"Little Vampire Women"
By Louisa May Alcott and Lynn Messina
HarperTeen, 320 pages, $8.99
"Pride and Prejudice and Zombies"
By Jane Austen and Seth Graeme Smith
uirk Books, 319 pages, $24.95
"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"
By Seth Grahame Smith
352 pp., Grand Central Publishing, $14.95
Aspirants to the New York Times best-seller list could take a valuable lesson from the quite extraordinary trailer—that's right, trailer???for Seth Grahame-Smith's latest novel, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," which debuted last month at number four and is holding steady at number five.
If every PBS adaptation of a Serious History Book possessed a quarter of the visual cunning on display in Grahame-Smith’s mesmerizing two-minute clip, teaching about the distant past would be a lot more fun than it generally is. The craggy sixteenth president looks exactly as he???s supposed to, as if he's stepped out of a haunting daguerreotype. The brief scene isn???t too shabby, either. Lincoln sits at a desk writing ominously about an impending war, when a man not unlike John Wilkes Booth bursts into the room. The intruder fires a pistol at the president, who dodges the bullet and then engages in hand-to-hand combat with his would-be assassin, who is???what else????a vampire. In a dramatic reversal of history, Lincoln prevails and dispatches his attacker with an ax to the heart. "I've been a slave to vampires for thirty years," he says.
Armed with the knowledge that Lincoln delighted in Edgar Allen Poe's creepy tales and once tried his own hand at horror fiction, Seth Grahame-Smith, a film and television writer based in Los Angeles, has written an immensely clever, even brilliant, addition to a genre with a longer history than you may suspect. That his novel is anchored, however loosely, in Lincoln's time and place adds substantially to its pleasure. Not everyone agrees; Lincoln scholars have tended to sniff at Grahame-Smith???s rather fantastical portrait of the sixteenth president as an ax-wielding slayer of vampires.
Grahame-Smith is no historian, and he doesn't pretend differently. But together with dozens of novelists, he has tapped into something deep in our culture???something that presents as a mounting preoccupation with the undead, and that has psychologists clogging the blogosphere.
The film director Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth") has written persuasively about this centuries-old???and apparently worldwide???obsession that inspired Bram Stoker???s “Dracula” (1897), which itself took inspiration from the early nineteenth-century fiction of Mary Shelley and John William Polidori. Identifying precise genealogical connections between then and now is an exercise in frustration, and hardly worth the effort. Whatever debts writers such as Grahame-Smith owe to their illustrious predecessors, the powerful influence of Stephanie Meyers???s ???Twilight??? novels remains beyond doubt.
Now a different scourge is fanning out across the land. "Zombies," according to Time magazine, "are the new vampires." If so, Seth Grahame-Smith may have been ahead of the curve. Since the appearance, last spring, of his Pride and Prejudice and Zombies???intended for young adults and translated into an eye-popping twenty languages???Grahame-Smith has emerged as the undisputed master of the literary "mash-up."
Grahame-Smith???s publisher, the aptly named Quirk Books, describes 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' as ???an expanded version of the beloved Jane Austen novel featuring all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem.??? I???ll say. Jane Austen???s subtle comedy of manners becomes, in Grahame-Smith???s hands, a subtle comedy of manners with . . . zombies
If, like Grahame-Smith, you couldn???t get through 'Pride and Prejudice' in high school???and you wouldn???t be alone???his mash-up will make the novel easier to digest. If you???ve reread the novel every year since high school, and adamantly prefer the 1995 television miniseries to the 2005 film, you???ll have plenty to discuss with fellow Austen purists. But whatever your reservations about the mash-up enterprise, you???ll be hard pressed not to admire Grahame-Smith???s accomplishment.
The beloved characters haven???t vanished; they???re just zombies???and zombie killers. And the novel retains much of its signature Regency style, too. ???It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. Never was this truth more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen was slaughtered and consumed by a horde of living dead.??? And so on, and on.
Every commercial success has imitators, worthy and otherwise. Lynn Messina???s Y.A. mash-up of Louisa May Alcott???s 'Little Women' (1868?????69) will hit bookstores in May and promises to attract adult readers as well. The original, of course, chronicles the odd adventures of four sisters growing up in Concord, Mass., during the Civil War. Blessedly shorter than the Signet Classics edition???320 pages instead of 439???Messina???s 'Little Vampire Women' ostensibly improves on the original ???by throwing vampires into the mix.??? The publisher guarantees that ???teens will be agog and aghast at the hilarity of the sisters??? transformation and will crave the bloodthirsty drama on every page."
No doubt. You???d be foolish not to judge this book by its vaguely lascivious cover, which depicts four fetching young women gathered around an upright piano. The girls??? bright red lips barely conceal their telltale incisors. Did I mention the sheet music spattered with blood?
It"s too soon to tell how the book will fare, but 'Little Vampire Women'???how quickly one becomes a connoisseur!???doesn???t rise to the occasion. There???s no accounting for taste, of course. Perhaps the trouble lies with Messina???s choice: 'Little Women' seems dreary and dated where Pride and Prejudice seems fresh and timeless. Then, too, Messina???s embellishments seem lifeless, and lack Grahame-Smith???s irrepressible spirit and wit.
Literary preferences aside, there???s a thousand-pound gorilla in the room. If Austen and Alcott continue to be widely read and admired, why do we need Grahame-Smith???s zombies and Lynn Messina???s vampires? What do these mash-ups have that the originals don???t? Pizzazz? Fun? Surely the runaway success of 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' owes something to our present unhappy state of affairs. Surely, too, it follows from something greater. We moderns crave a recognizable past in which we can see ourselves whole, or nearly whole. Vampires and zombies certainly make difficult reading less so. But does their presence narrow the chasm between past present or simply distract us in the manner of a video game?
Writing, for the lucky few, always has been big business. So it seems a stretch, and not a little disingenuous, to claim???as does Grahame-Smith???that 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' will send young readers rushing to Austen???s work.
The overt sexual nature of modern vampire and zombie novels, whether mash-ups or not, naturally accounts for their widespread appeal: when the Times???s best-seller list includes a Y.A. title about vampires involved in ???a love triangle,??? well, enough said. The proliferation of movie tie-ins hasn???t hurt. Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, it seems fair to say, never intended their monsters to be fought over by swooning tweens and their equally besotted parents. But who wouldn???t want to spend eternity making out with Robert Pattinson, the criminally handsome London-born star of the ???Twilight??? movies? (He???ll be forever young, remember.)
How many of these vamp-and-zombie confections can the market can support? Incredibly, in a landscape oversaturated with dud imitations of best-selling books??????written in the spirit of Malcolm Gladwell???s latest blockbuster??????the market for vamps and zombies shows no sign of contracting. Still, the titanic slush piles gathering on agents??? and editors??? desks suggest that everyone's monster story can???t possibly make it into print. And for that, if nothing else, we should thank our lucky stars.
Originality doesn???t mean what it used to, that???s for sure. That???s not entirely bad news for authors on the make. Grahame-Smith???s trailer proves the point. Word to the wise: if you can???t afford professionals, entreat your unemployed actor friends to perform one of your book???s dramatic scenes in exchange for, say, a laser teeth whitening gift certificate. And pray that your video goes viral.
Kirk Davis Swinehart teaches history at Wesleyan University.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times