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Zombies give new life to Jane Austen's sales

August 17, 2009|Associated Press

LONDON — It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Jane Austen novel in possession of added gore will be a surefire bestseller.

That's the conclusion reached by publishers since the success of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," an unlikely literary sensation created by adding dollops of "ultraviolent zombie mayhem" to Austen's classic love story.

"Zombies" -- billed as 85% Austen's original text and 15% brand-new blood and guts -- has become a bestseller since it was published earlier this year, with 750,000 copies in print. There's a movie in the works. And it has spawned a monster -- or, more accurately, a slew of literary monster mash-ups.

Next month, "Zombies" publisher Quirk Books is releasing "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters," which adds giant lobsters and rampaging octopi to Austen's love story. Out this month from another publisher is "Mr. Darcy, Vampyre," a supernatural sequel that portrays the aloof hero of "Pride and Prejudice" as an undead bloodsucker. Later this year comes "Jane Bites Back," in which the author herself develops a taste for blood.

Even Austen purists admit a grudging admiration for the "Zombies" concept.

"In publishing terms, it's brilliant," said Claire Harman, a Columbia University professor and author of "Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World."

"Why did I spend three years writing a critical book on Austen? Why didn't I just think of that?"

Quirk Books editorial director Jason Rekulak said he was inspired by the Internet-unleashed wave of "creative copyright infringement" -- musical and video mash-ups that mangle styles and genres for comic or dramatic effect.

He made a list of classic books whose copyrights have lapsed and were ripe for pillage.

"Then I made a list of things that might enhance these novels -- robots, ninjas, zombies," Rekulak said. "As soon as I drew a line between 'Pride and Prejudice' and zombies, I knew I had a great title."

The irresistible title is key to the success of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." The book itself keeps most of Austen's story -- girl meets boy, girl hates boy, girl is won over by boy's good looks and large fortune -- with added chunks of zombie violence by U.S. writer Seth Grahame-Smith.

"Zombies" and its successors are the latest mutant offshoots of the unstoppable Austen industry.

The author wrote just six novels before she died at age 41 in 1817, but they have inspired endless spinoffs, from "chick-lit" novels like "The Jane Austen Book Club" to time-traveling TV series "Lost in Austen" and Bollywood-tinged movie "Bride and Prejudice." There are books on everything from etiquette ("Jane Austen's Guide to Good Manners") to gardening ("In the Garden With Jane Austen"), and a huge Internet-based community of passionate Jane-philes.

It's a remarkable turnaround for a writer who achieved limited success in her lifetime and was largely forgotten after she died.

Harman, who studied Austen's resurrection by a band of late 19th century admirers, said her global fame rests partly on the appeal of her elegant, witty books and partly on good timing, "a kind of technological luck."

The emergence of the Internet coincided with a wave of Austen adaptations, including the BBC's 1995 "Pride and Prejudice" and Ang Lee's adaptation of "Sense and Sensibility" the same year, which brought the writer new fans.

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