Splattering blood on Jane Austen. It was a risk that paid off tenfold for Quirk Books in 2009 with Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the zombie-infused Regency romance that went from spoofy spook to best seller, and served as the point of origin for the great literary mashup trend. To continue the franchise, Quirk decided to revisit its Austen miscreation to tell the tale of how it all began. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls looks to the beginning of the English countryside's zombie woes and the evolution of the Bennett sisters from proper young ladies to slayers of the undead. Author Steve Hockensmith spoke to TIME about how to balance the desires of Jane Austen fans with those of zombie fans. It's no easy task.
Did you have a lot of experience with Jane Austen's work before writing this book?
I had read her way back in college. At the time, I found her stuff very frustrating. And I found her frustrating for reasons that in hindsight were about me, not about Jane. I read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and I had the same reaction to both: I kind of wanted to grab everybody and shake them real hard and say, "Just talk to each other!" There's all this drama about misunderstandings and what so-and-so is really feeling. And as an 18- or 19-year-old American guy, I found that sort of infuriating. There was just a big aspect of it that I was missing and I didn't clue into it until I saw the Pride and Prejudice miniseries many years later.
Where did you come up with your zombie lore?
Zombies are a fairly new addition to the canon of monsterdom. The modern zombie goes back just to Night of the Living Dead. There's a ton of material out there, but it seems like there's not a lot of diversity. And horror fans might beat me up for that because I'm not a huge horror fan myself. I like what I consider the good stuff within the genre, but I don't consume it in vast quantities. So what I did was just sort of reacquaint myself with the classics. I went back and I watched Night of the Living Dead. That's the touchstone. That's where you've got to start. Then it was Dawn of the Dead, which for me is a special zombie movie. It's probably my favorite of the classic Romero era because it's a scary zombie movie, but it's also an adventure movie and it also has such a great social satire aspect to it. It's got some things to say. It's the grand slam of classic-era zombie movies.
Then of course, there was the film that had the treatment that I'd like to capture with zombies, which was Shaun of the Dead. It's scary and it's funny and so often you can have one and not the other. It's commenting on zombie movies, but it never crosses that line where the satire overwhelms the situation. It walks that tightrope perfectly of having its tongue in its cheek, but also having that feeling that that cheek is about to be ripped off and eaten at any second.
The descriptions in the book are pretty graphic. How did you visualize the appearance of the zombies?
That's one of the not-so-fun parts of writing about zombies. I wanted to know what color dead bodies turn, and you've got Google and I'm looking at it with one eye and my head turned away because you don't know what's going to pop up. I didn't want to delve into that stuff too much, but I wanted the descriptions to have enough verisimilitude that you really buy that this is a dead body. Because you could be really generic about it: There was a zombie and the zombie chased them and they killed the zombies. It seemed to me that if you're going to do zombies, you've got to give them personality, you've got to give them individuality, or it's just going to be this blur. I tried to think creatively with my zombies. There was one with no arms and legs that moved around like an inchworm, but very fast. Then there was the one in the lake who was tied to a rock. There were a couple that I wanted to work in and I couldn't. I wanted them to find a zombie who had hung himself and they find him swinging around by a rope trying to eat people so they use it like a piñata for target practice. I wasn't able to work that in. Maybe in another book.
What are you telling the Austen purists? There is some hate coming your way.
It's something that I understand. I grew up as a fan. I was a Star Trek fan. Years later when J.J. Abrams comes traipsing along and says that he's going to reimagine this thing that you loved from your youth, there's going to be some trepidation. Are they going to be respectful, or are they just going to trash it? I totally get where they're coming from. On the other hand, I would say that I hope our affection for Jane Austen comes through. That's why it was very important to me that the dedication of the book be "For Jane: We kid because we love." For me, that captures what I'm all about. I'm not doing this to flip Jane Austen the bird. I'm a guest in her home.
So after all you've learned, if you encountered a zombie, what would you do?
I would run shrieking in the other direction because I know all of those great skills that the Bennetts acquire over the course of the book, I have none of them. It could be a zombie grandma with a walker oh, boy! See, there's a great idea. Has anybody done a zombie with a walker? See, I need to keep doing this stuff. So yeah, it could be a zombie grandma with a walker hobbling after me and I would still scream and run in the other direction. I'm a writer, not a fighter.