His fellow writers call him the "Poet of the Undead". His most recent novel is titled Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers, he has also written a Zimbabwean crime noir and plans to finally "complete" Geoffrey Chaucer's unfinished literary classic, The Canterbury Tales. What's more, he lives in Abu Dhabi. Is Paul A Freeman a genius or a madman? "I get a few examples of hate mail," he says. "One said I should be shot. With roach spray."
An English teacher by day, Freeman, 46, has worked throughout the Middle East and Africa since the mid-1980s, after leaving university in his native Britain. Although he has been published in various literary styles over the years, the family man discovered a love of Chaucer after studying the English poet's work for a master's degree four years ago. Since then, he has been writing narrative verse in an updated form of Chaucer's Middle English.
His latest book, Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers, published by Canada's Coscom Entertainment, uses this same style. "My name," the man announced, "is Friar Tuck/and trusting to the will of God and luck/I seek one Robin Hood, for in this shire/a weird contagion soon shall spread like fire/amongst the Sheriff's men, creating strife/then bringing those infected back to life." Released in October 2009, the book can be seen as part of the recent trend of "literary mash-ups". The bizarre new genre usually relies on inserting elements of pop-culture mythology - such as zombies, vampires or androids - into classic works of fiction, often in the public domain.
Last year's bestseller, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith, is widely credited with kick-starting the trend. It was followed by the likes of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Jane Slayer. But unlike the first generation of mash-ups, which often left much of the original text intact, many authors (including Freeman) now reject the "found narrative" element. Instead, they choose to place historical figures or famous literary characters in completely new stories. While mash-ups have been widely popular, they have also been tarred as being little more than glorified fan-fiction, or amusingly titled but trivial stocking-fillers.
"With Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the guy took Jane Austin's story and injected his own stuff into it," says Freeman. "Robin Hood is a collection of myth fragments. I took a few of those bits and used them, but it's basically an original story. But for a number of reasons, it gets lumped in with all the mash-ups." Freeman wrote the book over six weeks, during last year's sweltering Abu Dhabi summer. The tale begins with one of the Robin Hood legend's most famous characters, Friar Tuck, who accompanies the villainous nobleman Sir Guy of Gisbourne to war. During the campaign, they do battle with a group of soldiers, cursed by a necromancer. After being struck down, the magic reanimates the soldiers as flesh-eating zombies, but the curse also spreads like a plague.
"There's a subtext that suggests the disease starts spreading due to the atrocities of the crusaders," says Freeman. After Gisbourne's wife is scratched, he brings her back to England to recover, but this causes another outbreak of the living dead in his homeland. Recognising the horrific events from his time abroad, Friar Tuck seeks the hero Robin Hood to help vanquish the undead. Thus far, Freeman's book has failed to cash in on the current popularity of mash-ups. In fact, his royalty cheque for the first quarter of 2010 came to less than $100 (Dh367). But the author says he is more than happy with the favourable reviews he has received from fellow Chaucer enthusiasts and postings on horror-lit message boards. One reviewer on www.amazon.com wrote, emphatically: "If you're into zombie tales, you'll love this book. If you're a Robin Hood fan, you'll love this book. If you adore Chaucer, you'll love this book."
Freeman is also optimistic (perhaps naïvely so), that his story will one day be adopted by schools and universities to help introduce students to the medieval author's often impenetrable language. "Chaucer used to toy with different genres, but when he was around there was no horror genre, let alone a zombie sub-genre," says Freeman. "But there are lots of people around the world who find it tricky to read Chaucer, because the language is difficult and they haven't read a narrative poem before. A lot of younger university professors are saying this is what their students need."
Prior to the zombie-slaying adventure, Freeman wrote several updated Canterbury Tales, that were more traditional in nature. "The original premise of The Canterbury Tales was that there were 30 pilgrims going to Canterbury, each was supposed to tell two stories on the way there and two on the way back to London," he says. "That would make 120 tales, but Chaucer didn't even manage a quarter of that, so I've started on the return journey."
While he kept zombies away from his updated Canterbury Tales project, other contemporary elements have crept in. One of the stories features "a crime-busting monk", while another is an attempt at mixing Middle English with "chick-lit". It might sound bonkers, but the author says he has even received a favourable review from the renowned Chaucer expert (and former Monty Python member), Terry Jones.
"[He] read my Knight's Second Tale and said it was good. He liked it. He was very positive, but a little bit cagey, because he'd only read one of them." But not everyone has been so positive. As well as the comments from a Chaucer scholar who suggested Freeman should be exterminated like a cockroach, a woman in California wrote that he was "deplorable and should be ashamed". While it's easy to see how die-hard literary buffs could be offended by the writer's constant monkeying with more respected authors' works, there's nothing subversive about his writing - on the contrary, his pieces are tributes. What's more, anyone who's met Freeman would find it difficult to get angry about anything he does. He looks exactly how one might expect - middle-aged, heavy-set, balding and wearing glasses: harmless. But there's an unmistakable spark of youthful enthusiasm too, particularly whenever he begins to discuss his latest bizarre literary idea.
A few days after our meeting, an e-mail dropped into my inbox from Freeman, with the subject line "The Tale of Oliver the Good". It contained a verse of his updated Chaucerian prose recounting the event of our interview, as well as a note urging me to use it as the conclusion to my article. "This text, as writ by Oliver the Good/Hath told you 'bout my tale of Robin Hood/A supernat'ral story where, with luck/Our hero and his merry men and Tuck/(The fighting friar) defeat the risen dead." While one could possibly find the message a little imposing, or even creepy - Freeman's excitement and odd sense of humour save the day once again.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
(Quirk Books) If the name didn't say it all, the subtitle certainly did: "The classic regency romance - now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem!" Originally expected to shift just a few thousand copies, Seth Grahame-Smith's novel captured the imaginations of bloggers and literature buffs before it was even released. When the book reached number three on the New York Times' bestsellers list, publishers around the world took notice and the literary mash-up genre was born. Natalie Portman is set to star as Elizabeth Bennet in the planned film adaption.
I Am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas
(Gollancz) "The legendary Ebenezer Scrooge sits in his house counting money. The boards that he has nailed up over the doors and the windows shudder and shake under the blows from the endless zombie hordes that crowd the streets." The author Adam Roberts' reworking of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol into a zombie-slaying gore-fest shows the sillier side of mash-ups, (if such a thing is possible). Intended as little more than a disposable yuletide gift, it's heavy on corny jokes, groan-worthy puns and plenty of gore.
Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter
(Constable) After creating the mash-up genre with PPZ, Grahame-Smith turned it on its head by announcing that his next book would not feature a "found narrative". Instead, he wrote the the tale as a biography of the former US president, based on his "secret diaries". It sees a teenage Lincoln slaying a vampire in his family's barn with a homemade stake, and follows his life through the American Civil War until his assassination. The filmmaker Tim Burton is currently working on a live action adaptation of the novel.