Critics have been worrying about the death of the novel for decades, and the publication of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is unlikely to change that. The leading suspect in the novel’s murder has so often been mass culture—thief of time, sapper of seriousness—and here it is growing upon a literary classic like an aggressive tumor:
“And is Miss Darcy as handsome as her brother?” said Mrs. Gardiner.
“Oh! Yes, the handsomest young lady that ever was seen; and so accomplished! She beheaded her first unmentionable not one month after her eleventh birthday!”
It would be one thing if Austen’s masterpiece had been fully reimagined by Seth Grahame-Smith as a horror story. That would have made it an eccentric addition to a growing body of Austen fan fiction from which one can, for instance, get Mr. Darcy’s perspective on the novel’s events, or follow him into his first years of marriage to Elizabeth Bennet. With its frequently harsh judgments of individual human worth and savage wars of social position, the brightly lit novel of manners makes for dark shadows that might have been worth exploring. Instead Grahame-Smith merely tacks the equivalent of “and zombies” onto various parts of Austen’s public domain text and calls it a day. Also (but perhaps advertising this would have made the title too long) the Bennet sisters have been trained as ninjas. The mash-up plays like a long, dumb joke and could not have taken more than a few weekends to accomplish. Even so, it is strangely appealing, and has been outselling new copies of the original on Amazon by a mile.
Of course, from a more forgiving perspective, the very success of such a gimmick might be taken as a sign of continuing life in the “carnivalesque” genre of the novel. Here is the Novel reconnecting with the People, giving them What They Want, and what they want are zombies. There has of late been no shortage of serious writers swerving with fanfare into the lowly precincts of genre fiction—now Michael Chabon in Gentlemen of the Road, now Denis Johnson in Nobody Move—as though to recharge the batteries of the literary novel, and what of it? Wasn’t the self-serious “art-novel” as it descends from Henry James always an aberration from the genre’s essential popularity? In his own day James sold a fraction of the books unloaded by his more commercially successful peers. In fact, isn’t Pride and Prejudice basically a proto-Harlequin romance, cruel hero and all? Has it not been made into a movie fifty times?
All Grahame-Smith has done is underline that fact by dragging the book still lower, into the pulp at the very bottom of the cultural barrel. You could call it the revenge of the lowbrow on the middlebrow, but ironically, if only through sheer laziness, it leaves the vast majority of Austen’s original text unmangled. Arguably the fan fiction rewriters of Austen commit more heinous crimes against her than the zombies do. Her new coauthor has merely created a sort of Trojan horse for the novel, a fun-looking zombie romp out of which springs great literature, dripping a bit of gore. He and his publisher, Quirk Books, deserve to be paid a royalty for that.