Screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith likes his zombies slow and stupid. He prefers the lumbering George Romero menace to the speedy Michael Johnson brain-eaters terrorizing the populace in such films as “28 Days Later” and Zack Snyder’s remake of “Dawn of the Dead.”
The walking dead in his hit mash-up “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (Quirk, $12.95 in paper) are slow-moving monsters and thus all the easier for Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters to pick off. This Meryton and its environs are threatened by the flesh-eating undead, and the Bennet girls aim to do their duty, even as they fret about what to wear to the next ball.
The brainchild, as it were, of Grahame-Smith’s friend, Quirk editorial director Jason Rekulak, “P&P&Z” (as it’s known in house) is also credited to Jane Austen, and for good reason: Grahame-Smith has written the book in Austen’s style, from the opening line to the happy, if gory, ending. The famous original opening line has been altered to “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”
“For a long time Jason and I were the only ones on the planet who thought it was a good idea,” says Grahame-Smith, a horror-film fan whose favorite scary movies are Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” though he has special affection for Romero’s undead, too. “It was a tough sale to the publisher. People were afraid we’d turn off the Janeites with zombies and turn off the zombie fans with Jane Austen.”
The fears proved unjustified. “P&P&Z” earned raves from Entertainment Weekly and Salon.com and is well into its sixth printing, with more than 120,000 copies. Its success also earned Grahame-Smith a two-book deal with Grand Central Press. His next book, which has no publication date yet, will be “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
Does that mean John Wilkes Booth didn’t kill our 16th president?
“You’ll just have to read it and find out,” Grahame-Smith says, laughing.
Q: What was your greatest challenge in writing “P&P&Z”?
A: The language is the hardest part. But it was the most fun thing, too, and what attracted me. I was thinking how fun it would be to write these gratuitous, ultraviolent scenes of zombie mayhem in the Regency style.
Q: Were you familiar with Austen’s work before starting the book?
A: “Pride and Prejudice” is the only Jane Austen I’d attempted to read. I had to read it for high school, and like a lot of 14-year-old boys I found it a little slow. I couldn’t get into Elizabeth Bennet and her man troubles. They weren’t things I cared about at 14. But when I revisited it for the book, I read it straight through, and I was struck by how funny it was. There are rich characters, and the writing is brilliant, but people don’t think of her as a humorist. And she was witty and extremely sarcastic. Austen professors have written me to say they think she had a good sense of humor and that she would think the book was funny ... The characters in Jane Austen novels are like zombies! They live in a bubble of wealth and privilege. They’re single-minded. The whole country could be falling down around them, and they care about who’s having this ball or that ball. The only thing that changes in my book is the country IS falling down around them.
Q: “P&P&Z” reads like you made a conscious decision to stay true to the basic storyline and characters.
A: One thing I didn’t want to do is change scenes in the book or change the characters too much. If Lizzie was a fiercely independent, sharp-tongued girl, I made her a fiercely independent, sharp-daggered girl. If Darcy was an arrogant, privileged gentlemen, then I made him an arrogant, privileged warrior. I think because the original themes and characters are so expertly created, I just wanted to write them larger. That’s not to say I didn’t change a couple of destinies ... What’s strange is that when Jason and I made the decision to do this, these zombies just fit remarkably well into the existing book. It was easy to imagine them in a slightly altered universe. Lady Catherine is a perfect example: She’s a grand dame of zombie slaying, so because of her wealth and advanced age, she has a cadre of ninjas to do her bidding.
In a way Jane Austen was subconsciously writing a horror novel. Why else are those soldiers there? No one has figured out why they’re hanging around in Meryton. They should have been off fighting the war. So now they’re digging up bodies and burying them so they won’t be remitting to Satan’s service.
Q: Zombies have made a resurgence in movies in the past several years and in popular books like Max Brooks’ “World War Z.” Even Facebook has a Zombie game. Why are the undead back among us?
A: Zombies are an easy metaphor for troubled times, I think. Zombies have been used historically to represent the spread of communism or consumerism. They tend to be this big walking metaphor for whatever ills we find ourselves up against. And in an age when we have so many troubles, with groups of faithless people meaning to do us harm around the world, zombies feel like comfortable territory.
The other thing is, zombies, in terms of horror characters, are the funniest and the most sympathetic. They didn’t choose this! They were minding their own business being dead, and something reanimated them, and now they’re in search of brains. They’re not evil. They’ve been kidnapped by evil and forced to do its bidding.
Q: Is any classic immediately improved by the presence of zombies?
A: I think you have to be careful not to overdo it. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” works because “Pride and Prejudice” is one of those books that’s so ingrained in our consciousness. Everybody has read it or is familiar with its existence. But I don’t know that we need “Wuthering Heights Reloaded” or “War and Peace and More War.”