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Festival of Books: Grahame-Smith explains why we need zombies

April 23, 2012 |  9:00 am

Click to view photos from the Festival of Books

According to Seth Grahame-Smith, author of three insanely popular historical-fiction-meets-genre-thriller novels, zombies are good at two things: separating us from our delicious cranial tissue, and serving as a metaphor for whatever a culture fears.

“Zombies have represented everything from communism to consumerism,” he said of his first smash novel “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.” “All I wanted to do was take Jane Austen’s themes and humor and put them in an even more absurd landscape. It’s the same thing in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” The vampires are slavery. They steal your life force to enrich themselves. That’s what slavery is.”

At “Fiction: Bump in the Night” on Sunday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the four authors underscored the principle that when we talk about monsters, we’re talking about ourselves. They viewed the success of horror across the pop culture spectrum, from the “paranormal romance” subgenre that includes “Twilight” and its spawn to hit shows like “The Walking Dead,” as a confluence of two themes in modern life. One being that life isn’t as scary as it used to be.

PHOTOS: Festival of Books

“Life is boring,” said Melissa de la Cruz, author of the Hamptons occult-noir “Witches of East End.” “In these books, you get action, adventure, forbidden love. It’s why we all look forward to ‘Game of Thrones’ day, right?” The packed crowd absolutely conceded that last point, as did Grahame-Smith. “Ten thousand years ago, we had to kill our food, fight cave dwellers and sabre-tooth tigers. Life was scary. Now we have Wi-Fi everywhere. But we still have that physical need to feel threatened, it’s a reaffirmation of life.”

That confrontation with death and violence is a strange but undeniable joy, said Richard Kadrey, author of the “Sandman Slim” series. “Christian churches stopped doing passion plays because people only ever liked the hell parts,” he said. “Heaven is boring. Crime and horror is the literature of permission.”

And so we invent stand-in characters for the very old and necessary fears of violent creatures lurking just beyond the campfire. But these images evolve over time and always subtly reflect the specific shades of the culture they emerge from. “There were no vampires of note in Western literature until about the 18th century,” said Deborah Harkness, a USC history professor and novelist behind “A Discovery of Witches.” “But they tell us where we park our anxieties, whether its over-powerful women, death or damnation. We make our own monsters.”

FULL COVERAGE: Festival of Books

Grahame-Smith may have his own crowds to fear with his new novel “Unholy Night,” a kind of action-thriller take on the birth of Christ that turns the Wise Men into bruisers right out of “Die Hard.” Unlike Jane Austen fans (whom he said “have a great sense of humor, because she was funny too”) and Lincoln scholars (including Doris Kearns Goodwin, who called him up to say she loved the book), he had to think long and hard about how to use a religious narrative central to a billion people as wry source material.

“I never say the name 'Jesus,' and he’s never more than 2 weeks old in the book,” Grahame-Smith said. “I had a bigger pause in writing this book, because there are certain rules -- Joseph and Mary had to be virtuous. But if people read it they will take away something positive.”

“Well, if people burn your books, the publisher doesn’t have to return them,” Kadrey joked.

“Unholy Night” is a hard pivot from his other two books, and all the panel’s writers admitted they felt uncomfortable with “genre fiction” labels. Harkness drolly recalled an e-mail from a fan that said, "You just don’t understand paranormal romance," and she implored an aspirant student writer to “not pay attention to anyone who wants to put you into a box.”

But fundamentally, the panel's authors know their books are supposed to be fun (and, not coincidentally, top-selling for it). “The idea for ’Abraham Lincoln’ came to me when I was on book tours during Lincoln’s bicentennial and the last 'Twilight' novel, and the cynical side of me said ‘Man, if you could combine those two…,’ ” he said, to hearty laughs.

But it’s clear he had a deep respect for the integrity of his source material. When a student asked if Elizabeth (from the original “Pride & Prejudice”) was a gold-digger, he answered “No! That would be a 'Real Housewives of Pemberley’ thing going on, which would actually be a great book. That’s my next mash-up,” he joked. “Right after my zombie erotica novel “50 Shades of Grey Matter.’ ”

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--August Brown

Photo: From left, authors Melissa de la Cruz, Seth Grahame-Smith, Deborah Harkness and Richard Kadrey share their books with moderator Paul Trembley. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times

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