Write it now: hurrah for sequels and mashups and zombies

Every so often an author comes up with a novel or genre that becomes an instant classic – enduring through decades and even centuries.

Jules Verne, public domain from Wikimedia.

Jules Verne, public domain from Wikimedia.

Take Jules Verne. We call his books ‘sci-fi’, but really they were tongue-in-cheek adventures that lampooned national characteristics – British phlegm and French excitability in Around The World In Eighty Days; German precision in Journey to the Centre of the Earth; American ingenuity in From the Earth to the Moon. It was this that gave them such appeal at the time – and made that appeal enduring.

A few weeks ago I read Gary Blackwood’s Around The World in 100 Days (Dutton Children’s Books, New York 2010) -  a loose, YA-pitched sequel to You Know What.

The story’s deceptively simple. A generation on. Phileas Fogg’s son and an engineer friend have built a steam car. The lad gets caught up in a bet at the Reform Club to drive it around the globe – and so the race is on. It’s brilliantly written in pseudo-period style. But it stands as a wonderful novel in its own right – a story that merely takes the setting Verne offered and extrapolates it in new directions. The character arc is the classic ‘coming of age’ story, wrapped around a ‘boys own’ adventure filled with true dramatic tension – most of it driven by the characters themselves – worthy of Verne himself. Wonderful stuff.

It’s not the first time an out-of-copyright classic author has contributed concept to a modern novel that takes the basic idea and runs it into new directions. Multiple writers have tackled Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The master of this genre remains George McDonald Fraser, whose Flashman series took the archetypal bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays and extrapolated him, as an adult, into most of Queen Victoria’s ‘little wars’. The eponymous first novel was so closely written to period style that one reviewer mistook it for a genuine ‘found memoir’.

Jane Austen. Public domain, from http://www.wpclipart.com/famous/writer/writers_A_to_D/Jane_Austen_coloured_version.jpg.html

Jane Austen. Public domain, from http://www.wpclipart.com/ famous/writer/writers_A_to_D/ Jane_Austen_coloured_version.jpg.html

But lately that’s been joined by a new genre – the mashup. A few years ago Seth Graham-Smith re-wrote Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as a zombie novel, a lead followed here in New Zealand by a local publisher who’s reissued Katherine Mansfield’s short stories as zombie tales.

On the face of it the notion has a certain appeal. How would Classic Author X have treated horror-sci-fi?

The thing is, I’m not entirely sure this works. Extrapolating new stories from old tales has the potential to create new literature of its own – as Fraser demonstrated. But simply taking out-of-copyright text and re-publishing it with interpolations based on the latest pop-genre de jour is something else.

Jane Austen invented the modern novel, and her books had all the things we expect from one – a particular theme, a particular way in which the characters developed. Zombies introduce a completely dissonant theme. And while there is a kind of dada-ist appeal in the collision, I really wonder about how good or enduring it really is. I certainly doubt it will take its place alongside the original novels. Unlike Fraser’s work.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery, humour and more. Watch this space.

Looking for the missing spirit of Christmas…with zombies…

We went to the local mall on Sunday. It was packed, of course, with the usual shopping zombies, their minds destroyed by the glitz and glam.

The Zombie Christmas Maul

The Zombie Christmas Maul

Whenever we visit the mall, She Who Must Be Obeyed forbids me to shuffle along behind them, matching their gait and murmuring “braaaaiiins….”

Well, I’m not forbidden, but she won’t walk hand-in hand if I do, instead she’s on the other side of the mall saying things like ‘I don’t know that weird guy.’

Being the weekend-before-the-weekend-before Christmas, there were a LOT of people shopping last Sunday, interspersed with cellphone-toting teens whose minds were miles away, and toddlers drifting aimlessly around the whole lot like the wayward satellites of some Jovian supergiant. Every so often, one of the squidlings would squeal with the exact pitch and timbre of a gym shoe being scraped across a polished floor.

Looking at the way everybody had been reduced to brainlessness by the pressure to buy, buy, buy for Christmas, I couldn’t help thinking we’ve lost something.

It’s Christmas. It’s a time for caring. A time for families. A time to think of others. A time – well, it’s Christmas Spirit, isn’t it.

What’s it become? A marketing frenzy. A shallow exercise in consumerism. A concerted effort to extract as much cash as possible from the wallets of many who cannot really afford it.

Here in New Zealand, the shops will be open right through Christmas Eve – and open again on Boxing Day when, inevitably, it will be ‘sale time’. I believe that’s true elsewhere too.

Where has the spirit of care gone? Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Fun holiday stuff – with some history, geekery and writing stuff. Regular writing tips, science geekery, history… and more… returns in the new year. Watch this space.

Running the zombie Christmas mall gauntlet

it’s Christmas again…and that means a visit to (dramatic chord)… The Mall.

The Zombie Christmas Maul

The Zombie Christmas Maul

It’s the same every year. The endless shuffle of zombiefied shoppers, drifting around shiny glass-and-glitz caverns, a mass of humanity with glazed eyes and shopping bags, punctuated by toddlers who lurch aimlessly out from the crowd, shrieking and hyperventilating. There are teenage boys who smell like they’ve just showered with a cocktail of propionic acid and brevibacteria, girls who giggle and text somebody three feet away, just because they can, all endlessly circling like – well, endlessly circling things who like circling endlessly.

And then, in the midst of this glittering temple to the worst excesses of shallow consumerism and the transient disposability of post-industrial A-gen society…Father Christmas. He’s moved here from the North Pole apparently.

There’s something about these places that turns the brain to mush and reduces people to zombiefied numbness. I am not allowed to punk them – you know, do the zombie walk behind these  shoppers and murmur ‘braaaaaiins’. Well, I can, but She Who Must Be Obeyed has to walk on the other side of the mall atrium for a while afterwards.

But honestly!

It’s done deliberately. People buy more if their mind’s switched off. And I have to feel sorry for the poor folks that have to work in these places. Malls are the twenty-first century equivalent of the workhouse when it comes to conditions.

Every mall I’ve been to from North Sydney to Lower Hutt to Bangkok has been exactly the same. The Australia and New Zealand ones even look the same. Is this the unity in diversity beloved of anthropologists?

I’ve got readers of this blog from Melbourne to Florida, from the Netherlands to Cape Town, from Houston to New York to France to Moscow to Dunedin. Am I right that it’s the same everywhere? The look. The raw horror of it all. The commercialism? The mindless advertising. The glitz. The ….the…

“Braaaainnns….”

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012 

Heads up folks – are you ready for the zombie apocalypse?

My sister has a plan for handling the zombie apocalypse when it comes to her home near Utrecht. A scheme for the instant when they burst into her workroom moaning ‘hersenen… heeeeersenen’ (well, they’re Dutch undead…)

She’s a fabric artist who dyes and spins artisan-craft wools. The spinning equipment, she tells me, is easily able to defeat the living dead. She hasn’t detailed her ideas – but I guess if you see a headline like ‘Soest zombies gemaakt om te breien’, you’ll know what happened.

Got me thinking. That apocalypse might happen anywhere. Do I have anything in my writing office to deal with the ravening dead? If I was in the US I’d give the zombies a burst with the kitchen cupboard Mac-10 before advancing on the undead horde with the family Mossberg .410. If I were an Australian I’d flick a couple of boomerangs, stuff the nearest zombie into the esky, slam the lid, then parade out in my budgie-smugglers and strike them all blind. Or if I were Bear Gryllis, I’d turn the first into a survival shelter, four into firewood, and make the rest into a helicopter to fly home..

However, I live in New Zealand. No spinning wheels. No guns. There are budgie-smugglers, but I don’t own any such shreddies and never will. Am I gonna die? No chance. You see, I have the ultimate anti-zombie device.  In fact every Kiwi home has one – and Peter Jackson showed us what any good Kiwi zombie hunter could do with one. Bwahahaha! Yup – the common or garden rotocut. Eat spinning steel, undead zombies!

So – when zombies burst into my writing office, I’ll be out the window, into the shed, and desperately tearing at the pull start on the old Masport. Ours is a bit hard to start…Hmmn… Niggling worry. And I do have one other little niggle too. If the living dead outnumber the living 1,500,000,000 to 1, who says somebody else will be the zombie? Just asking, you understand.

What would you do if the zombies burst in while you were quietly working on the computer?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Tuesday quote: your zombie apocalypse is in the mall

Overheard in my local mall the other weekend: ‘This place would be really defensible in a zombie apocalypse.’

Handy to know. I had thought of hiding out in the local pub, I saw a movie once where they tried that. Didn’t work of course. Wouldn’t at my local, either, I suspect. Does your local mall shape up the same way? What would you do in a zombie apocalypse?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

The 2011 Christmas Zombie Mall Shuffle

It’s Christmas again, and yesterday that meant it was time for She Who Must Be Obeyed to drag me off to (drum roll) The Mall.

As far as I am concerned malls are vampires that suck money and will-to-live, all glitz-and-mirror with endless rows of cheap jewellery shops, pedicure booths and smartphone outlets. They are identical from Melbourne to Luton – hey, I even found one in Bangkok (the Siam Centre) that could have been transplanted from anywhere else. All of them home to endless hordes of once-were-humans, the shopping dead who amble vacantly in witless circles, slack mouths breathing that dread word  – ‘credit caaaaaaard…’

Shopping in the mall for me consists of hurtling into the place, picking up essential bloke stuff (1/16 PzKW VI Tiger I model, engine oil, power tools, that sort of thing). Then getting out. Fast.

The Zombie Christmas Maul

She Who Must Be Obeyed has other ideas: ‘That’s a nice coat. Try to look interested. Now we need to get cards and. OOOH, SHINY! Yes, we need to get to the – er – Matthew, stop wandering off. CROCKERY SHOP! Oh how about those towels, we need new towels, why don’t we sit down at this coffee place or try that Indian take-away even though it made you sick last time and…IS THAT A FLYING SHARK?’

There is no escape. Malls are the Hotel California. Even if you can find an exit, it’s guarded by armies of young mums with toddlers zing-splat bungied to their wrists, four year olds who back into you, randomly squealing like ambulatory car alarms, dads with a blank look and hang-dog expression, honk-voiced teenage boys who smell, old ladies with walkers, lost husbands…and…and…

Bah humbug.

Copyright © Matthew Wright