Book Review: Mansfield With Monsters

By Paula Green

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Mansfield With Monsters by Katherine Mansfield with Matt and Debbie Cowans
Steam Press $25

The Cowans' take on Katherine Mansfield's works is not for the literary purist. Photo / NZ Herald
The Cowans' take on Katherine Mansfield's works is not for the literary purist. Photo / NZ Herald

Matt and Debbie Cowans suggest that Katherine Mansfield was obsessed with the monstrous and the macabre and that such details were inexplicably deleted from her published stories. Mansfield With Monsters takes 17 stories by Mansfield and reveals the so-called original versions.

An endorsement by the master of horror, L.P. Lovecroft, who died in 1937, is featured on the cover: "These stories ... will establish one of the true pioneers of the macabre."

Two other academics (both alive) provide further endorsements that this book will expose Mansfield's work as "a breeding ground" for the macabre and the monstrous.

Published by Steam Press, that name gives you another clue to the genesis of this literary hoax.

Mansfield is being hijacked into the steampunk genre (or speculative fiction) where any combination of the supernatural, the Victorian era and new machinery or technologies is infected by rebellion or resistance.

Fantasy meets horror meets science fiction meets revised history (not all ingredients necessary).

It is easy enough to spot the frail membrane of Mansfield's stories that might conceal the monstrous: the little fears, the recurrent dreads, the uncanny, the hysterical moments, the grotesque. In Woman At The Store, for example, Mansfield writes, "There's no twilight in our New Zealand days, but a curious half-hour when everything appears grotesque - it frightens."

Such a quote suggests Mansfield is ripe for the picking, but the key question is: does the authors' audacious risk pay off? Converting Mansfield into the monstrous will offend the purist, but what about the reader with a more flexible mind?

When I read Mansfield, I am drawn into a story that shimmers with detail, that provides a concentrated and lingering kernel of character, that builds deep atmosphere and intense states of mind within short narrative frames. There are delicious gaps to fill and I savour the understatement.

The authors leave much of her sentences intact but they fill her gaps with blood and gore, bloodsuckers, aliens, otherworld creatures, zombies; and they twist the detail here and there to summon the shocking.

You could say the authors have rebelled against Mansfield's subtle layers of dread and fear where you have to work things out for yourself, and provided instead a different reading experience. Stomach turning perhaps.

In Mansfield's Sun And Moon, two children observe the preparations for an extravagant dinner party where an ice pudding will be a spectacular centrepiece. They sneak out at night to spy on the guests and are later taken down to look at the aftermath by their father. The boy feels horror at the sight of the abandoned feast.

In the revised version, the ice pudding was once the castle of the children's "divine" parents. The final scene is still populated - the guests victims of the blood-hungry parents. Again the boy feels horror, but it will provoke a different reader reaction.

To me, the book feels like an idea with intriguing potential that never goes beyond the narrow constraints of an exercise. It diminishes the power of Mansfield and never reaches the magnificence of the great writers of speculative fiction (Kelly Link, for example). Perhaps Mansfield kept getting in the way.

Spookily, the ink on the page dissolved when I spilled my tea on it.

Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.

- NZ Herald

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