TV show and waiting for the film version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which stars Natalie Portman as Elizabeth. Oh, and he has a 17-month-old baby, too. Far from returning to normal, says Grahame-Smith, life is getting even crazier. “I feel like I’m standing on top of a snowball. It’s rolling down the mountain and I’m just trying to keep my balance.”