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AU professor analyzes new take on Austen classic
11/16/09

Allen Grove stands in front of the Steinheim, Alfred University's gothic castle

Allen Grove stands in front of the Steinheim, Alfred University's gothic castle

It might just be enough to rouse Jane Austen from the dead.

But maybe the introduction of zombies into her classic novel would not seem incongruous to the classic’s author, says Allen Grove, professor of English at Alfred University.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Graham-Smith, published by Quirk Classics, interjects an element of the supernatural into Austen’s Victorian-era tale.

“Such is the accomplishment of Pride And Prejudice And Zombies that after reveling in its timeless intrigue, it's difficult to remember how Austen's novel got along without the undead. What begins as a gimmick ends with renewed appreciation of the indomitable appeal of Austen's language, characters, and situations,” according to a review by The Onion A.V. Club, posted on amazon.com

Incorporating the supernatural into the novel works, says Grove, who wrote the afterword to the “deluxe” edition of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. He teaches “Tales of Terror,” a survey of 200 years of Gothic fiction. The course is one of the most popular offered by AU’s English Division.

“In many ways, the central gimmick (zombies) is true to the horror novels of Austen’s day,” Grove says in the afterword. “…although zombies have been popular only in recent decades, their presence in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies makes explicit what Austen constantly implies: Elizabeth Bennet’s world of aristocratic gentility was under attack not just by fortune hunters like Wickham and fortune abusers like Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but also by larger and sometimes more violent and terrifying social and political forces. So we can’t help but cheer when a reinvented – yet surprisingly familiar – Elizabeth Bennet wields steel and the secrets of Shaolin to preserve her threatened way of life.”

Just as Gothic authors introduced the supernatural as a metaphor for events beyond the control of ordinary people in earlier times, zombies represent the same sort of fear of the uncontrollable today, Grove speculates.

“Our fear of and fascination with destructive diseases (AIDS, swine flu or those caused by biologic weapons, etc.) is made explicit with zombies,” Grove says. Using the presence of the “undead” in fiction also “plays into our fantasies of violence. We need feel no guilt when we behead, crush and blow up zombies. There is perhaps comfort in having an unambiguous and irredeemable enemy. And, of course, on a metaphorical level, we are all zombies going mindlessly through the day-to-day grind.”

The current popularity of vampires arises from a different cultural need, Grove theorizes. Vampires – made popular through the Sookie Stackhouse (by author Charlaine Harris) and Twilight (by Stephanie Meyer) novels; TV series like TrueBlood (HBO) and the Twilight movies – “strike me as fantasies of power, of ordinary girls having extraordinary boyfriends, of flirting with danger, of the possibility of immortality,” says Grove.

Grove’s interest in tales of terror, whether contemporary or the gothic novels popular during the 18th and 19th century, goes back to a childhood love of scary movies he says. It became a scholarly interest when he was a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working as a research assistant to Dr. Ruth Perry, whom he calls “a smart and inspiring scholar of gender and 18th-century literature.” She introduced him to some of the earliest tales of terror, including Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, published in 1765, and Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron, published in 1777.

(Grove holds B.S. degrees in both materials science and English from MIT.)

His graduate school dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a Ph.D. in English, was Coming Out of the Castle: Renegotiating Gender and Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century Gothic Fiction, an exploration of the ways tales of terror from Jane Austen’s time period challenged sexual norms.

One of his thesis advisors, Michael Gamer, suggested Grove when Quirk Books was looking for someone to write the afterword for the new release of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Grove was teaching Tales of Terror and an upper-level Jane Austen seminar at the time, so he jumped at the opportunity.