A couple of years ago, people started telling me about this novel called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Wasn't it a far-out, whacky notion? Doesn't that sound ever so cool? Don't you want to rush out and read it right now?! Well, I've still not got round to reading it, because my answer to all three questions was ‘um, er, well, no, not really, no.' That might sound a little ungenerous to Jane Austen (who I have read) and her posthumous collaborator*, but that's how it goes. A few factors put me off reading the thing: the most trivial being that the word ‘zombie' wasn't introduced into the English language until a century or so after the setting of Austen's novel, and the most trenchant being that this was a packaged book. An editor came up with the pitch and hired a writer to do the ‘work', which boils down to changing ‘15%' of the text to make a mash-up or cut-up or mutilation or whatever we might call it. To my mind, that's not the same as writing a book.
I love some novels which take other novels as their source material: Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea (the backstory of Mrs Rochester from Jane Eyre), Nicholas Meyer's The Seven-per-cent Solution (still the best non-Doyle Sherlock Holmes novel), Susan Kay's Phantom (the other side of the Phantom of the Opera), Michael Bishop's Brittle Innings (the Frankenstein Monster is a baseball player in Depression America – now, seriously, that's a novel premise!), Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly (the story of Dr Jekyll's maid), Philip José Farmer's biographies of Tarzan and Doc Savage (which, frankly, mean more to me than anything by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lester Dent) and many short stories by Howard Waldrop (‘Night of the Cooters', about what happened in Texas during the War of the Worlds is a favourite). Even before I set out to write Anno Dracula – which is, among other things, a tapestry of crossover characters from books, films and history – I collected novels which riffed on Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, H.G. Wells and Stevenson (the most common source material for such things).
When I was writing the novel, I found myself looking at fiction (in film and literature) and history the way a casting director might look at Spotlight, the actors' directory: if I needed a police inspector, a member of parliament, a corrupt financier, a streetwalker or whatever, I scouted for a suitable pre-existing character who would fit into the pattern. Sometimes I wanted flamboyant guest turns – which is why there's a chapter called ‘Dr Jekyll and Dr Moreau' – but sometimes I just needed a name (Henry Wilcox from Howard's End, Soames Forsyte from The Forsyte Saga). I've done similar things in other stories and books: ‘Famous Monsters' is about a Martian invader who winds up a bit-player in Hollywood and ‘A Drug on the Market' is what would happen if Dr Jekyll's formula went on sale in chemist's shops, and Back in the USSA (written with Eugene Byrne and currently available only in Serbia) makes room for Sergeant Bilko, Molesworth and the Likely Lads in an alternate history of the 20th Century where America was a communist superpower. I like this stuff, and some readers do too – though I know it ticks off an equal number of folks, who feel about it the way I feel about P&P&Z.
I also like ‘meets' or ‘versus' stories, which have been about ever since Hercules joined Jason for part of the voyage of the Argo but probably really got going with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943. Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Tarzan, Batman and company have met almost everybody … I was just distracted from writing this article by an impulse to order Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly by Donald Thomas from Amazon (Henry James' ‘The Turn of the Screw' is another much-plundered source). And the movies have offered King Kong vs Godzilla, Alien vs Predator, Freddy vs Jason and others – all, generally, featuring well-past-their-prime opponents, but somehow irresistible. These things seem to be predicated on the Marvel Comics theory that any two powerful people who meet will immediately have a fight – even if they're both heroes, like Daredevil and Spider-Man – in order to settle playground disputes (and now net message board posting threads) about who is the toughest. It makes sense if you pitch a detective like Sherlock Holmes and a crook like Arsene Lupin into one story that they'll clash, but the need to offer an outcome that doesn't dent either reputation often makes for a less credible payoff.
It's also a simplification of how people interact when their stories cross, as are the online stories – and you know what I mean – in which famous characters meet and have wild sex (say, Dirty Harry and Winnie-the-Pooh, though if such a thing has been written I wouldn't read it until after I've finished Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters). The thing is that stories are still stories. Just as it's not enough to hire a couple of big stars and hope they'll strike sparks in a nothing movie (like, say, The Tourist), it's not enough to take a classic off the shelf and shove a werewolf in it or to bash much-loved icons against each other like a kid playing with toys from different boxes (Airfix Afrika Corps vs Daleks!). There needs to be a point. There needs to be a story – a fictional world – which needs exploring. And you can't just copy out from an old book or deliver one of those authorised sequels where the heirs of the writer stop you from doing anything interesting or fake it: the point is to make the reader look at the original work in another way, sometimes even to the point of criticism (I love Robert Aldrich's film of Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly, which shows up Spillane's hero Mike Hammer as a little fascist thug) but always in an attempt to engage with the material.
I may have to ask for several other counts to be taken into consideration, since I've just delivered a novel called The Hound of the d'Urbervilles.
*Seth Grahame-Smith. I looked it up on wikipedia. He also wrote that Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter thing.
Editor's Note: Kim Newman's classic horror novel Anno Dracula (considered by many to be the first horror mash-up novel) will be available this month in a new paperback edition from Titan Books, containing unique bonus material, including a new afterword from Kim Newman, annotations, articles and alternate endings to the original novel.