Every so often an author comes up with a novel or genre that becomes an instant classic – enduring through decades and even centuries.
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’.
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.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014
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