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How to put new life into Jane Austen's world?

Just add zombies

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.

So begin the adventures of Jane Austen's beloved monster-whacking, poetry-reciting heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now With Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem, the latest surefire hit from the doyenne of Regency romances.

Jane Austen and zombies?

P&P&Z, which debuted this week at No. 3 on the New York Times best-seller list, actually is a satirical concoction by Los Angeles-based screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, who used the original Pride and Prejudice as grist for a decidedly bloody, if hilarious, horror mill.

"It's a kind of remix or mash-up," Grahame-Smith said of the novel, which was published this month by the small Philly firm Quirk Books. "It has 85 percent of [Austen's] original text and 15 percent alteration and new materials." (Austen gets a coauthor credit.)

Grahame-Smith, whose previous books include the send-up How to Survive a Horror Movie, transplants Austen's dialogue and descriptive language from its genteel context into a parallel universe where the English countryside is infested with zombies.

In Austen's novel, Elizabeth is the second of five daughters whose mother anxiously seeks to marry her off to a proper - and suitably prosperous - gent. But the young girl refuses to marry until she meets someone who can love and understand her.

In the new version, which Grahame-Smith sees as a mix "between a costume drama, The Matrix . . . [and] Kill Bill," Elizabeth and her betrothed, Mr. Darcy, don't flirt while discussing novels, but while kicking zombie behind.

As Sophocles once put it, add zombies to any story and you have an instant hit and serious street cred.

Quirk editor Jason Rekulak said P&P&Z, which had a first printing of 12,500 copies, generated such intense Internet buzz that an additional 110,000 copies were quickly added - quite a jump.

"This has become a chocolate and peanut butter moment in publishing," said Grahame-Smith, whose satire cashes in on our current feverish fixation on Austenalia and our abiding love-hate relationship with the gothic.

Other Austen transmogrifications include two forthcoming books - Michael Thomas Ford's vampire novel Jane Bites Back, and Bespelling Jane, an anthology of four paranormalized Austen tales - both due out next year.

Finally, the film Pride and Predator, currently in development at Elton John's Rocket Pictures, is about aristocrats who battle invading aliens.

Kerri Spennicchia, who serves on the board of directors of the Jane Austen Society of North America, said the conjunction of horror and Austen, who was well-versed in the gothic lit of her time, isn't so far-fetched:

"People get lost in [the] . . . romance" of Austen's books. "[But] there is a strong [theme] about the horrors of her time, the horrors of what happens to a woman if she is not married, or if she loses her reputation."

Spennicchia, a law librarian in New York, said Austen "drew attention to the dangers that could happen in the marital bed and the power of the master of the house."

The horror trend is but a drop in the torrent of Austen-related books, films, dolls, calendars, and other products that have saturated the market over the last decade.

Recent renditions of Pride and Prejudice include the BBC's acclaimed six-part 1995 mini-series with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, the Oscar-nominated 2005 film starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, and Gurinder Chadha's 2004 Bollywood version, Bride & Prejudice. More indirectly, Bridget Jones' Diary and Twilight can both be read as glosses on the novel.

Austen, whose books have consistently been in print since her death, still sells.

"The publishing truism of the last few years is that you can sell toilet paper if you have Jane Austen's name on it," quipped Liz Scheier, a former editor at Ballantine Books who first acquired Ford's novel.

Ford said his Austen-as-a-vampire story Jane Bites Back was inspired by his reaction - part amusement, part revulsion - to Austen fever.

"I was talking to my agent one day about the state of publishing . . . [and] how the only things that were selling were vampires and Jane Austen," said Ford, whose book is due out next spring from Ballantine Books. "I said wouldn't it be funny if I did a book about Jane Austen as a vampire. . . . We called it Bridget Jones meets Dracula."

In the story, Austen has lived as a "very reluctant vampire" for the last 200 years.

"She has seen her name become this huge industry. She resents it because she can't collect any royalties, or get any attention for it," said the San Francisco-based Ford, 40, a prolific author whose previous novels include A Full Circle and Changing Tides. Austen, who runs a bookshop, watches with consternation as her works are misinterpreted and twisted in every imaginable manner.

"It's a comment on what it is like to be an author in our culture, what is perceived as 'good' writing," given the current emphasis on profits.

But why Jane Austen?

Why not Anthony Trollope and zombies? Or Henry James as a werewolf?

Why is Austen so au courant, so in, so happening?

Why are we so besotted with an era that so degraded women; in which no one spoke their mind; individuals' lives were so tightly constrained by social rules; and the accident of birth determined social status for life?

It's the romance, stupid.

"Jane Austen . . . is the grandmother of the romance novel," said historical romance writer Collen Gleason, one of the contributors to the anthology Bespelling Jane, due out next year from the Harlequin imprint HQN.

We yearn, it seems, for a time when men were gallant and women were - property.

Juliette Wells, who teaches at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., said some folks in our let-it-all-hang-out culture, which is suffused with instant communication, yearn for a time when people were more circumspect.

"In our era, there is very little to say that is not spoken. We feel entitled to have private information about everybody," said Wells, whose next book, Everybody's Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination, is due out in 2011. "There's something appealing about a world where characters were more reticent."

If there's less mystery today, there's more freedom. Why turn back the clock?

The irony is not lost on Ford, who says that in Jane Bites Back, Austen is impressed that "women have more options for their lives," yet she's puzzled that so many of them "pine for her time . . . and are now looking backward."

Scholars tend to argue that we over-romanticize Austen's works.

"I see her as a social satirist. . . . She had such a wicked and really profound sense of humor," said Ford's agent, Mitchell Waters, who devoted his graduate studies in literature to Austen.

Sarah Frantz, who teaches British lit at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, said Austen's wit cuts through social hypocrisy. Her characters bucked social mores and expected a certain equality.

"She was the first person to insist in her books that the man change as well as the woman. In all other novels [of the era], it's the woman who falls in love and reshapes herself to his image of her," Frantz said.

The University of Toronto's Deidre Lynch said Austen's novels expose the fragility of social rules.

"For all their codes of behavior, there was always a fear that at any moment chaos and violence might break through," she said, adding that a codified system of manners was a recent achievement. Violence wasn't the only fear.

"In an age before birth control, it was felt that sexuality was dangerous."

How would Austen react to the zombification and vampirization of her life and works?

"I think she would be initially horrified, but I think she'd . . . sneer and laugh at the same time," Frantz said.

Mitchell Waters laughed. "That's the $64,000 question," he said. "We'd have to hold a séance and ask her."