Colin Beasley, the owner of the Red Lion pub in Winchester, was out walking his spaniel, Wellington, at daybreak, when he saw a woman walking west in the direction of the Old Sarum Road. He probably wouldn’t have noticed her, if all of the skin on her chin and lower jaw hadn’t been missing, along with most of her hair, except for a light brown clump that clung to what remained of her scalp. Just two days later the same oddly dressed woman was seen standing motionless for hours by the window of a small bookstore in Salisbury, a circumstance that only caused alarm the next morning when the bookstore’s window was found shattered and a best-selling novel plucked from a display and torn savagely apart.
These and other sightings – accompanied by similar acts of gratuitous destruction and by eyewitness testimony that the woman wore a moth-eaten jacket of a kind that had been out of fashion since the Regency – finally made it to the six o’clock news. And that is how the Dean of Winchester Cathedral (who was dividing his attention between a crossword and the telly) reached the conclusion that the heap of stones that had been found one morning in the north aisle of the nave was not, as he’d supposed, the work of vandals – but that Jane Austen had risen from the dead.
The Boston police were investigating what they had assumed was an act of grave-robbing in a Cambridge cemetery when news of the Austen Zombie reached America. The lieutenant who was heading the investigation had also been receiving sporadic reports of attacks with a walking-stick, perpetrated by a baldish, badly decomposed but otherwise dignified looking gentleman wearing rimless glasses, a white wing-collared shirt, a black bow tie, a black lounge suit and a waistcoat with a gold watch chain. It wasn’t until the lieutenant heard about the Austen Zombie that it occurred to him that these walking-stick attacks and his cemetery investigation might be somehow connected. For the victims of the Boston attacks, as of those in England, always had something to do with books, and the open grave in Boston (like the one in Winchester) belonged to a corpse that had once been an author–some dead guy he’d never even heard of–by the name of Henry James.
Once the Harvard profs got wind of it, they wanted to protect their turf by preserving the dignity of the literature. But in spite of the lieutenant’s best efforts to please them and hush things up, the news had all too soon made it to the cable channels and the internet: that Henry James had arisen from his grave and that his mouldering, zombified body was now wandering about, smashing his walking stick down on the heads of bean-counting publishers, pot-boiler scribblers, celebrity memoirists and just about anyone else who had taken the name of the Muse in vain.
Meanwhile, back in England, the Austen Zombie had crashed a book-signing in a chain-store and taken her fingernails to the eyes of a
trendy scribbler of chick lit mysteries before taking a bullet from a security guard whose gun had jammed before he could get off a second shot. Undaunted, the undead Jane now exited the bookstore, her flailing fists breaking the noses of autograph seekers – mostly sentimental teenage girls who had seen the movies but apparently never read her books.
Only one week after this incident, the James Zombie was spotted getting off an ocean-liner in Southampton. It was the subsequent sensational murder of Mimi McFadden, the prolific British queen of the bodice-rippers, that finally galvanized the publishers and movie magnates. For the James Zombie was definitively identified by no less than five eyewitnesses who had seen him leaving the hotel in Bristol where the celebrated authoress was found lying dead in her bubble bath. The coroner later established that the cause of death was asphyxiation – caused by 300 pages of turgid prose stuffed down Mimi’s throat. Because this tragedy torpedoed the multi-million dollar book deal for several more volumes of Mimi’s pretentious smut, her publisher was understandably displeased.
Worse still, one senior in-house lawyer raised the disturbing possibility that the two eminent literary zombies might still retain their copyrights. For although an intellectual property could not be owned by the dead, it might possibly be retained by the undead. Faced with the potential loss of all the cash they had made from books and films, the publishers and movie studios now joined forces and insisted that both undead authors had to be destroyed. But this well-financed threat to the welfare of the zombies was almost immediately countered by well-organized groups of librarians and other readers who cited international laws against the intentional destruction of cultural treasures. A committee of distinguished university professors now tried to reconcile the opposing camps. Acknowledging the danger that the zombies posed to people and property and yet also arguing that they had to be sequestered for their own good, the profs suggested a compromise– namely putting the living dead novelists behind bars in some kind of well-protected facility–like a comfortable prison or a public zoo.
Perhaps sensing that they were in jeopardy, the two zombie authors had taken cover for several weeks. Fortunately, all that had remained of the Austen Zombie’s hair and scalp had fallen off during one of her attacks, and a sliver of the James Zombie’s cheek had been scraped from underneath the late Mimi McFadden’s fingernails. Once they had sniffed these scraps of the decedents, the cadaver dogs were able to pick up the scent of both zombies – apparently walking toward one another across the vast expanse of the Salisbury Plain. Not longer after that, the canine unit spotted them — and the word went out.
Soon cameramen seated in helicopters overhead provided television viewers with a bird’s eye view of the two celebrity zombies converging on Stonehenge from opposite directions. Still nearly a mile apart, they could be seen with arms outstretched, spasmodically lurching forward, as if some magnetic force were slowly drawing them toward one another.
As the news of this meeting of the two great undead authors spread, a crowd of thousands amassed on the vast green plain around them. The summer sun was scorching, and before long not a few of the onlookers had to be treated for heat stroke while enterprising merchants seized the opportunity to charge exorbitant prices for soft drinks, bottled water and paperback editions of the novels. Both for the protection of the famous zombies and for the welfare of the crowd, a wide perimeter around the monument was soon cordoned off and patrolled by a SWAT team dressed in riot gear and carrying submachine guns.
For the most part the police did manage to maintain order. But when the great literary zombies were each less than a quarter of a mile away from the giant henge, a shot rang out from somewhere in the crowd – and instantly the James Zombie’s head was seen to flinch as his left ear flew off and landed on the turf. Immediately several souvenir seekers bolted from behind the barricade, dove to retrieve the ear and proceeded to throw punches at one another until officers with billy clubs drove them back.
But, undeterred, belles-lettres’ foremost undead bachelor kept on lurching forward. For her part, the Austen zombie seemed to acknowledge the advance of her great literary colleague. For, when they were within one hundred yards of one another, the undead spinster’s outstretched arms jerked repeatedly up and down. A gasp came from the crowd as now the James zombie reciprocated this form of greeting.
“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon,” they heard it croak, “to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”
The sun had set, the moon risen and floodlights switched on to illuminate the historic encounter before the two elderly zombies had, with agonizing slowness, taken their last hobbling steps toward one another. But at last they stood face to face: each of them sadly decayed and stone dead but indisputably immortal, drawn together at last by their love of good books and their eternal hatred of bad taste. The outraged gods of literature had called them back because things had gone quite far enough.
A wheezing sound now emerged from the Austen Zombie’s throat, and its jaw began to move:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” the hushed crowd heard her say, “that a single dead man in possession of a literary fortune must be in want of a dead wife.”
In response to this the James Zombie bowed slightly, extended a bony finger and brushed a maggot off her cheek. “Be mine as I am yours,” he said.
And so — in between two great trilithons of the Sarsen Circle, by the bright disc of the full summer moon — they kissed. Or at least, since neither of them had much left in the way of lips, their browned incisors touched. Camera crews zoomed in for close-ups of the moment: the great spinster and the inestimable bachelor – their moldy skulls touching, their skeletal fingers clutching one another in a touchingly shy, oddly decorous embrace.
Like this they stood a little while together, in defiance of time and trash – before an extremely well-paid sharpshooter, crouching on the grass behind the heel stone, brought the kissing couple down.
Terry Richard Bazes is the author of Lizard World (Livingston Press) and of Goldsmith’s Return (White Pine Press). His personal essays and fiction have appeared in a number of publications, including The Washington Post Book World, Newsday, Columbia Magazine, Travelers’ Tales: Spain, Lost Magazine and the Evergreen Review. See more at terryrichardbazes.com