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.


15 thoughts on “Write it now: hurrah for sequels and mashups and zombies

  1. I’m afraid I don’t get zombie-novels as a whole. Even zombie-films are barely adequate as once-off mindless entertainment. I certainly wouldn’t want to read them, and even less if they’re mashed-up with an existing classic.

    What I do enjoy is if someone recasts a classic novel in a modern setting. If done well it can lead to an entertaining read. But the author has to make the characters and story his/her own for it to really work and not just try to retell the existing story. The best example I can cite actually comes from television: Stephen Moffat has, I think, succeeded wonderfully in reinventing Sherlock Holmes for today’s audience. He took Doyle’s characters and plots, but almost rewrote them from scratch to create a new story that has suddenly taken Holmes mainstream (and revived interest in the original stories at the same time).

    1. That recasting to new context can definitely be fun if it’s done right. Actually it occurs to me that Shakespeare often gets that treatment, though I suppose when they retain the origjnal dialogue it is more a re-framing than re-inventing.

  2. Intriguing post, Matthew, and one that will keep me thinking for a while. Thanks for the Gary Blackwood suggestion–that one I might try–I suspect it will take quite a bit longer for me to read zombie novels. Have enjoyed Jules Verne since my long ago youth and your mentioning him may mean I do some re-reading.

    1. The Blackwood pastiche was definitely fun and worth a look if you can find it. My copy was a $5 remainder which, alas, seems to be a fate shared by the best books these days.

  3. Hmm. I think mashups are fun and aren’t meant to be enduring. Kind of like pulp fiction/dime novels I suppose? I’m not entirely sure. Personally, I think anything original with nods to its inspiration/classic setting would be superior, even if it was a sort of mashup.

    1. Definitely fun. And I think you’re right – transience is one of the key features. Like the pulps. Or the penny dreadfuls that preceded them. I guess they are the modern equivalent. We can’t fault the role in that context of course.

  4. I’m leery of mashups, too. I imagine there’s an audience for them, but I’m not it! I suppose if I were into the zombie trend, I might be. On the other hand, if this type of blending brings more readers to the page, I’m all for it. Intriguing stuff!

    1. That intersection between stories is often where the real creativity works. I’ve never been a great fan of zombies either. The current Romero pop concept is miles away from the Haitian origin for a start. Vampires are way more entertaining as a concept. Not least because the stories can – via allegory – delve more easily into some human realities. I seem to recall reading on your blog that you’d auditioned for a part in a vampire flick, way back?

      1. Ha. Good memory! Yes, I was very close to landing a role in Zombie Strippers. 🙂

        You’ve reminded me of a blend I actually do like — contemporary takes on Shakespeare. I suppose that’s similar! Great point on creativity. All ideas and works are inspired by something.

        1. Shakespeare is so wonderfully amenable to that kind of adaptation.Of course, a lot of his works were themselves mashups of earlier stories re-cast to meet the world of the Elizabethan police state. A portability of concept that just keeps on giving. Wonderful stuff.

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