Cannonball Read III: Book 6: Bespelling Jane Austen

I'm not intentionally on a streak of monster mash lit. That this follows Classics Mutilated on my reading list is pure coincidence. The similarities between the two end at the genre. Bespelling Jane Austen is a collection of four short novels resetting Jane Austen's work as paranormal romance. Ironically, the most successful entry in the collection comes from the least enthusiastic author: Mary Balogh. Balogh had to be persuaded to update Jane Austen. Her concession was that she did not have to use vampires or werewolves or other creatures that go bump in the night.

Almost Persuaded resets Persuasion as a meditation on reincarnation and the cycle of rebirth. Here, Jane Everett and Capt. Midford are two souls on the same path towards paradise. They have fallen in love many times before but the relationship has always ended in tragedy. In their most recent lives, Jane's former self drowned herself in a river when Capt. Midford's former self left her. When they meet by chance at Jane's Aunt's house, they fall in love instantly. However, her family persuades her that she is being taken advantage of.

The novel follows all the beats of Austen's work. They fight, they flirt, they separate, and they meet again. The difference is how Balogh's writing can convince the reader that she has reinvented the entire story. I knew everything that had to happen, yet I was affected by all the emotional highs and lows as if I was experiencing Austen's story for the first time. The prose is beautiful and poised. What else can you expect from someone who writes Regency romances for a living?

Colleen Gleason's Northanger Castle beats me to a gag I've joked about since Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was released: what if the Gothic horror Catherine Morland imagined was going on around her was real? Here, Caroline Merrill uses the classic novels of the genre to guide her in facing real life monsters and shrieking women locked in the attic. This entry falls short of its goals solely because it would be near-impossible to beat Jane Austen in satirizing the conventions of the Gothic novel. She mocked it so effortlessly that critics at the time thought she was actually writing a sincere novel.

Blood and Prejudice from Susan Krinard is the weakest entry in the collection solely because she was beaten to her gags. I honestly want to blame the editor of the collection for this mistake. I know there are only six Austen novels to choose from, but surely someone could have been persuaded to do Sense and Sensibility or Mansfield Park for a bit of variety.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the best-known monster mash novel. Whether you like it or not, Seth Grahame-Smith is the writer who put the bizarre money-making lit in motion two years ago and he did it with one of Jane Austen's most beloved novels. Krinard's resetting as a vampire romance in modern day NYC lacks bite because she doesn't go beyond the new setting and character types to explore the ramifications on Austen's text. She proves that simply adding a monster is not enough to justify this device. Krinard even tries to borrow one of Austen's signature devices--stepping outside of the novel to comment on the novel without breaking the tone of the novel--and only serves to further devalue her work. Grahame-Smith's novel worked because he managed to justify the existence of zombies in the era with clever alterations of the text that fit with Austen's vision of her characters. Krinard didn't put the work in to justify the addition of vampires in Pride and Prejudice.

If you like steamy romances, then Little to Hex Her--an adaptation of Emma about paranormal romance--from Janet Mullany is for you. Emma runs a dating service for supernatural creatures. Knightley owns the building she runs her business out of. Mullany, to her credit, comes the closest to matching Austen's tone and style while completely taking apart everything that makes high-button Emma what it is.

And by steamy, I mean sex. And arguably date rape. But Mullany earns those additions with the way she resets the novel to justify those plot devices.

Bespelling Jane Austen is a mixed bag of a collection. I find it hard to believe any one person could fall in love with all four short novels as they all take such vastly different approaches. Even Austen fans will probably be divided. Some will scoff at the paranormal intrusions, while others will guffaw at how fast and loose these authors play with the characters. I say give the book a try if Austen or paranormal romance interests you.

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