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Authors: Katherine Mansfield

Mansfield with Monsters


Born in 1888, Katherine Mansfield is one of New Zealand's most famous and influential writers. Much is known of her short life through her writing, her letters, and the correspondence and recollections of her family, loved ones, and peers. Her modernist stories are striking and ground-breaking. With so much public discourse already extant, is there really more to learn about Mansfield?

Literary historian Dr Marcus Walker believes there is. His doctoral thesis of 1999,
Mansfield and the Occult: the untold story
, asserts that her participation in rites conducted by the Ordo Temple Orientis under the leadership of Aleister Crowley, as well as her intimate connection with the noted psychic Florence Cooke, were systematically covered up through the destruction of letters and the intimidation of fellow participants. Walker believes that Mansfield's obsession with the artefacts brought to London by Carter's Egypt expeditions was deliberately omitted from official biographies, and the rumour that she spent a night in the sarcophagus of the emperor Tutankhamun has always been considered apocryphal, yet Walker's research hints at some underlying truth to the tale. It is a matter of record that Mansfield, accompanied by her loyal companion Ida Baker, travelled extensively to sanatoriums and spas for her health. That one of these trips was a cover story for an expedition into the Himalayas in search of the elusive yeti is perhaps one of Walker's less well-supported claims, but it cannot be denied that he uncovered a wealth of new material in his studies, material upon whose authenticity he has staked his reputation.

Following on from the investigative work conducted by Dr Walker, several previously unpublished fragments and early drafts of Mansfield's stories have come to light. The most detailed of these, a collection of pages torn from Mansfield's journals, were discovered by Walker in a Buddhist monastery in Shigatse, Tibet. Through a close study of these fragments it has been possible to gain an insight into a previously unknown facet of Mansfield's personality—her obsession with the monstrous. The everyday horror of life is infused into her published work, along with a melancholic sense of revelation and frail beauty. Missing from the body of writing published to date is any mention of the more physical, mythical creatures she believed had once populated the Earth. A secret diary kept by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mentions a rendezvous with Mansfield, during which she was “utterly delighted by the faeries” of the famous Cottingley garden. Whether Mansfield was involved in the wider religious activities of Conan Doyle's circle is not known, nor is the full extent of her involvement with the writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft, whose early works were particular favourites of the young Mansfield.


“Pyramids”. D'Andria, George—Photographer. 1924. Dr Walker believes that the woman on the second camel from the right is Katherine Mansfield. The New York Public Library. Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.


This volume of revised stories is in part speculation, in part careful reconstruction of those stories that originally contained the horrors that Mansfield most feared. It is impossible to say whether she truly believed her world to contain such creatures, to know whether she had in fact seen things which shook the scales from her eyes, but as Dr Ian Conrich of the University of Essex has written, she was “drawn to the horrors of life”. Those closest to her have taken her secrets to the grave, and many went to great lengths to help conceal her unusual beliefs. The feeling that Mansfield's spirit returned after her death and was with her friends and family as they moved on and reconstructed a more publicly acceptable version of her life was shared by many of her closest friends and loved ones, and is a matter of record. Assertions have been made that Mansfield's spirit possessed the body of her husband John Murray's second wife, Violet, and that Mansfield's ghost had an influence on those who loved her long after her death. There has even been speculation about the real reason for Mansfield's body being exhumed, with some doubting the claim that it was merely relocated to a pauper's grave.

Carl H. Sederholm, associate professor in humanities, classics, and comparative literature at Brigham Young University in Utah, writes:

We've always known that Modernist literature was rife with allusions to the horrific, the occult, and the monstrous (consider, for instance, the Frankensteinesque horrors implied by T. S. Eliot's “patient etherized upon a table,” Gertrude Stein's obsession with the broken undead bodies of Cubism, or Hemingway's anxiety over being drained of his rugged life-force). Genteel manners and the concern for a high-standing literary reputation, however, steered writers and publishers away from explicitly developing these interests, leaving readers with only the slightest hint of what was lurking beneath the surface—surely nothing less than a Freudian nightmare, an uncanny return of the cruelly repressed. With the publication of this book, we must now reconsider the ways Katherine Mansfield's own monumental modernism is nothing less than a significant breeding ground for the development of the truly weird and the frightfully monstrous.


Katherine Mansfield with American author H. P. Lovecraft. Image courtesy of the August Derleth Trust.


Mansfield with Monsters
presents readers with a rare glimpse into the work of this much-loved author. We may never know why Mansfield and her publishers excised so many of the monstrous elements of her work, or why the official version of her life story so carefully conceals her occult adventures. We may never know the real Katherine Mansfield, but the authors hope that this volume may shed some light on the world as Mansfield saw it.

It is a chilling vision, one which Mansfield was compelled to write about, yet one she ultimately chose to conceal from her readers. Perhaps this is the final enigma Mansfield presents: the dark contradiction at the heart of a great writer who declared, “at the end Truth is the only thing worth having; it is more thrilling than love, more joyful, and more passionate.”

Matt & Debbie Cowens

22 January 2012

The Woman at the Store

All that day the heat was terrible. The wind blew close to the ground; it rooted among the tussock grass, slithered along the road, so that the white pumice dust swirled in our faces, settled and sifted over us and was like a dry-skin itching for growth on our bodies. The horses stumbled along, coughing and chuffing. The pack horse was sick—with a big, open sore rubbed under the belly. Now and again she stopped short, threw back her head, looked at us as though she were going to cry, and whinnied.

Hundreds of larks shrilled; their dark shapes scrawling across the slate-grey sky like letters etched on a tombstone, and the sound of the larks reminded me of pencils scraping a slate surface. There was nothing to be seen but wave after wave of tussock grass, patched with purple orchids and manuka bushes covered with thick spider webs.

Jo rode ahead. He wore a blue galatea shirt, corduroy trousers, and riding boots. A white handkerchief, spotted with red so that it looked as though his nose had been bleeding on it, was knotted round his throat. Wisps of white hair straggled from under his wideawake—his moustache and eyebrows were the colour of old bones—he slouched in the saddle, grunting. Not once that day had he sung.

It was the first day we had been without his bawdy songs for a month, and now there seemed something uncanny in his silence. Jim rode beside me, white as a clown; his black eyes glittered, and he kept shooting out his tongue and moistening his lips. He was dressed in a Jaeger vest, and a pair of blue duck trousers, fastened round the waist with a plaited leather belt. We had hardly spoken since dawn. At noon we had lunched off fly biscuits and apricots by the side of a swampy creek.

“My stomach feels like the crop of a hen,” said Jo. “Now then, Jim, you're the bright boy of the party—where's this 'ere store you kep' on talking about. ‘Oh, yes,' you says, ‘I know a fine store, with a paddock for the horses and a creek runnin' through, owned by a friend of mine who'll give yer a bottle of whisky before 'e shakes hands with yer.' ”

Jim laughed. “Don't forget there's a woman too, Jo, with blue eyes and yellow hair, who'll promise you something else before she shakes hands with you. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

“The heat's making you balmy,” said Jo. But he dug his knees into the horse. We shambled on. I half fell asleep, and had a sort of uneasy dream that the horses were not moving forward at all—then that I was on a rocking-horse, and my old mother was scolding me for raising such a fearful dust from the drawing-room carpet.

I sniveled and woke to find Jim leaning over me, maliciously smiling.

“That was a case of all but,” said he. “I just caught you.”

I raised my head. “Thank the Lord we're finally arriving somewhere.”

We were on the brow of the hill, and below us there was a whare roofed with corrugated iron. It stood in a garden, rather far back from the road and half in shadow—a big paddock opposite, and a creek and a clump of skeletal willow-trees. A thin line of blue smoke stood up straight from the chimney of the whare; and as I looked a gaunt woman came out, followed by a child and a sheep dog—the woman carrying what appeared to me a black stick. She made gestures at us.

The horses put on a final spurt, Jo took off his wideawake, shouted, threw out his chest, and began singing. The sun pushed through the pale clouds and shed a vivid light over the scene. It gleamed on the woman's yellow hair, over her flapping pinafore and the rifle she was clutching. The child hid behind her, and the yellow dog, a mangy beast, scuttled back into the whare with a whimper, his tail between his legs. We drew rein and dismounted.

“Hallo,” screamed the woman. “I thought you was 'awks. Oh, the 'awks about 'ere, yer wouldn't believe.”

The ‘kid' gave us the benefit of one eye from behind the shadows of the woman's pinafore—then retired again.

“Where's your old man?” asked Jim.

The woman blinked rapidly, screwing up her face.

“Away shearin'. Bin away a month. I suppose yer goin' to stop, are yer? There's a storm comin' up and it's not safe on the hills round here after dark.”

“You bet we are,” said Jo. “So you're on your lonely, missus?”

She stood, pleating the frills of her pinafore with one hand, and glancing from one to the other of us like a hungry bird. I smiled at the thought of how Jim had pulled Jo's leg about her. Certainly her eyes were blue, and what hair she had was yellow, but ugly. Looking at her, you felt there was nothing but sticks and wires under that pinafore. Her front teeth were knocked out, she had red pulpy hands, and a pallid face. She could have been any age from thirty to sixty.

“I'll go and turn out the horses,” said Jim.

“Got any embrocation? Poi's rubbed herself to hell!”

“ 'Arf a mo!” The woman stood silent a moment, her nostrils flaring as she thought. Then she shouted violently. “I can't let you stop… You're not safe here, and there's the end of it. I don't let out that paddock any more. You'll have to go on; I ain't got nothing!”

“Well, I'm blest!” said Jo, heavily. He pulled me aside. “Gone a bit off 'er dot,” he whispered. “Too much alone,
you know

“Turn the sympathetic tap on 'er, she'll come round all right.”

But there was no need—she had come round by herself.

“Stop if yer like!” she muttered, shrugging her shoulders. She pointed at me. “I'll give yer the embrocation if yer come along.”

“Right-o, I'll take it down to them.”

We walked together up the garden path. It was planted on both sides with cabbages. They smelt like stale dish-water. Of flowers there were sweet-williams and double poppies, their crimson petals weather-torn and bruised. One bare patch of loose dirt was divided off by paua shells—presumably it belonged to the child—for she ran from her mother and began to grub in it with a broken clothes-peg. Then she produced a dead bird from the pocket in her pinafore, a small lark with one leg no more than a bloody stump and the left side of its head a mangled mess of blood and feathers where its skull had been caved in. She dropped the dead bird into a little hollow and started to hum as she pushed dirt over it with her clothes-peg.

“Elsie! Stop messing round with that bird,” the woman shouted. “I told you to leave that dirt alone.”

She twisted the child roughly by the arm until she dropped the clothes-peg and ran away from the garden. The woman grunted and continued on the path up to the whare. The yellow dog lay across the doorstep, biting fleas; the woman kicked at him as she approached but the creature flinched and ran off before her foot touched him.

“Gar-r, get away, you beast. The place ain't tidy. I 'aven't 'ad time ter fix things… Come right in.”

It was a large, dimly lit room, the walls plastered with old pages of English periodicals. Queen Victoria's Jubilee appeared to be the most recent number. A dusty table with an ironing-board and empty wash tub on it, some old wooden forms, a black horsehair sofa, and some broken cane chairs pushed against the walls. The mantel-piece above the stove was draped in pink paper that had started to curl at the edges, further ornamented with dried grasses and ferns and a faded print of Richard Seddon. There were four doors—one, judging from the smell, let into the ‘Store', one on to the ‘back yard', through a third I saw the bed-room. Flies buzzed in circles round the ceiling and treacle papers on the windows blotted out any trace of sunlight.

I was alone in the room; she had gone into the store for the embrocation. I heard her stamping about and muttering to herself: “I got some, now where did I put that bottle…? It's behind the pickles… no, it ain't.”

I cleared a place on the table and sat there, swinging my legs. Down in the paddock I could hear Jo singing and the sound of hammer strokes as Jim drove in the tent pegs. It was sunset. There is no twilight in our New Zealand days, but a curious half-hour when everything appears grotesque—it frightens—as though the savage spirit of the country walked abroad and sneered at what it saw. Sitting alone in the hideous room I grew afraid. The woman next door was a long time finding that stuff. What was she doing in there? Once I thought I heard her bang her hands down on the counter, and once she half moaned, turning it into a cough and clearing her throat. I wanted to call out to her but I kept silent.

“Good Lord, what a life!” I thought. “Imagine being here day in, day out, with that rat of a child and a mangy dog.
, of course she's mad! Wonder how long she's been here—wonder if I could get her to talk.”

At that moment she poked her head round the door.

“Wot was it yer wanted?” she asked.


“Oh, I forgot. I got it, it was in front of the pickle jars.”

She put a bottle down on the table, her red hands rough and shaky.

“My, you do look tired, you do! Shall I knock yer up some supper? There's some tongue in the store, too, and I'll cook yer a cabbage if you fancy it.”

“Right-o.” I forced a smile. “Come down to the paddock and bring the kid for tea.”

She shook her head, pursing up her mouth.

“Oh no. I don't… I don't fancy it. I'll send the kid down with the things and a billy of milk. Shall I knock up a few scones to take with yer ter-morrow?”


She came and stood by the door as though waiting for me to say something.

“How old is the kid?”

“Six, come next Christmas. I 'ad a bit of trouble with 'er one way an' another. I 'adn't any milk till a month after she was born and she sickened like a cow.”

“She's not like you—takes after her father?”

Just as the woman had shouted her refusal at us before, she shouted at me then. “No, she don't! She's the dead spit of me,” she shrieked in a voice resembling the shrill cries of the larks. “Any fool could see that. Come on in now, Elsie, you stop messing in the dirt. Leave that lark alone!”

I met Jo climbing over the paddock fence.

“What's the old bitch got in the store?” he asked.

“Don't know—didn't look.”

“What have you been doing all the time?”

“She couldn't find this stuff. Oh, my shakes, you are looking smart!”

Jo had washed, combed his wet hair in a line across his forehead, and buttoned a coat over his shirt. He grinned.

Jim snatched the embrocation from me. I went to the end of the paddock where the willows grew, and bathed in the creek. The water was clear and soft as oil. Along the edges held by the grass and rushes, white foam tumbled and bubbled. I lay in the water and looked up at the trees that were still a moment, then quivered lightly as though whispering a secret in their rustling leaves, and again were still. The air smelt of rain. A lark alighted on a branch, pecked at the bare bark, and sang out in its shrill voice.

I splashed water over my face, and then looked up again as a shadow fell over the water and the lark took flight from the branch with a cry. Another bird swooped down and landed with a rough bump on the bank of the creek. It took me a moment to realize why the lark hit the ground with such unbalanced force; it was missing one leg. I edged back in the water, wondering whether perhaps a trap or a ferret had caused two larks to have sustained such similar injuries, reducing their left limbs to no more than nubs of flayed bone. The bird turned its head to face me with a seemingly intelligent malevolence, revealing the gruesome, indented wound on the side of its face where the skull had been bashed in. It shook its head and ruffled its feathers, spraying dust and specks of loose dirt like a dog shaking itself dry after a swim.

I scrambled back toward the edge of the opposite side of the creek. The hideous lark started limping along the other side as though trying to keep pace with me. I pushed myself up onto the bank of the creek. The creature let out a shriek and thrashed its bony wings. I felt a throbbing pain in my ears and was taken by a dizzy spell, but shaking my head I grabbed my clothes and started to run. I heard its beating wings lifting up into the air. I looked back over my shoulder. The lark's beady eyes were glaring at me as it flew over the creek.

Another shriek tore through my head as I ran. At the base of an old macrocarpa-tree I turned back to face the lark. I gripped my shirt by the sleeves and swung it up over my head, thrashing it at the bird as it swooped towards me. The dizziness and pain in my ears grew until the lark became tangled in my shirt and fell silent. I swung it hard against the tree trunk a few times and finally it ceased to move. I shook it out of my shirt, feathers and dirt dropping around it, and brushed the shirt clean as best I could. Something in the mangled little bag of broken bones must have been uncurling after death, for I swear it was still twitching when I left.

Shaking, I came back to the tent. Jim lay by the fire, watching the billy boil.

I took a long, shaking breath and asked where Jo was, and if the kid had brought our supper.

“Pooh,” said Jim, rolling over and looking up at the darkening sky. “Didn't you see how Jo had been titivating? He said to me before he went up to the whare, ‘Dang it! she'll look better by night light. At any rate, my buck, she's female flesh!' ”

Back in Jim's company, away from the creek, I almost laughed at how scared of the lark I'd been. “You had Jo fooled about her looks—you had me, too.”

“No, look here. I can't make it out. It's four years since I came past this way, and I stopped here two days. The husband was a pal of mine once, down the West Coast—a fine, big chap, with a voice on him like a trombone. She'd been a bar-maid down the Coast, as pretty as a wax doll. The coach used to come this way then once a fortnight, that was before they opened the railway up Napier way, and she had no end of a time! Told me once in a confidential moment that she knew one hundred and twenty-five different ways of kissing!”

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