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J. Trevor Robinson: “finding the right kind of monster into which transforming Monte Cristo involved a lot of brainstorming!”
The 34-year-old Canadian J. Trevor Robinson is the author of The mummy of Monte Cristo, a mashup version of The count of Monte Cristo – i.e. a rewriting of Dumas’ novel which follows very closely the original while adding substantial elements of horror and supernatural. In this interview for pastichesdumas, he explains how he decided to turn Monte Cristo into a mummy, in the style of last century horror movies…
This is the original version in English of the interview in French.
How did you come with the crazy idea of transforming Monte Cristo into a mummy?
There was a lot of brainstorming involved! First I wanted to know if I could write a Pride and prejudice and zombies style mashup of any book. And I started thinking of classic books that I had read and deeply enjoyed. The count of Monte Cristo very quickly rose to the top of that list. Then it was the matter of trying to find the right kind of monster to introduce to the central idea of the story. At first, the mummy wasn’t even on my radar. I was trying to use French folklore creatures to pay homage to the core settings of the book. I found out about some very strange creatures that I had never heard of like the carcolh, the killer snail, a giant snail that lives in a cave and has tentacles that extend for miles. I imagine it’s very, very local. I was toying with this idea for a little while… Then my wife wisely pointed out that I should probably use a monster that more people have heard of!
I was trying to think with something to do with a blob, from these 1950’s horror movies where a blob starts expanding over a town. Nobody would have realized that it was really a gelatinous mass wearing a human suit and walking around… And then we were watching the 1999 movie The mummy with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz and it just clicked: the idea of revenge and the mummy’s curse fit together so well, the mummy in most pop culture stories has a vast trove of treasure, and Edmond finding the treasure of Monte Cristo, those interlock very well… So everything started to fall into place.
You didn’t think of turning Monte Cristo into a vampire?
I considered that. I mean, a vampire seems in keeping with the count’s overall demeanor once he gets going. Even in the original there are comparisons with a vampire. But there was a lot of vampire fiction going around at the time when I was putting these ideas together. I didn’t want necessarily to be compared with Twilight. And it’s actually lucky I didn’t because not long before my publishing date came along, I actually found out about The vampire count of Monte Cristo! What is funny is that in my book there is this running joke that vampires are about the only creatures that are not real and nobody believes in them, in spite of having all the other monsters.
So basically, you chose to base your book on The count of Monte Cristo because it’s one of your favorite novels, right?
I would say so, yes. I first read it when I was 18 or 19. My parents and I were on our way to the West coast of Canada. I wanted to bring a nice big book for the plane ride and the traveling. I was in the bookstore looking at the classic novels section. There was a big display of Penguin Books. I read the description at the back of The count of Monte Cristo: I saw revenge, treasure, adventure, intrigue, I thought it should be good! When I started diving into it, it absolutely gripped me. And I am very glad I picked up the edition that I did because it had footnotes on basically every page explaining the cultural references that Dumas made and that a 19-year-old guy in Canada in the 20th century would not necessarily know unless he had already studied French history. I was extremely surprised by Napoleon coming back from exile then getting exiled again. It looks like a plot but it’s History!
So you said you wanted to write a book in the spirit of Pride and prejudice and zombies. But there is a major difference between that book and yours: Seth Grahame-Smith used the exact text from Jane Austen and inserted a few horror elements, while you did a complete rewriting. Why that?
Well, it didn’t occur to me to take the original unaltered text and add new scenes. Early on, I was basically working on a copy of The count of Monte Cristo I had downloaded, going scene by scene and trying to keep very true to what happens in each chapter. But still rewriting it so it was not just copying. It felt the right way to go for me. And then, in the second draft, it really came out like: OK, I can go way differently with this plotline or that plotline, I can remove these entire characters in the case of Villefort’s wife and son…
So you ended up doing a complete rewriting of Dumas’ book…
I think I left here and there some particular quotes or descriptions, but for the most part, yes, I was trying to rewrite, rephrase, sometimes trim down… One of the things I learned about the original, while writing this, is that it originally came out as a serial in newspapers, and that Dumas was being paid by the word. Some of the conversations that go around in circles do make a little more sense!
How did you come with the idea of Napoleon rising to absolute power thanks to his victory over armies of zombies?
Going through the reading of Monte Cristo, I didn’t know anything about the French revolution, Napoleon himself… So I started to do some research, so I could understand more of the background, and I quickly realized a couple of things. One, that it was much more complex than what they say in a couple of footnotes at the bottom of the pages. Two, I also realized that in the process of streamlining the story, I could add more and more to the horror elements of the book. In the real world, Napoleon gets to power through complicated political moves. But I could also have him defeat monsters and ride everyone’s gratitude up to a major position of power. So I made that change from French revolution to zombies uprising, which leads to the whole plot of Danglars.
Most of the “baddies” in your book become monstrous (Benedetto eats human flesh, Villefort drinks blood, Morcerf aspires vital energy…). The one exception is Danglars. Why? Is it because he was so monstrous already, there was no need to do more?
Pretty much, yes. Of course, Villefort is still entirely human, physically, but he starts behaving like a monster. Having one of the main villains, in fact the one who ends up being the worst, be strictly human contrasted the horror elements nicely. Of course, he uses monstrous means to achieve his goals but for the most parts he is still a genuinely horrible person and he doesn’t have any supernatural reason to blame it on. Some people are just like that!
Dumas’ Monte Cristo turns into a supremely powerful human, still human. At the end of the novel, he asks himself if he didn’t turn into something slightly monstrous by pushing so far his revenge. Your Monte Cristo takes the plunge at once: he couldn’t get revenge without becoming a monster. Does this make your novel much darker than Dumas’?
It’s certainly a factor of the settings that I ended up building. Like Edmond realizes before becoming mummified, he is up against such powerful people, not only in economic and political terms like in the original, but also the things that they can do, in Fernand’s case particularly, so he needs that extra edge. And then it helps that the villain are so much more monstrous in terms of what they are willing to do to other people or to the world in general that I think it feels less like an overreaction, what Edmond does. But I wouldn’t say that my own view of the real world is nearly that dark. It’s where the story went once the wheels were in motion. I like to think of myself as a lot more optimistic!
Why did you turn Faria into a financial advisor, it’s a bit weird!
Honestly, it’s a choice that I keep going back to, thinking “should I really have done that?” Part of it was, for a book that focuses so much on money and treasure, there is very little explanation of the economics that have been going on. For example, the entire matter of the unlimited credit that Danglars, in the original, has to extend to Monte Cristo. Just the simple mechanism of how that credit works is never really explained. So, some of the economics I wanted to explain better, and also explore some of the ideas of freedom and the abuse of power that come up in the original with Danglars and Villefort manipulating institutional power to their own ends.
I also tried my best to find some more supernatural ways to treat the château d’If, like treating it as some sort of other dimension, some sort of more supernatural prison but it ended up still working better as a physical island in the middle of a physical ocean.
As a matter of fact, the first part of your book is very close to Dumas. The role of the supernatural is very limited…
This is something that I’ve heard from quite a few people who have read it. Till this day I am not really sure how I could have bumped up the supernatural elements in that bit. The ball really gets rolling once Edmond has decided to take that plunge.
More generally, are you a fan of Dumas?
I have read The three musketeers, I have seen the movie version of The man in the iron mask, I don’t know how faithful an adaptation that is. To be honest, I didn’t find The three musketeers quite as gripping as The count of Monte Cristo. I was very surprised by how far off some of the modern interpretations of The three musketeers go from the original source. You see cartoons, kids’ movies, it’s just these four best friends going around fighting crime, so to speak. But there is a lot more to it, more intrigue…
So you are not going to write another mashup novel using one of Dumas’ other books?
I don't plan to yet. I actually have a sequel in mind for The mummy of Monte Cristo! One of the handy things of having an immortal protagonist is you can pick him up and put him in any point of History after his debut and see what he’s up to. So I have one in mind which is set on the eve of World War One.
Interesting… There would be no more relations with Dumas’ book, of course?
There would be references back to the original story. I toyed with the idea of finding a novel set during WWI and mashing it up but I ended up deciding I’ll write this one from scratch. I don’t want people to think that I am strictly a mashup guy. I am also working simultaneously on a Sci-Fi story.
How was your Mummy received?
Very well so far. There’s a handful of people who have not liked it but the vast majority of the reviews are four or five stars. I am getting a pretty even mix of people who say “I have never read the original material but I loved it anyway” and people who say “I was a big fan of The count of Monte Cristo so I was worried going into this but I ended up loving it too”. Both of which are great to see because I was worried that only the people familiar with the original would enjoy it, or the opposite, people familiar with Dumas would think “this is terrible”.
Which motto suits best today’s world: Dumas’ “wait and hope” or your “adapt and overcome”?
Hum, that’s a good one! I might be biased but I think “adapt and overcome”, especially in these recent times, with everything changing so quickly, certainly fits. But there is definitely room for waiting and hoping! To a certain extent, I don’t think you can have one without at least a little bit of the other.
Interview by Patrick de Jacquelot