God damned third-party seller on Amazon. The DVD I needed to finish my scheduled post was due to arrive no later than last Thursday. Yet here I wait without it. So instead, here’s the post I was going to put up on Halloween.
It is April 30, 2009. Chrysler declares bankruptcy. South Korea has created transgenic fluorescent dogs. Tomorrow, Carol Ann Duffy will become the first woman, first Scot, and first openly gay person to be named Poet Laureate of the UK. X-Men Origins: Wolverine opens tomorrow as well. Navy cop drama NCIS launches its spin-off NCIS: Los Angeles. We continue to mourn Bea Arthur, who died last week. We’ll lose Dom Deluise in the coming one. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation this week is “The Gone Dead Train”, about a tattoo parlor that gives people rabies. Hugh Jackman is Jon’s guest on The Daily Show. Ethan Nadelmann is on Colbert. A few weeks ago, the BBC aired the first Doctor Who of the calendar year, “Planet of the Dead”. Saturday’s Power Rangers RPM is “Ranger Blue”, a focus episode for The Tribe alum Ari Boyland, which has the disappointing resolution that the solution to this week’s problem (he’s left unable to summon his spandex due to an overload) is to pull the battery out of his morpher and reinsert it backwards.
The Billboard charts are stable this week; “Boom Boom Pow” by the Black Eyed Peas is number one for the third week in a row, and they’ll stay there until October because “I Got a Feeling” is coming out soon. There’s been no movement in the top three since they bumped Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” down a notch. Flo Rida follows them in number 3 with “Right Round”. Everyone else in the top ten has been jocking for position for weeks, aside from Eminem’s “We Made You” which enters the charts this week at number 9.
Ever since George Romero and Mike Russo invented the modern zombie horror genre in 1968, the popularity of tales of the risen dead has waxed and waned as they caught the zeitgeist of whichever assortment of cultural fears ruled the day. When their popularity started to peak again in 2007, things were different on the pop culture scene, though. The larger horror genre was, like all of geek culture, somewhat less marginalized and film storytelling had become more sophisticated. At the same time, the wider culture was becoming more polarized. There was a growing cultural angst, a sense of impending apocalypse. The Cold War had long-since ended, paradoxically making us feel less secure since we no longer had the comforting thought of sudden nuclear annihilation to stop us from worrying about things like the fact that there was a limited amount of oil and most of it was in a part of the world basically synonymous with violent political instability. There was a major housing crisis on the horizon, the catastrophic effects of global climate change were getting harder to ignore, international terrorism seemed — accurately or not — like a bigger threat than ever, and both Gilmore Girls and The West Wing had been canceled. The world didn’t feel especially sustainable, and we couldn’t really say why. The reason we couldn’t really say why was mostly because “Actually what it feels like is that white Christian heterosexual men are not going to have a monopoly on power much longer and ‘working-class white man’ isn’t going to be the cultural notion of ‘default human’, and as far as I’m concerned, that is the literal end of the world,” is not something it’s socially acceptable to cop to.
While geek culture was becoming more mainstream, another thing that was starting to become more normalized and less, “I’m already preparing my ‘He kept to himself and always seemed like a quiet, non-threatening man,’ speech for when the reporters interview me after he goes postal,” were the militia and doomsday prepper subcultures. People who were increasingly convinced that any day now, human civilization would collapse and their survival would rely on them having been prepared with a stockpile of canned goods, gold bullion purchased from an infomercial during Glenn Beck’s show, and many, many guns.
And I’ll confess here that I’ve got maybe just a touch of doomsday prepper mixed into my hoarder sensibilities. Mine’s a little different from most; I don’t expect the actual literal collapse of human civilization, nor do I presume that I could actually defend myself from it, since my diabetes meds aren’t shelf-stable. But the knowledge that I’ve got enough freeze-dried food to outlast a hurricane does a little to offset my general paranoia. Mostly I’m interested in it for the MacGyver aspect.
But I think there’s another aspect to the prepper/survivalist boom and the not unrelated zombie revival at around the same time that people don’t like to talk about, and it’s where I start to bring us back around to The War of the Worlds. There are exceptions, obviously, but earlier zombie fads seem to have focused more on running away, holing up somewhere, and shepherding resources to find a way to improvise around the absence of civilization. This isn’t absent in the more recent fad, but there’s something else: a much greater emphasis on the visceral thrill of zombie-killing. Where in earlier films, the survivors go on the offensive only rarely, usually just for a climactic scene that ends either in a tragic downer ending or at best a Pyrrhic victory, more recent films take considerable joy in showing their heroes hunt down and dispatch the undead.
I think that maybe in a culture that’s increasingly polarized, that anticipates the collapse of society with a kind of perverse eagerness, there’s a certain fascination in this one angle of zombie stories: that they are stories in which your neighbors, your coworkers, your countrymen have become something which it is morally acceptable to shoot in the head. It is a chance to live out your every dark fantasy about murdering hobos. It is exactly what David Essex was singing about: imagine the destruction of all that you despise. And even more the radio play version of the artilleryman: get a bunch of strong men together, no weak ones; that rubbish, out. Get yourself a heat ray and turn it on the Martians and the men. Bring everybody down to their knees.
So I was into the zombie thing for a while around this time, but I eventually lost interest, a little bit before the fad crested and zombies became the big hit pop cultural thing, which makes me sound like a hipster, but really I just kinda peaked too soon and had burned out before The Walking Dead happened.
I have wandered well away from my point, and you’re probably wondering what I’m doing way out here in the woods, assuming you did not read the title of this article, which gives the game away. The Literary Mashup is a recently popular fictional genre which, if it wasn’t created outright created by Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was certainly popularized by it. The genre varies considerably, from telling mostly original stories that introduce modern horror genre tropes into historical settings, such as Grahame-Smith’s 2010 Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, adaptations of modern works into classical styles, like Adam Bertocci’s Shakespeare pastiche, The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, or adaptations which simply append a new subplot to an existing work. Jane Austin seems popular for this one, as Grahame-Smith’s seminal work was followed up a few months later by Ben H. Winter’s fantastically named Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Winters would go on to produce Android Karenina, which warms my heart.
Now, I am familiar with the works of Eric S. Brown from my own zombie-fanboy days. I generally found his short stories really good. So I’m not going to pass judgment on the fact that no one was really doing these mashups before Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was published on April 1, 2009, and by April 30, 2009, he had his own literary mashup in print. War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. It is the complete text of The War of the Worlds with fairly modest additions amounting to a side-plot in which a side-effect of the Martian invasion is that while the Martians are shooting up the south of England, the dead also start rising to feed on the living.
Don’t get me wrong. I bought this book because I dig War of the Worlds and I dig (or dug, at the time, I guess) zombies. But these are really two great tastes that do not taste great together. Like steak and ice cream. The Austen pastiches at least have going for them that the introduction of supernatural horror provides a sharp contrast to the tone and style of Georgian romance in revelatory ways. There’s a tension that arises from the fact that people are still acting like really uptight, proper eighteenth-century Englishmen in the face of the existential horror of dead people getting up and eating folks. Heck, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is largely based around an extended metaphor comparing the antebellum southern gentry to blood-sucking demons, which is apt because that is exactly what they were.
But adding zombies to War of the Worlds doesn’t have the same, if you’ll pardon me, bite. That new MTV show put me in mind of how much The War of the Worlds fits into the mold of a modern post-apocalyptic series, where an unstoppable, unknowable force tears down civilization, and the narrative centers around how people survive in the resulting world. Adding the undead to Austen changes everything. Adding them to War of the Worlds just doesn’t. War of the Worlds doesn’t need zombies: it’s pretty much already got them. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the presence of the zombies changes things. You can’t kill off characters in a character-driven romance and not have it change things. But none of the characters in War of the Worlds have any impact on the unfolding of the plot, so it doesn’t actually matter if the zombies eat them.
So it’s pointless, ill-conceived, and unnecessary. But is it bad? Well, no. Not really. It’s fine. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I find the concept of The War of the Worlds far better than the actual execution of the original novel. I just don’t like H. G. Wells as a writer rather than an idea man. I don’t think you’re liable to worsen War of the Worlds by adding to it. It’d be nice if the additions amounted to an actual plot or characters which consistently served a purpose beyond being vessels for exposition.
But Brown’s additions to the text are modest. The content he adds boils down, in almost every case, to, “and also there were zombies.” But the pleasure in reading a book shouldn’t be down just to the content of the ideas. And Brown is very good at making these modest insertions carry a tone of powerful horror.
Ironically, though, this is kinda the project’s downfall. Because Eric S. Brown does a fine job of inserting little snippets of a modern zombie apocalypse being told in a style that can reasonably pass for nineteenth century horror. But H. G. Wells can’t. There are moments in The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies which evoke Lovecraft (The Call of Cthulhu and Also Zombies is probably way too obvious to be worth doing), or Shelley (Frankenstein, or the Modern Undead Prometheus might possibly work, but again, too obvious), or Stoker (Been there, done that), even at times Henry James (The Turn of The Screw Into The Brain of The Living Dead could probably work, now that I think of it), but his style never actually matches the style of the person he’s actually imitating.
The first insertion, for example, is a single sentence on the second page, interposed in the large opening exposition dump about how Mars is dying and the Martians really didn’t have much choice but to go invade their neighbors. Just before Wells calls us to not judge the Martians too harshly in light of the fact that humans had, for example, wiped out the dodo and indigenous Tasmanians [1. Anyone else uncomfortable that the dodos come first in this list? 2. Happy ending: turns out that after Wells’s time, it was discovered that ethnic Tasmanians weren’t quite extinct. Though the last full-blooded Palawa, Truganini, died in 1876, there were a number of survivors of the genocide of mixed native and European descent], is this observation:
I imagine that even they did not realize the full effect their war with us, the dwellers of this bright blue and green orb of light, would bring about, or the utter terror it would unleash. (Page 6)
It’s a really nice sentence all on its own. Spooky and foreshadowy, but stilted in a distinctively Victorian way. The sentence works. But when you look at the surrounding text, it just doesn’t fit. The rest of the chapter is clinical and dispassionate with no sense of terror. Besides, it jars rather badly with the paragraph which follows it. Because “Hey, sure it sucks for us, but before we judge them too harshly, remember that they invaded because it was their only chance to survive, whereas the British Empire committed genocide purely for profit,” seems a bit hollow when the other thing the aliens did was cause the dead to rise as cannibalistic revenants.
Later, even as Wells’s tone does start to include elements of horror, it doesn’t approach the horror in the same way. Worse, Brown’s zombie horror is in tension with Wells’s alien horror. Consider the narrator’s reaction to his first sight of a tripod:
It was an elusive vision—a moment of bewildering darkness, and then, in a flash like daylight, the red masses of the Orphanage near the crest of the hill, the green tops of the pine trees, and this problematical object came out clear and sharp and bright.
And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder. A flash, and it came out vividly, heeling over one way with two feet in the air, to vanish and reappear almost instantly as it seemed, with the next flash, a hundred yards nearer. Can you imagine a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground? That was the impression those instant flashes gave. But instead of a milking stool imagine it a great body of machinery on a tripod stand.
To a modern audience, it’s an oddly abstract kind of horror. “Problematical” is just intensely weird adjective in context. The one I use to describe when some piece of media I like turns out to be steeped in sexism or something. He tells us it is “monstrous”, but Wells’s style remains largely clinical. I mean, he compares it to a milking stool. But there’s no ambiguity about it being intended as a moment of terror.