Other than “Jekyll and Hyde,” none of Stevenson’s horror tales have been as celebrated as “The Body Snatcher.” It has a habit of regularly appearing in anthologies of classic terror beside “The Judge’s House,” “The Black Cat,” “The Monkey’s Paw,” and “The Damned Thing.” The story truly belongs in the canon of the weird, for it is not classifiable. The ultimate manifestation cannot be conclusively called a ghost, a vision, a vampire, or a zombie, and the very physical transformation challenges natural explanations, landing it in the hazy genre of “speculative fiction.” The story, like “Jekyll,” also doubles as a literary parable, complete with Faustian imagery, psychological depth, and ethical labyrinths. Stevenson’s habit of writing moral exercises in the form of horror stories has prevented his supernatural fiction from being written off as mere stylistic folktales (cf. the underrated works of Amelia B. Edwards, Washington Irving, and Elloitt O’Donnell), and preserved its reputation in academic circles. “The Body Snatcher” may be the most eloquent of his short horror fiction – a philosophical treatise as alarming as Crime and Punishment, as compelling as Paradise Lost, and as chilling as Frankenstein.
The last of these moral studies was undoubtedly an influence on Stevenson’s tale, which also featured an ethically apathetic medical student eschewing social mores in a bid for professional ambition. Both protagonists spend more time amongst the dead than the living, and both violate the widely recognized laws of God and man with little regard for the effect that their crimes will have on their souls. Ultimately both Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stevenson’s Fettes end up bringing to life something which they had created out of death, and dearly regretting their blasphemous aspirations. Fettes also shares much in common with Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (moreso than with the soul-searching Enlightenment figure drawn by Goethe) while his tempter Macfarlane has a forefather in the insidious Mephistopheles: both Fettes and Faust are inspired by self-serving moral relativism and a lust for power, while Macfarlane and Mephistopheles alike tempt their prey into becoming losing their humanity by luring them with promises of greatness, renown, and financial security. Ultimately, Stevenson hopes to warn us all against the desensitization of ethical apathy and greed, demonstrating the fate of all who attempt to leave their sins behind them without settling accounts, for sooner or later – he shows us on no fewer than three occasions – we must look our crimes in the face.
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.
“I must see him face to face…” Fettes’ demand to address his Mephistophelean tormentor calls to mind the similarly eerie, similarly confrontational phantom in Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson.” In that case, an immoral man was haunted by his conscience in the form of a persistent Doppelganger, in Stevenson’s tale, Fettes must continually face the ramifications of his actions by staring them in the face: first that of poor smothered Jane (he is forced to confront his role as an indirect accessory to her death), then that of black-hearted Grey (accessory becomes enabler), then (after symbolically selling his soul by first paying, then accepting blood money, and finally by solemnizing the murder with a condoning toast) that of Grey’s spirit (enabler becomes complicit), then that of Macfarlane (complicit conspirator becomes actualized sinner as Fettes sees decades later that he has lost his soul to Macfarlane and been abandoned by God). This also resembles Victor Frankenstein’s obsession with challenging his Creature face to face in the wake of his murders – a character which we have already likened to the involuntary necromancer, Fettes. Like Frankenstein, Fettes’ disregard for ethical mores and human decency has resulted in the vitalization of a dead corpse (or at least its supernatural transformation), which comes to represent the inescapable physicality of sin: like Shelley’s Creature and Stevenson’s Grey, crimes against our common humanity cannot be ignored or expected to fade into the past, for they are pregnant with ramifications which will sooner or later open their eyes and stare us in the face.
Grey’s weird theophany in the body of a dead widow is hardly a conventional haunting, and if for no other reason, this tale should be venerated for its bizarre imagery and original supernaturalism. Stevenson is permitted to use such strange and unclassifiable spooks (is it a vampire, zombie, ghost, or mass hysteria?) because his objective is not to scare the audience (a blood sucker would easily have sufficed), but to make a philosophical statement. He doesn’t care how it is that the second body transmuted into the first, all that matters is that Fettes and Macfarlane were shown that no amount of creativity or cleverness can rid a person of their unaccounted sins. Still not repentant in his old age (Fettes’ purgatorial lifestyle in the limbo of an east coast tavern suggests as much) has prevented him from avoiding Grey’s continued hauntings, which he and Macfarlane – in a tantalizingly suggestive move by Stevenson – appear to suffer on a regular basis. Still unwilling to come clean to the authorities or otherwise unweigh his soul, Fettes is cast into the night after coming face to face with his successful Tempter – metaphorically (and perhaps literally: Stevenson strongly implies that Fettes may have died that night) falling from purgatory into Hell.
Stevenson’s work (Jekyll, Markheim, The Bottle Imp, Thrawn Janet, etc.) is regularly concerned with social hypocrisy, the pitfalls of asocial rebellion, and the cleansing salvation of integrity, accountability, and public confession. Like Hawthorne’s Reverend Dimmesdale (himself a Jekyll forebearer), the characters of Markheim, Jekyll and others are purified through death when they atone for their secret lives with acts of public contrition: Jekyll leaves his confession and slays himself, Markheim abandons his plot and surrenders to the gallows, Keawe sells the bottle imp full well expecting to be damned if it means saving Kokua. Perhaps there is redemption for the misanthropic bar fly, as well: if he does go to his death after demanding to peer into Macfarlane’s face – an act of confrontation and accountability, since he must come to terms with the fact that it is his silence and his apathy which have allowed the sociopathic Macfarlane to escape the gallows and mellow into old age amongst the highest classes of society – then we might view his death differently, not as a coward being cast into Hell, but as a denizen of purgatory rising up and willingly marching himself to Perdition after the shock of how far his culpability has gone. If Stevenson’s supernatural oeuvre had one message to impart, I wonder if it would not be this: hide nothing away if you hope it to remain hidden forever, for hidden things grow, and they bear hideous fruit.