The dedication to the Pride And Prejudice And Zombies prequel Dawn Of The Dreadfuls reads “For Jane. We kid because we love.” But Steve Hockensmith’s entry in Quirk Classics’ horror-mashup series has little to do with Jane Austen. Yes, the Bennet sisters—beautiful Jane, sensible Mary, strong-willed Elizabeth, and silly Lydia and Kitty—appear as the main characters. Yes, they live near Meryton, Hertfordshire, and attend country dances at Netherfield Park (here the possession of Baron Lumpley, a corseted lech). But Hockensmith, a writer of award-winning Western mysteries, makes no attempt at Jane Austen’s style, either for replication or parody. Dawn Of The Dreadfuls is nothing more or less than an adventure story that happens to be set in Regency England. That should stand as both recommendation and caution; while it often succeeds on its own terms, the burden of being a part of the Quirk line sometimes hobbles Dreadfuls.
When PPZ opens, the strange plague of zombification is in full swing all over England, and the Bennet sisters are deadly killers trained in the martial arts. It falls to Dawn Of The Dreadfuls to explain how all this came to be. The plague proves easy enough; an earlier outbreak of the undead known as the Troubles lies in both novels’ backstories, with Mr. Bennet as a celebrated fighter. Dreadfuls opens at a funeral where the deceased lurches back into animation, the first sign that Hertfordshire is once again at risk—especially since the lull in zombie activity led to lapses in the preventative practice of burying the dead with their heads removed. As for the Bennet girls’ initiation into Oriental mysteries, Mr. Bennet, repenting of his failure to keep a vow to raise his children as warriors, brings young Master Hawksworth to teach them the Panther’s Kiss, the Hawk and the Dove, and other arcane ways of vanquishing enemies.
Hockensmith has nowhere to go except to the beginning of Pride And Prejudice And Zombies—he can’t kill or marry off any major characters—so he invents three plot engines: Baron Lumpley’s icky quest to add Jane to his roster of despoiled chambermaids, Master Hawksworth’s steely pursuit of Elizabeth, and a flaky doctor’s experimentation with training zombies out of their lust for brains. All three make for good fun, but as the novel speeds toward a zombie-apocalypse conclusion, it’s clear that nothing can come of them. All these new characters must be moved out of the way, and the status quo (sisters unspoken for, Mrs. Bennet in despair about their futures, zombies a continuing threat) restored. Hockensmith invents some nice scenes, such as a showdown between the doctor and the martial-arts master for Elizabeth’s affections, and makes a stab at connecting them to the themes of Pride And Prejudice (“far too late she’d recognized the fault within the man… It was a mistake she would never make again”). But the delight of combining Regency romance with the living dead fades as the series strays further from Austen. It remains to be seen whether Dawn Of The Dreadfuls is merely a lapse, or the Quirk Classics line is starting to decompose.