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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Robert Louis Stevenson's Morally Schizophrenic, Existential Horror Stories

J. M. Barrie, the Scottish playwright and author of Peter Pan, once quipped that the initials “R.L.S.” are “the best beloved in recent literature.” A quick comparison between Pan and Treasure Island, Kidnapped, or The Black Arrow will remove any doubt that the writer was making an impersonal observation. Edmond Gosse agreed that he was “the most beloved of all the authors of our time,” and William Gladstone, Prime Minister at the time, stayed up an entire night reading Treasure Island, his favorite book. Kipling considered the man “his idol,” while Henry James termed him “the only man in England who can write a decent English sentence,” and Arthur Conan Doyle blessed him for “all the pleasure you have given me during my lifetime – more than any other living man.” G. K. Chesterton and Vladimir Nabokov wrote rhapsodic essays interpreting his works. Chesterton glowed, “he seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his pen, like a man playing [pick-up-sticks],” and Stevenson remains one of the most highly translated authors in the world (ranked 26th) outpacing such literary colossi as Hemingway, Kipling, Wilde, and even Poe.

His writing is frequently associated with adventure literature, historical fiction, and the justly-called “boy’s novel.” His historical masterpieces The Black Arrow, The Master of Ballantrae, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, and The Wrecker demonstrate the influence of Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Guy de Maupassant, showing all their range, depth, imagination, and richness of prose. But attentive readers are familiar with the darker side of Stevenson’s writing – a side closely linked to Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne’s Gothic fiction – and to horror aficionados he remains a tribune in the unholy trinity of British horror fiction: the Irishman, Englishwoman, and Scott whose 19th century novels still remain the greatest influences in horror culture today.

Stevenson’s Influence on Gothic Literature

The Gothic horror novel is a relatively uncommon form. The short story is far more efficient in delivering scares, and far easy to create. But when it has appeared on bookshelves, it typically owes a debt to the genre’s most influential ancestors: the three S’s – Shelley, Stoker, and Stevenson. Collectively they are responsible for nearly all of our modern cultural associations with monsters, vampires, and werewolves, respectively. Some, including Stephen King, have included Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw on this list to include the novelized ghost story (that rarest of all forms), and it is certainly inaccurate to treat the three as the century’s best horror novelists (in actuality, Turn of the Screw, J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, may be the best examples of the form), but they are unquestionably the three most impactful voices in horror dating from that decade.

The three most influential horror novels of the 19th century – and subsequently the modern age – have generally been accepted as those masterpieces written by the Three S’s: Shelley, Stoker, and Stevenson, unholy trinity of terror. There is a reason that in the 1920s Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde were all wildly popular stage-plays, and a reason that between 1931 and 1932 all three were adapted into inexorably iconic monster films (the first two by Universal, the later by Paramount). Collectively they make up the cornerstone of collective cultural imagination on three of Stephen King’s five archetypal horrors: the Monster (or, Nameless Thing), the Vampire, and the Werewolf (the Ghost and the Bad Place, or the Haunted House make up the other two). Since perhaps the 1900s, Shelley, Stoker, and Stevenson have been treated like the Peter, Paul and Mary of the horror world – their names synonymous with terror. But one of the trio has a distinctively more diversified portfolio: Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and other than a few dark parables (“The Last Man”) and a couple supernatural tales (“Transformation”), her career was a one-hit wonder; Stoker was prolific to a degree, conjuring several Poe-esque stories that raise the hair (“The Squaw,” “The Burial of the Rats,” “The Judge’s House”) and a clump of awkward novels (the infamous Lair of the White Worm), his career was not a one hit wonder, but resulted in only four or five quality pieces, the rest maudlin, farcical, or ignorant; but Stevenson – despite a modest output – produced a wonderful range of high-quality short stories and novelettes that cross both the borderlands of horror and literary fiction.

“Markheim,” “The Merry Men,” “The Bottle Imp,” “The Body Snatcher,” “Olalla,” and of course Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are just as likely to appear on the syllabus of a 19th century short story class as on a Good Reads list of favorite horror stories. They brood with rich atmosphere, evocative prose, luscious dialects, mythic symbolism, and stupefying irony. While Shelley proved influential to the basic understanding of the modern horror genre, and Stoker leant his legacy to Anne Rice, Kim Newman, Richard Matheson, and Stephen King (no disrespect meant to any of those best-selling artists), Stevenson became a sounding point for Ernest Hemingway, Berthold Brecht, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Vladimir Nabokov, J. M. Barrie, G. K. Chesterton, Jorge Luis Borges, Marcel Proust, Joseph Conrad, H. Rider Haggard, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Conan Doyle, and J. R. R. Tolkien. The potency of his writing – the power of his vision and voice – extend beyond the horror genre into the universal canon of Western literature – something which the purple prose of Lovecraft and the sentimental rhapsodies of Dracula, cannot boast for all of their long-lasting influence.

This diversity of talent suits my purposes very well, because Jekyll and Hyde have been given their own introduction – their legacy, interpretations, and complexity are too great to be dealt with in any way other than individual – but unlike my introductions to Frankenstein and Dracula, I have much more to talk about than the headlining act, and the entirety of Stevenson’s speculative oeuvre deserves consideration.

Calvinism and Christianity in Stevenson

Stevenson’s fiction continues to thrill and disturb, largely due to its grounding in his childhood imagination. As a boy he was chronically bedridden – a miserable cosmic punishment to a youngster with such a ripe imagination. To keep him still and well behaved, Cummy, his nurse, entertained him with stories that excited him during the day and horrified him at night. A strict Calvinist, Cummy’s worldview was bleak, harsh, and cynical, and her stories conveyed that darkness to their young audience. Most often she read the Bible to her ward – especially the gory and doom-ridden Old Testament – but she also treated him to folktales from the Scottish countryside: stories of ghosts, demons, strolling corpses, werewolves, goblins, and supernatural wonders. Many of her legends included meetings with the devil (often depicted as a tall man with coal black skin and fiery eyes), the temptations of evil, and the punishments of a just and merciless God. The grandson of a Presbyterian minister, son to devout parents, and captive to Cummy’s vicious theology, Stevenson initially aspired to be a powerful-worded preacher (he would at times play-act giving sermons in his nursery), but Cummy’s well-intended lessons eventually soured her ward on religion.

Calvinism and Christianity in general are philosophically crucial to Stevenson’s oeuvre, and will come up constantly in the notes and annotations. As such, a short description of the Calvinist worldview is necessary before we delve into the actual stories. Calvinism was a Protestant response to the Reformation begun by Martin Luther. Luther’s followers split off and became Anglicans, Lutherans, and Episcopalians – essentially high church, and similar in architecture, liturgy, and performance to Roman Catholics. But a more conservative response to the schism from Rome came from the teachings of John Calvin, whose followers developed into what we now call “evangelical” denominations – Wesleyan, Baptist, Nazarene, Holiness, Pentecostal, Amish, and Mennonite church bodies. Not all of these groups continue to advocate the stringent Calvinism that Stevenson was exposed to, but until the previous century, the tenets of Calvinism were particularly dire.

They viewed mankind as irredeemably bad – prone to sin, hopeless to save, pathetic to consider – and considered salvation an accident of God’s precarious grace. Unlike other Protestants, they didn’t see salvation as something to be acquired by choice, but as something given without cause or reason. So far this sounds fairly standard, but Calvinists took the theory of election very seriously: we are either saved or damned before we are even born, they thought, and the far majority are damned, and nothing can ever be done to change that fate. They called the saved the Elect – the small group God had predestined for heaven – and felt that the only way to know whether one had been elected was to see whether they were naturally good (not that doing good things could make a difference). So to save face, avoid gossip, and appear elected, Calvinists strained themselves trying to perform well in public. In private, however, it didn’t matter – nothing mattered, because you were already either saved or damned, and no sin or good deed could change that. All that mattered was appearing elected, and avoiding social disgrace. The combination of self-consciousness and helplessness led to do a culture of grim dissatisfaction, self-loathing, and paranoia. Concerning the emotional culture of Calvinism, John Keats complained that the Presbyterians “have done Scotland harm. They have banished… love and laughing.” Stevenson himself groaned that but “one thing is not to be learned in Scotland, and that is the way to be happy.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne was similarly disgusted by the hypocrisy of his own Calvinist (Puritans) descendants, and ruthlessly critiqued their obsession with appearance and disregard for hope in The Scarlet Letter, “Young Goodman Brown,” “The May-Pole at Merry Mount,” and many other stories. Like his American counterpart, Stevenson turned against this religion of guilt and gossip and became a radical atheist as a college student. What began as an expression of youthful rebellion crashed down around him in an avalanche of domestic misery when his father learned of his activities. While at Edinburgh University, Stevenson’s cousin Bob co-founded the atheist “Liberty-Justice-Reverence Club,” which contained in its constitution a command to “Disregard everything our parents have taught us.” To his horror, his father found a copy of the document in his room, which led to a heated argument and a traumatic falling apart: “What a damned curse I am to my parents! As my father said "You have rendered my whole life a failure". As my mother said "This is the heaviest affliction that has ever befallen me". O Lord, what a pleasant thing it is to have damned the happiness of (probably) the only two people who care a damn about you in the world.” Stevenson ended his life as an open-minded theist, but his relationship with religion was always rocky, and the scars left by the encounter with his genuinely devoted parents left him fixated on concepts of shame, guilt, and hypocrisy.

Discussion on the Stories in Our Collection

Most of Stevenson’s quality supernatural fiction was collected in two anthologies, 1887’s The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables and 1893 Island Nights’ Entertainments. The first collection is largely set in Scotland and Europe, while the second, written during his tenure in Samoa, takes place in the Pacific Islands. Besides these anthologies, “The Body Snatcher” and the posthumously published “Waif Woman” (originally planned for Island Nights’ Entertainments) round out his short supernatural fiction. Our edition of Stevenson’s best horror and weird fiction excludes “Will O’ the Mill,” “The Isle of Voices,” and “The Poor Thing” for the sake of brevity and quality, but I would recommend them to your attention if you are interested in further reading.

His stories are famous for their psychological depth, ethical complexity, and luscious prose, and his horror fiction is no exception. The Merry Men, a novelette set on the atmospheric Scottish coast has its foundations in Washington Irving and Poe. Like “Thrawn Janet,” it features the gorgeous Scots dialect, and a possible appearance by Satan. It concerns itself with an old man whose Calvinist belief in his election has allowed him to justify murdering and robbing a shipwreck survivor. Shadowy treasure hunters, hellish electrical storms, and a doomed romance charges this story – one of Stevenson’s most underrated – with the moral complexity and emotional power of Jekyll & Hyde in half the pages.

Based on the historical anatomy murders of Burke and Hare, “The Body Snatcher” is probably Stevenson’s most famous short story, horror or otherwise. Fettes, a squirrely rogue who spends his days drinking in a purgatorial tavern is greatly disturbed when he sees Macfarlane – an old medical school acquaintance. As students the two knowingly bought murdered corpses for their anatomy college, and revealed in blasphemous arrogance. The horror that they encounter on their way back from graverobbing a cemetery is both Lovecraftian and Hoffmannesque. It remains a staple of supernatural literature, and – alongside “The Judge’s House,” “The Monkey’s Paw,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” – is perhaps one of the best, most anthologized horror stories in the language.

“Markheim” is often cited as the predecessor to Jekyll & Hyde, and by all accounts the first draft (which Mrs Stevenson critiqued and her husband theatrically burned) had many of the same character elements. In this story – equal parts Faust, “William Wilson,” and Crime and Punishment – a man kills an unscrupulous pawnbroker as an ethical experiment, and spends the vast majority of the tale alone in the murder room until he is accompanied by a supernatural visitor who may be Satan tempting him to continue down a predestined path of moral degeneration, or his conscience employing reverse psychology.

“Thrawn Janet” – one of the finest tales in this collection – is written almost entirely in Scots, a Germanic language which is similar to English, but unquestionably unique. To the best of my knowledge this book contains the first full translation of this exceedingly underrated ghost story (most anthologies either expect their readers to infer the meaning, or include a small gloss). The title (which translates as “Twisted” or “Throttled Janet”) refers to a suspected witch who is reviled by her neighbors but pitied by their new, liberal-minded parson. The Reverend Soulis (yes, the name is telling) hires Janet as a housekeeper, and saves her from a mob of angry women by having her denounce Satan in front of them, but is disturbed when she walks through town the next morning with a wrung neck and a garbled voice. A ghost story, witch story, zombie story, demon possession story, and Hawthornian parable, all rolled into one, “Thrawn Janet” is one of the best horror tales in Victorian literature, and includes one of the genre’s most disturbing scenes.

“Olalla” represents one of the crowning accomplishments of Stevenson’s career. Despite its anticlimactic ending, it is perhaps one of the best pastiches of Edgar Allan Poe’s works that has ever been created. An homage to Poe’s tales of cursed women straddling the boundaries between spirituality and mortality, “Olalla” is a wildly erotic, psychologically rich banquet that follows the doomed romance between a handsome British officer and the spiritually precocious daughter of an inbred family who are suggested to be vampires or werewolves. Their monstrous nature is never revealed, though grimly hinted at, but Stevenson is more fascinated with the sexual magnetism between their archetypal dichotomies – the soldier’s dominating, homoerotic animus and Olalla’s submissive, androgynous anima.

Other than “The Body Snatcher,” “The Bottle Imp” is probably Stevenson’s most famous short story – a Hawaiian parable based on the “be careful what you wish for.” Like “The Monkey’s Paw,” Hawthrone’s adaptation of “King Midas and the Golden Touch,” and Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker,” the tale has become synonymous with warnings against wishful thinking. A poor islander buys a diabolical bottle, the imp (or genie, or demon) inside will grant wishes, but must be sold at a loss in order to avoid damnation. While he successfully wishes away his leprosy, the possession of the trinket drags him and his young wife towards eternal destruction.

“The Waif Woman,” set in the year that Christianity was introduced to Viking-occupied Iceland, is an adaptation of a grisly ghost story from chapters 50 and 51 of the medieval Eyrbyggja Saga. Fanny Stevenson discouraged her husband’s plans to include it in Island Nights’ Entertainment, claiming he had only ripped off the saga, but it brings a nice circularity to this book, ending where The Merry Men began – a tale of greed haunted by guilt, the lust for material comforts, and the hideous costs of a selfish life.

Themes and Motifs

Stevenson’s stories rotate around several constant themes: the duplicity of mankind, the struggle between morality and indulgence, the hubris of unchecked intellectualism, the deceptive comforts and lurking pitfalls of hypocrisy, and the ever-waiting, ever-watching karmic justice that lurks in the periphery of gloating sinners. The Merry Men watches a man shift from contentment with murder to uncertainty to moral terror when he thinks that the devil (though possibly an African sailor) has come for his soul. “Thrawn Janet” concerns itself with Reverend Soulis (who distinctly recalls Hawthorne’s Dimmesdale) and his retreat away from his superstitious parishoners, how he resented their ignorance and judged their stupidity until he realized that they were right all along, and lived the rest of his life a shaken and affected man. “The Body Snatcher” uses the metaphor of “looking it in the face” – of understanding the consequences of one’s moral choices – to great effect: Fettes is shaken by the sight of Macfarlane’s face (proof that his evil ways were never challenged – that he thrived his way to the top), he is horrified by the face of the murdered girl, whose death he understands to be largely due to his turning a blind eye to Macfarlane, and both he and Macfarlane are terrified when they look the corpse of an old woman in the face only to see the leering features of a man they had previously buried. “Markheim” and Jekyll both focus on the struggle to overcome one’s corrupted nature, and end with their heroes facing death as a result of having already given too much slack to their carnal senses of entitlement. Even “Olalla,” with its lush eroticism and delicious prose is darkened by the struggle between the sensual, atheistic narrator (an emotional vampire) and the sacrificial, pious Olalla (a literal, though latent, vampire) – two halves of the same soul, a masculine animus and a feminine anima, a fleshly yang and a spiritual yin.

Humanity, like nature, is fraught with delicate balances between its warring powers, Stevenson tries to communicate, and the battle is all the easier when a compromise is sought, but far too often the opposing forces crush each other into oblivion. Let me illustrate this with the final episode in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: Hyde treats Jekyll like a parasite would (much like Dracula’s brides used Jonathan Harker) keeping him weak, submissive, but alive, because Jekyll’s exterior was entirely necessary for Hyde to survive. But when the battle had reached the tipping point, Jekyll was destroyed and accidentally lost – his spirit evicted from the fleshly vessel now inhabited solely by Hyde – to Hyde’s utmost despair. Hyde spends his last eight days on earth pacing his apartment wildly, sobbing “like a woman” and crying out on God. Hyde does not vanquish Jekyll – they vanquish one another. The balance has been lost.

Throughout his oeuvre, Stevenson continues to desperately illustrate the lessons he learned as a child with the openness he developed as a man: that choices have costs, that man is neither wholly evil (as Calvinists believe) nor wholly good (as some humanists believe), but an amalgam – a soup of emotions, impulses, and desires. His characters struggle to find a balance between their lusts and their peace of mind: Markheim wants to murder and not feel guilty, Keawe wants to cure his leprosy without being damned, Uncle Gordon wants to have fine possessions – even at the cost of murder – and still be among God’s Elect, Soulis wants to reject his congregation’s superstitions and not have to acknowledge the terrors of the night, and Jekyll – saddest of all, perhaps – just wants to have fun (“pleasures [which] were … undignified; though I would scarce use a harsher term”) and for once in his life not feel like he is disappointing anyone. But each of these characters come to a time of reckoning where they must swallow the medicine they have poured out – and for some the dose is lethal.

In his confession Jekyll writes that “I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.” Stevenson knew this full well; he felt the pull of his parents’ religion, of his university education, of his Conservative politics, of his radical lifestyle, and of many other forces straining inside his soul. He truly was populated by clashing tribes of “multifarious, incongruous and independent” spirits. We can see much of his own life in Soulis’ fate: unconvinced by his faith, unsure of his intellect, belonging to neither church nor university, family nor wider world, he wanders like the Ancient Mariner, hoping that perhaps at least the telling of his tale will make some impact on someone. If he was otherwise distraught over the congested polity that made up his soul, Stevenson could at least take solace in the fact that his tales have done that exactly.

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