Stay Tombed: Is Monster Lit Worth Unearthing?
I am a girl who loves her monsters, and also loves her nineteenth-century lit. So when Quirk books announced their mashup of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in early 2009, I, like the rest of the Internet, was ecstatic. Besides hilarity, the new Monster Lit seemed to promise two things: that it would get people to read classic literature who otherwise would not, and that the monsters would shed something new about the work, and vice versa. But after reading almost every title to come out of the new “genre,” it seems all Monster Lit really marks is the swan song of the literary tropes the aughties have been inundated with: zombies, vampires, and Austenmania. It also seems to celebrate the quick dollar. My first impression of PPZ -- which was 80% Jane Austen, 20% zombies -- was that publishers had found a fast and cheap way to make a profit by finding a gimmick viral enough to penetrate the Interwebs.
After reviewing PPZ for Fantasy magazine, I became quickly disillusioned by the Monster Lit trend. It seemed juvenile and cheap, and at that point, given that only works by female authors were being discussed in the mashup/what-if game, it seemed incredibly sexist. Seth Greene’s insertions of a zombie here, a fart joke there, did not bring anything to the table -- in fact, the insertions slowed down what Quirk books advertised as already a “yawning” pace. But my disillusionment with PPZ and Monster Lit seemed to be in the minority. Given the New York Times bestselling success of PPZ, soon other zombie mashups began emerging beyond the Quirk Book brand. CosCom Entertainment released Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim, The Undead World of Oz, and The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies, which satisfied my sexist worries by picking on male authors as well, but did not abate my discomfort that great works of literature were being destroyed. But what kept me interested in Monster Lit was the promise of original novels that explored various what-if scenarios of classic literature, authors, or nineteenth-century icons like Queen Victoria.
When you start considering these original works, Monster Lit begins to emerge as a part of genre tradition. Dan Simmons, for instance, could have been said to write Monster Lit with The Terror and Drood, and speculative fiction writers have often been familiar with the mashup via alternate history. There are also the various follow-ups to Lovecraft, Sherlock Holmes, and the postmodern fictional explorations of writers like Poe that provide logical antecedents for the trend. As more books emerged that were not strictly cut-and-paste, I decided to give Monster Lit a more sincere go, to try and get a sense of what the trend could or could not contribute to literature as a whole.
AUSTENMANIA IS UNDEAD
Jane Austen was the queen of Monster Lit in 2009. While 2010 proves to move onto some other lady writers like Alcott, and rumors abound of Brontës and Eliot, Jane Austen is Monster Lit’s favorite whipping girl. Perhaps its due to Austenmania fatigue, a publishing and cinematic phenomenon that’s been steadily oscillating since the first Jane Austen mashup, Clueless, which updated Emma to 1995 Beverly Hills. Clueless’s success lead to numerous studio adaptations of Austen’s other works like Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice. When cinema all but exhausted Austen’s wares, fans sought solace in new tides of Austen-inspired works.
While Austen's canon contains only six novels and some juvenilia, the number of novels dealing with Austeniana is myriad. In addition to smart re-modernizations like Bridget Jones's Diary, there are journals from various heroes (be it Darcy or Persuasion’s Fredrick Wentworth), erotic what-if novels, the Darcys in the future, Mr. Darcy in the past, Darcy with other wives and even stories about Austen addicts (Austenland and The Jane Austen Book Club). Unfortunately, the Austen spinoffs are gross derivations from the original intent of Austen’s work, as well as chick lit in general, which the resurgence of interest in Austen was said to have inspired. As a result, most of the Austen mashups are derived from paranormal romances that spun off from the same chick lit craze.
The second installment in Quirk Books Classic series, this follows up the literal mashup by inserting and rewriting text to recreate Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility within a maritime world where all the sea creatures are mutated and carnivorous, becoming Ben H. Winters's Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. The Dashwood sisters and their mother, put out by their brother and his cheap wife, move to an island where their neighbors are the hodgepodge collection of a great white sailor and the African family he kidnapped during one of his exploits. Willoughby often appears in an old scuba suit and has a way with octopi who like drowning young ladies. Colonel Brandon, who has never completely come off in a good light by being “old,” has been made completely repulsive by a sea-witch curse that handicapped him with a squid face, which is mentioned every five seconds when he is in the room.
The proportion of Jane Austen to Winters is less than it was with PPZ. Winters does a great job of swimming in and out of Austen’s prose and the insertion of his own isn’t as jarring or noticeable as it was with PPZ, and perhaps this is because Winters actually added an original storyline within Sense and Sensibility's plot. Well, he inserted a Lovecraft storyline, anyway. Even so, the additions still slowed Ms. Austen’s flawless knack for pacing, making the story drag like a zombie underwater.
SSSM also did something that PPZ did not, perhaps unintentionally, by showing how white Austen is. The very minor side story of Lady Middleton -- who was once a tribal princess in Africa and now married to a weirdo maritime savage nobleman and dreams of escaping in a hidden submarine -- brings something completely unexpected to the table. While a lot of the content and jokes related to Lady Middleton’s capture and culture was racist, and perhaps added more uncomfortable wincing than if he had left it out, it does bring into light the other things that were going on in the world during the Regency period than worrying oneself over whether the man you fell in love with has money. He doesn’t dwell on it in any real educated manner, but it is there in the light, and that’s something, at least.
Mr. Darcy, Vampyre is an original novel that serves as a paranormal sequel to Pride and Prejudice. I say original, but beneath the very thin surface is an implicit mashup to Stephanie Meyers’s Twilight series, glimmering skin included. The story begins on Elizabeth’s wedding day, where she is worried that Darcy will stand her up, change his mind about her family, and find her an inferior wife. This doubt plagues her throughout the whole novel, and is reinforced by Darcy’s discomfort, erratic changing of travel plans, and his absence from her bed, even on their wedding night.
What Elizabeth doesn’t realize is Darcy has brought more baggage on their wedding train than she. He is vampyre, and like all vampyres written in the twenty-first century, Regent or not, apparently sex means bloodlust and fangboners and disapproving relations. While he tells Elizabeth that he changed plans so he could introduce her to Parisian relations, he was really trying to track down the ancient patriarch who lays claim to all of the family’s brides, and gets to bed them and taste them before their proper husbands. Why this is a necessary tradition isn’t made entirely clear, but for Darcy to engage in a guilt-free marriage and save Elizabeth from the familial initiation rape, he needs to track down this ancient vampyre and destroy him.
There was nothing enticing about Mr. Darcy, Vampyre. Like its model, the vampires are lame, and the gothic suspense is minimal. Darcy and Elizabeth’s exchanges when together are merely Pride and Prejudice recaps. No matter how many times they laugh over what Darcy said at the first Meryton ball, there was nothing about these characters that rang true of Darcy and Elizabeth. I felt like I was reading about paper dolls, which raises the question of whether these sequels and prequels and spinoffs can ever capture the essence of what readers want -- to be further involved in beloved characters' lives. But in Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, the characters are put in a situation they would never find themselves in; they are not truly in their world, and it shows. Furthermore, Austen’s witty observations are lacking. If you want to read a paranormal romance that has Austen’s wit and commentary on manners, you would do better with Soulless by Gail Carriger, or our next Jane Austen monster pick.
Out of the Jane Austen monster novels, Jane Bites Back is perhaps the most original of them all. While the book is also riding the tails of successful vampire series like Charlene Harris’s Southern Vampire series and Stephanie Meyers’s Twilight series, it does not rely on previous character plotlines of public domain novels, but on the authors themselves. In addition to Jane Austen as vampire, we also have Austen’s maker, Lord Byron (who is credited with founding the monster) and the Brontë family.
The marketing for this novel advertised the book as Jane Austen, immortal, living to see Austenmania and feed upon those who feed upon her. This is true in the first chapter or so, but the plot primarily concerns an immortal bloodsucking Austen who lives incognito as a small-town bookstore owner. She also twilights as an aspiring novelist, the running joke being that all the publishing houses are rejecting the next true Jane Austen novel in the midst of Austenmania. There is, of course, romance and dudes duking it out over Austen, as well as blackmail and commentary on the romance genre. It was fun, but fluffy and does not really scrutinize Austenmania. If you are a lit nerd, you will enjoy the book. But if you are coming to it without any appreciation for Austen or nineteenth-century literature, you'll probably find it dull.
ZOMBIES, ZOMBIES, AND MORE ZOMBIES
While the Jane Austen strain of Monster Lit deviates from zombies after Seth Grahame-Smith's inaugural try, the other nineteenth-century mashups have one aim and one aim alone: the reanimated. Once upon a time, the idea of a zombie horde was terrifying for various reasons: they were unseen forces of nature (the "z-epidemic," often attributed to various biological disasters); they symbolize herd-culture idiocy and the epic battle of the individual; and they would eat you.
But zombies have a lighter side. Death’s jesters, their stiff joints and blood-drunk moans, have become slapstick. As wonderful horror flicks like Shaun of the Dead and Dead Alive have shown, their putrid flesh is the new banana peel; their gaping mouth and moans are comedic timing, and in the case of Monster Lit, their insatiable hunger and pack mentality makes them the new MacGuffin.
So I bet you thought A Christmas Carol was all about shedding parsimony and finding ye olde “Christmas” spirit, right? In the hands of Adam Roberts, we find that it is in fact about the apocalypse, launched by an epidemic that has turned all of London into zombies except for one Ebenezer Scrooge. As I am Scrooge's allusion to Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (which, the reader will note, is actually about vampires) implies, Scrooge is the last living man on earth. He discovers this when his recently departed partner Marley comes and tries to eat his brains in his own home. He begins to truly understand his role as savior when three ghosts visit him -- the perfunctory past, present, and future -- and show Scrooge the scourge which seems to devastate London into a steampunk survivalist police-state. Yes, Virginia, Queen Victoria survives to man a zeppelin armada, and even H. G. Wells pops in as the sci-fi god that brings time travel to save the day. The story is not without its moral as Scrooge changes to think of humanity and not the fate of his coffer.
I Am Scrooge is silly, bloody, and well done. Rather than cut and paste, say steampunk zeppelins, into Dickens’s original text, Roberts rewrote A Christmas Carol, making it seamless and enjoyable as its own work. It also extracted from Dickens’s overly sentimental yuletide tale something that has always irked me -- its materialistic emphasis. The zombies provide a hilarious Hallmark commentary for the iGeneration to chew on. Rather than consume mindless products from storefronts for gift giving, the London populace mindlessly consume brains to create more mindless consuming hordes.
A. E. Moorat's Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter stands out from the rest of last year's Monster Lit titles in that it does not appropriate nineteenth-century literature. It's not even, in my opinion, that closely tied to any paranormal pastiches. It features the young queen Victoria at the beginning of her reign, where from the moment she is crowned queen, she is under attack by demons. She soon finds that things like succubi are not surprising around Windsor Castle, and a Protektorate, Molly Brown, soon saves the young monarch and educates her on those darker beings that covet her throne.
True to the trend, Queen Victoria has her fair share of zombies, but the undead were not Queen Victoria's worry, and while she slays a legion of zombies a la Ash, with a steampunk-like buzzsaw bracer, the demons who threaten her family and throne are what she most wants to vanquish.
Queen Victoria accomplishes what most of these Monster Lit books aspire to, which is to entertain. But it is unique from the others in that it treats its subject reverently. Moorat tried to parallel the story closely to the queen’s biography, and there are passages in the book that are not about blood and gore, and make Victoria approachable. He portrays her awkwardness of being a bluestocking, shows her timidity in having to propose rather than be proposed to, and her ambivalence towards motherhood and childbearing. These scenes added a nice sympathy to the overall ridiculousness.
THE GENRE'S PROMETHEUS
Out of all the novels I read, it is John Kessel’s “Pride and Prometheus,” a novella published in Fantasy and Science Fiction, that gave true fire to last year’s Monster Lit offerings. His sequel to Pride and Prejudice follows Bennet sister Mary, who secured herself a seat in spinsterdom by focusing on her studies rather than flirting. Mary and her younger sister Kitty are the only ones who remain at the Bennet household, and we see a glimpse of what Mary was destined to become: a reflective but lonely bluestockinged spinster who is thrown into the path of the charming and gothically romantic Victor Frankenstein. Finally, Mary has met someone in Meryton who is an intellectual equal, and falls in love with him over discussions of natural philosophy. Victor, a stranger in London, likes Mary too, and comes to her in the middle of the night to confess his madness and creation of the monster who he portrays as beyond morality, claiming, among the monster’s crimes, graverobbing.
Meanwhile, Kitty is succumbing to her consumption, which was scattered throughout Austen's original as a cough that wracked Mrs. Bennet's nerves. Kitty dies, and soon her freshly entombed body is stolen. Mary immediately assumes it was Frankenstein’s monster and Victor does not correct her. She sees Dr. Frankenstein off to Scotland, and, overcome with the loss of her sister and her first love, seeks liquid respite at an inn. There she meets the monster, who tells her the truth of Victor's character, and of Victor's agreement to make him a mate as an amends. When all is said and done, Mary discovers that it was Dr. Frankenstein who stole Kitty's body to reanimate her as the monster’s bride.
The unique combination and synergizing of these two storylines show, and bring to the forefront subtleties hinted at within both texts. Mary represented a curiosity for something more than just a husband, but in her time, she ends up being trapped within the confines of her father's library as a result of it. While intelligent, living among books has stunted her common sense, and her virginal loneliness veils from her Victor’s madness. The Monster shares a similar sentiment with the time, as his horrendous jigsaw body would never attract a mate, and he is condemned to be damned by society and wander outside of it alone. Kessel does a wonderful job of bringing both the sexes of that time onto a common ground: the desire to be loved and not be alone, as well as the importance of education. Mary, having sacrificed her "marriagabilty" to her studies, feels more satisfied with having met and won respect from a genius like Victor than if she had received a rich man’s proposal. It also shows that marrying for love wasn’t only a womanly concern, as the Monster wants more than anything unconditional love. It also does an excellent job of drawing sympathy away from Victor. Never completely a sympathetic character, Shelley's first person account from him casts him in an empathetic light. Seeing his madness through Mary's eyes, and seeing him blatantly robbing her beloved sister’s grave, shows how much of a monster Victor really was without the soft focus of romanticism.
Here within Kessel’s novella is Monster Lit’s true potential: the excavation from an old story a new story that not only reemphasizes the former's greatness, but sheds light on what's in between the lines. I realize, of course, this was never the intention of Quirk Books, nor necessarily that of any of the other writers who just wanted to write an entertaining and gory spell, but the potential is there nonetheless. Perhaps Monster Lit in 2010 will continue to come into its own, not as a money-making trend, but a Frankensteinian tool to resurrect the old with new disparate parts that takes on a life of its own.
S.J. Chambers is a senior editor at Strange Horizons magazine. Her work has appeared in Fantasy, Tor.com, Yankee Pot Roast, Mungbeing, and Bookslut. To find out more, please visit her Web site: www.sjchambers.org.