Ben H. Winters and Jane Austen: Sense And Sensibility And Sea Monsters

Ben H. Winters and Jane Austen: Sense And Sensibility And Sea Monsters

Some might think there’s no need to answer the question “What would Pride And Prejudice be like if it took place in an England beset by the undead?” Luckily, Quirk Books disagrees. The imprint’s Pride And Prejudice And Zombies became a bestseller, thanks to Internet buzz and favorable reviews (including one in The A.V. Club). Naturally, every derivative idea deserves a sequel, or a whole slew of them, so Quirk commissioned Ben H. Winters to punch up Jane Austen’s Sense And Sensibility with man-eating beasts from the briny deep. And once again, to the consternation of purists everywhere, the result is sheer delight. Winters takes an aggressive approach to transforming his assigned text into horror; super-intelligent narwhals and marauding kraken appear on nearly every page of his mash-up, as opposed to the delicate sprinkling of zombies in the previous work. Yet instead of destroying the integrity of Austen’s subtle romance, Winters’ mysterious chanting natives, sea-witch curses, and undersea habitats move the story into a gothic realm, where a miasma of apocalyptic foreboding hangs over Elinor Dashwood’s hopes for her family and fear that happiness is not her fate. 

In Winters’ version, the Dashwoods—eldest daughter Elinor, romantic middle child Marianne, the youngest, Margaret, and their mother—take up residence on Pestilent Isle, which, although situated on a coastline terrorized by giant ravenous sea creatures produced by some unknown alteration years ago, is protected by the scholarship and derring-do of Sir John Middleton. While Elinor nurtures a secret love for the taciturn Edward Ferrars, Marianne falls head-over-heels for the dashing Willoughby, who rescues her not from the effects of a sudden rain shower, but from a malevolent octopus that attaches itself to her face when she foolishly leans too close to a small stream. But after the girls’ hopes are dashed by their erstwhile beaus’ precipitous departures from the archipelago, they drown their sorrows in the tony society of Sub-Marine Station Beta, a marvelous dome built four miles below the ocean’s surface, where scientists genetically alter humans to better equip them for the fight against fishkind, and temporary residents pilot gondolas along indoor streams to leave calling cards painted on hermit-crab shells. Elinor befriends lovesick Colonel Brandon, whose attachment to Marianne is rendered tragic by the squid-like tentacles that squirm on the lower half of his face. Meanwhile, letters from home reveal that Margaret is increasingly unhinged by the sight of steam rising from a nearby hill and the sound of demonic gibberish on the wind, and Elinor suffers from headache-inducing visions of a pentagram, especially in the presence of her rival for Edward’s affections, Lucy Steele.

As in Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, the pastiche works well because it provides alternate motivations for the characters’ actions: Marianne disapproves of Edward because he reads her favorite stories of shipwrecked castaways with too much sangfroid; Mrs. Dashwood suggests that Willoughby’s abrupt departure is due to his treasure-hunting mania, which might have roused a pirate’s ghost to curse him to wander the seven seas. Winters dives into these fantastical scenarios with gusto, inventing long scenes of mayhem and mystery where Sean Grahame-Smith, who adapted Pride And Prejudice, was far more restrained. If Sense And Sensibility And Sea Monsters has a flaw, it’s that Winters tends to throw in the kitchen sink, especially toward the end; steampunk, piracy, and Lovecraftian horror don’t always fit with each other as neatly as each genre might be shoehorned into Austen’s world separately. But there’s no denying the page-turning satisfaction of this welcome sequel, which exceeds Pride And Prejudice And Zombies in cleverness and wit while continuing to pay proper homage to the deep emotions underlying the original text.

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