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Illuminating Supernatural Fiction, Horror, and the Gothic

from Mary Shelley to H. P. Lovecraft

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Robert Louis Stevenson's "Thrawn Janet" in Modern English: A Translation from the Scots

"Thrawn Janet" is one of the most ghoulish and twisted (pun) horror stories to come from a Victorian pen. It is one of Stevenson's best supernatural stories, and it is an underrated classic, forged in a deeply Hawthornian tradition of social responsibility, fear of the unconventional, and the battle waging between nature and civilization, reason and impulse, discipline and indulgence. There is only one problem: most 21st century English-speaking readers can only infer most of the plot through context clues, homophones, and detective work. This is because Stevenson wrote all but two paragraphs in the beautiful Scots dialect. Those who understand, or can at least pick around Scots will testify to its charm, and will support the decision of most editors' to preserve it in the original Scots (I have not yet found one who didn't). And yet, those who speak this rich and robust Germanic dialect only total about 2 million, including a mere 110,000 native speakers.

 

While we hope to preserve the eloquent beauty of this dialect, it behooves us to understand it better by having a reference point: just as Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser benefit dramatically from the inclusion of a gloss, so too will this story be more deeply appreciated by having an English language translation. And so, as I continue to work on our upcoming volume of Stevenson's best horror, that is what I have done. 

 

My background in Scots is not formal, but it is passionate. In middle school I cut my teeth on the gorgeous poetry of Robert Burns and Robert Fergusson, the Romances of Sir Walter Scott and Stevenson, and the Scottish stories of Mrs Oliphant and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which were peppered with the vernacular. Scots seemed to pop up in many of the historical fiction I read, and I found myself growing comfortable and familiar with the sound of it in my head, eventually  requiring a gloss less and less.

 

Having a combined five years of German study under my belt, the Scots vocabulary and grammer was familiar and easy to pick out (here are some homophones in English, German, and Scots respectively: night/Nacht/nicht, church/Kirche/kirk, light/Licht/lecht, old/alt/aulde, people/Volk/fowk, daughter/Tochter/dochter, etc.), and this was helpful in graduate school when I wrote my thesis on the Scottish Enlightment, and the dialectics of nationhood generated by the Edinburgh school during the 18th century. In translating the following tale I used a good deal of personal knowledge, consulting with a brace of dictionaries when in doubt: Charles Mackay's The Auld Scots Dictionary of Lowland Scots, and Crorbett and McClure's The Edinburgh Companion to Scots. It is absolutely recommended that you read the original text in full, referencing the English translation when necessary, so I have constructed a side-by-side reading of the Scots narrative with the English in italics to the left. If you read the translation below and enjoy it, please click this link to read Stevenson's delicious Scots prose.

 

And now, without further ado, "Twisted Janet," by Robert Louis Stevenson:

 

THRAWN JANET

or

"TWISTED JANET"

 

Translated from the Scots

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

 

Excerpted from Oldstyle Tales Press'

DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE AND OTHER HORRORS:

The Best Weird Fiction and Ghost Stories of

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

 

 

 

THE Reverend Murdoch Soulis was long minister of the moorland parish of Balweary, in the vale of Dule. A severe, bleak-faced old man, dreadful to his hearers, he dwelt in the last years of his life, without relative or servant or any human company, in the small and lonely manse under the Hanging Shaw. In spite of the iron composure of his features, his eye was wild, scared, and uncertain; and when he dwelt, in private admonitions, on the future of the impenitent, it seemed as if his eye pierced through the storms of time to the terrors of eternity. Many young persons, coming to prepare themselves against the season of the holy communion, were dreadfully affected by his talk. He had a sermon on I Pet. V. 8, "The devil as a roaring lion," on the Sunday after every 17th of August, and he was accustomed to surpass himself upon that text both by the appalling nature of the matter and the terror of his bearing in the pulpit. The children were frightened into fits, and the old looked more than usually oracular, and were, all that day, full of those hints that Hamlet deprecated. The manse itself, where it stood by the water of Dule among some thick trees, with the Shaw overhanging it on the one side, and on the other many cold, moorish hilltops rising toward the sky, had begun, at a very early period of Mr. Soulis's ministry, to be avoided in the dusk hours by all who valued themselves upon their prudence; and guidmen sitting at the clachan alehouse shook their heads together at the thought of passing late by that uncanny neighbourhood. There was one spot, to be more particular, which was regarded with especial awe. The manse stood between the highroad and the water of Dule, with a gable to each; its bank was toward the kirktown of Balweary, nearly half a mile away; in front of it, a bare garden, hedged with thorn, occupied the land between the river and the road. The house was two stories high, with two large rooms on each. It opened not directly on the garden, but on a causewayed path, or passage, giving on the road on the one hand, and closed on the other by the tall willows and elders that bordered on the stream. And it was this strip of causeway that enjoyed among the young parishioners of Balweary so infamous a reputation. The minister walked there often after dark, sometimes groaning aloud in the instancy of his unspoken prayers; and when he was from home, and the manse door was locked, the more daring school- boys ventured, with beating hearts, to "follow my leader" across that legendary spot.

 

This atmosphere of terror, surrounding, as it did, a man of God of spotless character and orthodoxy, was a common cause of wonder and subject of inquiry among the few strangers who were led by chance or business into that unknown, outlying country. But many even of the people of the parish were ignorant of the strange events which had marked the first year of Mr. Soulis's ministrations; and among those who were better informed, some were naturally reticent, and others shy of that particular topic. Now and again, only, one of the older folk would warm into courage over his third tumbler, and recount the cause of the minister's strange looks and solitary life.

 

________________________________________________

 

FIFTY years ago, when Mr Soulis first came into Balweary, he was still a young man – just a kid, the people said – full of book learning and wonderful at exposition, but, as was natural in so young a man, with no life experience in religion. The younger sort were greatly taken with his gifts and his eloquence; but the older, concerned, serious men and women were moved even to prayer for the young man, whom they took to be a self-deciever, and the parish that was like to be so ill supplied. It was before the days of the Moderates – dismal for them; but bad things are like the good – they both come bit by bit, a small bit at a time; and there were people even then that said the Lord had left the college professors to their own devices, and the lads that went to study with them would have done more and better sitting in a peat-bog, like their forebears of the persecution, with a Bible under their armpit and a spirit of prayer in their heart. There was no doubt, anyway, but that Mr Soulis had been at the college for far too long. We was careful and troubled for many things besides the one thing needful. He had a load of books with him – more than had ever been seen before in all the parish; and a miserable chore the carrier had with them, for they were likely to have crushed the Devil’s ox between this and Kilmackerlie. They were books of divinity, to be sure, or so they called them; but the serious were of the opinion that there was little need for so many when the whole of God’s Word would fit in the crease of a plaid cloak. Then he would sit half the day and half the night as well, which was hardly decent – writing no less; and first they were afraid he would read his sermons; and since then it proved he was writing a book himself, which was surely not proper for anyone of his years and slight experience…

 

Anyway, it behooved him to get and old, decent biddy to order the parsonage for him and to cook his small dinners; and he was recommended to an old hussy – Janet McClour, they called her – and so far left to himself as to be over-persuaded. There were many who advised him against it, for Janet was more than suspected by the best citizens in Balweary. Long ago she had given birth to a dragoon’s brat; she hadn’t taken communion for maybe thirty years; and children had seen her mumbling to herself up on Key’s Loan in the twilit hollow was an uncouth time and place for a God-fearing woman. Howsoever, it was the squire himself that had first told the minister of Janet; and in those days he would have gone far out of his way to please the squire. When the people told him that Janet was kin to the devil, he wrote it all off as superstition; and when they showed him the Bible, and the Witch of Endor, he would argue it back down their throats – that those days were all bygone, and that God had bound the devil.

 

Well, when word got out to the village that Janet McClour was to be the parsonage servant, the people were very cross with her and him both, and some of the ladies had nothing better to do than get around her doorposts and accuse her of all that was known against her, from the soldier’s bastard to John Tamson’s two cows. She was no great speaker; people usually let her go her own pace and she let them go theirs, with neither a kind “good evening,” nor a kind “good day;” but when she opened up, she had a tongue that would deafen a miller. Up she got, and there wasn’t an old story in Balweary but she would force someone to listen to that day; they couldn’t say a thing but she could say two in response; till, at the end of the day, the ladies up and caught hold of her, and clawed the coats off her back, and pulled her down the town to the water of Dule, to see if she was a witch or not – swim or drown. The crone shrieked till you could hear her at the Hanging Wood, and she fought like ten; there was a good many ladies who wore bruises the next day, and many for longer, and just at the fiercest of the fighting, who should come up (for his sins) but the new minister.

 

“Women,” said he (and he had a grand voice), “I tell you in the Lord’s name to let her go.”

Janet ran to him – she was totally wild with terror – and clung him and begged him, for Christ’s sake, save her from the bitches; and they, for their part, told him all that was known, and maybe more.

 

“Woman,” says he to Janet, “is this true?”

 

“As the Lord sees me,” says she, “as the Lord made me, not a word of it. Other than the baby,” says she, “I’ve been a decent woman all my days.”

 

“Will you,” says Mr Soulis, “in the name of God, and before me, His unworthy mister, renounce the devil and his works?”

 

Well, it would appear that, when he asked that, she gave a grin that thoroughly terrified those that saw her, and they could hear her teeth grinding together in her cheeks; but there was nothing to account for it one way or the other; and Janet lifted up her hand and renounced the devil before them all

 

“And now,” says Mr Soulis to the ladies, “Get back home, one and all, and pray to God for his forgiveness.”

 

And he gave Janet his arm, though she had little more on than a chemise, and he took her up the village to her own door like a proper lady, and her screeching and laughing was scandalous.

 

There were many grave people busy praying that night; but when morning came, there was such a fear that fell over all Balweary that the kids hid themselves, and even the men stood and peeked through their doors. For there was Janet coming down the town – her or her likeness, none could tell – with her neck twisted and her head on one side, like a body that has been hanged, and a grin on her face like a hanged corpse cut down. By and by they got used to it, and even asked her to tell them what was wrong; but from that day forth she couldn’t speak like a Christian woman, but slavered and gnashed her teeth like a pair of shears; and from that day forth the name of God never came to her lips. As much as she would try to say it, it wouldn’t work. Those that knew best said least; but they never gave that Thing the name of Janet McClour; for the old Janet, by their way of seeing it, was in the middle of hell that day. But the minster was neither going to hold up or restrain himself; he preached about nothing but the people’s cruelty that had given her a stroke of the palsy; he belted the children that tormented her; and he had her up to the parsonage that same night, and lingered there at his lane with her under the Hanging Wood.

 

Well, time went by, and the idler sort commenced to think more lightly of that black business. The minister was well regarded; he was always writing – the people would see his candle shining down by the Dule Water after twilight at evening; and he seemed pleased with himself and lackadaisical once again, though anybody could see that he was dwindling. As for Janet, she came and she went; if she didn’t speak a great deal before, it was reasonable that she should speak less the; she bothered no one; but she was a hideous and frightful thing to see, and none would have offended her for all of Balweary.

 

Around the end of July there came a strange period of weather unlike any ever seen in that countryside; it was cloudless and hot and heartless; the herds couldn’t climb up the Black Hill, the kids were too exhausted to play, and yet it was gusty too, with bursts of hot wind that rumbled in the glens, and bits of showers that quenched nothing. We always thought it was simply thundering in the morning; but the morning came, and the next morning, and it was always the same uncanny weather; oppressing man and beast alike. Of all that had it bad, no one suffered like Mr Soulis; he could neither sleep nor eat, he told his elders; and when he wasn’t writing at his weary book, he would be roaming aimlessly over all the countryside like a man possessed, when anybody else was more than happy to keep cool indoors.

 

Above Hanging Wood, in the protection of the Black Hill, there’s a small plot enclosed with an iron fence; and it seems, in the olden days, that was the graveyard of Balweary, and consecrated by the Papists before the blessed light shone down upon the kingdom. It was a favorite haunt of Mr Soulis’ anyway; there he would sit and consider his sermons, and indeed it’s a cozy spot. Well, as he came over the west end of the Black Hill one day, he saw first two, and then four, and then seven carrion crows flying round and round above the old graveyard. They flew light and heavy and squawked to each other as they went; and it was clear to Mr Soulis that something had excited them from their routine. He wasn’t easily frightened, and went straight up to the wall; and what should he find there but a man, or the appearance of a man, sitting inside on top of a grave. He was of a great stature, and black as hell, and his eyes were extraordinary to see. Mr Soulis had often heard of black men; but there was something off about this black man that daunted him. Hot as he was, he took a kind of cold shiver in the marrow of his bones; but he spoke up in spite of it, saying “My friend, are you a stranger in this place?” The black man answered never a word; he stood up, and lumbered towards the wall on the far side; but he always looked at the minister; and the minister stood and looked back; till in the blink of an eye the black man was over the wall and running for the shelter of the trees. Mr Soulis, he hardly knew why, ran after him; but he was sorely fatigued with his walk and the hot, unwholesome weather; and run as he would, he got no more than a glimpse of the black man among the birches, till he wound down to the foot of the hillside, and there he saw him once more, going hop, step, and jump over Dule Water to the pasonage.

 

Mr Soulis wasn’t too pleased that this fearsome vagrant should be so familiar with Balweary parsonage; and he ran all the harder, in wet shoes, over the stream, and up the walk; but nothing of that devil of a black man was there to see. He stepped out upon the road, but there was nobody there; he went all over the garden, but no, no black man. At the back end – and a bit frightened as was natural – he lifted the hasp and entered the parsonage; and there was Janet McClour before his eyes, with her twisted gullet, and not so pleased to see him. Since then he has always remember that when he first set eyes on her, he had cold and mischievous shiver—

 

“Janet,” says he, “have you seen a black man?”

 

“A black man?” she said. “Save us all! You’re out of your mind, minister. There’s no black man in all Balweary.”

 

But she didn’t speak plain, you most understand; but grumble-mumbled like a pony with a bit in its mouth.

 

“Well,” he says, “Janet, if there was no black man, I have spoken with the Accuser of the Saints.”

 

And he sat down like one with fever, and his teeth chattered in his head.

 

“Bollocks!” says she, “shame on you, minister,” giving him a splash of the brandy which was always on her.

 

Then Mr Soulis went into his study among all of his books. It’s a long, low, murky chamber, deadly cold in winter, and not very dry even in the peak of summer, for the pasonage stands near the stream. So down he sat, and thought of all who had come and gone since he was in Balweary, and his hometown, and the days when he was a kid and ran merrily on the hilltops; and that black man always ran in his head like the chorus of a song. All the more he thought, the more he thought of the black man. He tried the Lord’s Prayer, and the words wouldn’t come to him; and he tried, they say, to write at his book, but he couldn’t come up with anything. There was a time when he thought the black man was at his elbow, and the sweat stood upon him as cold as well water; and there was other times when he came to himself like a christened babe and was troubled by nothing.  

 

The upshot was that he went to the window and stood glowering at Dule Water. The trees were unnaturally thick, and the water lies deep and black under the manse; and there was Janet washing the clothes with her cloak pinned up in kilt fashion.

 

She had her back to the minister, and he for his part, hardly knew what he was looking at. Then she turned around and showed her face; Mr Soulis had the same cold shiver as twice that day before, and it dawned upon him what the people said: that Janet had died long ago, that this was a walking revenant in her clay-cold flesh. He drew back a bit and scanned her narrowly. She was stomp-stomping the clothes, crooning to herself; and oh! God preserve us, but it was a fearsome face. Soon she sang louder, but there was no man born of woman that could tell the words of her song; and all the while she looked sideways down, but there was nothing there for her to look at. There came a nauseated disgust through the flesh upon his bones; and that was heaven’s advertisement. But Mr Soulis just blamed himself, he said to think so ill of a poor, old, afflicted biddy, that hadn’t a friend in the world other than himself; and he prayed a little prayer for him and her, and drank a little fresh water – suffering as he did from heartburn – and went to his naked bed in the twilight.

 

That was a night that has never been forgotten in Balweary, the night of the seventeenth of August, 1712. It had been hot before, as I have said, but that night was hotter than ever. The sun went down among unnatural-looking clouds; it was as dark as hell; not a star, not a breath of wind; you couldn’t see your hand before your face, and even the old folks threw the covers from their beds and lay gasping for their breath. With all that he had upon his mind, it was very unlikely Mr Soulis would get much sleep. He lay and he tossed and turned; the good, cool bed that he got into burned his very bones; sometimes he slept and sometimes he woke; sometimes he heard the time of night, and sometimes a hound yowling up the moor, as if somebody was dead; sometimes he thought he heard ghosts chattering in his ear, and sometimes he saw phantom lights in the room. He behooved, he judged, to be sick; and sick he was – little he suspected the cause of the sickness.

 

As the night waned, he got a clearness of mind, sat up in his nightshirt on the bedside, and began to once more think of the black man and Janet. He couldn’t well explain why – maybe it was the chill in his feet – but it came to him like a flood that there was some connection between the two, and that either or both of them were specters. And just at that moment, in Janet’s room, which was nearest to his, there came a stamp of feet as if men were wrestling, and then a loud bang; and then a wind went rushing around the four quarters of the house; and then all was once more as silent as the grave.

 

Mr Soulis was afraid of neither man nor devil. He got his tinder box, and lit a candle, and was over to Janet’s door in three bounds.  

 

It was unlocked, and he pushed it open, and peeked boldly in. It was a big room, as big as the minister’s own, and provided with grand, old solid furniture, for he had nothing else. There was a four-poster bed with antique tapestries; and a beautiful cabinet of oak, that was full of the minister’s divinity books, and put there to be out of the way; and a few of Janet’s togs were lying here and there about the floor. But no Janet could Mr Soulis see, nor any sign of a struggle. In he went (and there’s few who would have followed him), and looked all around and listened. But there was nothing to be heard inside the parsonage nor in all Balweary parish, and nothing to be seen but the great shadows turning around the candle. And then all at once the minister’s heart knocked loudly and stood stock-still, and a cold wind blew among the hairs of his head. What a hideous sight it was for the poor man’s eyes! For there was Janet hanging from a nail beside the old oak cabinet; her head always lay on her shoulder, her eyes bulged out, the tongue protruded from her mouth, and her heels were two feet clear above the floor.

 

“God forgive us all!” thought Mr Soulis, “poor Janet’s dead.”

 

He came a step nearer to the corpse; and then his heart nearly tottered inside his chest. For – by what contraption it would hardly seem fir for a man to judge – she was hanging from a single nail and by a single worsted thread for darning hose.

 

It’s an awful thing to be alone at night with such prodigies of darkness; but Mr Soulis was strong in the Lord. He turned and went his way out of that room, and locked the door behind him; and step by step down the stairs, as heavy as lead; and set down the candle on the table of the stair-foot. He couldn’t pray, he couldn’t think, he was dripping with cold sweat, and nothing could he hear but the dunt-dunt-dunting of his own heart. He might maybe have stood there an hour, or maybe two, he minded so little; when all of a sudden he heard a low, unnatural bustle upstairs; a foot went to and fro in the chamber where the corpse was hanging; then the door was opened though he knew well that he had locked it; and then there was a step upon the landing, and it seemed to him as if the corpse was looking over the rail and down upon him where he stood.

 

He took up the candle again (for he couldn’t bear to be without the light), and, as softly as he could, went straight out of the parsonage and to the far end of the causeway. It was still dark as hell outside; the flame of the candle, when he set it on the ground, burnt steady and clear as in a room; nothing moved, but the Dule Water seeping and sobbing down the glen, and those same unholy footsteps that  came plodding down the stairs inside the parsonage. He knew the foot all too well, for it was Janet’s; and at each step that came a bit nearer, his blood grew colder. He commended his soul to Him that made and kept him; “and, O Lord,” said he, “give me strength this night to battle the powers of evil.”

 

By this time the step was coming through the passage of the door; he could hear a hand sweep along the wall, as if the fearsome thing was feeling for its way. The willows tossed and moaned together, a long sigh came over the hills, the flame of the candle was blown about; and there stood the corpse of Twisted Janet, with her grosgrain gown and her black nightcap with the head still upon the shoulder, and the grin still upon the face of it – living, you would have thought – but dead, as Mr Soulis well knew – upon the threshold of the parsonage. It’s a strange thing that the soul of man should  be woven into his perishable body; but the minister saw that, and his heart didn’t break.

 

She didn’t stand there long; she began to move again, and came slowly toward Mr Soulis where he stood under the willows. All the life of his body, all the strength of his spirit, were glowering from his eyes. It seemed she was going to speak, but lack words, and made a sign with the left hand. There came a clap of wind, like a cat’s  spitting hiss; out went the candle, the willows screamed like living people and Mr Soulis knew that, live or die, this was the end of it.

 

“Witch, crone, devil!” he cried, “I charge you by the power of God, begone – if you be dead, to the grave; if you be damned, to hell.”

 

And at that moment the Lord’s own hand out of the heavens struck the Horror where it stood; the old, dead, desecrated corpse of the witch-biddy, so long kept from the grave and herded around by demons, flared up like sulfur fire and fell in ashes to the ground; the thunder followed, peal on throbbing peal, the roaring rain upon the back of that; and Mr Soulis leapt through the garden hedge and ran, with scream upon scream, for the village.

 

That same morning John Christie saw the black man pass the great tomb just before six; before eight he went by the change-house at Knockdow, and not long afterwards, Sandy McLellan saw him rushing smartly down the hills from Kilmackerlie. There’s little doubt that it was him that dwelt so long in Janet’s body; but he was away at last; and since then the devil has never troubled us in Balweary.

 

But it was a bitter dispensation for the minister; long, long he lay raving in his bed; and from that hour to this, he was the man you know today...

 

 

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You can read the story in its original Scots HERE!

 

And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Stevenson's best horror HERE!

 

 

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