The Promises of Monsters

Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein's creature in Penny Dreadful.
Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein’s creature in Penny Dreadful.
If you’re not too keen on theory, never fear! What I say below is basically a more academic rewriting of this blog post

Next week I’ll be presenting at a conference called ‘Promises of Monsters’. In my paper, I’ll be looking at the way the Showtime series Penny Dreadful (and other monster mashups) use and abuse certain ‘promises’ or possibilities of the monstrous that have been popularised by literary critics. Though monster studies as an academic discipline is still quite young, the monster mashup can be seen to respond to many of its claims directly, using the language of monstrosity for commercial ends. Though they’re often marketed as a reinvention or subversion of cultural hierarchies, binaries, and stereotypes, the monsters of mashup (and the mashups themselves) fall short of these promises time and time again.

So what are the promises of monsters, generally speaking? One answer lies in Donna Haraway’s 1992 essay ‘The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others’, which is also where the conference gets its name. This is not the critical approach I’ll be looking at in this post, however. Haraway never really explicitly defines the monsters she is talking about. Those she describes are not quite the same as the fantastical, fictional monsters I am writing about, though the links are there.

Barney the Dinosaur is a different kind of monster than Adolf Hitler, though I'm sure many people on the internet would disagree.
Barney the Dinosaur is a different kind of monster than Adolf Hitler, though I’m sure many people on the internet would disagree.
Instead, we’re going to go with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s introductory chapter to Monster Theory: Reading Culture (1996). In discussing what defines the typical or traditional monster, Cohen outlines seven theses. The first and most important is that the monster’s body is a cultural body. Cohen explains the creation of meaning through the monster as follows:

The monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny in-dependence. The monstrous body is pure culture. A construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read. (‘Monster Culture’, p. 4)

Monsters may have a real-world presence, and they may be legitimately terrifying, but they are always first defined in the realm of narrative and imagination. These narrative bodies shape (and are shaped by) what we consider to be abnormal and deviant. Take the parallels between narratives about zombies and narratives about refugees as an example. I’ve also blogged about this in the context of what Judith Halberstam calls ‘zombie humanism’:

It's not rare to see refugees described and depicted as an invading horde.
It’s not rare to see refugees described and depicted as an invading horde.
In this approach to monstrosity, then, one must thus ‘consider beasts, demons, freaks, and fiends as symbolic expressions of cultural unease that pervade a society and shape its collective behavior’ (Monster Theory, back cover). A culture’s fascination with monsters would then suggest a desire to explore categories of ‘difference and prohibition’ (again, back cover).

Following this reasoning, the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings are coded as 'monsters' because of Western culture's negative associations with muscularity, black skin, and animalistic features.
Monstrous, but why?
Cohen’s second and third theses – that the monster always escapes and is the harbinger of category crisis – relate to the expression of the monster’s cultural body. The monster is constantly changing, and thus resists easy categorisation (‘Monster Culture’, p. 4-7). Cohen’s fourth thesis explores another fundamental mark of the traditional monster that reflects the first: it ‘dwells at the gates of difference’ (p. 7). Just as the monster’s body is constructed by the fears and obsessions of culture, it is also physically marked by what that culture considers as different. This alterity can take any form, but Cohen argues that ‘for the most part monstrous difference tends to be cultural, political, racial, economic, sexual’ (p. 7). Following this reasoning, the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings are coded as ‘monsters’ because of the West’s negative associations with muscularity, rural culture, black skin, and animalistic features. Because of this inherently (bio)political aspect of the monstrous, through the monster ‘the boundaries between personal and national bodies blur’ (p.10). This is a quality that remains in the monsters of mashup, though the way the monster’s body is used to represent a social body or the nation-state is different in every case.

Because of its liminal position, the monster ‘polices the borders of the possible’ as well as signalling difference (thesis five; p. 12). By embodying what is forbidden, the monster also seductively hints at what might be possible should the reader choose to cross the boundaries it marks (thesis six; p. 16). The type of seduction enacted and boundaries drawn depends on the type of monster embodied. Critical work on medieval monsters simply shows ‘a morally and physically deformed creature arriving to demarcate the boundary beyond which lies the unintelligible, the inhuman’ (Of Giants, 1999, p. xiv), but with the development of modern systems of deviance and punishment, the monster has came to occupy a special place in the social hierarchy.

In The Silence of the Lambs (1991) .
In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), figurative monsters (morally) are also literal monsters (physically).
Using the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs as an illustration, Halberstam demonstrates ‘the distance traveled between current [late twentieth-century] representations of monstrosity and their genesis in nineteenth-century Gothic fiction’ (Skin Shows, 1995, p. 1.). For Halberstam, while the monster always foregrounds physical difference and visibility, ‘the monsters of the nineteenth century metaphorized modern subjectivity as a balancing act between inside / outside, female / male, body / mind, native / foreign, proletarian/aristocrat’, and so on and so forth (p. 1). Postmodern horror, on the other hand, tends to favour ‘the obscenity of “immediate visibility”’, and its monsters are ‘all body and no soul’ (p. 1). This again signals the increasing loss of  direct significance evident in the twenty-first century monster. The concept of the human is at once too basic and too abstract to mythologise in any straightforward way.

Cohen’s final thesis explores how monstrous difference can be (and often is) deployed in critical theory to ‘reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance toward its expression’ (p. 20). Critical theory tends to view the monster as an inherently progressive figure, or even a rebellious one, standing for the marginalised and fighting against an unfair society. It is by playing this final characteristic that the mashup is able to turn the monster’s traditional function on its head, highlighting the paradoxical (in)visibility, the loss of metaphysical significance, and the liberal populist tendencies that mark fantastical monstrosity’s twenty-first-century iterations. These narratives appropriate historical traditions of the monstrous as well as historical monsters.

What does it mean to be a monster in the twenty-first century, and how do both the form of the mashup and the ‘burden of history’ (as Hayden White would put it) complicate this identity? You’ll have to come to the conference to find out – or wait a couple of years for my thesis to be finished. In any case, fulfilling the promises of monsters is arguably more complicated than it used to be. It takes the right bodies, interacting in the right way, to reclaim the monster as a symbol of progressive identity politics.

Reclaim the monster before it reclaims us.
Reclaim the monster before it reclaims us?
I love monsters and all their promises, and I sincerely hope the third season of Penny Dreadful puts the arguments I make in this conference paper to shame. Until then, it provides plenty of fuel for blogging.

 

Review: Pride + Prejudice + Zombies (2016)

11452529_oriNOTE: This review contains minor spoilers for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), and Lionsgate’s Pride + Prejudice + Zombies (2016). Proceed at your own risk.

Last week I finally made it to see Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, the film adaptation of a historical monster mashup that I’ve written a lot about, Seth Grahame-Smith’s mashup novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009). The venue? A Utopolis cinema in Almere, the Netherlands, complete with Dutch subtitles (about which I could probably write a whole separate blog post).

Having arrived rather late to the party, I already knew from various critical and word-of-mouth reviews that I shouldn’t expect too much from this adaptation. The problem that most critics seemed to have was that the film lacks a clear creative vision. This is a complaint I can agree with. Pride + Prejudice + Zombies simply tries to be too many things at once – horror, romance, comedy – without seemingly mastering any of these genres. Flavorwire’s Moze Halperin was wrong in predicting that the film would ‘probably get its money’ regardless, however. It’s pretty much officially a box office flop.

94274The acting was competent overall, though not particularly stellar considering the long line of actors who have played these roles. Sam Riley, though smouldering, is no Colin Firth, and while (for me) Lily James definitely tops Kiera Knightly in the list of best Elizabeth Bennets, her character isn’t really done much justice in this particular adaptation. (Of course, few can beat the wonderful Ashley Clements in my books, of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries) Matt Smith is the one shining exception to the general mediocrity of the performances in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, and his portrayal of Mr. Collins (‘Parson Collins) may be my favourite version of the character to date. Mrs. Bennet (played by Sally Phillips) also deserves a mention.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its moments. The wardrobe and music were both consistently excellent, and did a brilliant job of negotiating the genre shifts between horror and costume drama. Likewise, the pop-up introduction to the zombie apocalypse that forms the film’s title sequence is wonderfully atmospheric, seamlessly blending Regency and horror aesthetics. In terms of the film itself, there were some nice visual touches and translations from page to screen. For example, the scene in which the Bennet sisters are introduced has them polishing guns rather than reading or sewing, which is passed off more subtly (and thus humorously) on screen than it ever could be on the page. A scene where Lizzy deftly plucks corpse flies from the air, kung-fu style, to the bemusement of Mr. Darcy also stands out as particularly, absurdly entertaining, as does a later scene where she and Darcy engage in both verbal and physical sparring.

Queue the obligatory 'suiting up' scenes.
Cue the obligatory ‘suiting up’ scenes.

Only the last of these scenes is actually to be found in Seth Grahame-Smith’s literary mashup, which brings me to another interesting point about this adaptation: it’s not actually particularly faithful to the novel it’s allegedly based on. The film version of Pride + Prejudice + Zombies features many entirely new subplots and character arcs. Sometimes this is clearly to meet the needs of a cinematic narrative, as opposed to a prose one (the final, climactic action sequence springs to mind here). Sometimes, however, the reasons for these changes are less obvious, and in a few cases simply baffling. This of course raises the question of the extent to which it is really an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or actually just another zombie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

maxresdefault-2
A shot from of the eerily out-of-place horror scenes in the film.

This seems like a good moment to raise one of the points I found particularly problematic about Pride + Prejudice + Zombies. Namely, and it’s worth noting that Wired disagrees with me here, it may be the only Pride and Prejudice retelling I have ever seen in which Elizabeth Bennet is not really the hero. Instead, from the opening scene to the final camera pan, Pride + Prejudice + Zombies seems set on establishing Mr. Darcy as its action star. The story begins with him, he is given most of the good fight scenes, and the central conflict is between him and Wickham (Jack Huston), who is the film’s central antagonist (besides the zombie horde). This seems like a very odd choice considering the recent spate of financially and critically successful Hollywood films starring female action heroes (Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens spring instantly to mind). Lizzie Bennet was practically gift-wrapped, by both Austen and Grahame-Smith, as a spiritual continuation of this trend.

I wish THIS scene had actually been in the film.
I wish THIS scene had actually been in the film.

Likewise, the Lady Catherine de Bourgh (played by Lena Headey) barely gets any action in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies. In Grahame-Smith’s novel (if it’s even fair to compare the two texts, considering how different they actually are), she gets an epic, fighting showdown with Elizabeth, but in the film Elizabeth fights one of de Bourgh’s goons instead, while the older woman looks on. The movie is full of big talk about women ‘trained for battle, not cooking,’ but in the end it simply fails to convincingly sell me this narrative. Lizzie Bennet may have been front and centre on the film’s posters, but somehow she fails to achieve the same level of agency in the film itself.

Pride-and-Prejudice-and-Zombies-teaser
The film ultimately had far too few of these moments.

The class politics in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, however, are arguably much better developed in the film than they are in Grahame-Smith’s book, though even here there were a few missed opportunities. In the novel the link between the zombie plague and the lower classes is quite subtle. More so, certainly, than it is in Quirk Books’ follow-up novel  Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (2009). Two plotlines – the one that focuses on a besieged London, and the one involving George Wickham’s Christian zombie ‘aristocrats’ – seem specifically designed to call into question the way the upper-class characters deal with their lower-class countrymen, most of whom are now zombies (the film doesn’t bother with the book’s dainty use of the term ‘unmentionables’).

George Wickham, hero of the people.
George Wickham, hero of the people.

A scene in which Wickham comes to Lady de Bourgh for money to continue his zombie rehabilitation project at St. Lazarus Church is especially interesting in this regard, framing the rich as cold, uncaring individuals who would much rather just kill the poor than relinquish a single cent – even if it might mean saving England. Wickham’s obsession with money and charity completely makes sense in this context. If it weren’t for a certain deus ex machina (zombina?) near the end of the film, I would have been inclined to champion him as the film’s real hero. In any case, Darcy and Elizabeth don’t come off looking very good in the area of zombie class politics.

Overall, then Pride + Prejudice + Zombies is a flawed film in which a lengthy, troubled production process really shows in the finished product. It’s not the film I would have made, but it still has its moments. It’s just a pity there weren’t many, many more of them.

Undead & Read: Why the Literary Zombie Mash-Up Trend Just Won’t Die

31010_NewCity_Zombie-4615-1_rt_flat-819x1024This week’s post by Monica Westin debates the highs and lows of the (still-undead) literary mashup genre, and also traces the evolution of the zombie in popular culture. It was originally posted on October 26, 2010, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Newcity Lit

We’re living in strange times in the world of literature, a time when the classics are being fused with lowbrow contemporary monster mythologies into mash-ups that sell lots of books. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was the first, and so successful that it spawned its own graphic novel and a spinoff fan-fiction prequel entitled Pride and Prejudice: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. Next came Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and now Android Karenina, all from Quirk Books. Quirk Books editor Jason Rekulak, the force behind the series, literally creates charts to make these hybrid novels, with great works of literature with lapsed copyrights on one side and monsters on the other, then contacts writers to produce the works. Rekulak claims to be inspired by music and video mash-ups—“creative copyright infringement”—making his line of books the equivalent of, say, Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album. But other than manifesting our cultural fixation with the ubiquitous mash-up in a most unusual manner, are these books important?

Neither alive and well nor a completely dying trend, the field of zombie literature, judging by the latest batch of classic lit mash-ups, could be more aptly and appropriately described as undead: limping along, market-driven, towards the inevitable conclusion when Quirk Books runs out of classics/monsters combinations… or when readers stop buying them. Yet books certainly inspired by, but outside of, this process-driven approach, like Alan Goldsher’s Paul Is Undead: The British Zombie Invasion, offer an alternative: a living metaphor, if you will, that makes use of the genre as a brainier (get it?) allegory.

Zombies haven’t always been book characters; in fact, they’ve emerged as almost solely movie figures (and, lately, video game characters) rather than book creatures, which is one reason why it’s automatically funny when they get dropped into Jane Austen novels. The groundwork for the current zombie fad, according to the biggest zombie expert I know, writer and editor Andrew Blossom (who’s currently writing his own zombie apocalypse novel), was at least partially laid by the graphic-novel series The Walking Dead, but many more people are familiar with Max Brooks’ 2003 Zombie Survival Guide (which purists disdain for ignoring the basic rules of zombies set in place by George Romero’s movies, but more about them later). Zombie Survival Guide was a runaway bestseller, and while it seems like a big leap to say its success most likely helped green-light, or at least inspire, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it brought zombies into a certain hip-lit fold that until that moment had been the terrain of vampires.

pride_prejudice_zombies_l-196x300Any discussion of modern zombies has to begin with Romero’s incredibly influential series of zombie movies. From Night of the Living Dead, in which Romero established the rules for modern zombies as reanimated corpses (Romero didn’t invent the zombie figure, which originated in West African voodoo) through all its sequels up through Land of the Dead, in which the filmmaker reacts to the zombie resurgence of the last ten years, Romero is a touchstone by which we can measure the evolution of the zombie as an American icon. Zombie as signifiers, in the last sixty years or so, have developed from symbols for Communism in Romero’s first film—a giant horde that’s coming for us, that we can’t stop, no matter if we go to Vietnam or to Nicaragua. This pure paranoia combines with a strong feeling of moral uncertainty in seventies zombies movies—could you put a bullet in your mother, in your best friend? What is it actually like to be a zombie? Now, though, what we’re afraid of is the chaos that zombies create; in Danny Boyle’s film 28 Weeks Later, it’s the government that ends up killing everybody because they don’t know who’s a zombie and who’s not.

Romero’s zombies have been replaced by newer, faster zombies. They used to be slow-moving but inevitable; you could put up a fight and kill as many as you could, but they would eventually overrun you, a force that can’t be stopped. Now, in movies, zombies are fast and mean and angry and strong, without that comical “Oh my arm fell off but I’m still coming for you.” The stakes have been raised, with more emphasis on virus and disease and cataclysm. The zombie apocalypse has come home to a world that sometimes feels like it’s actually facing apocalypse. Thinking about the Resident Evil videogame (and now movies), if zombies stand in for anything now, it’s for the viruses that will infect our computers, our extensions of ourselves, the epidemics from H1N1 to financial disaster, a globalized virus (if the horror-movie model is anything, it’s viral) that can come in anywhere—whereas before zombies simply invaded house and home (there was literally one house in Night of the Living Dead in which the characters holed up—now we can’t hide anywhere on the planet).

So if zombies in the new age represent a global epidemic that can happen all over the world at once—if they’re a kind of globalization, then the topic of a book like Alan Goldsher’s that casts a real invasion as a zombie invasion is actually a useful allegory in the way another mash-up couldn’t be.

paul_is_undead-193x300In Paul Is Undead: The British Zombie Invasion, the Beatles invasion is imagined as a zombie invasion, wherein zombie John Lennon kills and then reanimates Paul, George and Ringo to form a band that will take over the world, one teenage girl’s heart (and brain) at a time. Frankly, at first I wanted to hate it. Chicagoan Goldsher is a lucid critic and a smart writer—it quickly becomes obvious that he’s a giant music nerd, in a good way—but the idea for Paul is Undead seems beyond obvious, and I wanted the end result to be derivative, the bucket kick of a dying trend (so to speak). I wanted to review the book as a kind of platform from which to evaluate the monster trend in literature, hoping to create a polemic against a lazy genre that’s gone viral, a sign that signals some kind of literary (zombie) apocalypse. Instead, I found that he’d actually turned zombies into a productive allegory. Both the Beatles invasion and the zombie invasion are models for a strong moment of viral incursion, something creating hysteria that in a way was hard to understand and scary—they’re coming for your children!—for those 1960s parents, actually making the new model of zombies seem, ironically, much more relevant in this sixties context.

The second problem with writing off Paul is Undead is that the book is quirky, gory, bizarre, funny as hell and packs in tons of music history, often brilliantly, reading like a beautifully written Rolling Stone article told as an oral history with interviews with everyone from Stu Sutcliffe to Jesus himself. The allegorical moves are impeccable—Yoko Ono is a high-level ninja lord, which seems fairly realistic actually, and Mick Jagger is a zombie hunter who seeks to take down the zombie Fab Four. To avoid copyright issues, Goldsher works song titles and lyrics into conversation. That the book isn’t much more than that—with lots of music trivia and Beatles history thrown in—easily does enough to justify Goldsher’s appropriation in his creation of gratifying, smart candy for music geeks. In short, the book makes good on the Beatles and on zombies. It’s hard, by the end, to feel much of a sense of indignity at Beatles slander, unlike Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for example, wherein English teachers like me can throw up our hands and talk about the dumbing down of literature, making it stupid and helpless (like a zombie). The biggest complaint we could make is that the meaning of the original book often gets lost or marginalized with the addition of a monster plotline.

android-karenina-193x300Ben Winters, former Newcity staff writer and author of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina, disagrees: not only are the ideas hilarious, but “people enjoy seeing things they thought they knew well reinterpreted and turned into something completely different.” Winters compares the Austen-monster books and his own upcoming Android Karenina to perennial versions of Shakespeare in unexpected locales, made into political satires. The Quirk books, he claims, have interesting cross-currents with the original meaning of the books; for example, Tolstoy was “really worried in life and in writing about the effect that technology, like the telegraph, was having on writing.” He also cites the fact that we “live in a world where everything is up for grabs in the creative marketplace.”

And finally, for Winters the argument begins and ends with the fact that these mash-up books are really funny. There are other arguments—that the books will get students to read the classics (I teach college writing, and the DePaul students I polled, however, were no more likely to read the originals after having read the monster versions), that at least it introduces folks to the language and characters of the originals, and similar “baby step” arguments that may or may not be persuasive. So, ultimately, most of the value of these books is going to lie in their entertainment value, and they’re all not nearly as funny the second time around.

If most mash-up books will end up remembered as only a brief trend in several years, authors like Goldsher who have updated the model and made it relevant again will actually add value to the genre. Goldsher’s next book is Frankenstein Has Left the Building—an Elvis/Frankenstein mash-up is just as smart a fit because Elvis, as Greil Marcus said, is a pure product of American culture—a similar creation, in form, to Frankenstein’s monster.

sense_and_sensibility_sea_monsters-196x300If we’re ushering in a new literary era, we’ve got to get beyond just calling the genre lazy, derivative, postmodern. Doing so just seems to dismiss horror mash-ups, especially those that make new use of old signifiers (see, for example the updating of vampires to stand in for teenage sexuality in the Twilight series) and reappropriate old symbols. Sure, there are ways to do this that are creative and meaningful, like creating new models for globalization that make smart, allegorical use of history, and then there’s just dropping a zombie into a book for a gag—which, if not undead, isn’t exactly a creative living literary activity. But perhaps something is happening in literature that we can’t just write off and call derivative, or we risk writing off the potential of the age we live in.

But if, on the other hand, this trend is in its dying days, what was it all about anyway? I talked about this question with two friends in Chicago recently, one a self-professed genre fiction geek, the other claims not to read. After a long debate during which I set forth blaming the internet, my friend Rine (the non-reader) pointed out that during other times of serious economic recession and depression, entertainment quickly took up fantasies of escapism. This time around, we can’t even imagine a pleasant fantasy anymore.

Interested in reading this article in its original context? You can find it here, on Newcity Lit.

The Good, the Bad, and the Book Trailers

http://t-ry.deviantart.com/art/Reading-the-monster-395926279Happy World Book Day (a few days late, and also only in the UK and Ireland)! This week’s post will be a short one, because I’ve got a big deadline on Friday that I should be focusing on, but I’ll try to start you off on an interesting trajectory. Naturally, the part of Book Day most people probably noticed were the pictures of book-themed costumes that popped up on social media, but the official website also shared this list of YA book trailers, citing them as ‘a brilliant way to bring books to life for audiences of all ages – and often encourage young readers to pick up a book they might not usually choose’.

I have to be honest and say that I don’t often watch book trailers, although I know there are actually a lot of good ones out there (particularly for young adult titles). Most times I don’t see the appeal of having a book visualised in that way, given that I tend to be attracted by very print-centric writing styles rather than big cinematic stories. The exception may be when I see something like this video for novel-as-mashup Jane Slayre, which advertises the book while also giving us a look at the way an author expresses themselves:


A few days ago I sent off for a copy of Seth Grahame-Smith’s new book, The Last American Vampire, which is being advertised as the sequel to Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I would have ended up reading this sooner or later, given the subject matter, but what ultimately got me interested in having it RIGHT NOW was this book trailer:

Is this not one of the most gloriously ludicrous things you have ever seen?

Some books definitely lend themselves to trailers better than others. Perhaps the reason I enjoy watching trailers for monster mashups is that I’m half expecting each of them to be snatched up by Hollywood. It makes me curious to see how the story will play out on-screen. Maybe it’s the fact that trailer mashups have become a real art, or that I like to see book mashups tackle multimedia crossovers as well as a genre ones. Or maybe it’s just that my treasured Sunday afternoon on YouTube is the perfect stage for the silliness that is this Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters trailer:

Sadly Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had no book trailer (than I can find), but the video for prequel Dawn of the Dreadfuls more than makes up for that oversight:

What about you, internet? Any book trailers to recommend, or violent objections to the book trailer industry in general?

 

Translating Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The cover for the French pocket edition of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
The cover for the French pocket edition of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

This week I spent a good chunk of time trying to figure out which literary monster mashups had been translated into which languages, as well as how and by whom. This turned up all kinds of interesting information – for example that Quirk’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters are the most widely translated (which I sort of expected), and that other languages have their own original monster mashups (which I didn’t). Another interesting bit of data I turned up is that mashup translators often approach the comic mixing of styles and genres in a way similar to mashup artists like Seth Grahame-Smith, Ben H. Winters, or Sherri Browning Erwin: they turn to an older version of the canonical text in their own language.

Literary translation is challenging enough on its own. What happens when you’re not only dealing with an author’s style, but another translator’s as well? The following is an excerpt from a blog post by the Dutch translator of Pride en Prejudice en ZombiesMaarten van der Werf, who had previously translated work by Karen Armstrong and Edward Said. I’ve transposed it into English and reposted it here (modified with links and images), with the gracious permission of both the author and Amsterdam’s Athenaeum bookshop:

The Dutch translation of P&P&Z prefers to keep the English title largely intact.
The Dutch translation of P&P&Z prefers to keep the English title largely intact.

‘A lot of people thought it was a kind of sacrilege – that someone would dare to tackle a classic like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that way. That was the reason I got the job: the person who was originally asked didn’t think much of the project, and approached me instead. Since I’m not averse to iconoclasm, and also enjoy the odd brush with ninjas and swords, I decided to take the job.

In spirit, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is a parody: Austen’s narrative has been adjusted and bits have been added, though the storyline and text remain largely unaltered. Naturally this doesn’t hold true everywhere, starting with the book’s opening paragraph [Dutch translation here]:

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 the living dead.

The Victorian [sic] setting has been changed slightly: England has been stricken by a zombie plague. The undead keep multiplying, immersing the country in an ongoing struggle for its very existence. The renowned Bennet sisters have also been recruited to the war, which they wage with flint muskets and Oriental combat techniques. The result is hilarious, because the fuss about whether or not Elizabeth will marry the mysterious Mr. Darcy remains largely intact. Emphasis on “largely”.

'Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.'
‘Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.’

As Seth Grahame-Smith – the evil genius behind this project – made changes and additions to the original story, I too worked in an older translation of Pride and Prejudice [Trots en Vooroordeel, published in 1980 by L.J. Veen and translated by H.E. van Praag-van Praag]. I changed what Grahame-Smith had changed, translated what he had added, and also made a passing sweep through the original translation, which needed some modernisation. I had to be careful not to get too enthusiastic with this last step, because the somewhat worn, old-fashioned language added to the book’s feel, and could even be turned up a notch in places. The parts I translated myself had to fit in with this language, so I could go to town with dowdy words and phrases. I enjoyed myself immensely – and as I worked I found myself appreciating the original work more and more.

Of course, reactions to a book like this are mixed. Some consider it a waste of every drop of ink used to print it, or are upset because they feel you can’t maim a classic like Pride and Prejudice this way. I think Asten’s story can take it: the Mona Lisa is no less beautiful for all the jokes made about it. I’m also sure a lot of people will find it incredibly fun. They can look forward to more fun as well, because Sense & Sensibility & Zeemonsters is already out, and Android Karenina and Jane Slayre may be up next for translation into Dutch.’ [Maarten van der Werf, 2010]

'“My dear girl," said her Ladyship, "I suggest you take this contest seriously. My ninjas will show you no mercy."'
‘“My dear girl,” said her Ladyship, “I suggest you take this contest seriously. My ninjas will show you no mercy.”’

Five years down the line, there is sadly still no Dutch translation of either of these texts, at least to my knowledge, though the trend has definitely continued in other languages. I would be particularly interested in seeing how a translation of Android Karenina would work in practice, given that the version of Anna Karenina used in the English mashup is already a translation: a highly influential (if controversial) 1901 version by Constance Garnett.

I’m guessing there’s a whole other post’s worth of material in why Jane Austen’s work is the most popular target of this kind of adaptation on a global scale, but I’ll leave that for another day – and possibly another blogger. In any case, I’m now definitely in the mood for some Austen indulgence. Anyone have any opinions on 2013’s Austenland, or that recent Matchmaker card game? If all else fails there’s always Bridget Jones’s Diary on Netflix.

Our Zombies, Ourselves: A Lecture with J. Halberstam

Jack Halberstam during an interview at USC. Photo by Sara Newman.
Jack Halberstam during an interview at USC. Photo by Sara Newman.

At guest lectures I usually come prepared to fully understand about half of the references made, and get excited about one or two particular sound bytes. Not so at Jack Halberstam’s lecture on Zombie Humanism at the End of the World (originally titled ‘Our Zombies, Ourselves: Queerness at the End of Time’), kindly hosted by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. Halberstam’s talk on zombie humanism and biopolitics is right in the same theoretical zone as my own PhD work on monster mashups, and her walk through wildness, pets, mess, and bare life left me sagely (and embarrassingly) nodding in agreement for the better part of an hour. I’m most familiar with Halberstam’s early work Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995), which takes a look at the social issues that accompany portrayals of monsters from the nineteenth century to the present. ‘Our Zombies, Ourselves’ presented these issues in a new jacket.

The lecture started with some of the work Halberstam is currently doing on ‘wildness’ as a theoretical concept. Wildness is a word with a lot of connotations in our culture, and can potentially be appropriated for anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and anti-humanist ends. Wildness isn’t part of the mainstream, but is still a part of our environment and our society. It’s a place we’ve categorised as un-categorisable. A place where ideas about what’s ‘normal’ or ‘civilised’ go to die. This makes it an ideal framework for thinking about queerness, and about zombies.

In Halberstam’s conception of zombie humanism, zombies represent everyone relegated to the role of the ‘living dead’ in our society: people we’ve ‘rescued’ from death, but who only matter in that they make us feel good about that ‘human’ act of charity. Zombie humanism serves to make us more human and everything else less so, and who the ‘us’ and ‘we’ are in this scenario may not be the groups you expected. Zombies are everywhere.

You may even be one yourself. Also, if you haven't seen this episode of Community (Season 2, Episode 6), you need to go do that. Right now.
You may even be one yourself. Also, if you haven’t seen this episode of Community (Season 2, Episode 6), you need to go do that. Right now.

The first category of the ‘living dead’ Halberstam brought up in her talk was household pets – cats, dogs, goldfish, and any other animal we may ‘rescue’ from the category of food. Because no guest lecture in the UK (or anywhere else, for that matter) is complete without a reference to Monty Python, she led with the infamous parrot sketch, offering the highly tweetable statement that ‘all pets are dead parrots’. The humour in the sketch lies mainly in the stereotypical dishonesty of shopkeepers (the object could just as easily have been a boat that didn’t actually float, for example), but the irrelevance of a pet’s physical or emotional state as an object is also a factor in this joke. Why couldn’t you have a dead parrot as a pet? What makes a live parrot better, really? We take care of our pets largely without considering whether they enjoy or appreciate what we are doing. We draw arbitrary boundaries (‘Nip, don’t bite’), preferring to overlook the fact that a pet’s whole existence, like that of livestock or other ‘edible’ animals, is primarily for the benefit of humans.

Frankenweenie, everyone's favourite zombie pet.
Frankenweenie, everyone’s favourite zombie pet.

The pet discussion sparked some controversy with the more aggressively progressive pet owners in the audience, and came up quite a bit during the Q&A at the end (‘But I’m a vegan’ and ‘I don’t tell people I have cats, I say I live with two cats’), but for me the super-anthropomorphising of pets among wealthy owners only complicates this issue further. It reminds me eerily of a recent trip to South Africa, where a vineyard owner was all-too-eager to tell me how they take care of ‘their blacks’ in the aftermath of apartheid. While I realise this is an extreme comparison to make, it also seems strange to me that we are often so unwilling to even think that we might be treating the animals that live with us in a demeaning or inappropriate way. This idea of the pet as a zombie is partly a response to Donna Haraway’s humanisation of the pet as a companion species (see The Companion Species Manifesto and Lively Capital in particular), it fills in some of the theoretical gaps in the ways we typically think about our ‘furry friends’.

The category of ‘living dead’ isn’t only reserved for animals. Prisoners, refugees, the poor: all categories of people we regularly argue we are ‘helping’ while simultaneously denying them humanity/personhood. While we’re on the topic of race, Halberstam offered a fun illustration from AMC’s The Walking Dead on the ease with which non-white subjects become ‘zombies’ – in both the metaphorical and the literal sense. Human characters die all the time on the show, but never quite in the numbers they do when the predominantly white band of survivors (led by cowboy-archetype Rick) encounters a prison full of predominantly non-white inmates.

Guess how long these guys lived.
Guess how long these guys lived.

For Halberstam, the US zombie is a racialised frontier metaphor: cowboys versus Indians. This also reflects US attitudes towards the socially undead ‘zombie other’. Things are quite different in UK-produced zombie media, for example, and here Halberstam made a reference to my favourite zombie series, In the Flesh. In this series, rather than putting down the zombie uprising through extermination, the Brits turn to a different kind of domination: rehabilitation. Sufferers of Partially Deceased Syndrome (PDS) are given a kit that includes anti-rage meds, special contact lenses, and makeup to mimic living flesh, and are returned to their ‘natural’ environments. Here they are naturally shunned, abused, and sometimes even killed by the angry and frightened survivors of the zombie apocalypse.

zombie-post-series-boxxThe attitudes towards zombies in popular culture again reflect widespread attitudes towards the dehumanised other in our society. We paint pictures of children and adults who are mindless, self-absorbed consumers and a burden on the economy. We rehabilitate those who don’t fit our idea of the normal. We fight wars against foreign terrorist groups, put criminals into prisons and the elderly into nursing homes.  The debate here is not necessarily whether or not these people should be rehabilitated, but rather that the way we go about it is fundamentally dehumanising for the objects of these efforts. Really, though we rarely think about it, our gestures of rehabilitation are designed to make us feel more human, and transform the recipients of that unsolicited help into people who, while they may still technically be alive, have been stripped of the agency that would imbue that life with meaning.

Bookending her discussion on wildness, Halberstam also brought the concept of ‘mess’ to bear on her analysis of zombie humanism, particularly as it relates to queerness. Citing studies by queer theorists Martin Manalansan and José Muñoz, which both seek newer and more humanising ways of looking at queer lives and spaces, Halberstam explored the use of mess as both an aesthetic and a theoretical approach. In the Western world we love order, and we love binaries – especially in academia. But if we can learn to embrace mess and chaos (whatever such an approach might look like in practice), we may discover a different but equally valid system of categorisation. At the very least we will be opening ourselves to new and much-needed perspectives. This approach will be vital if we ever want to ‘kill’ zombie humanism once and for all.

'I know exactly where everything is.'
‘I know exactly where everything is.’

These theories all form part of Halberstam’s current work on fascism and (homo)sexuality. All in all it was a very interesting evening, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading Halberstam’s future work in this area. You can find a link to the original seminar description at organiser Paul Bowman’s academia.edu page.

I even got up the courage to ask a question at the end.

What They Do in the Shadows is Basically What We Do, Too

Whatever I had been expecting from vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, it wasn’t what I got in the end. And I mean that in the best possible way. Where to start? With plot, I suppose, though that may be the least interesting part about this film. What We Do in the Shadows follows a film crew documenting the lives of five vampire flatmates in Wellington, New Zealand, in the run-up to the annual Unholy Masquerade Ball.

what-we-do-in-the-shadows-image-1
Meet the boys.

They may be eternally youthful in the stories, but in pop culture vampires are kind of old. It’s more or less all been done before, and there’s a lot of baggage to engage with. What We Do in the Shadows runs us through the stereotypes of vampire folklore and cinema. You’ve got Petyr, a silent, Nosferatu-esque vampire who’s over 8,000 years old. Then there’s the medieval noble Vladislav (a.ka. “Vladislav the Poker”), a tongue-in-cheek reference to Vlad the Impaler, often cited as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Next up is Deacon, a mere 183 years old, who considers himself the “bad boy” of the group and enjoys pulling the turning-food-into-worms gag from The Lost Boys. The most recent addition is the two-month-old Nick, who goes around telling people he’s “that guy from Twilight”. The description is more accurate than he knows: he doesn’t make a very good vampire in the traditional sense, and honestly he’s kind of a douche. Plus all of his bragging eventually brings a vampire hunter down on the house, with upsetting consequences.

Finally there’s Viago, the primary narrator. A dandy from the 17th century who is basically a mashup of Louis and Lestat (you probably know them as Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt) from Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire, Viago tries to keep the peace between his flatmates, feed on victims without getting blood all over his antique furtiture (unsuccessfully), and entertain the camera crew, all while pining for his lost love Katherine.

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Poor Viago. He can never quite keep the house clean.

The film may be a mockumentary, but it also uses a lot of horror tropes, mostly for the sake of a joke. The typical melodrama found in contemporary vampire movies is turned on its head to highlight how ridiculous classic phrases and scenarios sound when taken even slightly out of context:

“Leave me alone to do my dark bidding on the internet!”
“Whatcha bidding on?”
“This table…”

The typical glamour of the vampire lifestyle also gets flipped around in the mockumentary. Like Ann Rice’s bored and decadent vampires, you can see that the five flatmates in What We Do in the Shadows basically make it as vampires because they were (and are) so bad at being people. Ironically this is also what makes them sympathetic as people.While we’re laughing at their quirks and misfortunes, ours feel small in comparison. Their mistakes may have bigger and bloodier consequences – though is blood harder to get out of upholstery than red wine? – but most of us can empathise with their failures and frustrations. And if that fails, we’ve still got Stu the IT guy.

You rock, Stu.
You rock, Stu.

What I honestly didn’t expect was how funny or engaging I would find this movie, something that has to do with how good of a parody it is on several levels. It takes a poke at a lot of different things – pop culture, New Zealand, bachelors, the elderly, support group slogans (“werewolves, not swearwolves”) – but it also does a great job at using vampires to pick apart our ideas about loneliness, immortality, and just generally being human. Ironically, this makes What We Do in the Shadows a good vampire movie in addition to a good parody. Though some have accused the film of being shallow, for me it was a much-needed breath of fresh air in the otherwise stale crypt of vampire cinema, and it delivered everything we want from our vampires in this specific place and time.

Without casting any literal reflection themselves, vampires still manage to reflect our needs, interests, and emotions, even in 2015.

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They know what we want more than anything right now is ghostly floating teacup antics.

 

Happy Birthday Jane Austen!

Today marks the very first Jane Austen Day – which would also bepride-and-prejudice-and-zombies the author’s 239th birthday were she still alive. While a lot of websites have been celebrating by listing 30 tips from Jane Austen for a successful life (“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid”) or the top 8 modern film adaptations of her work, I’d like to go with just a couple of adaptations hopefully off the beaten path of your normal Austen experience, based on her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice. Here, in no particular order, are some Austen suggestions:

1. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Graham-Smith (pictured above). This mashup of zombie horror and classic literature is surprisingly faithful to the original. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters also comes highly recommended. And who knows, you may find new and unexpected depths to your favourite Austen text – or, if you’re coming at it as a horror fan, you might discover just how hilarious Austen and her writing was.

71v6DClqyKL2. Jane Austen paper dolls, which also come in a specifically Pride and Prejudice variety. Now you can reenact classic Austen stories – and make up your own – in the safe (and private) context of your own home.

3. Anything by Pemberley Digital, but specifically their Lizzie Bennet Diaries YouTube series. This excellent adaptation of Austen’s novel brings Pride and Prejudice into the digital age, and with its bite-sized format it’s a great thing to turn to in your spare time (or in the train to work, which is where I watched most of it). You can watch the pilot episode below:

I’d love to read your Jane Austen suggestions. If you know of a strange adaptation or homage to Austen’s work, post it in the comments!