Book Review: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters
By Jane Austin and Ben H. Winters
Published by Quirk Books, Philadelphia, PA 2009
Distributed in North America by Chronicle Books
ISBN: 9781594744426
Review copy courtesy of the publisher

Review by Ida Vega-Landow,

Once again we are entertained, or afflicted, by a smartass who has decided to “improve” Jane Austin by adding an element of horror to one of her classic romance novels. As if “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” by Seth Grahame-Smith wasn’t bad enough (and by that I mean good enough to be skewered on “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, if it were still on the air, and if anybody brave enough to film PP&Z could be found), we now have “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters”, in which the course of true love not only seldom runs smooth, but frequently has blood-stained water. You see, in this alternate version of Miss Austin’s novel, dear old England has been afflicted by “The Alteration; which had turned the creatures of the ocean against the people of the earth; which made even the tiniest darting minnow and the gentlest dolphin into aggressive, blood-thirsty predators, hardened and hateful towards our bipedal race”.

This time around, the darling Dashwood family has been evicted from their seaside manor by their selfish half-brother after their father was eaten by a hammerhead shark. Their mother’s cousin, Sir John, offers them a haven on Pestilent Isle, where the two older sisters, sensible Elinor and sensitive Marianne, find suitors who are treasure hunters (in more ways than one), while Margaret, the youngest (who hardly has anything to do in the original novel), becomes obsessed with a mysterious, smoking mountaintop and the chanting she hears coming from it every night through the window of their dilapidated little cottage on Pestilence Island. Colonel Brandon, Marianne’s more honorable suitor, has tentacles on his face due to a sea witch’s curse. Sir John, Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin, is married to “Kukaphahora, now Lady Middleton, a six-foot-two-inch, jewel-bedecked princess of a tribe indigenous to a far-flung atoll” whom he abducted during his days as a pirate. She appears to be a dutiful wife, but she’s just humoring her vulgar husband while planning her escape from England.

This book has more sea creatures in it than Kip Addotta’s song, “Wet Dream”. Every possible form of marine life attacks the Dashwood sisters, along with every other human who goes down to the sea in ships, or even just picnics by the shore (the account of one unfortunate young lady devoured by a giant jellyfish at a bonfire party on Sir John’s beach is both gruesome and funny enough to make Mike, Servo and Crow blubber). Everything in this book has a maritime theme. Even London becomes Sub-Marine Station Beta, four miles under the surface, “some miles off the Welsh coast, just beyond the Cardigan Bay,” where all the beautiful people go for their summer holiday (Sub-Marine Station Alpha having suffered a dreadful fate due to the betrayal of the mermen masquerading as humans who helped design it). Instead of dances and card parties, the most popular form of entertainment at the station is visiting Hyde Park—I mean Hydra-Z, “more properly known as the Hydro-Zoological Laboratory and Exhibition Arcade”, one of the station’s more popular scientific facilities, “where captured monsters were submitted to the most rigorous re-training and biological modification programs…and brought before paying audiences to demonstrate how completely they had been made to do the will of man.”

This sounds just like the modern water parks where seals, dolphins and killer whales are trained to perform tricks for the amusement of humans, like the one in Florida where a female trainer was recently killed by the orca she was putting through its paces. This book was written last year, otherwise I’d accuse the contemporary author, Mr. Winters, of capitalizing on that tragic incident when he gleefully describes how the giant trained lobsters at one such performance gradually turn upon their trainer, then the audience, forcing Marianne to find out that her precious Mr. Willoughby is secretly engaged to another girl, whom he chooses to rescue instead of her as the lobsters start crawling out of the water tank, cutting off hands, feet and heads with their enormous claws as they advance. (Can’t you just hear Mike Nelson yelling “Quick! Throw some melted butter at them!”)

One thing I’ll say for this fishy version of Miss Austin’s novel, things may get clammy, but they are seldom dull. The ending is also a lot more spectacular than the original one; it includes the resourceful Elinor fighting off a pirate attack with only a whittling knife, as well as what happens to young Margaret after she’s left behind on Pestilence Island with their mother to investigate the mysterious, smoking mountain and the hairless, sharp-toothed natives that nobody else ever seems to see, with their mysterious chant of “K’yaloh D’argesh F’ah! K’yaloh D’argesh F’ah!” We are also intrigued by a mysterious five-pointed star that keeps popping up across Elinor’s vision every time she sees Lucy Steele, her rival for Edward Ferrar’s affections. I was starting to think that the girl must be a werewolf, but it turned out to be a lot worst; at least for Robert Ferrar, the fellow she wound up marrying! So, if you’re a good Catholic who’s also given up meat for Lent, put on “Wet Dream” and read this book. I promise it won’t give you a haddock; in fact, it will give your whole life new porpoise. Okay, okay, I’ll clam up, but buy this book, don’t be shellfish!