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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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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Inspirations, Interpretations, and a Literary Analysis

I was six years old when I walked into a bookstore in Holland, Michigan with my family and met Dr. Jekyll for the first time. We had recently watched The Great Mouse Detective and I saw the unmistakable archetypes of villainy and goodness emblazoned on an inexpensive hardback edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s most famous horror story: here, to the right, was the hero – handsome with his steely eyes and brown sideburns, analyzing a test tube that to me symbolized detective work and wisdom, neatly attired in a high collar and a warm, brown frock – and there, to the left, was the unquestionable evildoer – wearing the top hat and satin cloak, and wielding the silver-headed cane that I somehow instinctively associated with decadent aristocracy, his animalistic teeth were set viciously, his face was corded and dark, and his eyes bulged madly from beneath the rim of his hat. In the background of the hero glowed the warmth of a Victorian parlor. In the background of the villain shone the silhouette of a moonlit cityscape. So the story was clear to me, and in my childish way I explained the tale: here was the brilliant detective – dashing, intellectual, and openhearted – examining the evidence that would lead him to capturing the debased enemy – a wealthy degenerate, possibly insane, certainly cruel. But my mom patiently pulled down the book. I was close, she said, but wrong: they were the same person.

The revelation went through me like a shock of electricity. Without having read the story, only primed by the cover, I was stupefied to learn the truth of one of Western literature’s most enduring parables. And it haunts me to this day. That man is not one, but two (or as Jekyll noted, presaging Jung, manifold), that goodness can conceal wickedness, that goodness could willingly give birth to wickedness. Why would a good man want to be bad? I think that even at the early age, I instinctively understood: sometimes it’s nice to be bad – sometimes getting away with what is wrong is attractive. And even though I hated the very sight of him – the clenched fist and teeth, the peering white eye, the wild tangle of black hair – I secretly understood the attraction in his existence, and that secret understanding shamed me and brought wonder to my mind.


Of course, the book whose cover had stunned my embryonic mind was Robert Louis Stevenson’s horror masterpiece, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (there is no article “The” in the title, and the doctor’s name should be pronounced JEE-kull, like “fecal,” and was until the 1941 Spencer Tracy film popularized the erroneous “JZEH-kull” pronunciation). The story of the tale’s genesis is famous, and frequently repeated in introductions for its sheer dramatism. Louis was sleeping fitfully, as he regularly did, but his wife, Fanny (a strong-headed woman from my native Indiana) elbowed him back into consciousness when the tossing escalated into the shouts of a night terror. Dazed and shocked, he turned to her with a look of admonishment. In his thick, Edinburgh brogue he hissed: “Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale…” He had been dreaming of man’s duality, and there in the mists of his unconscious, a tall, handsome man had drunk a potion, and now there stood his transformed body: dwarfish, dusky, and vile. Stevenson had much reason to brood over this topic: as a resident of Edinburgh he was well aware of the stories of Burke and Hare, and of Deacon Brodie, especially.

Burke and Hare were two thugs – or as Jekyll would say, bravos – who found a loophole in their poverty-stricken lives when they sold the body of a lodger to representatives of the esteemed surgeon, Dr. Robert Knox, for roughly $1,200 in modern currency. The first body died in a kosher manner, but the subsequent 16 corpses were victims of foul play, and no one questioned why these two shady louts were so capable of feeding Knox the bodies he needed. When the news broke that Dr. Knox was turning a blind eye to serial murder, the scandal in Edinburgh society was seismic. Hare became Crown evidence, Burke was hanged, and Knox – once reputable if eccentric – became an abhorred pariah.

At the time of the nightmare, Stevenson had been working on “Markheim,” which had springboarded off of a play he had attempted on the life of Deacon William Brodie. Brodie was an 18th century gentleman who moonlighted as a burglar. A cabinet-maker and carpenter, Brodie rose rapidly to the executive post of the tradesman guild of Edinburgh – Deacon, or president – and at the peak of his career even sat on the city council. He hobnobbed with the gentry, even meeting Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, and one the confidence of Edinburgh’s richest and most esteemed citizens. It was with this trust that he began a campaign of crime: doing odd repairs on the homes of his friends and professional clients, Brodie acquainted himself with their security devices. As a cabinet maker, he was also part-locksmith, and would often be asked to fix doors and office drawers that needed repair. He used these opportunities to make wax impressions of the keys, which he would later use to create copies.

With the cash and valuables that he stole, Brodie was able to afford a second life of gambling, multiple families in different cities, and fencing stolen goods. Eventually he even commanded a little band of thieves who followed his bidding and assisted his crimes. After an armed attack on a tax office failed, Brodie realized that his net had gone too wide, and attempted to claim a pardon from the government, but to no avail. He was arrested in Holland en route to the United States. The fallout of his unmasking was earthshaking, and he became something of a folk figure (certainly not a folk hero) to the Scottish in the same way that Billy the Kid, Al Capone, and Lizzy Borden have fascinated Americans with their duplicitous villainy. Burke and Hare were transformed into his second most notable bogey tale, “The Body Snatcher,” and Deacon Brodie found life in Dr. Henry Jekyll.

The foundation of Stevenson’s tale, however, was more philosophical than historical: his family’s Calvinism. Calvinism rears its head in so many of Stevenson’s stories, but Jekyll’s struggle to have fun on the side is particularly suggestive of Calvinist social mores. Let’s begin by discussing the theological basis of the faith, and then look at how Calvinism was so often practiced. The basic concept behind the faith that had made such an impact on Stevenson’s childhood was the idea that God chooses, or predestines those who will be saved, called the Elect. He also chooses who will be damned, all before birth and time. Nothing can be done to change this destiny: a man born damned can give to the poor, spent whole hours in pious prayer, and devote his life to Christ, without altering his infernal destination.

Likewise, one of the Elect can spend his life whoring, killing, thieving, and corrupting, but due to the holy seal on his head, he will be saved. The basic element behind all of this is a belief in the absolute power of God; unlike Catholics who saw the Pope, saints, and confessors as having been apportioned divine power, or even Anglicans who acknowledge the Archbishop of Canterbury, or Lutherans who celebrate the lives of the saints, Calvinists saw all power in God’s hands – even the power to receive salvation. In Christianity, there is a potent struggle between two major concepts: “salvation by grace” (which implies that salvation is a gift freely given without any expectations) and “faith without works is dead” (which argues – from the same phrase used in James – that salvation is free, but faith cannot be real without the evidence of good deeds, or that you don’t have to be good to be a Christian, but that a real Christian will naturally tend towards goodness). Calvinism falls sharply on these concepts, and while it looks harshly on those who do good things hoping that God will let them into heaven (violation: salvation by grace), it also deals roughly with those who do not do visible good deeds (violation: faith sans works).

The resultant society is a group of people who pretend to be humble (you can’t tout your deeds or be proud of them; this implies you are not Elect) but are in fact desperate to be seen doing good deeds to squash any gossip that they are not among the Elect. To avoid being judged or considered un-elected by the members of their church, Calvinists would work strenuously to cultivate a good public image (think Jekyll), to make their neighbors think that the good behavior signaled a natural member of the Elect. This was less in order to spread goodness (after all, good works meant nothing in and of themselves; they were but a SYMPTOM of election), and more to avoid gossip or suggestions that they were not among the Elect. But behind closed doors, actions did not matter and whatever wickedness had been pent up during the daytime could be unleashed (think Hyde).

Calvinists believed that there was no good in man, so wickedness was expected and as long as a person was a churchgoing member of the Elect, no amount of evil could be privately mourned: it was just the human condition and there was no use restraining it (except in public to avoid gossip). Stevenson loathed this hypocrisy, and it stained his entire oeuvre with themes of secrecy, doubt, two-faced-ness, and shame. When we consider also the fact that his nanny, Cummy – a brutally strict Calvinist – alternatively read him the Bible (complete with bedside sermons about damnation and hell) and told him folk stories of ghosts, body snatchers, and goblins, it is easy to see the connection between Stevenson’s religious upbringing and tales of terror.

After his dream, Stevenson worked feverishly on creating a text out of the vision. Stricken with a very literal fever, bedridden from a hemorrhage, and buzzing with the cocaine that he used to push down the agony of the affliction, he blazed through three days of white-hot scribbling before reading the story to his wife. Fanny was his editor, sounding board, and muse, and she listened carefully to the story while her husband rambled, mopping sweat from his flushed skin and coughing into his hand.

While the others in the room were thrilled with the story, Fanny seemed unmoved. She took the manuscript in hand, writing notes of critique in the margins. Leaving it for him to read, she explained that her husband had been too heavy handed: what could be a powerful allegory had been over dramatized into a cheap fright story. As Sir Graham Balfour relates, in the original draft, Jekyll had been more of a Deacon Brodie: “bad all through,” using Hyde “only for the sake of disguise.” Stevenson was livid. He raged his way upstairs and avoided the household. This lasted for a brief time, however, and he called her into his room, pointing proudly to the fireplace. To her horror, she realized that he had burned the manuscript. He had taken her notes to heart, and – in fear that he would try to revise what he considered a disaster – had destroyed it. He started fresh again that day. Inflamed with cocaine, Stevenson underwent a frantic rewrite, completing the new novella in just three days. In just six days he had written the same story twice over – a phenomenal rate of work. Fanny recalled the vitality that the mission seemed to stir in him, bringing him out of his solemn sickness into a frenzy of creative power. He polished the text up over the next four weeks, and it saw daylight on 6 January 1886, when it became an international sensation.


In his groundbreaking review of the horror genre, Stephen King divided the horror story into five possible prototypes, with five definitive exemplars. The archetypes were The Nameless Thing (Frankenstein), The Vampire (Dracula), The Ghost (The Turn of the Screw), The Bad Place (The Haunting of Hill House), and the Werewolf (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). Purists may take umbrage with the suggestion that Hyde is a werewolf, and may blame Frederic March’s makeup for giving the impression that Hyde (only described as having a disturbing expression, corded and hairy hands, dwarfish stature, and an ape-like personality) is some kind of literal monster with fangs and a snout. While this complaint has its grounds, Jungian myth theorists would unquestionably consider the transformation to have its roots in the werewolf legend. So while Stoker may be seen as the godfather of the li