To this day the name Stevenson resonates to some in the same way that Stoker and Shelley do – as the creator of one of literature’s most enduring monsters: he is to the literary werewolf what Stoker is to the Gothic vampire -- Shelley to the science fiction monster. But unlike the other members of the Three S’s club, Stevenson’s work has a strong footing in the world of high literature. Chesterton and Nabakov pored over his works and wrote enthusiastic criticism in his name. Prime Minister William Gladstone stayed up all night reading Treasure Island. Kipling called him “idol.” Henry James termed him “the only man in England who can write a decent English sentence.” J. M. Barrie noted that “R. L. S.” were the most beloved initials in the world. So it should come as no surprise that his horror would have a particularly adept finesse. And it does.
The power in Stevenson’s supernatural fiction comes from his love/hate relationship with his parents’ religion – Calvinism, a Christian philosophy that saw all life as preordained. Salvation was out of your hands. Damnation was given regardless of merit. No one could know whether they were saved or not, so the best thing to do was to act like a saint in front of others to avoid gossip from your fellow churchgoers.
But behind closed doors – well, it didn’t matter did it? You were damned regardless of what you did or saved in spite of it. A devout minister might wake up in hell while a murdering child abuser suns himself in heaven. Stevenson’s horror is obsessed with the hypocrisy this bred, the integrity he longed for, and the division he felt in his own soul: the struggle between health and sickness, atheism and devotion, radicalism and conservatism, hope and despair. Nearly all of his tales of terror feature the multiplicity of man’s soul and the horrible battles that erupt around its ownership.
While Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the most famous, the following tales are equally fascinating, and some are treasures of literary power. If you are interested in reading any of these tales (or Jekyll and Hyde for that matter), you can click here to order our copy of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Others: The Best Horror and Ghost Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, or just to look at the rest of the illustrations.
7. THE WAIF WOMAN
Stevenson’s wife shunned this story, and its publication (intended to be alongside The Isle of Voices and The Bottle Imp) was cancelled until 1914, years after his death. It is his adaptation of an Icelandic ghost story, fittingly set in the year that Christianity arrived on Iceland’s shores, around 999. Rich with atmosphere, beautifully told, and chilling to read, it tells the story of an exiled noblewoman who lands on Iceland’s shores and is taken in by a Viking noble and his wife. Without country or family given, she is a stranger, and yet her possessions fascinate the Viking’s wife, who is mesmerized by her fine clothes and jewelry. Against her husband’s reservations – and in defiance of their guest’s wishes – she confiscates the treasures after the woman’s death. But as readers of ghost stories know, sometimes a dead woman’s possessions are better off in the ashes of the pyre or the belly of the sea – a lesson this woman learns far too late.
6. THE BOTTLE IMP
Famous for its literary merit, The Bottle Imp is often classed alongside The Monkey’s Paw, The Wild Ass’s Skin, and The Midas Touch – the classic story of “be careful what you wish for.” Inspired by Stevenson’s convalescence in Hawaii, the story follows a once-poor Hawaiian, a former owner of the bottle imp – a glass bottle said to house a djinn who has given good fortune to such notables as Napoleon and the kings of Europe. But there is a catch: it must be sold before death to avoid damnation, and must be sold at half its cost. Made rich by his previous ownership (a wish to be rich killed off his cousins in a boat accident) his wealth is useless when he develops leprosy just as his love life was in full swing. Distraught, he is thrilled when he recovers the bottle imp after tracking it down. The imp is purchased for a cent, the leprosy cured, and all seems well… until he remembers that his soul is poised for hellfire.
A moral parable, Markheim crams the plot and philosophy of Crime and Punishment into a short story. On a snowy Christmas Eve, the titular Markheim – a Raskolnikov-esque Bohemian – walks into the shop of a crooked pawnbroker, hoping to buy a Christmas present for his fiancée. The broker hands him a mirror which repulses the nervous Markheim – the sight of his reflection being something of a philosophical horror. Annoyed, the broker bids him goodnight, and turns to hang the mirror, whereupon Markheim plunges a knife into him. After some moments of frenzied introspection and plotting, Markheim realizes that he is not alone: a familiar entity strolls cheerily from the shadows – someone who has known him since birth. Markheim is not much of a horror story, but it is a tremendously effective literary parable, and the unquestionable forefather to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which Stevenson was working on at the time he was inspired.
4. THRAWN JANET (TWISTED JANET)
This is truly one of the creepiest horror stories I have ever read, and one that we have previously featured on the blog. Written mostly in Scots – a Germanic dialect that looks like English but can sometimes be very hard to understand – I translated it for Best Horror and Ghost Stories of Stevenson, and you can read that translation (the only one I think in existence – most books only have a partial gloss, or else expect you to understand phrases like “chairge her wi' a' that was kent again' her, frae the sodger's bairn to John Tamson's twa kye.”) here, or in the book. The story is part zombie tale, part ghost story, part witch tale, part demonic possession episode, part Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. It follows the slow and horrible realization of a new, progressive pastor that his superstitious congregation is right: the ugly, outcast woman he saved from them and hired as a housekeeper is a witch, and when she shows up to town with her neck twisted (or “thrawn”) and leaning to one side like a hanged corpse, he wonders if she is even a living woman at all.
3. THE MERRY MEN
Fans of Treasure Island will relish The Merry Men. Although it takes place on the Scottish coast, there is plenty of seafaring action: treasure hunters, sunken galleons, shipwrecks in wild weather, and even a diving expedition that uncovers human bones. A young man returns from college to find his superstitious, devout uncle living in hypocritical luxury stolen from the wreckage of a ship that sank off the coast. At first he is revolted by the man’s doublespeak – a good Calvinist should shun worldly finery, or “braws” as he calls them, again in Scots – and his merciless lack of compassion for the drowned men. But when he discovers a hastily dug grave too far ashore to be that of drowning victim, he can only hope that his fundamentalist uncle has gone mad and not resorted to willful murder for the sake of his pick of fine things. When a storm traps a schooner full of treasure hunters against the jagged rocks (sarcastically-termed the Merry Men for the musical chaos made by the waves crashing on them), the answer seems both clear and uncertain.
2. THE BODY SNATCHER
Most famous of all Stevenson’s short horror stories, The Body Snatcher is truly a masterpiece of weird fiction, and is even endowed with some Lovecraftian sensibilities. The story is famously inspired by the Anatomy Murders of Burke and Hare – two churls who murdered sixteen tenets in their boarding house, selling the corpses to Dr Knox’s dissecting classes. In this Dantean story, Fettes is a broken man dwelling in a purgatorial tavern when he encounters Macfarlane, a successful society doctor and a medical school classmate. Fettes is terrified by the sight of him, and his friends recall Fettes’ background: as a student he was an arrogant materialist whose morality was easily bought. Worse than him, however, was the Mephistophelean Macfarlane – a sly tempter with fewer scruples and more charisma. Fettes begins to suspect that the bodies they are illegally buying are actually murder victims, and when he recognizes one as a healthy woman, he knows it. It is when Macfarlane murders and sells the corpse of their craven confederate, Gray, that Fettes knows he has gotten in over his head, but by this point he imagines it is too late, and becomes Macfarlane’s accomplice. All seems well… that is until they visit a graveyard in the country, and the corpse of the old woman they snatched begins to change shape and size before their eyes.
A grossly underappreciated masterpiece, Olalla is part Bram Stoker, part Edgar Allan Poe. In fact, it is a fairly clear Poe pastiche – but a loving one done with original genius. A wounded soldier is convalescing in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars, and is sent to the house of a poor noble family to recover. The Gothic mansion is dripping with atmosphere – and the effect is mesmerizing. He becomes fixated with a portrait of one of the ancestors, and knows that he would surrender his soul for the living original. The occupants – a noblewoman, her mentally retarded son, and an unseen daughter – are alone in their moldering mountain escape. The mother and son lap up sloth greedily, and are indulgence personified: pure sensual abandon. The daughter is unfortunately the double of her ancestor, and when she appears, the soldier is captivated by her beauty and her difference from her family: she is spiritual and chaste while they are slothful and gluttonous. But there is a terrible secret that the family hides – a genetic curse passed through the generations – that becomes clear when he cuts his hand in front of the lazy mother. Her eyes wake up suddenly at the smell of blood, and… Well, they warned him...