Cannonball Read III, Book 5: Classics Mutilated

Seth Grahame-Smith, what have you wrought? In the wake of his collaborative novel with Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, many publishers have allowed other writers to slap some monsters into a classic novel and call it a new work. There's Android Karenina, Little Women and Werewolves, and my favorite (on title alone) Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. While Grahame-Smith's twist on Austen was charming to a point, many of these newer contributions seem to miss the need for artistic impetus for the decision. Putting a zombie swarm in Mark Twain doesn't automatically equal laughs. Enter Jeff Conner and IDW Publishing. Conner edited a great collection of short fiction called Classics Mutilated, featuring what he refers to as "CTRL-ALT-LIT." It's the surprisingly wide-ranging style of inserting genre elements into classic non-genre fiction to produce a whole new product. The stories in this collection show the potential of the emerging sub-genre if writers are willing to put the effort in to produce something worthwhile.

My favorite story in the collection is the least intrusive example. Rick Hautula took a sequence of scenes from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and transformed them into a Gothic vampire and ghost story called "Little Women in Black." He carefully edits the original text to turn Beth into a ghostly apparition. She's still sitting right by the fireplace when the girls plan their big Christmas surprise for mother, but none of the other girls can hear her contribution. Her voice is but a whisper hiding in the background and she grows increasingly cold. Laurie is given a similar transformation into a vampire, appearing out of nowhere and hiding in the shadows until late in the party. The changes don't stop there. Jo's gloves are ruined because she keeps slicing her hands open in unpredictable ways. Strange noises flood the attic where she writes and the specter of the war is far more ambiguous than before. The work is so clearly collaboration that Hautala is credited as "Louisa May Alcott & Rick Hautula."

The next level of intrusion is shown in Lezli Robyn's "Anne-droid of Green Gables." Robyn actually reconfigures the entire story as a Victorian Steampunk fantasy. Clockwork airships fill the skies and little orphan Anne is now an obsolete android deemed too childlike to work in a factory. She earns the right to go to school with hard work, is falsely accused of breaking her father's most cherished possession by her mother, and bravely risks being sent back to the factory to prove her innocence. The short story hits all the highlights of the novel without feeling like a gimmick. The plot is old but Robyn's inclusion of Steampunk technology makes it feel fresh and new again. Imagery and symbols are substituted to better reflect the desires of a young android versus those of a young girl and key moments in Anne's development play out with the wonder of fantasy technology. It's simply a darling and uplifting story.

The next level of intrusion is pulling a few threads from an author's work or life and writing a new story. "Death Stopped for Miss Dickinson" sees Kristine Kathryn Rusch jump through Dickinson's life and work to produce a brand new story about Dickinson's ability to see the figure of death throughout her life. Only the man who loved her can see the dark shadowy robes and understand her. This is all about Dickinson's life as defined by her work. The facts are simply twisted to present Emily Dickinson as some tortured prophet of life and death. It's a bizarre but effective experiment that uses form to innovate rather than concept.

The largest level of intrusion is just strange. Period. Like, Senator Joseph McCarthy winds up fighting an actual alien creature instead of the threat of communism in Thomas Tessier's "The Green Menace." Or Joe R. Lansdale creates a new Lovecraftian adventure for young Huck Finn in "Dread Island." It's in cases like these where you begin to wonder why the authors didn't just make their own characters. Does the novelty of Jim Morrison encountering Edgar Allan Poe justify using Poe and his work as a narrative thrust? Or is it just a gimmick to draw in readers through familiarity? What is the actual advantage of using someone else's work to tell these stories?

This collection seems to make the argument that even the most gimmicky of the monster mash stories can have merit if handled properly. I'd be hard-pressed to point out any particular weak or ineffective tales in Classics Mutilated. The authors all had a clear vision and do it in such a way that you probably won't mind when Snow White gets into a battle with Alice from Wonderland through a magic mirror hidden long ago by her not-so-evil Stepmother. It's hard to ignore the quality of writing and innovation going on in each story of this collection even when they trounce all over everything that made the original stories classics.