Call Jason Rekulak the Victor Frankenstein of the literary monster mash-up.
While surfing the Web in 2008, he discovered a Groundhog Day trailer that reimagined the Bill Murray comedy as a horror film, courtesy of some clever editing and creepy music. Inspired by what he calls “creative copyright infringement,” he asked himself how he could do the same thing without getting sued. Rekulak is an editor at Philadelphia-based Quirk Books, the indie upstart founded by David Borgenicht, co-writer of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook (Chronicle Books, 1999) and numerous sequels. Rekulak compiled a list of 300 classic novels, such as War and Peace, Moby Dick, Oliver Twist and Pride and Prejudice, all from the public domain (pre-1923 material whose copyright had lapsed). In a separate column, he included elements like goblins, ninjas and robots. His “eureka” moment came immediately after connecting Jane Austen with zombies, creating the germ for what would become the smash hit Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk Classics, 2009). “It was a great dumb title,” Rekulak says, and he quickly fell in love with the idea of combining Regency romance and zombie horror.
Rekulak contacted Seth Grahame-Smith, an L.A.-based screenwriter whom Rekulak had previously collaborated with on The Big Book of Porn (Quirk, 2005). “Seth got the idea right away,” Rekulak says, and they set about cutting the original novel to make room for the living dead. The result was a thrilling literary cocktail composed of finely aged Austen, a few shots of hundred-proof flesh-eaters and a dash of ninjas. Quirk had modest expectations for the book, setting the initial print run at just 10,000 copies. Although the book was originally slated for a July release, the jacket art was leaked in February, and once it hit the blogosphere, the book was fast-tracked to April 1 to take advantage of the positive word-of-mouth. It went on to sell a million copies, was translated in almost two dozen languages, and a movie—starring Natalie Portman—is in the works.
Once the public fully embraced Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Rekulak knew that a slew of imitators would soon flood the market. “We don’t own this concept,” Rekulak says. “The formula is evolving with each new project.” Before the first book even hit the shelves, a sequel of sorts—Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (Quirk Classics, 2009)—was already under contract. In response to readers’ requests, the new book featured less Austen and a greater contribution from co-writer Ben H. Winters, a playwright and journalist who had authored several entries in the Worst-Case Scenario series. With two brisk-selling books, and Grahame-Smith completing work on Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (Grand Central, 2010) for another publisher, Rekulak was ready for a new challenge, but wanted to avoid anything too predictable. “You don’t just do Scarlet Letter and Dinosaurs,” he says.
Enter Steve Hockensmith, an established genre writer with four books in his humor-filled Holmes on the Range (Minotaur, 2006) mystery series, featuring two cowpokes from 1890s-era Montana who sleuth in the manner of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Hockensmith, whose work has been nominated for multiple awards (including an Edgar and a Shamus), was tasked with writing a wholly original novel: a prequel, of sorts, to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Hockensmith was very happy to be offered the project, but rankles at the term “pastiche” and had little interest in submitting an entire novel of ersatz Austen. “When the opportunity came along,” Hockensmith says, “the question was, ‘Can you do this? Will you do this?”
What sealed the deal was the freedom Hockensmith was given in terms of plot, and the opportunity to tell the story he wanted to tell. The novel that emerged, Dawn of the Dreadfuls (Quirk Classics, 2010), took Hockensmith seven months to write.
The collaborators took great care with Dawn of the Dreadfuls, and it shows. The book is genuinely funny, compulsively readable, and—in many ways—more satisfying than the original. Hockensmith credits Rekulak with being “savvy and proactive,” and calls the Quirk Classic series “a testament to Jason’s imagination.”
“Ultimately,” he says, “it was the most fun I’ve had writing a book in a long time.”
Hockensmith acknowledges the “huge awareness” surrounding Quirk Classics (the books are now preceded by official trailers, and fans were able to sample free chapters of Dawn of the Dreadfuls prior to the book’s release date), but puts his faith in the quality of the material. “Hype sometimes wins it,” he says, “but it is always my hope that quality will win out.”
Dawn of the Dreadfuls is available now. A fourth book, Android Karenina (Quirk Classic, 2010) by Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters, is due in June.