Category Archives: monster mash-up

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

I have a fractious relationship with Quirk Books. No, fractious isn’t the right word, is it? Because they don’t know I exist nor do they (or should they) care about my opinion? I was excited for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies because the idea rules, but then it turned out soggy and under-heated. But then came the clones - Jane Slayre: The Literary Classic with a Blood-Sucking TwistThe Meowmorphosis - which mimeographed this idea into a purple-blue stew of end-cap bait, finally culminating, for me anyway, in the dire shit-show that was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. That book made my blood boil. 

Because, look, I don’t really mind end-cap bait, and I don’t mind the toilet reads that publishers put out to give my non-reading friends and family something to give me when my birthday rolls around. (“I know you like Jane Austen! I think you’ll love this!”) I’m not even being an asshole when I say I appreciate the thought. So when the illustrious and inimitable karen sent me William Shakespeare’s Star Wars out of the blue, I thought, uh oh, I’m going to have to make the choice between my desire to shittalk this book, and being a grateful and worthy human. Again! Why am I such a terrible person? etc.

But as it turns out, hey Mickey! She likes it! So, phew. There’s a dry conversation one can have about translations: which is better, a translator writing from the original language, or one writing to the target language. Is the translator’s mother tongue the original or the translated language? My own take is that it’s almost always better to write to the target language. I once read this biography of Rasputin that was obviously translated by a native Russian speaker, and while it was often hilarious, and I enjoyed the wobbly prose as a desultory Russian language student, you just can’t mix verb tenses like that in English, товарищ. 

I think there’s something of the translation problem in the mash-up, for the reader at least. P&P&Z was probably more aimed at the Austen nerds, because the zombie parts were really more about ninjas, and big swaths of the text were from Austen herself. So you rate it as an Austen nerd, not a zombie nerd – if you happen to be both, like me. (A straight up zombie nerd should probably just stay away.) As an Austen nerd, it was mostly just perplexing, like, what exactly are you saying about Charlotte? Also, you get that messing with the chronology messes with…oh Jesus, nevermind. I really liked the cover and study guide, so I guess thanks for that, Quirk Books. 

By the time Dawn of the Dreadfuls rolled around, that book managed to drop trou and dump on both Austen nerds and zombie nerds – remember, I’m both, so double dump for me – which turned the translation problem into a Zen koan of Not Giving a Fuck. If the translator in question doesn’t care about either language, that’s what you get. (And I’m going to throw in the disclaimer that if you’re neither kind of nerd – Austen nor zombie – then you’ll probably think whatever about all my shouting.) Point being, it is clear to me that Doescher is a Star Wars nerd – that’s the language he is translating to - which I think is a pretty good choice. I’m going to wince when he drops a Naboo reference because I spend a fair amount of energy pretending the prequels never happened, but then I’m also going to hand-clap about a sly reference to nerf herding, which, you know, wasn’t a thing until The Empire Strikes Back. Ahem. Shut up. 

So this isn’t really for Shakespeare nerds. (Do you people exist? I mean, I’m sure you exist, but are you reading slovenly populist Internet reviews?) I wrote this whole thing aping Shakespeare to start my review, but it turns out when I try to write that way, I end up sounding like a pirate. Avast, me hearties! God’s teeth! and all that. So, we’ll give Ian Doescher some props for pretty solid metered dialogue, plus he manages to pull off an occasional heroic couplet that made me smile. I did spend some time discovering this handy nit-picker I got as a booby prize for being an English major had somehow gotten into my hand, and then having to put it away. I’m like an unconscious nit-picker fast-draw, matey. All the short’ning o’ words wit’ apostr’phes to make fit the met’r makes me freak out. Just, ugh. Also, I kept thinking things like, “Other than maybe the chorus in Henry V, who is present at the beginning of every act, Shakespeare didn’t really use a chorus throughout the action like that. That’s really more a feature of Classic Greek playwrights.” But then I gave myself a wedgie. Language from, babies, even if it’s kinda dumb. It’s dumb with jokes about R2D2 monologuing about stuff as an aside, which is pretty freaking fantastic.

So thanks, karen. This rules. 

titanic-deck

Deck Z: Unsinkable. Undead

SPOILER ALERT: THE BOAT SINKS.

I was talking to a friend about these monster history things. It seems there are two broad classes of them, the classic mash-up (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies et al.) and the secret monster history, like Deck Z: The Titanic: Unsinkable. Undead. It wasn’t the issues of state’s rights as a stalking horse for slavery, it was vampires that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was fighting. I’ve pretty well sworn off the former, because if I love the book enough to read it again with some hastily graphed monster fight scenes, then I love it enough to get all huffy and snobby about liberties taken with tone, character and interpretation. (Don’t even get me started about the shit show that is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls; ugh.) And if I haven’t read the classic in question, there’s no way I’m going to screw up my (possible, eventual) read of it due to some monster b.s. But secret histories? Even dopey, pulpy ones? Sure, why not. 

On the face of it, the Titanic disaster should marry well with the concept of zombies. There’s an Onion headline from Our Dumb Century that reads: World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg. 

The Titanic disaster and its aftermath seem almost ridiculously fraught with issues of class warfare and technological hubris, a big floating microcosm which tore open and showed the ugly realities of class divisions. When you sort the dead by class, you see precisely how lethal it is to be poor. (See also, Hurricane Katrina, but in a much messier form, and adding in the always fun factor of race in America.) There’s all these great characters and tidbits from the sinking too – J. Bruce Ismay getting absolutely walloped by Congress in the weeks to come, the Unsinkable Molly Brown, the musicians playing their last concert on the deck, Guggenheim and other industrialists choosing the heroic but kinda silly-looking end in their smoking jackets, Capt. Smith going down with the ship, etc. etc. 

Zombies are often about class and colonization as well. Or at least, the Modern Granddaddy of Zombies, George Romero, has gone that way a good deal, especially in latter day stuff like “Land of the Dead”. There’s always more have-nots than haves, and they are hungry. They will storm your moated enclave once they realize you are in it. Their appetites may be unnatural, but, hey, that’s consumerist culture for you. Add in the fact that ships are cramped floating disease-breeders, and you have a built in reason why the zombie outbreak was contained – they’re all that the bottom of the sea – Titanic and Zombies seems like a really good idea. 

…which is all stuff I thought when I checked this out of the library last week, and is a good example of me letting my usual over-thinking set up unrealistic expectations for the pulp crap I read. Jesus H. Christ, Ceridwen, you are reading a book about zombies on the motherfucking Titanic. Chill the fuck out with your socio-metaphorical jibber-jabber. God. Suffice it to say, all the garbage I went on about about the metaphorics of zombies and the sinking of the Titanic was either non-existent or so lightly touched as to be just an artifact of the memeplexes of those things, and not, like, deliberate. Which is totally fine, and I’m not going to throw a big tantrum about not getting the things I unreasonably want. 

A somewhat mad scientist type, a one Dr Weiss is sent to Manchuria to deal with an outbreak of plague that has a new alarming strain. In an ethically problematic move, he collects the Toxin from the brain of an infected shaman woman, at which point he figures out that the German (?) government wants to use that Toxin as bioweapon against the Russians (?). I don’t really know, and I admit my history is spotty. There’s a big chase involving an Agent who is maybe a Russian Jew working for the Germans or something – seriously, I just wasn’t paying that close of attention. He ends up on the Titanic running to America to set up a new mad science lair and find a cure for the plague. The Agent steals the Toxin, and then predictable zombification of the lower decks ensues. There is also a gender-switching moppet who is best not spoken of. Moppets, man, I hates them. 

At which point the story becomes somewhat first person shooter, with Weiss, moppet, Capt Smith, and various redshirts leveling up through the decks of the ship. The secret history is a little stupid, in that it’s like, oh, but Ismay was still a skin-saving knob, but now it’s because of zombies and not just the regular imminent death he faced. Smith was giving confusing orders because he’d just battled his way through Deck Z for 24 hours, and was more concerned with keeping the zeds off the life-rafts than whatever other reasons he was being confusing. The zombie fighting stuff was passable, but not particularly interesting. At one point there’s a huge fan they have to stop and then crawl through, restarting it so that the zombies would all get chopped up, which seems like a great idea, but reads real flat. Plus, I just started laughing remembering the bit from Galaxy Quest about the stupid spinning fan that was in every episode.

My ears perked up when Weiss started droning on about plague, which I eventually figured out he meant Black Plague, and I have a somewhat unhealthy obsession with the Black Death. It ended up being one of those things that was annoying to me because I know too much about it, which I think is generally the death of this kind of fun. But, the incubation period! But, the survival rates! But, Jesus Christ, you are still reading a book about zombies on the Titanic; cut that out. My knowledge of the Titanic disaster is completely pop cultural, but I imagine to the knowledgeable, this would be annoying as hell. Like, I seriously googled if Captain Smith was ever in Afghanistan where he learned to be a swordmaster, and I’m thinking not. Shrug. I don’t care, but others may. 

Oh, and one zombie nit-pick. For whatever reason – and I have my pet theories, believe me – zombies are almost never called zombies in zombie fiction. Walkers, biters, skels, zed-heads, Zack, the infected, ragers, phone-crazies, etc. Given that the term zombie, referring to the contagious undead and NOT a semi-golem in the thrall of a sorcerer, pretty much originates with Romero in 1969, everyone jumping to call these plague victims zombies is a little bullshit. I feel like vampyr would be a more historical appropriate term, because in the early part of the 20th century, vamps were still the yucky contagious undead and not romance heroes yet. And because Weiss is (probably) German. The zombie was still an individual monster. 

Motherfucking TITANIC with ZOMBIES, Ceridwen. Shut your face. 

So there.

Dawn of the Truly Dreadful

I heard this story once from a friend of mine – I make no claims to its veracity – about a guy who ghost-wrote an autobiography for some minor Playboy bunny/starlet. It was a good gig for a struggling writer: he spent some weeks organizing the depressingly non-sordid details of a woman’s life that culminated in being publicly nekkid, banged out a manuscript (sorry, is this a pun?), and then was paid for the time and bother. The real bummer was that at roughly the same time, the book that he’d written – his real baby, the one he birthed laboriously with the usual screaming, love and bleeding that goes along with writing something important to you – was published to polite obscurity, and then vanished into a more complete obscurity. There were a few reviews, not negative ones, just indifferent, which has its own kind of soul-killing burn. Reviews of the nekkid memoir were good; reviewers were pleasantly surprised that Ms. Bunny seemed intelligent and funny. Maybe not needless to say, the intelligence and humor were solely the addition of the ghost-writer. “Huh,” everyone said. “I guess she’s not the complete idiot we took her for. Weird.” Cue writerly melt-down, drinking, etc. 

So now when I start in on some ad hominem attacks on Mr. Hockensmith’s book, which I plan to do, with feeling, please understand that I have some empathy towards that broken wreck of a writer he must be, gibbering as he takes long pulls on a bottle of Jack, editing his unfinished masterpiece that will vanish without a trace while idiot readers such as myself buy shit like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. I am culpable in the vicious cycle that rewards publishers for pumping out garbage with good titles, great covers, and an originally clever idea that can be endlessly mimeographed into a purple-blue stew of endlessly derivative works. Android Karenina? Oh yes. Jane Slayre? Sign me the heck right up.

Steve Hockensmith is a robot. No, strike that, he’s a committee of robots commissioned by the marketing department of Quirk books for the purposes of penning (keyboarding? coding?) a quick and dirty cash-in to the unexpected success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I liked Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – what? It was fine, really, and my estimation of it has improved upon reading its prequel. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for all its faults, didn’t betray its source materials. Seth Grahame-Smith, the author, clearly had read Austen’s work, and read it enough to stitch in some zombie mayhem in places where zombie mayhem might be appropriate. (Although, really, the title should have read Pride and Prejudice and Ninjas because the best scenes – like Lizzie and Lady Catherine de Bough having a ninja throw-down – centered on the martial arts. Still, whatever, he meant no disrespect. 

Mr Hockensmith has never read Pride and Prejudice. He rented the BBC adaption which he watched on mute while talking on the phone. I’m not impugning this activity; descriptions of doing this very thing made Bridget Jones’s Diarysuch an enjoyable read. I could, and at length, bitch about all of the violations and betrayals of Austen’s characters and historical facts in Dawn of the Dreadfuls, but Elizabeth has already beaten me to the punch. So, I’m here today, my friends, to bitch about the zombies. As some of you may be aware, I have a thing for zombies. Even though I should know better, I bolt down all kinds of trashy crap just because it has some undead lumbering around in it. Om nom nom, as the kids say. 

And even though I just went through this big apology for buying and reading trash fiction, I don’t really feel all that bad about it, and I think maybe writing good trash is harder than it looks. Certainly there’s no magic formula in the trash department, just like there isn’t for writing non-trash, but I think probably writers should at least seem like they give a crap. Writers should have the tiniest respect for the readers for whom the $10 they shell out in the store is the smallest price they pay – the big cost in in the time they invest. Even in my skimmiest of readings, I’m going to give a book 2 hours of my freaking life. I’m reading this trash because I like both Austen and zombies, and when he disrespects both of those things, he disrespects me as a reader. 

Mr. Hockensmith never figures out where his zombies are coming from, how they work, and most importantly, what they mean, which I’ll go off about later. So, okay, the dead rise, just randomly, because it’s warm? Fine. Then why is it also a contagion that can be passed on by a bite? And then why can you amputate the bitten limb and not zombify? So, one of those magical contagions that doesn’t enter the bloodstream? This is getting into not-fine territory for me. I don’t mind magic, really I don’t. Pretty much any explanation of zombies is going to resolve down into magic because of physics and reality. But for crying out loud, have a little sense of craft, man. 

But really, zombies are incidental, an excuse for a sex farce that includes things like Mrs. Bennet being mistaken by her daughters as a zombie when she goes scritch-scratching on the doors of Mr.Oscar Bennet’s room so he can impregnate her with a male heir. There are more nut shots in this book than zombie kills. Which brings me to my next complaint: there are many conventions of zombie fiction, and sex farce is usually a pretty low one on the list. There’s some good zombedies, but they, like the serious stuff, tend to rely on gross-out and gore over nut-shots and a bit with a dog. (This is why I rather liked Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter- the author there respected the gross.) I’m not saying zombie stuff should be sexless, but it’s less slap-and-tickle and more icky sex. 

So, fail on zombie mechanics and fail on zombie genre sensibilities. Now how about the zombie-as-metaphor? I don’t expect Mr. Hockensmith to devote his valuable time nurturing an obsession with the undead. I don’t expect him to write a treatise about how the zombies have their beginnings in colonial moral queasiness about the Caribbean slave-island nightmares they created and maintained – the original zombies were, after all, controlled by a Voodoo Priest, whose black skin, semi-Catholic idolatry, and ability to marshal people who lacked agency, autonomy and souls (read: slaves) struck to the heart of (British) colonialist fears. Slave uprising in Haiti, anyone? When Romero came along and skinned this rabbit good in Night of the Living Dead, he repurposes the Big Black Bad into the hero Ben, whose calmness, rationality, and authority allow him to survive the Marxist zombie uprising only to get cut down and hauled off by good ole boys. The revolution may be televised, but it’s an edited version. 

So okay, maybe Mansfield Park, with the Bertram family and their ominous-sounding “holdings” in Antigua, moral rot, and vapidity would have been a better fit for this kind of mash-up. Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, is in some ways the perfect picture of a British Regency abolitionist – she’s extremely principled to the point of being a moralizing prig, but she’s developed those principles by being raised by a family who, it is coyly hinted, were slavers, who abused her almost casually, because their money, their lands, their status is built out of human cargo (which still stands as one of the most tortured euphemisms ever.) Still though, something could be said for the Bennets as a rising middle-class, mocked by the wealthy and titled for their familial relations who are *gasp* in trade, but hamstrung by both an entitlement system and their own spendthrift ways – Mr. Bennett – whose first name is anything but freaking Oscar, I might add – does say at some point in the real P & P that the girls wouldn’t need to fling themselves at any passing man if he’d been a little more careful with his finances. Grr, arg, brains. 

Anyway, what am I on about? Oh, yes, zombies. Zombies are about class, and race, and the hard economics that there are always more, and many more, have-nots than haves. Hockensmith seems to get this for maybe five seconds when he starts into a sub-plot where the Bennets lose face for training to fight the zombie hordes and then it gets them into hot water socially – maybe we’ll get into how the middle class often pretends to itself to have the problems of the leisure classes – you don’t think inheritance laws and “death taxes” have anything to do with you, do you? because they don’t – while surreptitiously working for a living. (Actually, there’s some cool stuff about law and the undead in Ian McDonald‘s Terminal Cafe.) But instead, some dumb plan to use some caricatured tail-chasing Baron to increase their standing is enacted, complete with more sex farce & nut shots. *possible spoiler if you still care* Cue Lady Catherine riding in on her white horse – I’m not making this up – and irritatedly saving Hertfordshire. Noblesse oblige & zombies, you can shove yourself up your own keyster. 

Fail, fail, fail. I want to be entirely clear: I’m not opposed to trash fiction. I was fully on board to eat some brains and gross-out and squeal. All the stuff about slave uprisings and economics that I went on about would have been a bonus, but I wasn’t hoping for that. Not everyone can be John Carpenter, tossing off garbage with biting social commentary. And apparently not everyone can be Seth Grahame-Smith either, and by everyone I mean Steve Hockensmith. I’ve been trying not too cuss to much in this review, but in sum, fuck this. 

Disappointments: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Most of the time, I prefer to think of the universe as cold, meaningless and without a greater consciousness that imbues our lives with meaning and guides us with an unseen hand. So you can bet your sweet butt that I sat up and took notice when the universe handed me two of my most favorite things, Jane Austen and zombies, together in the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. What? Have all my years of fruitless prayers been answered? There truly is a benign and smiling force who animates both undead flesh and my haphazard existence! 

I’ve been waiting on the release of this book for some time with trepidation. The idea is flawless: who doesn’t want to see reanimated corpses intrude upon the landed gentry of Regency England? But the devil is in the details, and I couldn’t know if the execution would match the fevered imaginings of my idle mind. 

Austen has always attracted fan-fic, but it’s usually more along the lines of Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife. (And when I say takes a wife, what I mean is takes a wife. Right now, I’m doing that fist-pump thing that the immature use to connote sex.) It makes sense. Despite all of her savage, manly wit, Jane Austen’s stories occur in the carefully delineated world of women. Men must want for a wife, not for combat training and the feel of zombie skulls crunching under the weight of a vorpal sword. The fan-fic takes this all to the logical, romance novel end. Women marry, and then sis-boom-bah, other, more entirely throbbing vorpal swords are sunk into flesh, while toes curl and the gardener rustles below the window. 

Zombies come with their own, ready-packed symbolisms and meanings: consumerism, a sort of post-Marxist fear of the the rising masses, along with a discomfort toward mass media. One zombie is funny, a lumbering inconsequential, quickly dispatched. But many zombies, and there are always many zombies, is a force of crowd-sourcing, a d.d.o.s. attack, the worm eating your email, the end of modern life as we know it. Like scientologists. 

So what happens when we add one symbol cluster to another? Some interesting things, unfortunately done in a less than interesting manner. Many, many people have already noted that while Pride and Prejudicetakes place during the Napoleonic Wars, and soldiers factor prominently in the tale, not one word is breathed about the blood, sucking gunshot wounds and gangrene that is war in the 19th century. (Personally, I’ve always thought this observation was specious. I mean, things are about what they are about, and not about other things. Do we bitch that we don’t know more about Mrs. Lear?) Adding zombies into the story of Lizzie and her Darcy reminds us that life was about more than bonnets and barouches, that people lived and died in service of the motives of the upper classes. Workers of the world unite, and feast on brains. 

However, despite my panegyrics in the the service of the idea of this novel, the execution is maybe less than satisfying. Large, large chunks are lifted verbatim from Austen’s story, which is fine and all, but when the text strays, you can feel the graft. For example, Charlotte is bitten by one of the “unmentionables” and slowly succumbs to zombification during the course of her marriage. It works well as metaphor of the slow smothering of an unfortunate match, but to what end? Other people, in equally crappy marriages, do not zombify and need to be beheaded. So, am I just making all that stuff up about badly matched people? Is the only Zombie on top of mountaintops that which I bring with me?

Braaaaaains. (I couldn’t resist.)

The Zombie Night Before Christmas

Sure, we all hate monster mash-ups of the classics at this point. We’ve gotten jaded since the idea of the monster/classic mash-up first arrived on the scene with Pride and Prejudice and Zombieswith its great cover, hilarious study guide, and boring and dumb everything else. Our opinion faltered when we were confronted by a long string of cash-ins, from sea monsters to robots, hastily and messily stitched into anything and everything in the worst, most mercenary way. Fuck you marketing assholes for teasing us so. These books have always and ever been impulse gift books, the kind of thing squealed about after unwrapping – thank you for knowing I give a shit about classics and/or monsters – and then read on the toilet and dumped at the used bookstore. 

However, The Zombie Night Before Christmas is a cut above your usual monster/classic mash-up. For one, being a pretty short little poem, it doesn’t wear out its welcome. I cannot imagine wading through Anna Kareninaa second time just for android bits, and the concept of changing the roach into cats in The Metamorphosissends me into a rage. But whatever many lines of couplets which might have been plagiarized anyway? Sure. The art is good – really very cromulent – and my only complaint here is that there could be more of it. There are several pages where the slightly tweaked lines stand sadly alone, and a page or two more of the funny, bloody art would be cool. 

But the neatest part? So many of these mash-ups are just a half-assed pun – Android Karenina, Jane Slayre- more concerned with an attractive title and cover than creating anything but the most sopping of bullshit within the covers. But, according to the flap, “H. Parker Kelley was a curious child who wanted to know how Santa was able to bring gifts to children for hundreds of years without aging or dying.” Right before Netflix went down for the entirety of Christmas – I see how all you assholes have the day off, and are on the Netflix hard – my husband and I searched for Xmas movies. Being Netflix, much of what was available on streaming was Finnish horror films about Krampus, who, if you did not grow up Scandinavian, is like evil Santa, the stick to Saint Nicolas’ carrot.

An immortal semi-deity who can see when you’ve been naughty and nice is a scary ass thing, when you get right down to it, a sort of God-lite moral agent. While Coca-Cola, Disney, and the entire American mercantile machine has defanged the Victorian Santa who had no qualms about shoving naughty children into sacks and leaving switches in stockings, his scary, home-invasion sensibility still remains under the treacle and sugar plums. Which is why this book kinda rules. It rules more because it was a gift from someone who knows my proclivites, which maybe isn’t hard given all the shatting about zombies I do on the Internets, but the wrapped gift of one’s obsessions is a joy in any season. But even more so on Christmas Eve, the paper stripped to reveal the perfect book at the perfect moment. 

Thank you, Stephanie. You rule.