Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!

jekyll and hyde

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Luis Stevenson, 1886

I LOVE THIS BOOK. If you have never read it, go read it three times. If you haven’t read it in the past month, go reread it right now.

Ok, we’re back from reading Jekyll and Hyde? Excellent. Isn’t it perfect? There are so few truly great horror stories from this time period, but J and H has it all. The writing is atmospheric and spooky like an old house in a horror flick. The plot is intriguing and well-conceived. This is not one of those early horror stories that seems great, because later artists repurposed and improved the concept. Jekyll and Hyde is an excellent piece of writing, especially thematically. The allegory is clear, but complicated enough that many possible interpretations are valid. Most impressively, Stevenson maintains a level of focus throughout the novella that wordy Victorians with their 600 page tomes rarely achieved. Every line is purposeful. Stevenson continually pings little flecks of meaning at the reader that reinforce the mood and the theme.

I love how Stevenson hides nuggets like “something eminently human beaconed from his eye” in the second sentence of the story, which is merely introducing the lawyer, Mr. Utterson. I get a little shiver from that fragment, because I know something not eminently human will appear later in the tale. So clever. I can’t handle how great that detail is. You know what, Nabokov wrote that good readers “fondle the details” of good fiction; so let’s do that. You don’t need a summary of the characters or plot of this one. It’s too famous for that. Let’s get into some details.

Utterson is worried about his friend Jekyll’s connection to the odious Mr. Hyde, but does not want to pry because, as his friend Mr. Enfield states it “You start a question and it’s like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of a hill; and away the stone goes, starting others; and presently some bland old bird (the last you would have thought of) is knocked on the head in his own back garden and the family have to change their name.” Such a quaint way to introduce the idea that proper, refined, well-regarded families are harboring dark secrets. Secrets that their friends would rather not know. Gentlemen are willingly looking away from the dark side of their fellows’ natures.

The maid states that moments before she witnesses Hyde committing a violent murder, she was enjoying a lovely moonlit night and “never had she felt more at peace with all men or felt more kindly of the world.” I just love that. By transforming himself into Hyde, by indulging the evil tendencies of his nature, Jekyll violates not just laws of nature, but the social contract. This romantic maid has her sense of peace and goodness permanently disturbed by witnessing a moment of pure evil. Jekyll has broken her faith in mankind, just as he has broken the unspoken compact shared by Victorians to repress their forbidden desires.

It seems so appropriate that this allegory about repression should come near the end of the Victorian Era. It fits nicely with our image of Victorians as tight-lipped, pleasureless and obsessed with respectability. Jekyll is driven to create his alter-ego, because he has never been able to reconcile his desire for pleasure with his need to maintain a gentile public face. He was already living a double life and felt a “morbid sense of shame” at his secret pleasures. Sex and drugs, right? I’m not sure what else it could be. Gambling, perhaps. General drunken carousing. I guess that’s beside the point. Jekyll has a dual nature, but feels that “both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I labored, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering.” Oh, there’s so much in there. I love that Stevenson wrote “eye of day” rather than “light of day” to emphasize the watchful eye of society. He suggests that to get along in society one had to divide one’s true self into one acceptable public aspect and one hidden sinner. Go ahead and pause to think about the aspects of your true nature you’ve had to hide away so that you could feel accepted. Really, the duality of public versus private is more interesting than that of good versus evil. What we hide from the eye of day is rarely a desire to harm others. Call me naïve, but I think there’s enough room in society to indulge self-serving tendencies, that the part of ourselves we hide is not destructive or evil. What we hide is a failure or lack of desire to fulfill a role society wants from us. We hide emotions that others don’t want to see. Anger, depression, not wanting to do our gender roles. That’s the secret self we hide. Not evil. I know my Mr. Hyde doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He’s just a vulnerable Goth who doesn’t want to wear a bra. I think. Anyway, I didn’t mean to spin off in that direction. There’s just so much scope in this novella.

One last little thought. I appreciate Mr. Hyde being smaller and younger than Dr. Jekyll. The evil side of Jekyll’s nature is not as developed as his full self. So, it is shorter and younger. That’s such a great sci-fi-esque detail. So good.

You might like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if:

  • You like a good horror story.
  • You like a good story of any variety.

You might not like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if:

  • I cannot think of a reason.

Final thoughts: Is it a cautionary tale about the peril of letting your dark side out or is it about the danger of squashing an aspect of your true self? I dunno. Both. It’s everything. So good.

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Lesbian Vampire!

carmilla

Sheridan Le Fanu

Horror is back! We missed you. I haven’t read a horror story since the Romantic era. I was eager to love Irish author, Sheridan Le Fanu. I tried. His most noted work is the vampire short story “Carmilla,” which is ok. Everything else I read by him was dreadful.

I was hoping he’d be great, so I started at the very beginning with his 1872 collection of short stories In a Glass Darkly, which is the preferred Bible quote for people trying to be cryptic. Le Fanu sets up a narrative double blind, ostensibly one physician is providing us with his colleague’s notes. The colleague, Dr. Hesselius, treats haunted people. Nabokov uses layers of narrative to great effect. Le Fanu uses them to no effect. There is no reason to have one doctor introduce another doctor. There’s no reason for any of the characters to be doctors at all. Dr. Hesselius doesn’t save anyone. All his patients die. They are haunted and then they die. We didn’t need a special doctor to get that outcome. All Dr. Hesselius does is refer to Swedenborgian theory, which was some kind of Victorian spiritual mumbojombo that Le Fanu loved to mention but couldn’t figure out how to work into the plot or theme in any meaningful way.

Let’s talk about the story “Green Tea.” Dr. Hesselius fails to treat a man who is haunted by a demon monkey. Le Fanu does write this one effectively creepy sentence about the bedeviled man “Mr. Jennings has a way of looking sidelong upon the carpet, as if his eye followed the movements of something there.” That gives me the willies. After Jenning’s suicide, Hesselius declares that he inherited a predisposition to suicide, and that evil spirits got into his circulation through the green tea he habitually drank. Yes, friends, green tea killed him. Nice try, Le Fanu. Green tea is not scary and you didn’t make it so. This might be an expression of imperialist guilt, but it’s also very silly.

I tried out one of Le Fanu’s novels, because I’m thorough. It’s called Uncle Silas: or How to Sacrifice Your Daughter to Your Patriarchal Pride. I added the subtitle. Maud Ruthyn is an innocent maid with a wretched set of relatives. Her father is sore, because of rumors that his brother Silas killed a man who was found dead in his house. Daddy dearest refuses to believe these rumors, because, well because he doesn’t want to. Silas is generally a scoundrel. Dad isn’t on speaking terms with him, but he’s certain that he isn’t a killer, because he just can’t believe that a member of his noble bloodline could do such a thing. Oh, you nonsensical British aristocrats.

Anyway, Dad hires Maud a governess who is evil, abusive and sly enough to get away with it. She’s secretly also in Silas’ employ. Dad doesn’t believe Maud when she complains about Evil French Governess. Dad dies. Instead of sending wee Maud to live with her charmingly forthright aunt, Lady Knollys (I think Lady Knollys is her aunt, but I might have gotten the less-than-gripping minutiae of this book mixed up), he sends her to live with Uncle Silas. This fool believes in the glory of his bloodline so much, he’s willing to sacrifice. . .his bloodline to prove the value of his noble name. Get this guy a world’s worst dad mug. The thing is, if Maud dies before she reaches what’s that thing called? 21. You know. Majority! If she dies before she reaches her age of majority, her money goes to Silas. Dad’s objective was to show the world that he was so confident in Silas that he trusted his only child to him even given that Silas has a strong incentive to kill her. Which he does in fact try to do, but only after his creepy son tries to court her. I’ll say this, I was frightened for Maud. She was in a very precarious situation that could have been avoided with even the slightest measure of caution or care for her wellbeing. Thanks, Dad.

Now on to “Carmilla” the story of a girl and her vampire best friend. This one’s ok. There are some very silly elements, but it’s not complete garbage. The main character is a bit daft, which does nothing for me as a reader. There’s a very silly thing involving anagrams. Somehow, the story manages to be a bit creepy and even a bit charming despite these flaws. It’s a tale of a female friendship gone awry. Men are afraid of very close female friendships, aren’t they? The main character makes a new friend who seems to love her too much. Oh, dear. Being daft, the protagonist suspects that she might be a boy who disguised herself as a girl to get close to her. No, sweetie. I’m sorry no one ever told you about homosexuality. Or vampires. Anyway, if you read anything by Sheridan Le Fanu, let it be “Carmilla.” It’s brief, if nothing else.

You might like Sheridan Le Fanu if:

  • I don’t know, you’d have to be very dedicated to ghost stories. Even so, there are better ghost stories.

You might not like Sheridan Le Fanu if:

  • You’ve read a good ghost story.

Final thoughts: It’s a shame that the great stylists didn’t write horror stories. I do love a ghost story, just not these ones. I’m pretty sure we’ll have to wait another 14 years for Robert Louis Stevenson to get a good horror story. Sometimes if you dig deep into the short stories of great writers, you find a ghost story. Oscar Wilde has a great one. We’ll get there in good time.