Monster Mash(ups)

16 Sep

A Mashup novel (for those of you who aren’t in the know) is a work of fiction which combines a pre-existing text, often a classic work of fiction, with a modern genre such as crime, fantasy or horror. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which combines Jane Austen’s classic novel with elements of modern zombie fiction, is one of the most famous and successful works in the genre, and has been credited with spawning a rash of imitations and cash-ins, such as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer, which does much the same with the historical autobiography. While some see the Mashup novel as re-energising fiction and bringing it to a wider audience than ever before, many criticise it for being too safe and lazy – the literary equivalent of the current penchant in Hollywood for reboots and prequels. What is unarguable, however, is the genre’s success. Both AL:VS and P&P&Z have topped the bestseller lists; the former has already been made into a Hollywood blockbuster while a film version of the latter is in the pipeline. So what makes Mashup novels so appealing and do they spell the beginning of a new golden age in genre fiction or the end of literature as we know it?

I should make it clear that Mashup novels are seen as distinct from parody novels like Bored of the Rings, and parallel novels like Wicked since they do not merely make fun of the original text, or tell an alternative version of it, but also introduce the themes and characteristics of a wholly different genre. It is also a very recent phenomenon – P&P&Z only appeared in 2009, making a seismic impact on its arrival. The author, Seth Graham-Smith, combines elements of Austen’s 1813 novel with the horror genre, specifically modern zombie fiction, cheekily crediting Austen as co-author in the process. Grahame-Smith was given the project by the publishers rather than coming up with the idea entirely by himself, although he immediately saw the potential for the classic text to be adapted into a modern horror story. After all, it had many of the essential elements of the genre already – a dashing hero, a feisty heroine and a facade of gentility suppressing the inner turmoil of its main characters. This was a setting which, to Grahame-Smith, appeared just right for a zombie invasion! Set in an alternative version of Regency-era England, the presence of the zombies (often referred to as ‘unmentionables’) alters Austen’s story in significant ways while remaining true to the core plot, which is still at its heart a romance.

While many Austen fans threw up their hands in horror at the time, this did not stop P&P&Z’s popularity from soaring. An instant bestseller, it quickly spawned a raft of sequels and imitators. Its direct sequels were Dawn of the Dreadfuls and Dreadfully Ever After while other Austen-themed horror Mashups included Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Mr Darcy: Vampire and Mansfield Park and Mummies. Having exhausted the crossover possibilities of Jane Austen’s works, Mashup authors quickly moved onto the other classics of literature, producing efforts such as Grave Expectations (Dickens meets vampires and werewolves), Little Vampire Women (by Louisa May Alcott and Lynn Messina),  Android Karenina (Tolstoy goes sci-fi) and Jane Slayre (need you ask?). It has to be said that the law of diminishing returns applies to many of the latest Mashup novels, which display laziness of concept, writing and plotting (not to mention naming, as illustrated above!). Nonetheless, the public appetite for this genre seems far from satiated and as long as the demand is there you can expect many more to follow. War and Peace and Demons anyone?

Seth Grahame-Smith, the original Mashup author, put an interesting new slant on the genre with AL:VS, which, rather than referencing a classic work of fiction, superimposed the horror genre over real historical figures and events. Grahame-Smith cunningly re-imagines one of the USA’s greatest presidents as fighting the forces of darkness as well as upholding truth, justice and the American way. In doing so, in my opinion, his achievement is far greater than that with P&P&Z. AL:VS is a rip-roaring thrill ride of a read, narrated in a voice which the reader can genuinely believe is that of Honest Abe himself. At the same time it is every bit as exhilarating as any modern thriller, which makes it no surprise that it was adapted into a film version not long after its runaway success as a novel. Once again, it was followed by a slew of (often inferior) imitations, such as Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter and Henry VIII: Wolfman (again, the titles say it all). Unfortunately, there have been few other innovations in the Mashup genre, which instead seems content to churn out more of the same to a so-far willing public. This is a phenomenon that surely cannot continue for that much longer but, until that bubble bursts, it seems that readers have little choice other than to either enjoy the ride or get off and read something else altogether. Something like, dare I suggest, the original Pride and Prejudice perhaps?

6 Responses to “Monster Mash(ups)”

  1. The Paranormalist - Renae Rude September 16, 2012 at 5:41 am #

    Before I knew there was a trend, I happened upon Jayne Slayer. It was enjoyable.I’ve been meaning to try some of the others, but haven’t so far gotten around to it. I definitely want to read AL: VS next. I’m a history buff anyway, so I think it sounds fun.

    Right now, we have Christopher Farnsworth’s ‘Blood Oath’ series on hold at the library. Similar idea, I think.

  2. Steve Vernon September 16, 2012 at 11:15 am #

    Mash-ups are a little like fart jokes. They work – initially – in their sense of the obvious. Just as the bulk of them possess titles that often “say it all”.

    Mash-ups work like a classic Hollywood pitch – “You know, cowboys and sharks – like TOMBSTONE meets JAWS”

    They are a little like comic books – (think about the WHAT IF? Marvel Comic book stories – or DC’s THE WAR THAT TIME FORGOT).

    They are also a little like alternative histories – (think about Harry Turtledove’s GUNS OF THE SOUTH).

    They also have a little in common with Universal Monster mash-ups – (FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN)

    Initially, P&P&Z was nothing more than the original novel plus zombies.

    However, in books such as QUEEN VICTORIA, DEMON HUNTER and ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE SLAYER they began to take historical figures and take them in certain “what-if” directions. That is the mash-ups real evolution – beyond just a simple one-note jamming together of concepts.

    Only problem is – neither QVDH or ABVS is particularly well-written – in my opinion. Queen Victoria, Demon Hunter was a bit of a hot mess (I read it for a review when it first came out) – and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer seems a little basic, from the first chapter that I read.

    We need to get really cool ideas to really cool writers – such as when Neil Gaiman wrote Marvel Comic’s 1602.

  3. Nick September 16, 2012 at 1:07 pm #

    I genuinely think that this new sub genre has potential, but Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer instantly leaped into my top ten worst books ever. Queen Victoria was (I found) a lot more fun and somewhatbetter written. Hope for the future… the Holmes / HG Wells books.

  4. D.R. Bartlette September 16, 2012 at 2:50 pm #

    Steve Vernon said it well – they’re one-trick ponies, really. The fact that the first of this genre was “suggested by a publisher” says it all – they’re like boy bands, artificially contrived by marketing departments for maximum profit potential. And like boy bands, sometimes an entertaining product comes out of it, but it’s more the exception than the rule.
    It’s just a shame publishers are throwing so much money and attention at these things instead of at works that might actually be better, or at least well written.

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