Writer S.J. Chambers on "The Monster Mashup"--Austen, Lincoln, Zombies, John Kessel, and Beyond
Recently, S.J. Chambers wrote a fascinating analysis of the current spate of monster mashup novels over at Bookslut. Given the popularity of these books, it seemed the perfect opportunity to interview someone who has studied them in-depth and talk more about this new trend. S.J. Chambers is a senior editor at Strange Horizons magazine. Her work has appeared in Fantasy, Tor.com, Yankee Pot Roast, Mungbeing, and Bookslut. (Full disclosure: Chambers is currently working as the assistant editor and senior researcher on my book The Steampunk Bible coming out from Abrams Image next year.)
Amazon.com: In this current trend, when’s the line crossed between pastiche and mash-up into something that’s genuinely unique?
S.J. Chambers: The line is crossed when the two disparate parts begin to complement each other and reveal things about beloved classical characters that were either never emphasized much in the original or were overlooked. The best example I have seen so far is John Kessel's "Pride and Prometheus," which was published in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, and is now reprinted in Best American Fantasy 3. Kessel takes two disparate characters--Mary from Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and Victor from Shelley's Frankenstein--and have them form a relationship that reveals much more of themselves, as well as the novels they lived in. This creates a new context for both works, while making a strong story in its own right, and I think is the potential of a trend like monster lit.
Amazon.com: Is it simply a matter of judging each book by its own standards and voice, or is there in your reading certain elements or decisions by the author regarding the source material that almost always lead to either success or disaster?
S.J. Chambers: For me, I wanted to evaluate whether this trend had more substance than a viral web promotion. In each book I looked for a way that the author changed the story to elaborate upon or look at a character in a new way. For instance, with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I thought the z-epidemic would have heightened Austen's satire on society. Instead, it was just slapstick gore stuck in-between dialogue. There were no attempts to really show anything about the text, it was just to have zombies walk on screen, do a funny jig, and exit stage left until the next inappropriate passage. However, in Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter, Moorat does use the unusual circumstances to explore the young queen's feelings of isolation. There were plenty of limbs and guts there too, but it wasn't so evasive as it is in the cut-and-paste works and I thought it, as well as Jane Austen Bites Back, and "Pride and Prometheus" were all successful in those factors.
Amazon.com: Why should readers privilege these books over books by writers who aren’t riffing off of someone else’s creation?
S.J. Chambers: Regarding the cut-and-paste mash up like the Quirk Classics, I don't think they should be. Those books are joke books. They are funny and entertaining, but I really don't think they add anything more than that. The other part of monster lit that is emerging, the originally written mash-ups, however aren't so much riffing on dead authors anymore as it is continuing the tradition of post-modern alternate history. So, while these types of books are using past literary characters and creations, I think they are creating their own original work too and not riding coat-tails as much as the cut-and-paste mash-ups do.
Amazon.com: Do these books tend to put further emphasis on the originals, in your opinion? Do you think the reader of one of these mash-ups who hasn’t read the original then goes back to the original?
S.J. Chambers: The sort of “positive” spin on these books has been that it is getting people to read the classics. I completely disagree with this sentiment. I can’t speak for every single person who has read a monster lit book, but I have asked friends and colleagues who have read these books what they got out of it. Those who thought they were funny and entertaining expressed no interest what so ever in going near a Jane Austen original. Others, who were die hard classic lit readers, didn’t find the new mash-ups that amusing. So, I don’t think there is a bridge being gapped there.
On the other hand, I could see those books that aren’t cut and paste mash-ups, but tell more of a story about a historical character like Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, both books that attempt to parallel their subjects actual biography as being a way to whet appetites and encourage people to read about what really happened sans zombies and such. But if you were never going to read Anna Karina, reading it with robots won't change your mind, I'm pretty sure.
Amazon.com: What do you see happening in the future re this trend?
S.J. Chambers: I think we’ll see a pretty steady stream of titles this year and the next, but the emphasis will shift more towards original mash-ups, opposed to cut-and-paste ones like the Quirk Classics variety. Since my review was published, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was released and is now number 4 on the New York Times Bestseller list. Quirk Books just released a “prequel” to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, called Dawn of the Dreadfuls which seems to be Quirk Classics first attempt at not making a “cut-and-paste” mash-up. I would like to think this shift from the cut-and-paste mash-up to more original stories could lead to wonderful stories like John Kessel’s "Pride and Prometheus", but I’m unsure whether the respect is there. I think the enthusiasm for the monster lit concept will fade over this year or next, but probably resurrect itself in film. PPZ and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter are both rumoured as slated for major releases, the latter most recently said to be directed by Tim Burton.