By Hillel Aron
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Mainly he kept coming back to the contrast between the mysterious plague and the elegant society. That is the heart of the mashup, the crazy zombie fight scenes, told in Regency language, against the backdrop of a very mannered society.
There were times he was going through the book and couldn’t believe things were being teed up so nicely for him. “There are things in the original book that lend themselves easily to this treatment. Independent Lizzy is the perfect character to be a zombie-killing heroine. Lady Catherine is perfect as a grand dame of zombie slaying. And the regiment of soldiers camped out at Meryton. In the book, they’re just there. There’s never a reason. It’s pretty easy to assume they’re there fighting zombies. It’s almost,” and he pauses here, “as if Jane Austen was subconsciously writing a zombie novel.”
Jane Austen was all about cleverly skewering the society in which she lived. “And zombies have always been used to skewer society. They’ve been used to represent consumerism, and the spread of communism, and the Vietnam War, so there’s a strange correlation between the two.
“People ask me, Why zombies? But when you think about it, the characters in Jane Austen are already like zombies. The worst of them are like zombies in the sense that they live in this immense bubble of wealth and privilege and they only care about upward mobility. The country could be falling apart around them and they wouldn’t care, as long as they had enough lamb to serve at the next dinner party. And in this version, the country really is going to hell around them, and they still only care if they have enough lamb to serve at the next dinner party.”
Asked if he can account for the resurgence of zombies in the popular consciousness, he thinks for a moment. “Well, zombies never really went away. So, if anything, I felt like I was coming to the table a little late with this. But because of the way this has been received, it’s given zombies another little bump. We’ve given them a little more hang time in the Zeitgeist.”
The reason Grahame-Smith loves zombies is because they are the most sympathetic horror creature. “They didn’t choose to be who they are. They’re kind of helpless, they’re kind of trapped. So you pity them as well as fear them. Also they’re the silliest, clumsiest. And they’re always the monster for fear of something larger than yourself, whether it’s the recession, or going on boats without pirates attacking, or countries far, far away plotting our doom. Zombies make sense right now.”
There is a scene he particularly likes. It’s the one where the Bennets are at dinner with the Bingleys and halfway through the meal they realize that the servants have stopped showing up with the food. So Mr. Bingley goes down to the kitchen to find out what’s happening. He comes back up, face ashen, and calls for Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth, sensing danger, goes with them. Downstairs, they see that the kitchen staff have left the doors open. A pair of zombies have gotten in and are now feasting on the servants. Bingley is upset. Not because of the zombies, but because the desserts are ruined and covered in brains, and are now unusable.
“And he vomits politely into his hands,” Grahame-Smith recalls fondly. “Elizabeth offers to slay them, but Darcy won’t let her soil her gown. To me that scene sums up the contrast, the silliness and the fun of the book.”
Between this book, an MTV pilot he’s working on, and his 5-month-old son, this is the busiest moment of Grahame-Smith’s life. “New book, new show, new baby — if I start to get outside that holy trinity, I lose my mind.”
It’s an exciting if slightly bewildering time for him. One newspaper took his photo at a casket showroom climbing gamely out of a casket. There is a persistent rumor that Natalie Portman will be playing Elizabeth Bennet, a rumor Grahame-Smith can neither confirm nor deny mainly because they haven’t told him yet if it’s true.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has so far sold some 125,000 copies, with 60,000 more winging their way to stores as we speak. They have The New York Times bestseller stamp on them. “This is Quirk’s Harry Potter,” he says of his publisher. We’ll be seeing a lot of literary Frankensteins soon, he predicts. “I think because of the success of this book, in the next couple of years you’re gonna see a lot of classics revisited. Publishers now realize we have this stream of revenue just sitting there.” He didn’t have to purchase rights from Austen, who never married or begat heirs, and whose books are now in the public domain. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you see new twists on Wuthering Heights or Moby Dick or Dickens and Twain.”