The thing about zombies is that they keep coming back to life. After the success of the late-Sixties horror movie Night of the Living Dead, they hung around cinemas for more than a decade before the whiff of overkill eventually set in.
Then in recent years, a string of successful outings breathed new life into the undead phenomenon. From Danny Boyle's gritty and terrifying film 28 Days Later to Max Brooks's post-apocalyptic novel World War Z, the corpses have truly risen again. But there has perhaps never been a stranger take on the undead than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the book that is quickly becoming the publishing world's breakout success of the year.
"Instead of being stuck up because he's so well-off, in this version Mr Darcy is stuck up because he perceives himself to be better at vanquishing the undead than the lowly Bennett family," says the book's author, Seth Grahame-Smith. The literary mash-up, from the tiny US publishing house Quirk Books, has both Jane Austen and Grahame-Smith listed as authors. It uses text from the 1813 original, with bloody embellishments from the 33-year-old American author.
Released last month, it has already reached the top 10 on both Amazon.com and The New York Times' bestseller lists. A lucrative deal has been signed for the rights to a Hollywood movie. For the uninitiated, zombies are the reanimated bodies of the dead, destined to walk the earth feasting on the flesh of the living. A bite from a member of the undead causes inevitable death for the victim before they rise up and join the horde. The only way to kill a zombie is to destroy its brain or sever its head.
"I loved the idea of these bloodied regency-era aristocrats running for their lives and the Bennet sisters flying through the air like something from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," says Grahame-Smith. But the author says he never expected the book, which was written in just six weeks, to be such a success. "From the outset we didn't think there would be any market for it," he says. "[We thought] the zombie bits would turn off the Jane Austen fans and the Jane Austen bits would turn off the zombie fans, and we'd be left with a book that nobody would want to read."
But with 200,000 copies already in print after just one month in the shops, the novel has surpassed all expectations. Until recently, the Los Angeles-based author's credits had included such titles as How to Survive a Horror Movie and The Spider-Man Handbook, none of which had sold more than 20,000 copies or cracked the top 3,000 on Amazon. But in the spring of 2008, Grahame-Smith received a phone call from his editor, Jason Rekulak. Already keen on the idea of a literary remix, Rekulak had been compiling lists with pop-cultural trends on one side and classic works of literature on the other. Wuthering Heights and Werewolves was considered and rejected. As was War and Peace and Pirates.
"Jason called me up excitedly, which he almost never does, and said: 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies'. I started to laugh and instantly knew how fun it would be to write these ultra-violent, ultra-gratuitous scenes of gore and mayhem in the style of Jane Austen. "I told him it was the most brilliant thing I'd ever heard. That day I started re-reading the original book, which I hadn't looked at since high school."
In the months leading up to its publication, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies slowly became a topic of interest for bloggers on the internet. The flurry of posts then gained the attention of the mainstream media. "It's been a bit overwhelming, the last three months," says Grahame-Smith. "The thing that really set [the book] into the literary stratosphere was a piece in London's Sunday Times. In the article they mentioned a Hollywood bidding war going on for the book, which was not really the case at the time, but it became a self-fulfilling prophecy and studios did begin getting interested in a film."
The author confirms that a deal has been signed, but he has been banned from talking about it publicly. The Times piece was followed by a review in the US magazine Entertainment Weekly, in which the novel received an A rating. Many reviews of the book have praised the author's respectful handling of Austen's original text and his almost seamless ability to write in the style of the era. But Grahame-Smith says there were elements of Austen's work that were "begging to be zombified".
"There's a regiment of soldiers camped out by Elizabeth's home in the first half of Pride and Prejudice, but there's never a reason given for why they're there. It was just a plot contrivance so the younger sisters have officers to flirt with," he says. "Well, it's not much of an intuitive leap to say they are there fighting the zombie menace!" He also says that the book's protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, was ideal for making the switch into zombie fighting.
"[She is] a very strong-willed, fierce-minded, sharp-tongued woman who was far ahead of her time. It doesn't take much to say that instead of just being a sharp-tongued woman, she's also a sharp-sworded woman," he says. "She had the right attitude to be this badass heroine and if that didn't work, then none of the book would." As well as having a landscape and set of characters that lent themselves well to a zombie pastiche, Grahame-Smith says the similarities between Austen's England and the world of the undead run even deeper than they first appear.
"In the original book, England could be burning to the ground and all they would care about is who has the nicest silverware," he says. "In this version, the country literally is falling apart around them, so it becomes that much more ridiculous and funny that they continue to obsess about gossip and relationships, even in the midst of a zombie uprising." The popularity of the book demonstrates how the growing public fascination with zombies has moved beyond the world of horror cinema and suggests that there might be more to the undead than blood and guts. Ever since George A Romero's Night of the Living Dead, critics have observed certain social and political themes within the genre.
Like a virus, the zombie threat is indiscriminate. It affects the wealthy and the poor alike. Furthermore, the undead are often perceived as the embodiment of the destructive human herd mentality. "They have always been an easy walking metaphor for whatever social ills we face," says Grahame-Smith. "They have represented everything from crass consumerism, the spread of communism, the Vietnam War or the threat of Aids."
Considered by many to be the ultimate zombie movie is 1978's Dawn of the Dead (also by Romero), in which a group of four survivors take refuge in a Pennsylvania shopping mall swarming with the undead. In some of the film's most memorable scenes, zombies ride up and down escalators and bang their heads against shop windows as Muzak continues to play in the background. "Today there are not just one or two easily identifiable threats in our world. We are told that the threats are everywhere and at all times," says Grahame-Smith. "I think that zombies make sense right now for that reason."
Born in New York, the author's stepfather ran a used book shop and his mother was a literary editor. He admits that his move into literature was "probably pre-ordained", although his other great passion was for movies. After studying film in Boston, he moved to Los Angeles in 1998 and has spent his time "pounding the pavement" like so many other hopeful writers. Since being shot into the limelight by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Grahame-Smith has repeatedly been asked about his plans for a follow-up. His answer is simple: Abraham Lincoln, vampire hunter.
"It's a fictionalised biography that reimagines his life as a struggle with the secret society of vampires that have infiltrated the United States," he says. But unlike his current book, the author has no source material upon which to base the next work, so the novel will need to be completely original. "It's a way of telling the story of arguably the greatest American president and arguably the greatest American, and a way of re-telling the Civil War and America's struggles with slavery from a very different angle."
Grahame-Smith had the idea two years ago, but never thought he would have the time to write it. But with his new-found success and a sizeable advance, the author has begun work on what might become his masterpiece. "It's the first time that I'll have a chance to write something purely fictional from the ground up, rather than just adapting someone else's work," he says. "It's both a daunting challenge and an exhilarating one.