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Literary Essays on 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 literary vampire, Shelley the parent of the literary monster, and Conan Doyle (Lot No. 249, The Ring of Thoth) may be viewed as sire to the literary mummy, Stevenson has a debatable claim to the literary werewolf.

As with my commentary on the vampire folklore that led to Dracula, I think that in this book it would be fitting to discuss the werewolf mythology that led to Hyde – and what exactly it all means. The shapeshifting man – the civilized person who is capable of concealing their passions – is more dangerous than a madman. A madman is obvious, unchanging, and easily tracked, but a shapeshifter is subtle, cunning, and disguised. The concept of hidden character – repressed, denied, or covered up – has been a fascinating and terrifying part of the human narrative since men began to murder one another and deny their guilt. They didn’t rage until they were captured, they butchered, then they concealed, then they walked away and reentered the village, unchanged. Werewolf stories have saturated our global folklore long before stories were printed, bound, and sold. Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, and Bluebeard each concern a man whose nature, whether wicked or good, is concealed.

In Greek mythology Herodotus wrote of the Nueri, a tribe of shapeshifters who changed into wolves for a span of several days each year. Lycaon gave his name to lycanthropy (or werewolf-ism) when he tricked Zeus into eating his own offspring (a ploy borrowed in Shakespeare’s infamously brutal Titus Andronicus) and was turned into a wolf as punishment. Ovid described werewolves lurking through the Arcadian woodlands, and Virgil and Pliny the Elder both recorded stories of lycanthropes. Vikings described Berserkers – or bear-shirted men – and Ulfhednar – or wolf-shirted men: warriors who wore animal skins into battle and adopted the personality of the fiends they wore, transforming into bears, wolves, and wild cats (and giving us the phrase “to go berserk”).

Werewolves became a very real concern to Europeans in the Middle Ages, where werewolf trials were as spectacular and dramatic as those for witchcraft. Unlike the witchcraft craze, however, many of the suspected werewolves were genuine serial killers and cannibals (Peter Stumpp, for instance, was a German farmer who murdered and cannibalized 18 people, calling himself “an insatiable bloodsucker”) but the supernatural link was popularized to explain away the unthinkable as the work of Satan. In her Bisclavret (c. 1200), Marie de France depicted a werewolf (a shapeshifting courtier who was betrayed by his wife, trapped by the King’s hunting party, pitied, and made a member of the royal hunting pack), and The Tale of Igor’s Campaign depicted the historical Belarusian Prince Usiaslau of Polatsk (rumored to have superhuman strength and speed) as a werewolf (“as prince, he ruled towns; but at night he prowled in the guise of a wolf”). Slavic and Russian folklore offered the legends of the vlkodlak and the vourdalak – crosses between werewolves, vampires, and revenants: shapeshifting, cannibalistic corpses.


Some of the first werewolf literature to make an impact on the printed page were folktales repeated in larger works of fiction to conjure atmosphere. Such is the case of Captain Marryat’s Gothic novel The Phantom Ship (1839) which features the popular anecdote, “The White Wolf of the Harz Mountains” – a story about a Satanic female werewolf who attacks her stepchildren and eats rotting flesh like a ghoul. In 1847 – presumably trying to build on the momentum of the popular Varney the Vampire melodramas – G. W. M. Reynolds published Wagner the Wehr-Wolf, a Jekyll and Hyde prototype that follows the devolution of a good natured man who enters into a pact with Satan to become a werewolf for a year and a half in return for youth and affluence. Over the course of his journeys (in the company of fellow soul-exchanger, Dr. Faust), he kills, maims, and cannibalizes human beings that he encounters in manners that recall the death of Carew.

By the time that supernatural fiction was entering into its heyday (approximately 1864 – 1934), werewolves – or suggestions thereof – were becoming common tropes. Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan features a proto-Lovecraftian female werewolf who seduces men and terrifies them into suicide by revealing her otherworldly nature. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a similar story called “John Barrington Cowles” which hosts another erotic female lead who is equal parts dominatrix, sadist, vampire, hypnotist, and werewolf. Her unfortunate suitor, Cowles, calls her a “wehr-wolf” and compares her to the child-eating fiend in “The White Wolf of the Harz Mountains,” but her ultimate nature – like the shapeshifter in The Great God Pan – is left unclear. His “A Pastoral Horror,” the story of a mannerly pastor who is, by night, a pickaxe wielding psychopath, is cited as a psychological werewolf story, and contains obvious links to Jekyll and Hyde. Rudyard Kipling’s famous “Mark of the Beast” concerns a werewolf curse which slowly and horrifically changes a man into a beast after he desecrates a Hindu shrine, and Ambrose Bierce’s “Eyes of the Panther” tells the story of a woman who is afraid that she carries hereditary insanity, when in fact she seems to be an offspring of her mother’s violent rape by a panther (which is suggested to be her mother’s husband, who had left to go hunting, but returned as a were-cat).

Jekyll and Hyde represent the same essential concerns that all good werewolf stories do: that virtue can be faked, that wickedness can be concealed, and that enemies may walk, undetected, beside us every day. Werewolves have become metaphors for the far less romantic realities of our society: rapists, serial murderers, domestic abusers, child molesters, and all variety of other sequestered violators of our mores and standards. There is overall a sexual potency to the myth of the werewolf, and it is interesting that during the Victorian era most werewolves were women (suggesting the hidden lusts and appetites that men feared to acknowledge), but ever since World War One, most werewolves have been exclusively male (suggesting the wildness of male violence – of war, rape, and murder – which the horrors of the Great War exposed, and which suddenly made female libidos seem the least of our race’s worries). The myth continues to organize a conversation around our anxieties about the animals that prowl around us, work with us, and sleep beside us, and it is for this reason that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the whole gamut of werewolf literature – from Herodotus to Kipling – continue to fascinate and disturb us.


Dr. Henry Jekyll

Henry Jekyll has sadly been much maligned by pop culture. Rather than the figure of pathos modelled after Greek tragedies which Stevenson intended him to be (less Dorian Gray and more Oedipus Rex), he has been used to represent a subversive sexual predator and treated as a metaphor for sexual deviancy and violence – all this in spite of Stevenson’s well-controlled decision not to portray either Jekyll’s apetites or Hyde’s crimes (with three exceptions). In private letters Stevenson does acknowledge that he feels that Jekyll’s struggle was with “sexuality,” but in the book all we know is that his weaknesses were indiscretions – specifically “undignified” – without any further details. So the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold that Jekyll rapes and keeps locked in Hyde’s sex dungeon? Purely an invention of film makers. Jekyll represents so much more than sexual depravity: he represents human weakness and desperation in a way that should conjure nothing but sympathy and pity. Jekyll was raised with a tremendously strong Super-Ego – the internalized parent, or moral center of the unconscious – and found himself ashamed of behaviors and appetites that, as he put it, other respectable men would glibly brag about.

In other words, his “sins” were so inoffensive that most people in high society would laugh them off, but to him (and, based on two telling references, to his father) they were inexcusable. Jekyll wants to be liked and admired, but he also wants to enjoy life – not like a decadent sociopath, but like a regular guy. And this is all Jekyll wants – to be a regular guy. So he summons Hyde to siphon off his desire for unmonitored fun. That Hyde overwhelms both his Super-Ego and his executive Ego is not only an oversight, it is a great human tragedy. Here is a man who simply desires relaxation and self-contentment – to be and like himself for who he is – but instead of coming out of the closet (either as a manner of speaking or as we mean it in the euphemism), he continues to Hyde himself away from his friends. Jekyll is terrified of disapproval (Freudians would again blame his influential father—or at least the father that Jekyll has enthroned in his head), and has kept Hyde repressed for half a century. When he escapes, he is fed by an unmet hunger, not – as in Stevenson’s original manuscript – by a lifetime of hypocrisy.

Jekyll is not a secret sinner pining over a solution that would allow him to wickedly sin as much as he wants during the night and live comfortably during the day (although this IS Hyde’s M.O.); he is an overly-repressed man whose starved Id comes charging out of its cage, leaving carnage in its wake. Jekyll doesn’t even die with Hyde: his spirit departs their body eight days before Hyde kills himself, surrendering to the powerful lusts of an under-serviced animal nature which – had it been given more liberty to taste and enjoy life – may not have been such a brutal usurper.

Mr. Edward Hyde

Like Jekyll, Hyde is the subject of much misunderstanding – again largely due to film adaptations. Hyde may be a sexual deviant, but not necessarily. We know of three wicked deeds of his: trampling a girl, bludgeoning Carew (who may have been soliciting him for sex), and beating a prostitute/matchgirl. Films depict Hyde as very obviously misshapen, usually physically imposing, with brazen rudeness, a prostitute sex-slave at hand, and a flair for foppish togs. This is almost entirely wrong: Hyde is inexplicably disturbing to view, though those who have seen him blame his expression and aura, not a physical deformity. What we know of his physique is that he is dwarfish and slight (“troglodytic” is one of my favorite words in the novel), that he has ape-ish moods, a strange, lunging walk, and small hands with dusky skin, thick hair, and muscular flesh.

We also know that – hardly a dandy (silk top-hat, opera cape, sparkling rings, and Oscar Wilde-esque striped trousers and fey ascots are de rigueur for film adaptations) – Hyde is dressed plainly in expensive materials. We might imagine a man in a black frock coat with a Homburg hat and a black tie. To me, this is far more disturbing to imagine than the easily broadcasted Jack-the-Ripper crossover outfit (who, by the way, was also probably dressed plainly). Hyde’s height is his most telling trait, and it is a pity that this has almost never been depicted accurately. He actually seems to have the appearance of a teenager (Utterson calls him “Master” – an address used for males under the age of nineteen – and refers to him as a protégée, also implying that he could live on Jekyll’s legacy for many decades). Hyde has this appearance because his growth has been stunted – spiritually speaking – and it shows in his physical appearance.

Hyde is also not a brute, but a coward. Tremendously polite to Utterson (especially under the circumstances), he is also pandering to Lanyon, and sugar-lipped to his would-be lynch mob (most cinematic Hydes have a “fuck you all” attitude, even when faced with brutality). But the real Hyde is – as Jekyll notes – propelled by two chief emotions: fear and hate. He is animalistic, an Id which never fully developed and is thus stunted and devolved. In fact, there is a great deal of Darwinism in Stevenson’s regular references to apes and monkeys when describing young Hyde. Frederic March’s makeup showed this literally (he was chimp-like in appearance and devolved as the film progressed), but Stevenson only implies that his behavior and moods had simian qualities. Like an animal, though, Hyde is not motivated by deep emotions, but by self-preservation and egoism. He is almost like a toddler with terrifying muscularity, and his demise is actually cause for pity rather than digust: for eight days he madly paces his prison cell, weeping “like a woman” and calling on God. Hyde is not the vicious beast we so often picture, but a pathetic egotist made dangerous by self-involvement and pitiable by spiritual idiocy. Hyde grows stronger as Jekyll invests more and more of his Ego into Hyde, robbing the Super-Ego of the executive Self which should be evenly spread between the animalistic Id and the puritanical Super-Ego.

The switch that most terrifies Jekyll happens when he is in a park, mulling over one of his forays as Hyde (and debatably masturbating in public over the memory). Hyde springs into his skin unbidden and without the potion. This brings up Stevenson’s great metaphysical argument (repeated in “Olalla”) that mankind is truly four parts: a fleshy vessel – the mortal organ of humanity – a spiritual nature (the Super-Ego), a gluttonous nature (the Id), and consciousness (the Ego) which struggle for dominance. The mostly spiritual man is a saint, the gluttonous one a sinner, the fleshly one an imbecile, and the purely conscious one a ghost. Hyde pushes the Super-Ego out, killing Jekyll (whose consciousness is tied up in it), and finds himself trapped in the stunted, hairy, dwarfish fleshly vessel of young Master Edward Hyde.

John Gabriel Utterson