The Magazine

Britain Sees Red

The horrors of a literary genre.

Jan 25, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 18 • By SARA LODGE
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Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter by A. E. Moorat is perhaps the oddest of these novels. In it, Queen Victoria (1819-1901), Britain’s longest-ruling monarch, is revealed to have been far from a dumpy, frumpy, and grumpy paragon of domestic life, in fact a ruthless and deadly single-combat fighter, wearing a katana and a spin-saw beneath her crinoline. The menaces she faces include not only zombies but werewolves and succubi: The whole country, it emerges, is threatened by an age-old conspiracy of demons who intend to usurp the throne and turn Britain into a lawless land of violence and misery.

Victoria must face the difficulty not only of ruling the country and raising a family, but of rescuing her beloved Prince Albert, who is kidnapped by the forces of evil, and of learning that she (shock! horror!) is herself half-demon, on her mother’s side. Since Prince Albert is also half-demon, this raises the awkward possibility that their progeny will have red eyes, bad teeth, and terrible table manners.

When not elaborating on Victoria’s antics with a broadsword, the story follows the adventures of Lord Quimby, an amoral aristocrat and sexual adventurer, whose invention of a liquid that can bring the dead back to life is behind the accidental epidemic of zombies in central London. The Quimby episodes in Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter aim at black humor. For example, Perkins, Quimby’s faithful servant, is unfortunately eviscerated by a zombie prostitute. Quimby, however, revives him, and Perkins, though now himself a zombie, remains a remarkably tactful and efficient butler. Since one of Perkins’s own legs has been devoured, Quimby resourcefully attaches one of those formerly belonging to Sugar, the prostitute. Thus Perkins, a manservant of superhuman strength but diffident social demeanor, wears beneath his Victorian trousers a female prosthetic limb with red painted toenails.


This is surely the transgressive pleasure on which the new genre of 19th-century zombie fiction is based: We look up the reputedly decorous skirts of our ancestors and discover all manner of concealed parts. The Victorian woman is hiding a broadsword; the Victorian man is hiding a broad’s leg.

Quimby and Queen Victoria finally meet at the end of the novel when Quimby, facing blackmail from the wicked Sir John Conroy and his demon masters, unwisely agrees to transform a number of MPs into zombies, allowing the antireform wing of the government to gain a majority in resisting the Factory Bill. Alas, the Monsters of Parliament run amok and the cradle of democracy becomes a scene of carnage, as honorable members are severed and swallowed.

Moorat particularly relishes entrails: Guts unspool in his novel like reels of old-fashioned film, and human intestines are wolfed down, used to pull victims to their doom, and even to strangle them. (Indeed, one might with justice say that Moorat’s sentences abound in colons and semicolons.) Realizing that his survival depends on it, Quimby joins the good guys, leads Victoria to the imprisoned Albert, and assists her in dispatching Conroy to hell. Whether the descendants of the happily reunited royal couple do, however, turn out to be demons is not recorded.

As attentive readers may by now have guessed, Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter is not a good book. The prose is often as lumbering as the zombies. But it has a certain interest, partly because one of its aims is clearly to be bad. Turning Queen Victoria into Buffy is equivalent to drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa. It is a form of graffiti that draws attention to its own want of art. A large part of the point of this kind of fiction is that its self-conscious flippancy and deliberate shoddiness thumbs its nose at the high pretensions of a more earnest era. As a telling note from Moorat announces: “All anachronisms are intentional, even those that are not.”

Britons have an odd relationship with history: Precisely because it is so important to us, being the legacy that supports the outsized claims of a small island, it is something we alternately venerate and ridicule. Like a child with overbearing parents, we have to ridicule it because otherwise it would dominate us.

Our love/hate feelings about the Victorians are particularly extreme. In a sense, we do think of them as monsters: sexually repressed, class-bound, hypocritical, ruthlessly expansionist. Yet they are also our great-grandparents, authors of our institutions, architects of reform, and pioneers of the novel, a genre for which we retain enormous affection. In other words, the soppy yet stroppy Queen Victoria may never have leapt onto a moving vehicle or beheaded a werewolf with a pikestaff; but the fact that, in this book, Victoria is half-demon/half-heroine strangely captures a truth about her ambivalent status (and that of her era) in modern Britain.

One might, then, answer the question “Why Victorian zombies?” by arguing that this book performs the same trick as Quimby: It raises the dead, revealing supposedly staid Victorians as creatures of insatiable and primitive appetite, and then has the cathartic pleasure of dismantling them and consigning them to history all over again. But, naturally, this argument involves the kind of academic approach to literature that novels like Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter exist to resist.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith is a different kind of pastiche. It faithfully reproduces much of the text of Jane Austen’s best-loved novel, but interlards the familiar episodes, in which verbal blows are traded over tea and cards, with all-new scenes in which Lizzy Bennet and her sisters take on the evil dead with muskets, blades, and throwing stars. As the dust jacket winningly promises: “Complete with romance, heartbreak, swordfights, cannibalism, and thousands of rotting corpses, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read.”

Once again, a large part of the humor is derived from the inherent naughtiness of taking a text so concerned with propriety and putting the characters into situations so improper for their era. In this book, when Lizzy rejects Darcy’s first proposal of marriage, she kicks him into the mantelpiece “with such force as to shatter its edge.” They then proceed to grapple for the poker. The Bennet sisters, like the feisty heroines of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, have been trained in China and are skilled in swordsmanship, gunfighting, and a variety of Oriental moves and poses that are fatal both to attackers and admirers. When not buying bonnets and attending balls, they are calmly annihilating the herds of zombies who make travel in rural Hertfordshire hazardous.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is an entertaining read. This is partly because much of it is by Jane Austen, who happens to be a Zen master of wit. But Grahame-Smith’s added fight scenes and zombie encounters are also clever. Often, they playfully literalize elements that are already figuratively present in the original. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Charlotte Lucas, a plain and pragmatic friend of Lizzy Bennet, agrees to marry the awful Mr. Collins, a stupid, stout, and self-important Anglican priest. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, we learn that Charlotte has agreed to this union only because she has recently been bitten by a zombie and knows that her time is limited.

Once married, she begins to turn into a moronic and lifeless revenant with alarming speed. This is but a more graphic rendering of what Austen’s own depiction of a loveless marriage implies. Likewise, Lizzy’s conversations with the haughty Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who thinks her beneath Darcy’s notice, are already, in Austen, encounters that involve steel-tipped sparring. It is just that, in this version, Lizzy is attacked by Lady Catherine’s team of ninjas and executes them blindfolded.

Jane Austen’s novels themselves have a strong parodic undertow. Their lack of startling incident thumbs its nose at the Gothic novel, with its brigands, bleeding nuns, sexual outrages, and dastardly villains. The truth of women’s lives in early 19th-century England, Austen’s fiction humorously affirms, is that they spend much of their time combating rain, boredom, financial pressures, and relatives. It is ironic, then, that 21st-century parodists should put back in the Gothic extremes that Austen deliberately omitted: battles, monsters, melodrama.

Jane Austen, who loved a lampoon, would probably be amused by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. For the joke is much more on us than on her. The modern world wallows in Austen-
sible nostalgia for a cinematic version of Regency England that bears little relation to her reality. The charm of that England is its restraint: Courtship is gradual and uncertain, there is time for lingering looks and poetry books. Heroines wear layers of pretty cambrics and ribbons; they have little to do but pick roses from idyllic gardens unspoiled by views of pylons and freeways; heroes gallop about on horses and smoulder in tight white breeches. It is the ubiquity of this false nostalgia and winsomely chintzy approach to Austen in a supposedly post-feminist age that makes a gun-toting Lizzy Bennet so appealing.

Since attaching the torso of a Regency romance to the legs and arms of a zombie graphic novel has proved so commercially successful, I think we can look forward to much more Frankenfiction in 2010. Already, a follow-up pastiche, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, is doing good business. I imagine we can anticipate ere long the publication of Wuthering Heights and Werewolves, Jude the Obscure and Golems, and a zombie rewrite of Evelyn Waugh’s postwar account of the crumbling aristocracy, Bride’s Head Decapitated.

If you have an idle hour and a classic novel kicking around, you might even try this game yourself. After all, as Jane Austen didn’t say, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a reverent approach to literature has its limitations; whereas a revenant approach leaves you free to do pretty much anything you like. 

Sara Lodge, a lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author, most recently, of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.

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