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Review 41: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Full disclosure: I have never read Pride and Prejudice. It’s one of those novels that you’re really supposed to read, and maybe I did read it back in high school English class, but if I did, my brain has scabbed it over. It’s a book that, for reasons which I don’t understand, is adored around the world.

The original book (according to Wikipedia and what I gleaned from reading this) is a tale of the Troubles of Rich People. It’s a novel of manners, in which the conflict centers entirely around the personalities of the people involved. The protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, is one of five daughters born to a house of moderate means. Since they’re growing up in a patriarchal society, the only way for them to be at all successful in their lives is to get married – especially so that they might have some chance of inheriting part of their father’s estate someday. Their father seems to resent that they were all born girls, and really wants nothing to do with the family at all. Their mother has but one wish, and that’s to see her daughters all get married.

So when a handsome young man – Charles Bingley – moves into the neighborhood, the Bennet household is all a-flutter over the hopes that he might pick one of their girls to make into an honest woman. Unfortunately he brings his friend with him, Fitzwilliam Darcy, who is immediately unlikable, especially to headstrong and opinionated young Elizabeth.

I don’t know if it was Austen who gave birth to this trope in fiction, but we all know what’s going to happen when two characters are introduced that hate each other from the start.

The story goes on, propelled forward by the ever-evolving relationship between Darcy, whose brusque and unmannered exterior hides a deep and compassionate soul, and Elizabeth, whose independent and free-thinking nature is reined in by the discovery that what she assumes to be true very seldom is. It’s a book about relationships and about passions, about manners and status and about 300 pages too long for me to deal with.

I like to think that I’m a cultured, intelligent person, but there’s only so much I can take of this kind of thing. I find it really hard to care about people I have so little in common with – I have no property to protect, I don’t really care about social class or about artificially inflated systems of manner. I don’t come from a family that is concerned with marriage or status, and so I don’t identify with the characters. In works of this nature the world is alien to me. I can’t relate to the story and, more importantly, I don’t want to relate to the story. I hope that I have better things to do with my life than worry about who has fallen in love with whom and who is hiding dark secrets from their past.

And so, the addition of zombies to the tale is just fine with me.

According to the co-author, Seth Grahame-Smith:

“You have this fiercely independent heroine, you have this dashing heroic gentleman, you have a militia camped out for seemingly no reason whatsoever nearby, and people are always walking here and there and taking carriage rides here and there. It was just ripe for gore and senseless violence. From my perspective anyway.” 

Smith saw a great opportunity, which I’m sure many other people will follow. Since Pride and Prejudice is a book in the public domain, anyone can do whatever they want to it without having to worry about copyright laws. If you want to make a movie or a play or a comic book or a porno movie out of it, you’re free to do so. Smith saw a chance to create, for lack of a better term, a literary mash-up, bringing two types of story together into something completely new.

Now, the Bennet daughters are five of the fiercest fighters in England, devoted to holding back the zombie menace that has gripped the country for five and fifty years. Trained by the greatest Chinese masters in all the killing arts, the Bennet Sisters are famous for their merciless dealings with the unmentionables that roam the countryside, looking for fresh brains to sate their unnatural hunger. Elizabeth Bennet not only has an independent and free-thinking nature, but she’s also not above killing ninjas, ripping out their hearts and eating them.

The combination of the two styles – the regency romance and the ultra-violent zombie mayhem – works rather well. Smith has done a fine job in not just shoehorning the zombies into Austen’s tale, but making sure that the new version of the story is internally consistent. The zombies are a real and present force in this story, waylaying people on the road, occasionally delaying messages and causing very dramatic misunderstandings. And in this new and deadly environment, the dance of misunderstandings between Darcy and Elizabeth goes on, eventually – of course – ending up in the union of two of the greatest zombie hunters in England.

The best part, by the way, is the Readers’ Discussion Guide in the back. In case you want to read this with your book club, the authors have included some ideas for discussion, such as “Does Mrs. Bennet have a single redeeming quality?” and “Some scholars believe that the zombies were a last-minute addition to the novel, requested by the publisher in a shameless attempt to boost sales. Others argue that the hordes of living dead are integral to Jane Austen’s plot and social commentary. What do you think? Can you imagine what this novel might be like without the violent zombie mayhem?” It’s a very nice touch, I have to admit.

With some fantastically period illustrations of zombies, brain-eating and ninja-baiting (as well as a rather odd one of the Bennet sisters’ favorite game, “Kiss Me Deer”), the book is kind of surreal, and I reckon it is one that will entertain a good number of readers, though certainly not all of them. For me, I found that the altered parts of the text – the zombies and the occasional ninja – were the most fun part. The characterization of the Bennet sisters as hardened warriors occasionally given over to fripperies was strange, but entertaining, especially since Graham-Smith made sure to keep the characters consistent. Elizabeth’s thoughts and actions are primarily dictated by her Shaolin training, and many of her decisions are rooted in a deep sense of a warrior’s honor, rather than a society girl’s manners.

Furthermore, this strange new England was well made. It’s a place where the zombies were a threat, but after fifty-five years, they’ve been downgraded to more of a dangerous annoyance. Kind of like FOX News. The zombies are a seasonal menace, less prevalent in the winter when the ground is hard, but like cicadas they burrow out of the ground in the spring to menace travelers and (unlike most cicadas) eat their brains.

The problem for me wasn’t so much the zombies part of the book as it was the Pride and Prejudice part. As I said above, I don’t really identify with what the characters care about, and once they got off the topic of the zombie menace, my eyes started to glaze over a little. Fortunately I knew that there would be another bit of mayhem on the way to perk me back up.

It made me think, though – there must be something that I’m missing. Not only has the book been around and popular for two centuries, but it’s beloved enough that even a drastic modification of it would draw in readers. P&P&Z was a bestseller on the New York Times list and the mere announcement of its existence sent the blog world into an utter fangasm. The addition of zombies to an otherwise beloved tale was met with open arms, a sign that Pride and Prejudice held an honored place in the literary heart of the world. So if I don’t get it, then there must be something wrong with me…. Ah, well. As I said of War and Peace, I’m not in this game to score points. So don’t expect me to try and slog through the original just to see if it holds up to the zombified version.

The big question, of course, is What’s Next? There are so many pieces of classic literature out there, all in the public domain and all just ripe for this kind of treatment. Tom Sawyer and the Wizards of the Mississippi? The Shape-Shifting Alien of Monte Cristo? Anne of Green Gables and the Robot Hordes from the Future? Mark my words, this book is only the beginning….

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“No ninjas! How was that possible? Five daughters brought up at home without any ninjas! I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your safety.”
– Lady Catherine, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at Wikipedia
Seth Grahame-Smith at Wikipedia
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at Amazon.com

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Filed under classics, horror, Jane Austen, parody, romance, Seth Grahame-Smith, zombies

Review 32: Bored of the Rings


Bored of the Rings by Harvard Lampoon

In a small corner of the world, tucked away from the great nations, there lives an isolated community full of colorful, down-to-earth people. One of those, considered a hero by some and an oddball by others, is getting ready to face the greatest challenge of his life – delivering a Ring of Power into the fires that made it, thereby saving not only his soul, but the world along with it.

Yes, you know the story. Just not like this.

The young Frito Bugger, a Boggie of the Sty and nephew to the famed Dildo Bugger, has been tapped by Goodgulf the Magician to return the Ring of Power to the Zazu Pits in the center of the deadly kingdom of Fordor. It is only then that Sorhed, maker of the Ring and the greatest threat to Lower Middle Earth, can be defeated.

The first time I read this book, I nearly soiled myself laughing. And I wasn’t even a real fan of the originals at this point, either. I knew enough, though, to see how well the venerable trilogy was being skewered, and I loved every minute of it. Since then, I’ve read this book more times than I’ve read Lord of the Rings. Partly because it’s much funnier, but mostly because this volume only clocks in at 150 pages.

As with all comedy, repetition kind of diminishes the effect, but there are still laughs to be had. Just from the beginning, when Dildo Bugger throws a party for the gluttonous freeloaders of the Sty, and then foists his Magic Ring off on his hapless nephew Frito, you know things can only go wacky.

Much like in the original, this Fellowship travels across a land fraught with peril, and despite the funny names, their journey is recognizable to anyone who knows the story. The folks at Harvard Lampoon did a brilliant job here, warping the characters of the original story (with the utmost love and respect, of course, for the money they’re making from sales of the book) into funhouse mirror-images.

Thus brave Aragorn, son of Arathorn becomes Arrowroot, son of Arrowshirt, wielder of Krona, Conqueror of Dozens, whose foolproof strategy for dealing with overwhelming odds is to play dead. Or wise and resourceful Gandalf becomes Goodgulf, the shifty con artist and 32nd degree Mason who is all too willing to let the Shadow win if it means he can escape with his hide and the majority of someone else’s gold. Legolas and Gimli become Legolam and Gimlet, sniping at each other with the kind of accuracy we could have only wished for in the films, and Merry and Pippin twist into Moxie and Pepsi, the blundering brothers who wish they were dead. And so does everybody else.

What really differentiates this book from a lot of other parody books is that the Harvard Lampoon writers have allowed these warped characters to evolve in their own right. Instead of forcing them along the path of the original story, the writers have broadened the guidelines a bit. We see new relationships evolve, and old ones twist into new shapes. Some parts of the story vanish entirely, while others take on whole new significance.

In other words, if you’re looking for a one-to-one event correlation with the original books, you’ll be disappointed. But the major events and characters are all there. A lot of the themes have been inverted, of course, for comic effect. The great friendship and loyalty that defined the original Fellowship are sorely lacking in this volume, but they were never meant to be there in the first place. Probably the reason I found it so funny was that the twisted versions of these characters resemble a lot of my attitude towards them when I first read Lord of the Rings – Merry and Pippin as an obnoxious pair of bumblers, Gandalf as a manipulative old coot, Boromir as utterly disposable and, of course, Tom Bombadil as, well, himself.

I never could stand Bombadil in the original books, but Tom Benzedrino? Him I could read over and over again without hesitation….

As I think about this, I wonder how many people read this and actually got offended. People talk about LotR and J.R.R. Tolkien as though they are perfect in every form, untouchable and Not To Be Criticized. I remember watching the DVD special features, and the son of Tolkein’s editor said, “You simply did not edit Tolkien.” That kind of reverence must certainly feel good for a writer, but it doesn’t produce good writing. Every writer, whether it’s Tolkien or Rowling or King or anyone else who’s really made it big, needs people willing to take them down a peg.

Look at the Harry Potter books for example. When they were relatively unknown, they were slim, tight little volumes that moved at a good pace and could be devoured on a long bus ride. As soon as Rowling made it big, however, they became massive tomes that required ten minutes of warm-up time just to pick up, and an occasional shot of caffeine to get through. Don’t get me wrong – I like Harry Potter. I like it more than I like Lord of the Rings, in fact. I just don’t think that fame or literary pretensions should make an author exempt from vicious editing. Or vicious parody.

A book like Bored of the Rings is not a criticism of the story, or of the dream that Tolkien had – it’s a vindication of it. It’s a testament to the book’s strength that it can be ripped apart with such wild abandon, yet still maintain its popularity. Every author should be so lucky as to have a book like this written in their honor.

So just sit back and enjoy it. Whether you’ve read the books or just seen the movies, as long as you’re not one of those who worship at the altar of the Unassailable Tolkien, you should be able to get a lot of good laughs out of this.

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“Observing this near impossible escape from certain death, Frito wondered how much longer the authors were going to get away with such tripe. He wasn’t the only one.”
– from Bored of the Rings
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Bored of the Rings on Wikipedia
Harvard Lampoon on Wikipedia
Bored of the Rings on Amazon.com

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Filed under fantasy, Harvard Lampoon, humor, Lord of the Rings, parody

Review 12: The Areas of My Expertise


The Areas of my Expertise by John Hodgman

FACT: Yale University enforces its will on the world via a capella singing groups.

FACT: There as been only one murder on the space shuttle, and Sally Ride used her deductive prowess to determine that only the Indian fakir could have performed the deed.

FACT: President Herbert Hoover built a pneumatic army, designed by Nikolas Tesla. to defeat the Hobo Uprising of 1932

FACT: Oregon seethes in its confinement, inflicted on it by President Polk’s geographimancers after it threatened to take over land as far east as Illinois.

WERE YOU AWARE OF IT?

Probably not.

You should feel grateful that we have John Hodgman and his compendium of World Knowledge to shed some light on the secret history of the United States, the habits of werewolves, the hidden horrors of the Mall of America and many other educational and illuminating topics.

The book is set up in the manner of an almanac of old, but whereas books such as “Poor Richard’s Almanacs” dealt mostly with mundane things such as harvest times and moon cycles, this book addresses so much more. There is Information You Will Find Useful in the Present, such as the best places to find crabs, how to build a snow fort, and the fifty-five dramatic situations. There is Information Concerning the Future, with a full chart of Omens and Portents so that you may be prepared for the inevitable merman attacks, roving cocktail gangs, and, of course, Ragnarok.

If you’re fond of United States trivia, there’s a section in there for you, and if you’ve ever wondered about the secret societies of actuaries, you will be illuminated by this book. You can learn how to win a fight, short words used on submarines to preserve oxygen and, of course, which presidents had hooks for hands (hint: it’s not who you think.)

Of course, the most famous and important section of this book is the section entitled “What You Did Not Know About Hoboes,” and I can guarantee that the information in this section will come as a surprise to most people not versed in Hobo history. There you will find out how the Hobo kings and queens come to power, what the secret agenda of these rail-riding, lint-collecting itinerants is, and learn the all-important 700 Hobo Names – invaluable for Hobo hunting or, should you be seduced into a life of riding the rails, choosing a proper name for yourself.

I first saw John Hodgman on The Daily Show, where he was promoting this book, and nearly soiled myself laughing. He has a completely guileless face, and delivers his words with a tone that conveys the innocent delivery of common sense wisdom, like he cannot conceive of anyone disbelieving what he’s telling us.

As with any writing, it’s far easier to show than to tell. Here’s the clip from The Daily Show archives:

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Hodgman soon went on to become the show’s Resident Expert, where he brings his prodigious intellect to matters concerning net neutrality, elections, army recruiting and many other diverse subjects.

It really is a terribly funny book. It’s the kind of book that will make you laugh out loud and then wait for someone to ask, “What’s so funny?” so you can start reading the really good bits aloud to them. It’s a strange and wonderful history of the United States that actually ties itself together very well. While the information may not actually be useful, it it probably more entertaining than actually useful information would be. In this way, Hodgman says, it “allows each entry to contain many more truths than if it were merely factual.”

Very true.

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“Truth may be stranger than fiction, goes the old saw, but it is never as strange as lies. (Or, for that matter, as true.)”
– John Hodgman
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John Hodgman on Wikipedia
The Areas of My Expertise on Wikipedia
The Areas of My Expertise on Amazon.com
The 700 Hoboes Project

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Filed under almanac, humor, John Hodgman